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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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Riding the Wave

Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, Two in the Wave, about Godard, Truffaut, and everyone’s favorite Vague, opens this week. A.O. Scott wrote something characteristically bland here.

Forgive me, but I have to sin. When Godard and Truffaut behave as themselves, their films tend to slip into excess; Godard goes into solipsistic maximalism, and Truffaut into a kind of flabby melancholy. I know I’m supposed to be wild about Pierrot le fou but it’s just so damn polemical I can’t bring myself to give it the second and third chances everyone tells me I should (at least Brecht, when he got too Brechtian, had Kurt Weill to diffuse the air of importance). Same with all of those later Truffaut love stories. Put on one of the Antoine Doinel movies (after The 400 Blows), and I’ll start to wish I were watching Woody Allen, or if he fulfills his promise, Noah Baumbach.

My blasphemy ends there. While it’s true I never loved Truffaut and never loved Godard, I love Godard when he acts like Truffaut and Truffaut when he acts like Godard. You could see a touch of each of them in Day for Night and Contempt, films as formally rigorous as they are romantic. Personally, I can’t get enough of either.

And while we’re on the subject of The New Wave, I can’t resist shouting out to my two favorite Vague-ers, both of whom, film for film, are more consistent, and I think cleverer, than either Truffaut or Godard. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnes Varda and Claude Chabrol.

I haven’t been shy about my longstanding love affair with Claude Chabrol (I gushed here), but I haven’t yet had a platform to practice my fondness for Varda, the filmmaker they call “The Godmother of The French New Wave.”

It comes down to this: in films like Vagabond (her masterpiece) and The Beaches of Agnes, Varda shows herself to be someone who plays with cinema the way Frank Gehry plays with buildings. Godard plays too, but to extend the architectural analogy, he’s more like Frank Lloyd Wright – he doesn’t play well with others. But Agnes does. She takes you by the hand and leads you through the maze. Even when she leads too forcefully, you never regret being in her company, and even when she’s mischievous, you never leave exhausted. The freedoms Truffaut and Godard proposed – freedoms that often shackled them – Varda continues to renew.

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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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