“Claude Chabrol,” David Thomson wrote in his 2010 obituary, “is the kind of figure who could be reclaimed after death.” Very well, then – four years later there is still much reclaiming to do. There remains no major English-language biography and but two small studies of his work, one of which (by Robin Wood and Michael Walker) was published in 1970.
Whither Chabrol? To be taken seriously as a Major Filmmaker, he would appear to have three strikes against him. By all accounts, and as seen joyously in interviews over the decades, Chabrol was not moody, brooding, or tortured. Born in 1930, he was evacuated to the provinces during the occupation. Too young to participate in the resistance and born of parents with no blood on their hands, Chabrol’s return to post-war Paris was not burdened by the weight of necessary evils committed or shadowed by the uncertain cloud of guilt by association. Quick to see the humor in any situation and famously known to choose shooting locations on the basis of the local cuisine, Chabrol’s joie de vivre has encouraged serious guardians of taste to relegate him to the children’s table – we seem to prefer our masters severe, or at least troubled. Another problem is that the prolific Chabrol made some sixty-odd movies over the course of his long career, with the result that the quality of this prodigious output is inevitably uneven. But take the twenty-five best, and if that was all there was, we would be in awe. Perhaps we should, and should be. Finally, Chabrol did not make Major Motion Pictures. To the contrary, he insisted on not making them. Writing in Cahiers de Cinema (where he and his friends including Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and François Truffaut established their reputations as critics), Chabrol advocated for “little themes”: a film about “a hero of the resistance” he contended, is no more profound than one about “the barmaid who gets herself pregnant.” If anything, the opposite was true, because monumental themes are weighed down – and, worse, narrative choices boxed in – by the ponderous necessity of their importance. But “the smaller the theme is, the more one can give it a big treatment . . . truth is all that matters.”
To reclaim Chabrol, then, is to forgive him his happiness, focus on his best, and embrace the credo that, in the right hands, big questions can be vividly interrogated in the midst of small stories. And to this I would add: discover late Chabrol. Because another reason his star does not shine as brightly as it might is that, known best for two distant eras of glory, Chabrol had another dazzling run of sustained achievement. But that period came late, at a time when most filmmakers are more than slowing down, and in an era when films by old French masters had more limited (and at times nonexistent) global distribution.
Chabrol started out with a bang – the success of his first film, Le Beau Serge (1958) (above), a neo-Bressonian effort, helped finance his second, the more recognizably New Wavey Les Cousins (1959), as well as the first films of Rohmer and Rivette. Cousins won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, assuring further opportunities both for Chabrol and for the emerging nouvelle vague more generally. (Chabrol lent his name as a “technical advisor” to Godard for Breathless,which helped secure that film’s financing.) Two more excellent Chabrols quickly followed – A Double Tour (1959), and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) – but audiences did not, despite the fact that many now consider the latter to be his finest film. But it marked Chabrol’s first trip into the wilderness: four small, personal films later, he was unable to secure financing for his own films and committed the unpardonable sin of . . . working for hire. A mixed bag of thrillers followed, which soured his reputation among cinephiles. In 1967, Andrew Sarris categorized him as “one of the forgotten figures of the nouvelle vague.”
How soon they forget. But just one year later, Chabrol rose from those ashes and began the second celebrated phase of his career. Not unlike the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison at about the same time, he produced one head-turning work after another. From 1968 to 1975, Chabrol directed twelve films, five of them masterpieces, most of the others quite good. This period, notable for two frequent collaborations – with the actress Stéphane Audran (Chabrol’s second wife) and the notorious screenwriter Paul Gégauff (when he was stabbed to death by his wife in 1983, few were surprised) – played itself out by 1976, with two films that Chabrol identifies as among his least distinguished efforts.
