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The Claude Chabrol Project

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Claude Chabrol:

A career overview by Charles Derry

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An author and playwright, Charles Derry teaches at Wright State University in Ohio. His book, The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, includes an extensive discussion of Claude Chabrol’s films. For more information on Mr. Derry, please visit his website. The following article, originally written for an anthology edited by Andrew Sarris, appears with his permission.

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    If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory, if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol—film critic, filmmaker, philosopher—whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal. His partisans find especially notable the subtle tone of Chabrol's cinema: his films are apparently cold and objective portraits of profoundly psychological situations; and yet that coldness never approaches the kind of fashionable cynicism, say, of a Stanley Kubrick, but suggests, rather, something closer to the viewpoint of a god who, with compassion but without sentiment, observes the follies of his creations.

    Chabrol's work can perhaps best be seen as a cross between the unassuming and popular genre film and the pretentious and elitist art film: Chabrol's films tend to be thrillers with an incredibly self-conscious, self-assured style—that is, pretentious melodrama, aware of its importance. For some, however, the hybrid character of Chabrol's work is itself a problem: indeed, just as elitist critics sometimes find Chabrol's subject matter beneath them, so too do popular audiences sometimes find Chabrol's style and incredibly slow pace alienating.
    Chabrol's films are filled with allusions and references to myth (as in La Rupture, which begins with an epigraph from Racine's Phaedra: "What an utter darkness suddenly surrounds me!"). The narratives of his films are developed through a sensuousness of decor, a gradual accumulation of psychological insight, an absolute mastery of camera movement, and the inclusion of objects and images—beautiful and evocative, like the river in Le Boucher or the lighthouse in Dirty Hands—which are imbued with symbolic intensity. Like Balzac, whom he admires, Chabrol attempts, within a popular form, to present a portrait of his society in microcosm.
    Chabrol began his career as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. With Eric Rohmer, he wrote a groundbreaking book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock, and with his friends (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and others) he attempted to turn topsy-turvy the entire cinematic value system. That their theories of authorship remain today a basic (albeit modified and continuously examined) premise certainly indicates the success of their endeavor. Before long, Chabrol found himself functioning as financial consultant and producer for a variety of films inaugurating the directorial careers of his fellow critics who, like himself, were no longer content merely to theorize.

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Stéphane Audran, Chabrol and Jacqueline Sassard filming Les Biches
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    Chabrol's career can perhaps be divided into five semi-discrete periods: 1) the early personal films, beginning with Le Beau Serge in 1958 and continuing through Landru in 1962; 2) the commercial assignments, beginning with The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood in 1964 and continuing through The Road to Corinth in 1967; 3) the mature cycle of masterpieces, beginning with Les Biches in 1968 and continuing through Wedding in Blood in 1973, almost all starring his wife Stéphane Audran, and produced by André Génovès; 4) the more diverse (and uneven) accumulations of films from 1974 to the mid-1980s which have tended neither to garner automatic international release nor to feature Audran in a central role; and 5) the more recent films of higher quality, if sometimes uneven still, produced in the 1980s and 1990s by Marin Karmitz's company MK2 and including a new set of regular collaborators.
    If Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, as analyzed by Chabrol and Rohmer, is constructed upon an exchange of guilt, Chabrol's first film, Le Beau Serge, modeled after it, is constructed upon an exchange of redemption. Chabrol followed Le Beau Serge, in which a city-dweller visits a country friend, with Les Cousins, in which a country-dweller visits a city friend. Most notably, Les Cousins offers Chabrol's first "Charles" and "Paul," the names Chabrol would continue to use throughout much of his career—Charles to represent the more serious bourgeois man, Paul the more hedonistic id-figure. A Double tour, Chabrol's first color film, is especially notable for its striking cinematography, its complex narrative structure, and the exuberance of its flamboyant style; it represents Chabrol's first studied attempt to examine and criticize the moral values of the bourgeoisie as well as to dissect the sociopsychological causes of the violence which inevitably erupts as the social and family structures prove inadequate. Perhaps the most wholly successful film of this period is the infrequently screened L'œil du malin, which presents the most typical Chabrol situation: a triangle consisting of a bourgeois married couple—Hélène and her stolid husband—and the outsider whose involvement with the couple ultimately leads to violence and tragedy. Here can be found Chabrol's first "Hélène," the recurring beautiful and slightly aloof woman, generally played by Stéphane Audran.
    When these and other personal films failed to ignite the box office, despite often positive critical responses, Chabrol embarked on a series of primarily commercial assignments (such as Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha), during which his career went into a considerable critical eclipse. Today, however, even these fairly inconsequential films seem to reflect a fetching style and some typically quirky Chabrolian concerns.
    Chabrol's breakthrough occurred in 1968 with the release of Les Biches, an elegant thriller in which an outsider, Paul, disrupts the lesbian relationship between two women. All of Chabrol's films in this period are slow psychological thrillers which tend basically to represent variations upon the same theme: an outsider affecting a central relationship until violence results. In La Femme infidèle, one of Chabrol's most self-assured films, the marriage of Hélène and Charles is disrupted when Charles kills Hélène's lover. In the Jansenism Que la bête meure, Charles tracks down the unremittingly evil hit-and-run killer of his young son, and while doing so disrupts the relationship between the killer, Paul, and his sister-in-law Hélène. In Le Boucher, the butcher Popaul, who is perhaps a homicidal killer, attempts a relationship with a cool and frigid schoolteacher, Hélène, who has displaced her sexual energies onto her teaching of her young pupils, particularly onto one who is conspicuously given the name Charles.

