Bright Lights Film Journal

The Late Claude Chabrol – Some Personal Favorites

There was something so damned likeable about Claude Chabrol (June 24,1930 – September 12, 2010). He had a remarkable enthusiasm for films and the process of filmmaking which translated into an enthusiasm for life in general. That enthusiasm was also the source of his extraordinary productivity – he directed and often co-wrote roughly one feature per year for over 50 years. Not to mention all his television work. Here are some favorites.

1958-1967

A Double Tour aka Leda (1959), starring a pre-Breathless Jean-Paul Belmondo, was the first film by Chabrol I ever saw. (It was actually his third.) I caught it on a local New York television station, dubbed in English, and broadcast under the English title “Web of Passion.” Belmondo plays an outsider engaged to the daughter of an upper middle class household (above), and the film is a murder mystery that asks which member of the household killed Leda, the beautiful girl who lived next door. The fact that one member of the household is a Norman Bates-like son, neurotically attached to his wealthy mother, immediately calls to mind Hitchcock and Psycho. Because of characters like these, his interest in the thriller genre, and his use of carefully controlled compositions and camera movement to create suspense, Chabrol eventually became known rightly or wrongly as the “French Hitchcock.” This film may be Chabrol’s boldest experiment in the use of color. Leda, the victim whom we see in flashbacks, is visually associated with flowers and beautifully colored tropical fish. Note how color defines the characters in the frame above, and the use of the flower motif to remind us of Leda in the decor. Even seen on a small black-and-white TV set, the film was impressive. It struck me at the time as the kind of film I’d like to make.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) was Chabrol’s fourth film and remains his masterpiece, the most complete expression of his world view. It’s an episodic film about five women (including Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafonte, above) who work and dream in a Paris shop during the day and whose romantic dreams collide with reality in the world outside the shop. In its mixture of romanticism and cynicism, compassion and social commentary – a feminism ahead of its time – the film reveals Chabrol to be not so much the French Hitchcock as he was the cinematic Gustave Flaubert. (He would eventually adapt Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to the screen starring Isabelle Huppert.) For more on this film, including a remarkable video essay by Catherine Grant, check out the Film Studies for Free site.

Ophelia (1963 – NOT ON DVD) is Chabrol’s take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set in modern-day rural France, and casting the same actor (André Jocelyn) who played the neurotic son in Leda as the Hamlet figure. Once again there is an ambivalent look at romantic delusion and its sometimes destructive effects. The film begins with a remarkable juxtaposition of two shots taken from the same angle – a funeral procession going into a church which cuts directly to a wedding procession leaving the church.

1968-1977

Les Biches (1968, above), starring Stéphane Audran (Chabrol’s wife at the time) and Jacqueline Sassard as chic lesbians, inaugurated the period of Chabrol’s greatest international popularity. Chabrol was a great admirer of American mystery writers like Patricia Highsmith and Charlotte Armstrong, and this film is actually a distaff version of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Sassard in the class-envious Ripley role.

Le Boucher (1970) stands alongside Les Bonnes Femmes as one of Chabrol’s masterpieces. Shot in a rural French village, it evokes a sense of community comparable to the best of John Ford. Jean Yanne plays the village butcher; Audran (above) plays the village’s new schoolteacher. It starts out as a story about a serial killer who turns out – not surprisingly – to be the butcher, and transforms movingly into a story about compulsion, understanding, and unconsummated love.

La Rupture (1970) based on Charlotte Armstrong’s The Balloon Man and once again starring Audran is Chabrol’s homage to silent film – if you can imagine a silent film with music and dialogue, set in the 1970s, in which one of the characters is drugged with LSD. As in a silent film, Good and Evil are clearly and boldly defined, and there is an extended sequence in a moving streetcar that emulates the trolley ride sequence in F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece of silent cinema, Sunrise.

Ten Days Wonder (1971), which I discussed in some detail here, is Chabrol’s exploration of the myths and archetypes underlying a mystery novel by Ellery Queen. Orson Welles plays the archetypal Father. Anthony Perkins plays the archetypal Son.

Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977 – NOT AVAILABLE ON U.S. OR U.K. DVD) is one of Chabrol’s rare excursions into the supernatural. It’s a metaphysical fantasy with echoes of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges. The title character played by softcore porn star Sylvia Kristel (with Thomas Chabrol, above) finds herself in a verdant afterlife, only gradually realizing that she is dead. For more on this film, including a great clip, go here

1978-1989

Violette (1978) is another Chabrol landmark, the first film in which he worked with his latter-day muse, Isabelle Huppert. This is a true crime story in which Huppert plays a teenager who famously murdered her parents. Stéphane Audran plays her mother. From this film forward, Chabrol became more and more concerned with the inscrutability of human motivation, and Huppert was the ideal actress for this theme. There is always something going on with her – she is always in the moment – yet she remains enigmatic.

Le Cri du Hibou (The Cry of the Owl, 1987) is one of Chabrol’s most underrated films. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a film noir about a shy nervous writer who becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman (Mathilde May). Then the tables turn.

Story of Women (1988) is Chabrol’s most acclaimed film from this period. Isabelle Huppert stars as a pragmatist just trying to make a living in Nazi-occupied France. She learns how to survive by performing abortions for her female friends and neighbors and, as a result (this is a true story) she becomes the only woman to be guillotined by the Nazis during the Occupation.

1990-2010

La Ceremonie (1995) – Chabrol’s best film from the 1990s stars the remarkable Sandrine Bonnaire as a housemaid who shamefully hides her illiteracy from the wealthy household that employs her. Jacqueline Bisset plays the elegant mistress of the house. The housemaid bonds with a mischievous postal clerk played by Isabelle Huppert. Bad things happen. Based on a true story novelized by Ruth Rendell as A Judgment in Stone.

Merci pour le Chocolat (2000) – Huppert is delightfully strange as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family whose wealth comes from chocolate. The children uncover the truth. Based once again on a novel by American mystery writer, Charlotte Armstrong (The Chocolate Cobweb).

A Girl Cut in Two (2007) – Chabrol’s last film to be released in the United States – until the upcoming Bellamy – is based on Richard Fleischer’s 20th Century Fox true crime classic, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), updated to contemporary France. Ludvine Sagnier plays a TV weathergirl torn between two men, the mature and sophisticated older man who initiated her in the “ways of love,” and a psychotically jealous young millionaire whom she regrettably marries.  Ample evidence that Chabrol retained his ability to entertain until the end.