Once more, Chabrol was largely written off, but once again, he never went away. For the next twenty-plus years, he continued to average a film a year (as before, typically writing or co-writing as well); many of them top notch. As Stanley Kauffmann described, Chabrol was not “a jeweler, like Kubrick or Robert Bresson,” rather, his approach to filmmaking was: “Here’s another. If you don’t like it, there’ll be another along soon.” From the 1980s, Story of Women (1988), with Isabelle Huppert and François Cluzot, is a high point. Masques (1987), featuring Philippe Noiret, is nearly great, and I am also especially fond of the two Inspector Lavardin films. (Cohen Media Group has just rereleased them in a set that makes available, for the first time in North America, the two made-for-TV movies directed by Chabrol, one of which, The Black Snail, is quite good. If Columbo was French, he might have been Lavardin.) From the 1990s, Betty (1992) (Audran again), L’Enfer (1994) (Cluzot again), and La Cérémonie (1995) (Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire) are all important and distinctive additions to the canon. La Cérémonie, hailed as another “comeback,” was showered with awards in France and abroad, but Betty is in many ways more ambitious and fascinating.
Looking back at Chabrol’s career from the mid-1990s, when it might have been reasonable to assume that it was winding down and thus ripe for summary assessment, one could observe a confident and assured hand that swept easily through a rich variety of films – a career filled with highs and lows, the terrain dotted with landmarks that would find their place in film history. But here is where the story gets especially interesting – in his eighth and final decade of life, things did not wind down. If anything, Chabrol hit his stride, with seven gems as fine as anything that had come previously, and, arguably, the ten most consistent years of a fifty-year career. Looking at these films collectively – The Color of Lies (1999), Merci Pour le Chocolat (2001), The Flower of Evil (2003), The Bridesmaid (2004), Comedy of Power (2006), The Girl Cut in Two (2007), Inspector Bellamy (2009) – and in the context of Chabrol’s oeuvre, the indelible imprint of the author – that is, the auteur – is plainly visible.
Most notable, of course, is the commitment to little themes. There are two approaches to filmmaking, Chabrol explained on the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday: one that pulls back, showing the big picture, and one that leans in, to focus on the personal story. True to form, he offered, “I prefer the one that tends to move closer.” Another consistent element to be found is what can be called “stories of women,” or at the very least, films with attention paid to rich and complex female characters. This may relate to the preference for little themes, as, in Chabrol’s view, “female crimes are always more subtle than male crimes,” which again favors leaning in – often literally, with subtle, assured camera moves – rather than pulling back. With this in mind it is not surprising to learn that when co-writing, Chabrol favored female collaborators, especially in the later decades.
Another hallmark is moral ambiguity. As Stanley Kauffmann observed, in a Chabrol film, “the characters are always flawed – even the good ones.” To traffic in right and wrong is to lecture; to observe the muddled compromises of imperfect characters is to question. And Chabrol is a watcher, not a teller – more in the business of suggesting questions than providing answers (which works well with his prowling, curious, but restrained camera). Related to this is his fascination with guilt. This is not, it should be emphasized, an interest in assigning guilt or, especially, in “unmasking the killer,” but rather a recurring investigation into the weight of guilt: real or not, justified or not, resolved or not. As with Alfred Hitchcock, to whom Chabrol is often compared (and about whom in 1957 Chabrol and Rohmer wrote the first serious treatment, in their book Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films), the “whodunit” holds little interest. Hitchcock famously insisted on providing the audience with information, championing the position that suspense (knowing a bomb is set to go off in ten minutes) is much more satisfying than surprise (a sudden, unexpected explosion). For Chabrol, the whodunit misses the point entirely: “If you conceal a character’s guilt, you imply that his guilt is the most important thing about him. I want the audience to know who the murderer is, so that we can consider his personality.” His interest “isn’t in solving puzzles, but in studying human behavior.”
Often linked with Hitchcock (and at times, such as in The Unfaithful Wife (1969), the tip-of-the-hat camera movements tread a fine line between homage and expropriation), Chabrol’s treatment of guilt is closer to that of Fritz Lang, another plainly acknowledged influence. Hitchcock films feature protagonists wrongly accused of crimes that they did not commit: The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), I Confess (1953), The Wrong Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959). Chabrol’s characters are often wrongly accused, but they are inevitably guilty of something. (In my favorite Chabrol, Just Before Nightfall (1971) (below), poor Charles (Michel Bouquet) is overwhelmed by the need to confess his guilt, only to be met by the indifference and even resistance of his would-be confessors.) Similarly, Lang’s protagonists may be misunderstood, but they are not innocent – the central characters in M (1931), Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and, most scandalously, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) are guilty of exactly what they are accused of.