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Chabrol (seated) and cast while filming La Rupture. Standing left to right: producer André Génovès, Annie Cordy, Mario David, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Stéphane Audran, Michel Duchaussoy and Jean Carmet.
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    In the extravagantly expressive La Rupture, the outsider Paul attempts a plot against Hélène in order to secure a better divorce settlement, desired by the rich parents of her husband Charles, who has turned to drug addiction to escape his repressive bourgeois existence. In Juste avant la nuit, it is Charles who has taken a lover, and Charles's wife Hélène who must ultimately resort to an act of calculated violence in order to keep the bourgeois surface intact. In the detective variation Ten Days' Wonder, the relationship between Charles and Hélène is disrupted by the intervention of a character named Théo (Theos, representing God), whose false image must be unmasked by the outsider Paul. And in Wedding in Blood, based on factual material, it is the wife and her lover who team together to plot against her husband.

    Jean Renoir said that all great directors make the same film over and over; perhaps no one has taken this dictum as seriously as Chabrol; indeed, all these films represent a kind of formal geometry as Charles, Hélène, and Paul play out their fated roles in a universe strongly influenced by Fritz Lang, the structures of their bourgeois existence unable to contain their previously repressed passions. Noteworthy too is the consistency of collaboration on these films: usually with Stéphane Audran, Michel Bouquet, and Jean Yanne as performers; Jean Rabier as cinematographer; Paul Gégauff as co-scriptwriter; André Génovès as producer; Guy Littaye as art director; Pierre Jansen as composer; Jacques Gaillard as editor; Guy Chichignoud on sound.
    In the late 1970s and 1980s, Chabrol has increasingly explored different kinds of financing, making television films as well as international co-productions. Some of these interesting films seem quite unusual from what he has attempted before, perhaps the most surprising being Le Cheval d'orgueil, an ethnographic drama chronicling the simplicity and terrible harshness of peasant life in Brittany prior to World War I with a straightforwardness and lack of sentimentality which is often riveting. Indeed, the film seems so different from much of Chabrol's work that it forces a kind of re-evaluation of his career, making him seem less an emulator of Hitchcock and more an emulator of Balzac, attempting to create his own Comédie humaine in a panoramic account of the society about him.
    Meanwhile, without his regular collaborators, most notably Stéphane Audran, Chabrol has had to establish a new "team"—now including his son, Matthieu Chabrol, as composer replacing the superior Pierre Jansen. Although the series of films directed for producer Marin Karmitz seems laudable and superior to Chabrol's non-Karmitz films of the 1980s and 1990s, with three exceptions they do not match the unity or quality of Chabrol's earlier masterpieces.
    One of the exceptions is Une Affaire des femmes, starring Isabelle Huppert (who had previously starred in Violette Nozière). The story of an abortionist who ends up the last female guillotined in France (by the Vichy government), Une Affaire des femmes, unlike the majority of Chabrol's recent films, received international distribution as well as a variety of awards and critical recognition. Chabrol's achievement here is extraordinary: offering a complex three-dimensional portrait of a woman who is not really very likeable, Une Affaire des femmes turns out, by its end, to be the most fair, progressive, passionate film ever made about abortion, dissecting the sexual politics of the "crime" without ever resorting to polemics; and Chabrol's unswerving gaze becomes the regard of an all-knowing God. Madame Bovary, again with Huppert, is perhaps one notch below in quality: but is it surprising that Chabrol turns Madame Bovary into one of his tragic bourgeois love triangles, only this time with the protagonist named Emma, rather than Hélène?

