The Unseen Chabrol, Pt 2

As long as we still lag behind him, Claude Chabrol is not dead
by Chris Fujiwara  posted October 26, 2010
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This is the second of a three-part series in which the author discovers some of the Claude Chabrol films he had not seen at the time of the director's death this September. Read Part 1 here.

The world of Chabrol's films is haunted by unreality-playacting, empty shows, illusion, insanity. Sometimes whole plots of films are built around a deception. In ways that have nothing to do with the plot, any Chabrol film will at some moment erupt in some creepy/funny just-plain-wrongness, such as the shop owner's greeting speech to his new employee in Les bonnes femmes (for which IMDb alleges the English title The Good Time Girls, 1960) or Jean Yanne's mother laughing at the dinner table in Que la bête meure (The Beast Must Die, 1969). Alice ou la dernière fugue (Alice or the Last Escapade, 1977) is one of the radical Chabrol films in which everything is wrong. This is clear from the beginning, in which the heroine (Sylvia Kristel, whose pretty air of long-suffering patience is ideal for this film) watches silently from a doorway as her narcissistic husband (Bernard Rousselet), lying on the living-room floor of their apartment, runs through a week's worth of petty professional troubles and triumphs, aiming his remarks in the general direction of the TV set in front of him. When his monologue ends, she calmly announces she's leaving him. The bland, cool, and distanced scene sets us up to share the heroine's point of view, letting us know almost from the first few seconds that we're seeing a couple who have already broken up but have yet to make it official.

The rest of the film follows Alice's adventures in a sinister wonderland in and around a castle where everything takes longer than it should ("We don't attach great importance to time," says a servant [Jean Carmet]) and from which the heroine comes to realize she can't get away. It's like a horror film, but one played for a slow-burning comic weirdness rather than scares and jolts. The world of appearances that holds the characters (Alice might be Chabrol's answer to Marguerite Duras's India Song) is above all a metaphor for cinema: a play-world to which Alice must resign herself, accepting her fate of becoming just another eternal image.

Alice is dedicated to the memory of Fritz Lang, who died in 1976, but Les magiciens (Death Rite), released earlier that year, is the more Langian film, in part because of the casting of Gert Fröbe. In Lang's last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), Fröbe played a police commissioner who gets tips and warnings from a psychic. Here, Chabrol switches Fröbe to the part of the psychic, a nightclub magician who is haunted by a vision of a future murder. He confides his clairvoyance to a bored rich man (Jean Rochefort), who embarks on a byzantine series of efforts to make the magician's vision become reality. As with Alice, cinema is in question, "cinema" here including not just the key scene and its staging, but the elaboration of a plot to support it, the arbitrariness with which that is done, and the illusory (but also real) distance and mastery of the director/creator-and behind that distance and that mastery, the desire for them, or the need to justify them (as only the perfect mise-en-scène can do). In Les magiciens, then, Chabrol reflects on his own art-a reflection that takes place within the framework of a strangely peripheral, consciously minor effort (set in Tunisia, the film has the air, and the casting, of a typical holiday-cum-co-production of the period). The premise calls for a level of derealization even higher than usual with Chabrol, so that Les magiciens comes off as one of his more disengaged works, but the film, though incredible enough, is never so incredible that it stops being interesting, tense, and funny.

