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Goodbye, Claude Chabrol

I guess I thought Claude Chabrol, having made fifty-some movies in fifty-some years, wouldn’t die any time soon. Least of all today.

I guess, somehow, I thought the gentleman director of Les Biches, Le Boucher, and the only Madame Bovary worth seeing, would have to live on, if only to show serious film-going Americans that he deserved to be referenced not as a footnote or appreciative aside, but up top with Godard and Truffaut, where every discussion of the French New Wave invariably begins.

I realize now that Chabrol and I have had what I can only describe as a private relationship. Seems an unusual way to characterize an association with a person one has never met, but as I think back on it I’m certain it’s true. I tend not to go on and on about The Story of Women or Merci Pour Le Chocolat, though I’d like to. And on that rare occasion when I can get rapturous about La Femme Infidele without changing the subject, I feel an urge to keep it together.

Am I protecting him from opposition? Am I, like one of Chabrol’s stable of hypocrites, stifling my excitement for the sake of propriety? Maybe. But I suspect there is something darker to it, something more perverse. As I think back on those nights (they must always be nights) when I watched Chabrol in public, with an audience, or at least a group of friends, I remember feeling my attention split. The direct artery between me and Chabrol would fracture and spread to each person around me, and the otherwise volcanic force of blood flow would be slowed. A fidget to my left, a laugh to my right, and the acute sense of focus Chabrol works so hard to maintain would be lost.

Of course every careful filmmaker deserves careful focus, and to say one deserves more than another is to show a personal favoritism that most careful critics try to avoid. But in the case of Claude Chabrol, whose cinematic volume was turned down to whisper level, there is an impulse to sit as close to the screen as possible, to put one’s ears and eyes right up against the image and take a deep breath in, like a lone yogi sitting on a mountain top.

Chabrol is often compared with Hitchcock, and for good reason; they share similar interests, a similar sense of humor, and Chabrol himself invites the comparison (his book, Hitchcock: The First Forty Films, written with Eric Rohmer, is considered to be one of the best of Hitchcockiana’s first generation). But when I watch Vertigo, I sit far away from the screen. Hitch’s English libido – raging with despair, fraught with guilt – can be that overpowering. Chabrol, French as they come, is so at ease with his unease that sometimes it looks like he isn’t doing anything at all.

Claude Chabrol

(June 24, 1930 – September 12, 2010)

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Les biches

I’ve always had a thing for Claude Chabrol.

Godard never hits my sweet spot and Truffaut, with few exceptions, hits it too hard. But Chabrol, mercurial, clever Chabrol, always knows what I want. True, he may choose not to give it, he may delay or even withhold satisfaction, but our pleasure is always in his crosshairs, and Chabrol feathers it like a giggling coquette. Better than that, when he’s in a playfully sadistic mood, he may not feather at all. But he’s still laughing. Mercurial Chabrol almost always is.

Like Hitchcock, one of his masters, Chabrol gets a big kick out of perversity. But unlike Hitch, Chabrol’s sense of a humor never sinks to sea level. He’s too damn French for that; Shakespeare would have him somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Falstaff. Think of Les biches (1968), which Chabrol called “the first film which I made exactly as I wished.” It begins full of delicious ennui (bien sur) as Frederique, a beautiful, wealthy Parisian (played by Chabrol’s wife and frequent collaborator, Stephane Audran), picks up a sidewalk artist called “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), brings her to her posh apartment, watches her bathe, and after some highly suggestive cross-cutting on the part of Chabrol, drops to her knees to drink in Why’s glistening midriff. Well, by now we can hardly stand it. (Come on, Chabrol! Give it to us!) Slowly, so as not to disturb the thick air of languor our director has painstakingly cultivated, Frederique raises her spindly fingers to the button on Why’s jeans, and Chabrol slams us with a hard cut to another place and time. The foreplay has begun.

Into their idyll comes Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to lure Why from Frederique. Together, the three of them circle onward toward a ménage, but no one seems to be having any fun; we soon see this is a game of possession, not sex, and certainly not love. Indeed their every interaction is handled with a sensuality so joyless, if it wasn’t for Chabrol’s cinematic wit, you might think you were watching Antonioni. Throughout the picture, Audran keeps her face as still as lake. When she moves or speaks, it’s practically without intention. At times, like a person out of Pinter, she barely seems to play the part. And yet, it comes off.

With looks as blank as these, it falls to Chabrol to make sense of them for us. He becomes, in a sense, a kind of translator, and uses his camera to reveal the quiet violence coursing beneath the façade. To pull it off, Chabrol could, like Hitchcock, dutch the angle (as in I, Confess), or subsume us in point of view (Rear Window), or try out terrific tricks (Vertigo), but – surprise, surprise – he’s too damn French for that. Instead, Chabrol casts a cool, objective lens on his characters’ dysfunction. But rather than distance us from them, his remove invites us to push past the surfaces and wonder at what sickness churns on the other side of their eyes. Suddenly, the hairline fractures come into view. Then the cracks. Things begin to break.

Enough hours with Chabrol, and one can see the fissures coming a long way off, but no matter; when his mysteries falter, or when his suspense lags, there is more than enough psychological disintegration to keep us going. Can’t see it on the faces? Then look to the camera. By the end of Les biches, flat, deadening two-shots – the shallow-focus kind that Buñuel loved – give way to cubism. With whirling elegance, Chabrol juliennes the action; small pushes-in, gentle tracks-out, and layered compositions lend the narrative its multidimensionality, and enhance our understanding of these people’s inner lives. It keepsLes biches from drooling into hysterics and flamboyant clichés, and it allows Chabrol’s two opposing loves – refinery and brutality – to exist side by perverse side.

This piece originally appeared at notcoming.com

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