Invoking Hitchcock and Lang underscores the marvel of late Chabrol, because he did what his heroes could not – finish strong. Hitchcock made over forty feature films from 1929 to 1964, but managed only four in his last fifteen years, efforts of uneven quality. And even the best of these, Frenzy (1972), had more the ring of a very fine coda than a fresh composition. François Truffaut, in his book-length interview with the master, stated that while he “avoided critical comments” regarding Hitchcock’s later films, he was nevertheless “convinced that Hitchcock was not satisfied with any of the films he made after Psycho.”
Lang followed a similar trajectory; after 1956 he made only three films, and none in the last fifteen years of his life. The pattern is too common to politely avert one’s gaze. Billy Wilder, whose cynicism and shades-of-gray characterizations mark him as another figure linked with Chabrol, also met with reduced productivity and less success toward the end of his career. Wilder’s own assessment was that his films after The Apartment (1961) reflected “a tremendous drop.” The quality of Otto Preminger’s films fell off precipitously in the last phase of his career.
Certainly, some of the difficulties these giants faced in the winter of their careers can be attributed to a youth-obsessed, flavor-of-the-month industry (Hollywood, that is) that abandons its heroes on the side of the road on the way back from their lifetime achievement award ceremonies. Some, but not all. It would be hard to disregard the plain evidence that the late films of these and other pantheonic figures, for whatever reason, lack the power and vitality of their best work. There are of course, exceptions – John Huston comes quickly to mind – but as a general rule, “great director” seems to be a job in which it is difficult to age gracefully.
This lends extra sweetness to the pleasures of late Chabrol. How did he do it? Ingmar Bergman once told David Lean “I make my films with eighteen good friends,” to which the British director responded “I make mine with 150 enemies.” Chabrol was on the Bergman end of the spectrum, working with the same production team throughout: cinematographer Eduardo Serra shot six of the final magnificent seven and editor Monique Fardoulis cut them all; such consistency extended to the production designer and costumer. Familiar faces in the cast come and go, mingling with newcomers and forming something of an extended family. And the nuclear family was there as well – elder son Mathieu wrote the scores, younger son Thomas invariably among the players, third wife Aurore serving as script supervisor.
Chabrol also benefited from small budgets and a permissive environment that afforded him the ability to make films regularly, an opportunity he did not squander. “When you are forty or fifty,” Chabrol reflected, you can talk yourself into making a film, even if you suspect it might not be that good. “When you grow old you say it’s silly to lose a whole year. You don’t have so much time, some years, maybe, so you become more careful.”
That care shines through in his final decade; he made films so effortlessly it seemed he would go on forever. Of these, my favorites are Color of Lies, Flower of Evil, Comedy of Power, and Girl Cut in Two; Bellamy is a delight. I don’t find myself returning to Chocolat or Bridesmaid as often. But that’s me. Andrew Sarris called Bridesmaid “the most compelling film I have seen this year since Army of Shadows”; another critic lauded Chocolat as “one of those almost uncanny features where each shot and every single scene serves its purpose.” Each viewer will rank these films according to taste. Some of Chabrol’s killers are motivated, others are more enigmatic, and personally I like my killers motivated. Your mileage may vary – but every film in this bunch bears the stamp of its master, and will reward repeated viewing.
