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                                                        Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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La Demoiselle d’honneur

(The Bridesmaid)

Directed by Claude Chabrol. Written by Mr. Chabrol and Pierre Leccia.

With Benoît Magimel, Laura Smet, Aurore Clément, Solène Bouton,
Anna Mihalcea, Bernard Le Coq, and Michel Duchaussoy.
111 minutes. Released in 2004.

From First Run Features.

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    Over the past fifty years, Claude Chabrol has put together a unique body of work, an ongoing study of human behavior often set in the thriller genre. His stories of murder and deception have invited comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock, yet ever since Le Beau Serge (1958) and continuing in more than sixty features through La Fleur du mal (2003), he’s sharpened his skills in satire and as a critic of mores and morality, often at the expense of the bourgeoisie. Hitchcock? At this point, the parallel to Luis Buñuel seems hard to ignore.
    Hitchcock deliberately feeds us information while Chabrol remains indifferent to viewer expectations. Aware that people are apt to suppress feelings and withhold information, his scripts explore the internal damage caused by fear and pride. New on DVD from First Run Features, La Demoiselle d’honneur (The Bridesmaid, 2004) focuses on a middle-income family haunted by shattered dreams and soured idealism. It’s an engaging study filled with the obligatory red herrings and oblique references we’ve come to expect from the director, along with more of his knotty appraisals of tainted romanticism.
    Based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, the plot’s deceptively simple: two introverted young lovers demonstrate their commitment to one another through murder. As cunning as Chabrol in her handling of crime and upheaval, Rendell inserts a broad range of social issues and historic connotations between the lines. He’d previously adapted her novel, A Judgment in Stone, for La Cérémonie (1995), transforming its barbs at British caste and illiteracy into a meditation on proletarian revolution. It wasn’t entirely faithful to Rendell but it was a masterpiece, and may have converted the author into a bona fide Chabrol fan. In a gesture of goodwill, he sent her the script to The Bridesmaid before filming, which she approved despite the modifications it made to the book.
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Above, a posed publicity still for La Demoiselle d’honneur. Left to right: Anna Mihalcea, Benoît Magimel, Solène Bouton, Bernard Le Coq and Aurore Clément. Intentionally placed at the head of the table, Bouton, as Clément’s oldest daughter, plays the sole character in the film living by the norms of the middle class—she “settles.” The others chase rainbows and obsess over hedonistic ideals.
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    The film opens in a modest suburban neighborhood and a television news report about a missing person, a peripheral character indirectly tied to the Tardieu family: mother Christine (Aurore Clément), son Philippe (Benoît Magimel), and daughters Sophie (Solène Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea). Their father long gone, they’re about to meet Christine’s new boyfriend, Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq)…much to Gérard’s surprise. Anticipating a night alone with Christine, we skim past the candlelit dinner for two he’d prepared as they go instead to a nearby restaurant for awkward introductions and forced conversation.
    In these first few minutes and without any visible effort, the director and cast give the mother, children and Gérard distinct personalities, an accomplishment far greater than it sounds. Contrary to (most) films where characters speak and act alike and become interchangeable, Chabrol meticulously details and defines each individual. The nervousness and vulnerability within Christine, Philippe’s feigned indifference, Sophie’s need for control, and Patricia’s bad seed provide the disparate elements for a family headed for a fall. Their belated opportunity for a new father figure is met with skepticism: the girls think Gérard’s “spacey” and Philippe believes his mother can do better. No matter, for the man’s clearly overwhelmed by Christine’s “baggage” and slips away without saying a word. (Excellent as the philandering husband in La Fleur du mal, Le Coq lends Gérard the appropriate detachment and restlessness of a middle-aged divorcé wary of commitment.)
    The Tardieus are never broad or overplayed, or spout the typical plot-referencing movie dialog that’s alien to real-life conversation. This may suggest Chabrol’s respect for the sanctity of the family unit, but that’s hardly the case. “The family is one of the biggest frauds ever invented,” he said in a recent interview. “As much as it is a tremendous concept, when it becomes an obligatory social structure, it’s atrocious. Right now things are very interesting because people talk a lot about the breakdown of the nuclear family, but instead of using real feelings as a starting point they use a kind of charter of obligations.”
    Broken and dysfunctional families are vital to his work: the opposing personalities of Les Cousins (1959); the household crumbling from vanity in À double tour (1959); the chilling breakdown of parents and child in the “La Muette” segment of Paris vu par (1965); the aristocrat’s son marrying a commoner in both La Rupture (1970) and Betty (1991). In challenging the unwritten rules of ‘polite’ society, these characters are dragged through the mud or simply go mad. Merci pour le chocolat (2000) has families casually swapping affection for more desirable surrogates, and the genteel inbred clan of La Fleur du mal spends a lifetime pondering its lineage.

