Thursday, October 7, 2010

A cynic among the dreamers: Deceased Artiste Claude Chabrol

In the last few years, I’ve spoken on the Funhouse TV show about the sustained brilliance of the eight or so filmmakers who comprised the “French New Wave.” They have continued to make exquisite films well into their 70s and 80s, and remind us that artists can remain vital and inventive as they grow older.

With the death of Eric Rohmer, the “eldest brother” of the Cahiers quintet who are considered the core of la nouvelle vague, the group finally began to diminish (to that point, only Truffaut had died). And now the most commercial filmmaker of the group, Claude Chabrol, has died at 80.

Chabrol was the most remarkably prolific member of the group (as relates to full-length theatrical features) and was also by far the most uneven in terms of quality. His meager project-for-hire films are without question the most unabashedly “commercial” movies ever made by an New Waver (although, true to form for this group, even these were mighty strange and slower-paced affairs), but his masterpieces are far more despairing in tone than anything produced by even the resolutely serious Alain Resnais and the masterfully paranoid Jacques Rivette.

Chabrol’s two heroes were Hitchcock (about whom he wrote Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films with Rohmer) and Lang, and like those masters, he doted on the cruel side of human nature. In his best films, Chabrol showed how random violence can be, and how it is cruelest when it comes with a betrayal of trust.

One article that can be found online clearly defines the five “periods” of his work, the weirdest being the time in the Sixties when he made colorful but low-budget spy thrillers for a few years to keep his hand in as a studio-backed craftsman. Thankfully that and his other oddest period, which found him making a slew of mediocre international coproductions, were “broken” by brilliantly conceived features — Les Biches (1968) in the former case and Violette (1978) in the latter. Chabrol was thus akin to Dylan and Brando — every few years (usually following absolutely dreadful work), the artist emerges with a masterwork, as if to say, “I bet you thought I had lost it, didn’t ya…?”

The most analyzed period of Chabrol’s career is 1968-’73, when he made a brilliant series of thrillers that critiqued bourgeois society, showing us the comforts and rituals of that strata of society, as well as (you guessed it) their petty cruelties. I have decided to dedicate this blog entry to his first four films, however, since they show the genesis of his style and display that style in its rawest form. The resulting pictures still have the power to disturb the viewer and are incredibly memorable — my least favorite movies from Chabrol’s last twenty years of work were the ones that one could barely remember as one exited the theater. The first four features are also most interesting because two have been MIA on American DVD and VHS; the other two are currently available on disc in pristine condition from Kino Lorber.

Chabrol swore in later years that “films with a message make me laugh,” but he definitely had something to say about the sudden, swift cruelty that is an intrinsic part of daily life. His first feature, Le Beau Serge (1958), is an extremely downbeat tale of a young man (Jean-Claude Brialy) who returns to his provincial hometown to recover from an illness, only to find that his old friend (Gerard Blain) is now a far-gone alcoholic. Brialy falls for a young woman in town, played by the wonderfully sexy Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore).



The film revolves around the fact that Brialy is shocked by the mean behavior in his hometown — perhaps the film’s nastiest twist comes when a scummy old man finds out that his daughter is not biologically his, so he rapes her. The act occurs offscreen but the emotional violation is forefront of the narrative. Here the father character threatens Brialy:



Beau Serge provides a good introduction to Chabrol’s elegant, fluid camerawork as well as his blending of “light” material with the ramifications of harsh acts of violence. With his second film, Les Cousins (1959), a collaborator entered the scene who received important mention in the better-researched Chabrol obits: screenwriter Paul Gégauff. Works on the New Wave that mention Gégauff note that he behaved like a fascist in public around his Cahiers/nouvelle vague friends and was a flagrant womanizer. His professional side was exemplary: he cowrote the classic René Clément film Purple Noon (1960) and collaborated with Chabrol on fourteen movies (thirteen features and a short), including some of the filmmaker’s finest.

The story about Gégauff that is most often repeated is how he wore a Nazi uniform to a screening of a British war film in 1950s Paris to shock members of the audience. He is most often depicted as a sort of macho inspiration for Chabrol and Godard (who supposedly modeled all of their early womanizing antiheroes after him); he has been called Chabrol’s “model of cynicism and amorality.” Chabrol was a self-professed Communist who hung around this provocative character (whom he said “posed as a fascist”) for quite a while, and definitely Gégauff helped mold Chabrol’s filmic worldview, as he collaborated on six of the first eight Chabrol features.