The Color of Lies (1999) First things first: lies would appear to be blue, in a film that makes outstanding use of colors (and compositions) more generally. But the French title comes closer to translating as “at the heart of the lie,” which more accurately reflects the stakes on hand. Everybody in the movie lies (as do the painted backdrops) – that much we know. But what is truth? What is betrayal? What constitutes infidelity? And, of course, what is guilt? The Color of Lies poses these questions without answering them – indeed, much is left unresolved at the end. The setting is swift: a small town, a murdered child. Suspicion quickly falls on her not-quite-right art teacher (Jacques Gamblin – also outstanding in Tavernier’s 2002 occupation drama Safe Conduct), whom we have no good reason to suspect, other than that he was the last person to see her alive. Yet he seems guilty – of something (and why did he sketch her that day, having long abandoned portraits for landscapes?) Here Chabrol withholds the identity of the murderer, not for the sake of the mystery, but because not knowing, for sure, who didn’t do it, colors every conversation that follows. The town quickly turns on him, as small towns do. His wife (Sandrine Bonnaire) defends him vigorously, but the strain on their marriage is evident. She has an affair – actually not quite – with a local celebrity. Two riveting scenes follow – one inevitably, over a meal with too much shellfish and even more Sancerre; the second on a boat making its way through impossible fog – that feature no more physical violence than an accidental bump on the nose. Yet the next day the celebrity is dead. What is the difference between doing something and wanting it done? What are people capable of? Most of the townsfolk are guilty of some crime, large or small. Chabrol finally solves the murder with an indifferent shrug (but leaving clues clearly visible on a second viewing). But it’s not about that. Watch Bonnaire turn down the radio when she’s questioned by the police. Every moment counts, in what the Village Voice called “a superb sociological mystery.”
Merci pour le Chocolat (2000) (above). Thanks but no thanks would be the better strategy, because much of the high-end hot chocolate served here, on screen and off, is laced with something deadly dangerous. Complex family ties, viewed through a jaundiced lens, is a common theme in late Chabrol, and here we have murderous ex-wives, children who probably weren’t switched at birth (but might have been), adoptions long known and newly revealed, all of which raise questions about family and identity. In this film adapted from Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Chocolate Cobweb, don’t miss black-widow Isabelle Huppert leaning against her own knitted brown cobweb at a crucial moment. Chabrol had previously adapted Armstrong’s The Balloon Man (The Rupture, 1970), but Chocolat has considerably more in common with Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (directed by Michael Curtiz in 1947), in which mansion-dwelling Claude Rains is scheming, murderous, and a grave danger to his youthful ward. Here, however, Chabrol prefers to check in with Secret Beyond the Door (Lang, 1947) – another madman-in-a-mansion preying on the young and innocent. Perhaps as a subliminal warning, shortly after one aborted poisoning attempt, Huppert passes along a copy of Secret, along with Renoir’s Nuit de Carrefour (1932), to her stepson for home viewing. Nuit suggests more generic Chabrol – as with Color of Lies, it features murder, thievery, and a small town full of characters who are up to no good. But it is Secret that tips Huppert’s hand: Lang’s film has it all – a first wife dead by mysterious circumstances, a fragile second marriage, a brooding stepson, a dangerous caregiver, and, of course, long-held secrets, waiting to be revealed.
The Flower of Evil (2002). All things Chabrol come together in this one – it opens with a classic Hitchcockian trip into a house and up a flight of stairs, to observe the murdered corpse. And there will be no surprises here; this is a flash-forward. Near the end, in a nod to the comically troublesome deceased in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), the conspirators, having strained to drag the body up the stairs, gasp as it tumbles out of their control. Distinctly Chabrol, however, is that this light moment takes place not just with the body still warm, but in the midst of a spellbinding confession, and a lecture about the meaning of life. “Time doesn’t exist,” Aunt Line (Susan Flon) explains, referring to a different murder that took place sixty years earlier. “Life is one perpetual present.” In that present, Natalie Baye is running for mayor (Thomas Chabrol takes a fine turn as her campaign manager), much to the dismay of her philandering husband (Bernard Le Coq), eager not to draw too much attention to his “semi-legal” business affairs. Add into the mix of this complexly cross-pollinated (that is, intermarried) haute-bourgeois family with a tragic past a prodigal son, returning from abroad, and a long-dead patriarch whose collaborationist, blood-stained hands have left an indelible mark. (It helps to have a scorecard, and the DVD comes with a family tree.) Framed impeccably by Chabrol’s camera – usually as they eat well (and enjoy Haut Brion over lunch!) – little themes are everywhere. This is a movie about relationships between husbands and wives; parents and children; siblings, step-siblings, and lovers (all at once); a political campaign; and a murder victim who will not be missed. But through Aunt Line, the film’s moral center, Flower reveals the weight of the greatest crimes of history as vividly as a documentary. In an interview with the New York Times, Chabrol comes close to showing this hand: “I like using the thriller genre because when people go see a thriller – unless it’s really worthless – they never say, ‘We’ve wasted our time’ . . . You make a film to distract people, to interest them, perhaps to make them think, perhaps to help them be a little less naïve, a little better than they were.”