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    Also impressive—and perhaps Chabrol's last masterpiece—is the 1995 film La Cérémonie, again with Huppert. Released several years after the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, La Cérémonie (which was based on the thriller A Judgement in Stone written by Ruth Rendell) was characterized by its director as "the last Marxist film" and presents a polite, likable, stylish, bourgeois French family who is ultimately dispatched by the help. That those who are supposed to provide service should instead gradually institute chaos and revolution within a well-appointed home redolent of privilege and manners, creates an atmosphere of slowly sustaining tension and violent inevitability; that "la cérémonie" is also the French term for the ritual of the guillotine makes Chabrol's sly ideological point all the clearer. Notably, La Cérémonie was moderately successful in the United States (unusual for Chabrol), winning significant box office as well as the best foreign film citation from the National Society of Film Critics. The success of Une Affaire des femmes, Madame Bovary, and La Cérémonie, as well as the earlier Violette Nozière (all four starring Isabelle Huppert), may indicate that Chabrol's films—cold as an inherent result of the director's personality and formal interests—may absolutely require an extraordinary, expressive female presence in order to contribute a human, empathic dimension—else they seem slow, tedious exercises. Clearly, Stéphane Audran's contributions to Chabrol's earlier masterpieces—both as fellow artist and muse—may have been seriously underestimated.

    More typical of Chabrol's recent career are films like Les Fantômes du Chapelier, Poulet au vinaigre, Inspecteur Lavardin, Masques, Le cri du hibou, and Rien ne va plus, which, though worthy of note, by no means measure up to Chabrol's greatest and therefore disappoint. What becomes indisputably clear is that Chabrol is one of the most uneven great directors; and without a producer like André Génovès and forceful, talented collaborators on Chabrol's wavelength, Chabrol can sometimes make bad or very odd movies. The 1976 Folies bourgeoises, for instance, is all but unwatchable, and while Docteur M and Betty may have interesting concepts, one is a dreary reinterpretation of Fritz Lang, and the other a lifeless adaptation of a Simenon novel, containing a wooden performance by Marie Trintignant. L'enfer (directed in 1994) is certainly better, if still minor—a smoldering tale of growing jealousy based on the unproduced script of a master director with a somewhat kindred soul, Henri-Georges Clouzot. Nevertheless, the true cinephile loves Chabrol despite his failures—because in the midst of his overprodigious output, he can change gears and make a fascinating documentary, such as his 1993 L'œil de Vichy (which compiles French film propaganda in service of the Nazi cause), or can surprise everyone with a major, narrative film of startling ideas and unity, such as his 1995 La Cérémonie, suddenly again at the very top of his form, a New Wave exemplar for filmmakers everywhere. One hopes for at least one more definitive Claude Chabrol masterpiece.

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The Claude Chabrol Project
Text Copyright © by Charles Derry