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The Essentials: The Films Of Claude Chabrol

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist September 22, 2011 at 5:04AM

Looking at the core French New Wave movement in broad strokes, you essentially get five Cahiers Du Cinéma critics-turned-filmmakers: Jean-Luc Godard, the all-you-need-is-a-gun-and-a-woman, pop-cinema deconstructionist turned oblique radical; François Truffaut, the humanist with an affinity for childhood; Eric Rohmer, the genial comedic moralist; opaque experimentalist Jacques Rivette; and then, over in the corner, Claude Chabrol. Considered by many to be the most mainstream of the group, with his sinister, provocative, Hitchockian impulses, the filmmaker was also appraised as a distant, sometimes aloof formalist, given his objectivist proclivity for eye-of-god morality tales that generally end in tragedy.
5

"The Girl Cut In Two" (2007)
It’s always nice to see an aging, master filmmaker -- perhaps a little forgotten over the years due to simply plugging away whether his films are well-regarded or not -- deliver one near-masterpiece before he calls it a day, and in 2007, with his penultimate picture, Chabrol did just that. This deliciously wicked and elusive black comedy/drama about a woman (Ludivine Sagnier) figuratively pulled apart by two men will seem unintentionally comedic if you’re unfamiliar with Chabrol’s work, but the tone is masterful -- what is achieved in the end is an erotically-charged and tightly-coiled melodrama that is mordant, mischievously wry and meticulously crafted. Sagnier plays a comely local TV weather girl lusted after by two men: a famed aging author (François Berléand) and a spoiled pharmaceutical scion (Benoît Magimel). As each suitor’s ardor for the girl increases -- it’s practically a wild kingdom episode with two distinctly different beasts chasing after the same prey -- she ping pongs between them sexually, leading to the overentitled heir becoming psychotic in his lustful desires, which crescendos into a deliciously over-the-top finale. Boasting pathetic, despicable characters and situations replete with wry cruelty and transparent narcissism, this richly textured picture is perhaps a modern day “Dangerous Liaisons” and an unforgettable commentary (and satire) on class, lust and the malice of love. [A-]


"Inspector Bellamy" (2009)
Speculation runs rampant any time a filmmaker passes on around the time their latest (and then posthumous) work is released. Is this really their best effort? Was it at all affected by the degradation of health? How satisfied were they with the cut before it was too late? It's not exactly the most respectful eye to cast, but it's generally unavoidable. So here we are with the final offering by the French top dog of mystery. Unfortunately, he's unable to muster up anything remotely enticing here despite his track record with the genre and the presence of Gerard Depardieu. The titular gumshoe, well-renowned in Paris, goes on holiday with his wife (Marie Bunel) but quickly finds himself wrapped up in a murder case involving a man who possibly faked his own death and hides under extensive plastic surgery. If it sounds contrived, it is. Chabrol, however, is the kind of director that could potentially elevate the second-rate material, but here he coasts along without any energy or finesse. The same can be said for Depardieu, who lumbers around and makes skeevy passes at his wife (at one point, they're talking in bed and he non-chalantly grabs her boob while talking to her). What could've been played as a comfortable marriage only feels enormously perverted, alienating and distracting. Things get worse when Bellamy's deadbeat half-brother arrives, introducing redundant sibling bickering that only ever feels cartoonish. Eventually the protagonist suspects adultery between his wife and brother, and although few things are more cliched than that, it successfully builds off his trouble with the case and marries the two plots perfectly. However, the suspicion comes too late and is resolved with a slap in the face (and never mentioned again), thus destroying the only smidge of life "Inspector Bellamy" ever held. It's without a doubt a very competent film and by no means a disaster, but it contains few worthwhile ideas and almost no soul. To top it off, it's just not very entertaining. [C-]

And The Rest... With such a prolific career, we were never going to be able to cover everything, so we've kept it to a not-so-lean seventeen. But for anyone who gets hooked on the films above, there's plenty more to look at. 1959's "Web of Passion" was his first thriller and starred the great Jean-Paul Belmondo, while "Wise Guys" in 1961 and "The Third Lover" in 1962 followed not long after. 1963's "Ophelia," was a change of pace, an adaptation of "Hamlet," while "Bluebeard" the following year saw him take on the classic Gallic fairytale (as recently made by Catherine Breillat). These were followed by a trio of near-pulpy Bond-aping spy films, "Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche" and "Le tigre se parfume a la dynamite," which starred Roger Hanin as the titular Tiger, and "Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha."

1966 brought a very different kind of espionage picture, the World War II-set "Line of Demarcation," and in the following year Chabrol borrowed Anthony Perkins from Hitchcock for the more familiar "The Champagne Murders" before going back into spy territory for "Who's Got the Black Box?". "The Beast Must Die" is a revenge thriller, based on a novel by Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel), while 1971's racy "Just Before Nighfall" is particularly well-regarded, and won Stéphane Audran a BAFTA for Best Actress. In the same year, he worked with Perkins again, as well as Orson Welles, for "Ten Days Wonder," based on the Ellery Quinn novel, before reteaming with Belmondo for the comedy "Dr. Popaul," his biggest-ever box office hit to that point.

That was swiftly followed by "Wedding In Blood" and 'The Nada Gang," while a change of pace came with 1975's "A Piece of Pleasure," which starred long-time screenwriter Paul Gegauff, and Gegauff's ex-wife and daughter -- a sort of proto-"Schizopolis," at least as far as the casting goes. "Innocents With Dirty Hands" was another big hit at home, (and stars Rod Steiger), while "Les Magiciens" dabbled in the supernatural, and teamed Franco Nero and Jean Rochefort. Infidelity thriller "The Twist" came in the same year, followed swiftly by "Alice ou la Derniere Fugue," and "Blood Relatives."

The 1980s started with "The Proud Ones," "Les fantomes du chapelier" and "Le sang des autres" (1984), before his 1985 Cannes entry "Chicken With Vinegar" (released in the States with the genius/awful title "Cop au Vin"). He stayed on a similar route with "Inspecteur Lavardin," "Masques" and "The Cry of the Owl," the latter based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, recently remade with Paddy Considine by Radiohead video director Jamie Thraves. The 1990s, meanwhile, began with "Jours tranquilles a Clichy" and "Docteur M," while "L'oeil de Vichy" followed "Betty." 1994's "L'Enfer" saw Chabrol take on the unfinished film of the same name by "Les Diaboliques" director Henri-Georges Clouzot (about which an excellent documentary was made last year).

Chabrol and muse Isabelle Huppert went more light-hearted for "Rien ne va plus" in 1997, while the grim "The Color of Lies" was one of his best-reviewed films of the 1990s. Finally, 2003's "The Flower of Evil" brought in political elements to a a very Chabrolian thriller. Not all of these are among his best, but there are very few that aren't worth checking out to some degree.

- Samantha Chater, Rodrigo Perez, Christopher Bell, Jessica Kiang, Catherine Scott.

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Claude Chabrol, Features, Retrospective


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