In the agreeable Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite (An Orchid for the Tiger, 1965), one of the spy thrillers Chabrol ground out in the mid-'60s to stay in the game, the world is declared unreal and abandoned from the start by the director. By the end, even the characters who play for its biggest stakes seem no longer to believe in it. Chabrol brings to the spy genre both a stenographic offhandedness and a surrealist-comic formalization (pirates attack a ship wearing red, yellow, and blue diving suits) that inch the genre closer to a normal-human-response level than it attains in more routine efforts. Rather than parody the clichés of espionage movies, Chabrol tries the more perverse approach of taking them so seriously that they destroy themselves. Every shot has a shape and a point: Chabrol remains true to his craft even when he is doing something as artificial and alien as this (and when it comes down to it, Le tigre is no more artificial and alien than Les cousins [1959] or Les bonnes femmes-it's just differently stylized). The director Chabrol most resembles in this film is Buñuel-demolishing the absurdities of a world (and a set of priorities and rules for looking at, and organizing, the world) by bringing them into the light of cinema and forcing them to be true to themselves: the climactic sequence in a zoo anticipates The Phantom of Liberty (1974), which also winds up at a zoo, to indicate that the wrong species is outside the cage bars.

More than 30 years later Chabrol returns to Guadeloupe, the setting of Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite, for Rien ne va plus (The Swindle, 1997), another reputed failure that is, in fact, a masterpiece of Guadeloupean cinema, Guadeloupe representing, for Chabrol, a world where anything goes and where, for just that reason, "nothing goes anymore" (to translate the title too literally). Here no one takes rules seriously, neither those of society nor those of the individual; nothing works, not trust, not love; and at the last extremity things are left to brute force-with just a tiny leeway for the intelligence and improvisations of our two heroes, Victor (Michel Serrault), an experienced con man, and Betty (Isabelle Huppert), his clever but perhaps unreliable junior partner. These two offer a more plausible, more modern version of the kind of human tiger embodied (and what bodies) by Roger Hanin and Margaret Lee in Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite: more fragile, Victor and Betty play for smaller stakes, but like the spies of yesteryear they are nomadic role players, coming and going as needed, manipulating appearances. Betty has a daughter's affection for Victor, and he watches over her like a father, but they are also people who have somehow picked each other out or picked each other up; their affinity is elective rather than natural, and there is a sexual tension in it that is never dispelled, together with the threat and fear of betrayal. Rien ne va plus is a kind of comedy, which is not exceptional for Chabrol: every Chabrol film at least reserves the option of turning into a comedy, though it may at any moment revert to horror, as happens in a bathroom scene late in Rien ne va plus.

A recurring image in the chilling and brilliant La demoiselle d'honneur (The Bridesmaid, 2004) is a door that opens by itself. It's an emblematic image for a world arranged so that everything happens as if nothing were being done by anyone or to anyone-a vision of a moral innocence that is really the absence of morality, a state of affairs where no one can be blamed for anything. Perhaps this was how Chabrol saw contemporary society; perhaps his morality was to see it as a problem that no one can do wrong anymore, but also to see that this is only part of the problem, since those who blame this setup are also in the wrong (such as the Gérard Blain character in Les cousins and the Hamlet figure of Ophélia [1963]). This is a thematic dilemma that runs throughout Chabrol's films, through Que la bête meure and Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971) all the way to La fille coupée en deux (A Girl Cut in Two, 2007) and Bellamy (2009): the two ways of dealing with the wrong of the world, to run with it or to try to distance oneself from it, are both wrong.

What about this door, then, that opens in La demoiselle d'honneur? The last appearance of this image is a Murnau-like shot (which also recalls Alice) of a door opening into a basement; other times, opening doors help the hero, Philippe (Benoît Magimel), along the journey into fear he finds himself taking with the fabulous Senta (Laura Smet), whom he meets as a bridesmaid at his sister's wedding and who instantly seduces him after the party. She seems at first like a nonconformist, a freethinker (old-fashioned terms seem to suit the characters' rather mean, isolated world and Ruth Rendell's cozily horrid story), he like a naïf burdened, at worst, with a harmless complex concerning his late father; but gradually... The less said the better; I went into this film knowing nothing about what it was about, and undoubtedly that's the best way. Let's just say it's a movie about doors that open by themselves, and these doors are of course another metaphor for cinema, like the magical landscape of Alice and the rich man's plot in Les magiciens. Chabrol, like Lang, was a director for whom there are secrets behind doors. 


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

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