In one interview, Chabrol praises Gégauff as having “extraordinarily courageous” ideas, but he also noted that: “He fascinated me by pushing at the limits of self-destruction, by his taste for extraordinary paradoxes and his real elegance. But he also showed me just how far this could take him into self-destruction.” This penchant lead to his end — Gégauff was stabbed to death by his second, Norwegian wife in 1983.

Rohmer said in an interview: “Gégauff influenced all of the New Wave, with the exception of Truffaut. Or we, at least, all employed ‘Gégauffian’ characters.” The most fondly remembered characters in early Chabrol are definitely “Gégauffian,” particularly the “dandies” played by Jean-Claude Brialy. Gégauff’s first script for Chabrol, Les Cousins, is an utterly tormented (but curiously glamorous) affair about a young man from the country (Gerard Blain) who visits his cousin (the very decadent Brialy) in the city; both are students studying for their final exams. The film is filled with “debauchery,” or what was categorized as such in 1959 — and that includes wild parties (where Mozart and Wagner are played!), sexual liberation, and an un-fucking-believeable bachelor pad (see below).



The film is a masterwork of the French New Wave, and shows Chabrol to truly be the most cynical of the group. Rivette’s impeccable debut feature, Paris Nous Appartient (1961) offers an incredibly paranoid, existential vision of Paris at the turn of the Sixties, but Rivette’s approach is that of the “disappointed idealist” whose characters continue to dream even as they are circled by unknown forces. Chabrol’s early work is severely bleak and the characters are amoral, thus offering a look at Paris “from the outside in,” where if we do identify with anyone (Blain in Les Cousins, the shop girls in Les Bonne Femmes), they are bound to be victimized — in Les Cousins, a gun that Brialy owns is shown more than once earlier in the film, so one awaits its use in the third act. But, in the meantime, everyone parties!



Chabrol was in fact very fascinated by hanging around right-wing types, and reportedly based the party scenes in the film on his experiences fraternizing with them between 1947 and ’49 (he was the “token” left-winger among them, perhaps because he was such a pleasant type…. or perhaps because he was a decadent sot himself?). Among the partiers he knew was the womanizing, binge-drinking French National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who lost his position as head of the law students when he interrupted a church service.

Chabrol was annoyed by critics who labeled Les Cousins a “fascist” film since he felt the message was that fascists were still alive and well in France. He said, “at the time people didn’t believe that there were Fascists in France. It was as stupid as that. So they thought I was a Fascist, because they didn’t want to think that the characters on screen were.” It should be noted, however, that while Blain is a thoroughly virtuous character, Brialy is the one most viewers remember best (if only for his decadent lifestyle).

The contribution of another Chabrol collaborator, cinematographer Henri Decaë, also can’t be overstated. Decaë worked on many of Melville’s finest (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge). This sequence from the latter part of Les Cousins shows his subtle lighting in the bachelor pad, as Blain attempts to kill his debauched cousin. (This is the anti-climax, not the film's finale.)



The deceitful and treacherous go unpunished in Les Cousins, and Chabrol continued this theme in Á Double Tour (1959), his first color feature and first thriller. The film, which is available in the U.S. from Kino Lorber, offers more incredibly cruel dialogue from Gégauff:



It also is an unusually constructed work that springs its flashbacks on us with no telegraphed “memory” introductions. The rich family at the core of the film is empty and shallow, and so we begin to “attach” to the family’s sexy maid (Bernadette Lafont), the father’s foreign mistress (Antonella Lualdi), and her Hungarian friend, played by a scene-stealing Jean Paul Belmondo, who appeared in Á Double Tour around the time he made Breathless (the film was released right before Godard’s film made him a star).



Chabrol later said he regretted devoting so much of the film to Belmondo’s character (I notice he didn’t regret showcasing the ladies’ physiques), but when Belmondo isn’t on screen, Decaë’s exquisite imagery is commanding our attention. The plotline isn’t very involving as a result, but when one has Belmondo, Lafont, and Lualdi to watch, who really requires a compelling and logical plotline?

