The Unseen Chabrol, Pt 1

As long as we still lag behind him, Claude Chabrol is not dead
by Chris Fujiwara  posted October 12, 2010
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There will be no more Chabrol films, alas, no more new ones. But he made so many that for all but a few viewers there are likely to be some, maybe a large number, that remain in store. As long as we still lag behind him, Chabrol is not dead. This will be a three-part series putting that proposition to the test.

When Claude Chabrol died on September 12, I had seen about 25 of his films, less than half his output (a lot less if you count his work for TV). From them I'd formed an image of the director as a perverse and slippery genius, emotionally cool, more clever than profound, with a sometimes shocking, sometimes sly sense of humor. The usual opinion—which I'd usually shared—is that his peak period was from Les biches (1968; sometimes called The Bad Girls, IMDb asserts) to Les noces rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973) or Une partie de plaisir (Pleasure Party, 1975), that before and after those years his work was variable, with a few masterpieces of taut construction among numerous rambling, cynical, or unambitious works, and that in his later years he settled into being the cinematic equivalent of one of those British suspense novelists one's aunts were always reading, like Ruth Rendell or Charlotte Armstrong (both of whom Chabrol adapted).

Would any of these assumptions hold once I caught up on the Chabrols I hadn't seen? Who is the Chabrol of the unseen films? How does his style define itself, perhaps define itself differently, in the films that for me are "still to come"? Here are the first five of them.

La décade prodigieuse (Ten Days Wonder, 1971), based on Ellery Queen's novel, comes at the viewer in oblique angles and Marienbad-ish surfaces, with the vaguely smothering impact of an afternoon hotel-room dream. The whole early movement of the film, setting up how the unbalanced Charles (Anthony Perkins) brings his intellectual friend Paul (Michel Piccoli) to the estate of his godlike (his name is Theo) father (Orson Welles), has a sweeping, slightly disdainful virtuosity. Chabrol not only allows Welles to wear a fake nose that is a different color from the rest of his face but lets him impose his own rhythm on the film, which starts to feel like a remake of The Immortal Story. A dinner-table scene features Welles's monoloquacity at its most unmindful of his fellow actors; struck dumb as they wait for their cues, they are reduced to furniture by his private-logic pauses ("Darling, do you think you could...let me have just a little more of that...delicious St. Régis?"). The weird detachment that Welles's acting and Chabrol's direction, in their different ways, impose on the film makes it impossible to concentrate on the plot, and this is the point: the plot is almost theoretical, and the only real action in the film is looking, speculating. Eventually La décade prodigieuse becomes, like La rupture (The Break-up, 1970), a fairy tale (with drugs and mirrors, like Lewis Carroll) told through the movement of bodies in relation to the movement of the camera, as Chabrol's impeccable zooms make the characters, in turn, figures of one another's imaginations.

The least that can be said about Landru (Bluebeard, 1963) is that it looks like no other French New Wave film. The unreality of the film is heightened by Pierre Jansen's orchestral score, by the plush, extravagant décor, by the outrageous costumes. Things are garishly visible and too present, as certain shots underline, such as the track-in toward three coal carriers in a kitchen, looking like black pylons with open mouths. There is a disgusting cramming-together of colors, all under bright and sickening lighting that would have been ideal for the imaginary ultimate surrealist horror-comedy of the period (a film that would combine elements of Carry On Screaming, Blood Feast, and Il mulino delle donne di pietra). This is undoubtedly a look that Chabrol wanted and cultivated (together with cinematographer Jean Rabier, the director's constant collaborator through Madame Bovary [1991]), showing his departure from the black-and-white romantic primitivism that had already become a cliché of the New Wave. The look suits the waxworks theatricality that never leaves Charles Denner's serial lady killer for a second; fulsomely bearded, mustached, and eyebrowed, Landru functions as an instant parody of any concept he hints at representing even briefly (bourgeois père de famille, retired officer, Don Juan, manufacturer of death).

Landru has homages to Ophüls, Renoir, Chaplin, Hitchcock, perhaps Guitry—none of whom ever made a film as caustic as this one, and the spirit of these homages is mournful and disillusioned rather than ebullient, as if the film were the funeral rites for Chabrol's cinephilia. But there are affirmations, too: the loyalty of Fernande (Stéphane Audran), Landru's mistress, appears to receive the director's unmixed approval, and Chabrol pays tribute with lingering freeze frames to a succession of Landru's glorious victims (Michèle Morgan, Danièlle Darrieux, Catherine Rouvel). The revelation of the breakaway prison set at the end is a masterstroke: a Chabrolian reversal at once overwhelming and ambiguous.

Au coeur du mensonge (The Color of Lies, 1999) is a peak example of the late Chabrol style that, in its blank seductiveness, can be so confounding. To the unsympathetic viewer of the late films, Chabrol seems to be doing approximately nothing: just some pussyfooting around menaces circulating among some not-very-interesting people in a boring locale. In fact, Au coeur du mensonge crystallizes some of the most interesting things Chabrol had been doing in relation to seeing in cinema. Consider the justly famous ending of La femme infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife, 1969), the camera simultaneously tracking back and zooming forward. The viewer is at once pulled back objectively, in an inexorable acknowledgment of distance in time and space, and drawn inward subjectively in an obsessive collapsing of distance. This double movement is an emblem of Chabrol's cinema, in which things are so often seen twice—once to affirm, once to deny?