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La Demoiselle d’honneur makes references to legends and myths. In the top photo, Christine (Aurore Clément) has repressed oedipal feelings for her son, Philippe (Benoît Magimel), calling him a “god.” Above, Phillipe embraces a bust of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, recognizing (or imagining) its resemblance to his mysterious new lover.
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    The family in The Bridesmaid deteriorates from a bitter past and an uncertain future: Sophie’s impending marriage, Patricia’s thievery and suspected addictions, and the mother’s increasing reliance on her son as a confidant. There’s a hint of incest here, as when Christine, with a smile and a gleam in her eye, calls him a “god.” Exhausted by their growing concerns, Philippe is suddenly drawn to a young bohemian living outside the Tardieu’s cloistered world. Named after the virginal heroine in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Senta is soft-spoken, shadowy, brazen and confrontational, whose strength masks a codependence more stifling than anything Phillipe has at home. But he’s young and wanting and awed by her sexual appetite—as is Chabrol, who’s normally conservative when it comes to nudity and the bedroom. The Bridesmaid has more bare skin and sex than anything he’s done before.
    Rendell described her as petite, both childlike and buxom, with alabaster skin, emerald green eyes, magenta hair dyed silver and a fiery temper. Unconcerned with housekeeping and cooking, she sleeps on soiled sheets in a dirty basement apartment beneath a house rotting from neglect. Searching for “the other half” of her being, on a quest for “united souls,” she believes a fitful relationship “has to be without reason”: “To prove it we have to do the thing that is outside the law and beyond reason.” The book was written prior to the IRA’s 9/11 declaration against violence but, given Senta’s disquieting views on random killing, the physical and cultural stereotypes, and her apathy toward refinement and tradition, it’s feasible that the British Rendell shaped the character from a jaundiced impression of the Irish.
    On screen, Senta is dramatically altered by the casting of Laura Smet. The twenty-one-year-old daughter of Nathalie Baye and Johnny Hallyday, she’s dark, exotic and zaftig. Introduced at Sophie’s wedding, Smet’s fully rounded curves barely fit into the gown. The antithesis of the image-conscious European bourgeoisie, the actress’s wide face and physique may be unlike the other women in his films, but the character’s lofty detachment, self-centeredness, and controlling nature are vintage Chabrol.
    She’s a distant cousin of Jacqueline Sassard’s ethereal revolutionary in Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968), the blank-eyed street artist (named ‘Why’) who psychologically and physically consumes her rich prey, played by Stéphane Audran. The correlation of sex, domination, death and politics is a common and methodically woven thread in Chabrol, whose nihilism—like that of Patricia Highsmith, an obvious influence—is rarely trumpeted nor clearly defined. As the family of The Bridesmaid implodes from banality, it scarcely registers to the eye and mind; when Philippe descends the stairs to Senta’s musty lair, we see the dirt on the walls before comprehending his loss of innocence.
    It’s the heart of darkness, the pit from which misdeeds (and Chabrol) spring forth. Vindictive, aloof, desensitized, Senta is the embodiment of society’s ills, the cancer eating away at its purity and well being. Emblematic of the minions aching for recognition and respect from the bored and moneyed elite—Nietzsche’s master-slave morality—she thrives in violent fantasy, believing her scheme of random murder to be “a gesture that places us above ordinary people.” Echoes of Hitchcock and Highsmith abound, but while the dapper madmen of Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) are her ancestors, Senta’s inherited none of their swagger, wit or élan. A blunt presence lacking humor, allure, seduction or foreplay, she reflects self-absorption and an absolute dismissal of grace and empathy.
    Whether The Bridesmaid is a ‘good’ picture or not seems irrelevant. Its director has enjoyed three periods of outstanding achievement: the late 1950s and early 60s innovations in theme, character and technique; a startling advance in political ideals during the late 1960s and early 70s; and mature, intellectually elevated work beginning in the 1990s with (happily) no end in sight. For more than a decade now, Chabrol has shaped and molded arguments about politics, society and human nature to fine detail. Not simply a good film, The Bridesmaid approaches these timeless arguments once again, inviting us to consider aspects of who and what we are, and the forces that influence us. Which makes it something, very gently, beyond good.

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Top, Philippe doubts Senta’s (Laura Smet) rationale. Above, she takes him on a tour of her musty, dilapidated house (click image for detail).
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Young