The Bridesmaid (2004). Once again the family is indicted as more a problem than a refuge. As with Chocolat and Flower, relationships are tangled and complex: absent fathers, wayward sisters, aunts pressed into maternal service – and, above all, somewhere Oedipus is smiling. Benoit Magimel, fresh from The Flower of Evil, plays Philippe, another troubled son (though nothing remotely on the order of the troubles he will cause in The Girl Cut in Two). When Mom gives a stone bust to her new beau (Bernard Le Coq), who turns out not to be a keeper, Philippe tracks him down, steals the bust back, and secretly keeps it in his room – often sleeping with it. The bust looks a bit like Mom. It also looks like new girlfriend Senta (Laura Smet), first encountered, as the title suggests, at a wedding. Senta has distinct ideas about true love, and what one must do to prove his: write a poem, plant a tree, sleep with someone of the same sex, and, if you are still with her, kill someone. One might blame Philippe for trying to laugh it off, rather than running away, but Senta is hot, and willing, and he has no reason to know he’s in a Chabrol movie, where dead bodies turn up more frequently than they do in real life. (Though perhaps he should – couples of mysterious lineage dancing the tango upstairs in an untended, under-furnished mansion, the dark basement of which your girlfriend calls home, are probably more common in film than in life.) A fine, short extra on the First Run DVD shows the exquisite care Chabrol gives to each shot and every camera movement, in what Manohla Dargis in the New York Times called “a deceptively understated and finally ferocious film.”
Comedy of Power (2006). The opening tracking shot is worth the price of admission alone: in two and a half minutes, high-powered executive Michel Humeau (François Berléand) engages three assistants, juggles two phones, navigates a long corridor, glides into an elevator, strides through the lobby, and weaves his way through a revolving door, at which point he is promptly arrested. At the police station, stripped of his possessions one by one, the director’s credit lands midway on Humeau’s boxer shorts as his pants hit the floor: Chabrol is in an especially good mood. Aggressive prosecutor Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert, in her seventh and final Chabrol) is on the job, and she intends to bring down the mighty – in this instance, the captains of state-run industries, which is to say, glorified public servants – who line their pockets and live like kings at the people’s expense. Humeau will be crushed, and without much effort. So will a few of his friends. “Do you know who I am?” a threat once powerful enough to sweep aside mere policemen, no longer casts its spell. But there are no easy victories here. Comedy, loosely based on a real scandal in France (and prompting a taunting disclaimer up front), knows that you can catch a few mid-sized fish, but the irretrievably corrupt system will soldier on, barely losing a stride. Jeanne, marked by red, is so intense and fixated, ruthless even, and her victims so quickly pathetic (and more confused than contrite), that the moorings of right and wrong are allowed to drift. The complacent cynicism of Jeanne’s nephew chastises, especially as her marriage begins to unravel. With Comedy, an uncharacteristically topical film, Chabrol said he aspired to be “entertaining while challenging,” and he is successful. Comedy plays like a paranoid thriller and personal drama, where characters you have grown fond of are not above suspicion, and you brace yourself against the risk of betrayal. As with all great Chabrol, there is more mood than resolution. In one instance, for example, it is not clear whether someone jumped or was pushed, and the denouement encourages thinking, not cheering.