Au coeur du mensonge is an extremely rich catalog of double seeing. The hero, René (Jacques Gamblin), is a painter who turned from portraits to landscapes after nearly losing his leg in one of the terrorist bombings in Paris in 1986. From the beginning of the film, the Breton landscapes where the story is set appear doubled on screen by René's canvases. René is suspected of the rape-murder of a young girl, while he suspects his wife (Sandrine Bonnaire) of becoming involved with a slick and vacuous writer (Antoine de Caunes). The film shows exactly what is going on, step by step, between the wife and the writer, so we know how to evaluate René's suspicions; but it omits anything that would let us determine whether René or someone else committed the murder. Seeing becomes anguish, because of that uncertainty (an uncertainty externalized in the blanket of fog that descends on the village during the last third of the film), but not seeing is just as hard (because it compounds the uncertainty). The only relief comes at the moment of the dissolve, or the fade (the film repeatedly dissolves from its characters into the landscapes), when nothing is fully visible, when appearances let us go for a moment before seizing us again. The immense disquiet that comes from Au coeur du mensonge, this terrible dread that clings to everything, is not dissipated at the end, but lingers as one thinks about what one has just seen.

The film is beautifully acted, with the most remarkable performance coming from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the police chief-inspector investigating the rape-murder. She knows her casting is eccentric (she looks too young to be an inspector, let alone a chief, and her appearance and previous roles might make her a good choice to play a female version of Au coeur du mensonge's troubled artist, but only if the film were set in Paris) and will irritate people, so she plays against the incongruous effect she expects to make, sometimes fighting it, sometimes perversely cultivating it, sometimes submitting to it with morose irony. Her stubbornness, her awkwardness, her barely veiled hostility, her almost gentle manner, all perfectly counter the coming-apart-at-the-seams dignity of Gamblin's René.

I had somehow managed not to see Violette Nozière (Violette, 1978), even though it is a well known film, the last Chabrol film, I think, to get any significant play in U.S. theaters until Une affaire de femmes (A Story of Women, 1988) 10 years later. In Violette Nozière, details dominate—details of the body (its beauty and embarrassment) and of sets: above all the unforgettable narrow apartment where Violette (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her mother (Stéphane Audran) and father (Jean Carmet), with its desperate wallpapered elegance and its unlikely stowing spaces for secrets. The film stifles under the oppressiveness of these details, but Huppert's gaze cuts through, finding a way out. Seen back to back with Au coeur du mensonge, Violette Nozière is an admirable film but a Pyrrhic victory, something Chabrol does very well, but seemingly more because he has to do something than for any more compelling reason, and it's dated somewhat by belonging to the '70s vogue for heavily lipsticked films set in Europe before the Second World War, whereas Au coeur du mensonge is a film Chabrol does because he wants to and he can, evidently a film outside vogues and not likely to win awards, just a personal film. (Violette won Huppert Best Actress at Cannes.)

Violette Nozière is most interesting as a film of disconnection. The links between scenes are not obvious; the logic is always concealed because it is linked to the subjective logic of a character who is hidden from the viewer and who may be hidden from herself (and so the broken connections too convey the private, incommunicable nature of reality). It's also an Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass film of drinking and eating, of mirrors and passages and magic reversals.

Ophélia (1963) is Chabrol's Les carabiniers, a willfully annoying film that was meant to displease everybody and succeeded (the commercial failures of both Ophélia and Godard's film, released the same year, marked a turning point in the fortunes of the New Wave). Ophélia is a self-criticism by Chabrol in the form of a critique of Hamlet, the hero who declares the time to be out of joint not suspecting that he is projecting his own out-of-jointness on the world. It's not just that this Hamlet (André Jocelyn's sullen, blockish Yvan) is personally unsympathetic; he is fundamentally wrong. This is the Chabrolian position: there is no place from which someone is free to point a finger at the others and declare only them to be in the wrong—to be the only murderers, liars, hypocrites. And this is why Chabrol almost always took as his subject the French bourgeoisie—because he was one of them, and he thought it bad taste to criticize what one is not; and this is why his "political" films, such as Nada (1974), are so problematic and so fascinating.

The title is a bit of a red herring, or at any rate it poses a question, since Chabrol has not restructured Shakespeare's play to make Ophelia the central character; on the contrary, played by Juliette Mayniel, she has the same disturbing marginality she has in the play. In any case, Ophélia is central to Chabrol's preoccupations, to his critique of the critic. Anthony Perkins's Charles in La décade prodigieuse, no less than René in Au coeur du mensonge, no less than Landru or Violette Nozière themselves—they are all Hamlets, pitched back and forth between negation of the others and self-negation. With Landru and Violette the difference—and this no doubt has to do with their status as real, historical people, over whom Chabrol doesn't pretend to have the control of a creator—is that they become hardened in a refusal to criticize themselves and lock into the position of the absolutely justified. This is exactly the position that Chabrol refuses to all his other characters, as he refuses it to himself. 


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Galileo Medien AG
Anthony Perkins, Marlène Jobert and Michel Piccoli in La décade prodigieuse


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Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

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