Chabrol’s brilliant and disturbing fourth film, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), also available from Kino Lorber, is arguably his best, and was the one that he referred to as his favorite. The film’s plot is very simple: four young shop girls deal with the rigors and pleasures of daily life in Paris. Chabrol and Gegauff create charming and sympathetic portraits of the ladies but, as the film moves on, we become aware of how the men around them control their every move. It first becomes apparent in comic scenes:



And time capsules like this one where exotic dancer “Dolly Bell” performs:



The film’s tone changes as it moves along, from a seemingly innocuous and infectiously lively portrait of Parisian nightlife at the turn of the Sixties to a far grimmer drama about a young woman whose trust is tragically misplaced. Scenes like this one reflect the change in tone:



Like Hitchcock, Chabrol was known to make darkly humorous comments in interviews. On the subject of men dominating women, he said in one seminal interview conducted by Dan Yakir:

If there are men, women are the victims. This I admit quite willingly given what the poor things have to bear… Women in a modest milieu suffer terribly. It’s not amusing at all. It’s a cliché, but if they work all day in a factory and at night have to cook and wash — it’s terrible! We men are monsters [laughs uncontrollably] It’s funny… If women don’t laugh, I understand, but I find it funny….

On the other hand, he talked about Les Bonnes Femmes in some depth in another interview that can be found here:
I wanted to make a film about stupid people that was very vulgar and deeply stupid…. I don't think that it's a pessimistic film. I'm not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live. When we wrote the film the people were, for Gégauff, fools. It was a film about fools. But at the same time we could see little by little that if they were foolish, it was mainly because they were unable to express themselves, establish contact with each other. The result of naïvety, or a too great vulgarity. People have said that I didn't like the people I was showing, because they believe that you have to ennoble them to like them. That's not true. Quite the opposite: only the types who don't like their fellows have to ennoble them.

He added that “the girls aren't shown as idiots. They're just brutalized by the way they live.” The question of whether Chabrol and Gégauff were sketching realistic characters in order to show their eventual entrapment, or simply observing victims-to-be for the sheer thrill of watching the final trap spring shut, brings one back to the eternal question surrounding Hitchcock’s work: is it sadistic, sympathetic, or both? The lead quartet in Les Bonnes Femmes undergo numerous things that qualify the film as either a thoroughly sexist vision or a thoroughly feminist one — depending upon which lens you’re using. One can definitely see the sympathetic side in this scene beautifully depicting the boredom of the work day:



In the two films that followed FemmesLes Godelureaux (1961) and L’Oeil de Malin (1962) — one is presented with an array of completely unsympathetic characters; thus, one is certain that Chabrol/Gégauff are showing society as filled with deceptive, unpleasant types (in articles of the time that condemned Chabrol, he was most often compared to Billy Wilder and obviously liked the comparison, as he used Wilder’s trademark tune “Fascination” in more than one picture). Les Bonnes Femmes does paint a sympathetic portrait of the shop girls, as in this scene, which does much to change the tone of the film. It is lengthy and uncomfortable to watch:



Watching some of Chabrol’s later films, I often felt that he should’ve veered sharply away from the influence of Hitchcock — much as I think some singer-songwriters desperately need to break their Dylan records and rely on their own original talent. However, early on, Chabrol used his fan-obsessions with Hitchcock and Lang to brilliant effect. In Les Bonnes Femmes one could argue that the camera takes an omniscient viewpoint on events, and the filmmaker is taking a certain glee in showing how arbitrarily cruel the world can be to the clueless innocent.

Instead, Chabrol follows the film’s final outburst of violence — which I will not spoil here, and I urge readers not to watch the scene on YouTube if you haven’t seen the whole film — with a memorable scene involving a new young woman, not yet seen in the film, who just might end up like our unlucky shop girl. Or she might find companionship and love in the very cool, and very cold, world that is Paris. Hope continues to exist in this colorful but sad universe.

Chabrol was indeed a diehard cynic when compared with his dreamer-friends Godard and Truffaut (and the “Left Bank” New Wavers Resnais, Varda, and Marker), but in his finest works he also offered sympathy for those trapped in situations that were definitely a good deal more menacing than anything found in the average whodunit.

Thanks to the Claude Chabrol Project and Paul Gallagher for the Chabrol interviews.

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