The Girl Cut in Two (2007). Berléand returns, this time more predator than prey, as publically feted writer Charles Saint-Denis, whose private life of more than fashionably kinky pursuits is shared with other distinguished figures of respectable Lyons, abetted, it would seem, by his agent (Mathilda May), whose attire hints at inner dominatrix, and tolerated by his wife, who sees her compromises as part of the package. Charles sets his sights on the young weather-girl Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), eventually bringing her to a private club where who-knows-what goes on down a corridor that the camera dares not follow. As his filmography can attest, Chabrol is not being chaste here; rather, with this choice the viewer’s imagination (and, by extension, that of Gabrielle’s future husband) will be far more debauched that anything that might actually be seen. (And surely Chabrol finds the hypocrisy of the distinguished men of the club, in the contrast between how they comport themselves in public and private, to be more untoward than polymorphous sex, however acrobatic. Throughout these films Chabrol is quick to tar elites with this brush – one aristocrat in Flower labels hypocrisy “what you call civilization.”) In any event, good sex does not go unpunished: Gabrielle is cut lose, and eventually falls in with the notorious scion of an eminent family; a young man so volatile his mother has him shadowed by a minder. If this sounds ever so vaguely familiar, it is loosely based on the true story of the legendary architect Sanford White (the Arch in Washington Square Park – that’s his). White was murdered on the roof-top theater of the glorious second Madison Square Garden, which he had designed, by the deranged husband of an old love interest. White had many such interests, the result of a hearty appetite for very young women, leaving a trail of salacious anecdotes in his wake. Of course Chabrol came to this notorious episode (one of the first “trials of the century”) via film: the watchable-if-ridiculous, censorship-addled, widescreen-in-Technicolor confection that was The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (Fleischer, 1955), which featured a reliably suave Ray Milland, an impressively menacing Farley Granger, and a young Joan Collins. It is notable mostly for how Chabrol retained and reinterpreted a handful of pivotal encounters. Girl Cut is impeccably executed, layered and complex, with several scenes of considerable emotional power (such as the quiet confrontation at the dressmakers), and, it ought to be noted, coming from a seventy-seven-year-old director, as fresh as today’s paper.
Inspector Bellamy (2009) was not intended to be a swan song, but it does open in a graveyard, the director’s title timed with the appearance of a charred corpse. Chabrol (with Odile Barski, in their sixth collaboration since 1978, including Color and Comedy) wrote the part of Inspector Bellamy expressly for Gerard Depardieu, with whom he had never worked, and also in homage to the prolific writer Georges Simenon and in particular his best-known character, Inspector Maigret. Chabrol’s Bellamy, on vacation in Nimes, allows himself to be drawn into a mystery by an innocence-professing fugitive (Jacques Gamblin, in a triple role). Breezing through the investigation with his left hand, he navigates knowingly through the complex case (which, of course, is never definitively resolved). On the trail, Bellamy is confident, assured, and sees easily through facades. Successful, happily married (Marie Bunel, who dispensed similarly grounded maternal wisdom in Girl Cut in Two) – in other words, entertaining and pleasant enough, but dramatically uninteresting. But heed Roger Ebert’s observation that this movie is “only technically a murder mystery.” It is a film of double entendres, dual characters, and parallel plots. And upon repeated viewings, the subplot involving Bellamy’s half-brother looms ever larger – and in these scenes our detective is invariably confused, angry, and uncertain. In fact, Inspector Bellamy does not end where a proper mystery should – promptly after the delivery of the jury’s verdict. Instead it continues, for five more minutes, to conclude the story of half-brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), which ends on a turn that takes the film back to the unsolved mysteries of its opening shot. Bellamy, ultimately, is a movie about the investigator, not the investigation. And because it is a Chabrol, it is also, once more, about guilt. Bellamy, seemingly so content, actually struggles with survivor’s guilt – at the good fortune showered upon him by fate. Things never worked out for his half-brother Jacques – half a dismal path that Bellamy’s own life might have easily followed. At one point Bellamy is moved to troubled tears by the puzzle of his own unfailing good luck, and the movie ends with a more sober assessment of the same theme.
Inspector Bellamy, Chabrol’s final film, ends with a quote from W H Auden: “There is always another story. There is more than meets the eye.” It is a fitting epitaph. Chabrol sought to entertain. And behind the entertainment, there was greatness. “A very funny, very gracious man,” Dave Kehr reminisced, “with the perpetual look of a startled owl and an openness to everyone who approached him. A great director and a great critic, his loss leaves the world of cinema appreciably smaller.”