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Surfer on the new wave
Among the revolutionaries of the nouvelle vague - Godard, Truffaut, Resnais - Claude Chabrol was the dilettante. Yet he is the one to have endured, with more than 60 movies to his name - and another out now. What is his secret? Peter Lennon finds the maestro of on-screen crime and murderous passion is also an affable bon viveur.
Claude Chabrol is an avuncular figure with an expression benignly alert for opportunities to chuckle. Having shed his crumpled gabardine mac, he lights his pipe and, in an old-fashioned gesture, shakes out the match high in the air. He shifts more comfortable in his chair, like a man settling down for a fireside chat. In fact, there is no fire in the boardroom of the Paris film company where we are sitting, but the huge conference table serves as a kind of hearth with an in-built mute audience - a chain of autographs of his film-making comrades engraved around the entire circumference of the table. There is Jean-Luc Godard making some obligatorily indecipherable remark; there is a graceful signature from the ever elegant Alain Resnais. The departed François Truffaut and Louis Malle are sadly absent, but the rosary of names represents much of France's film talent over the past 40 years - the span of Chabrol's career.
In terms of historical position in the new wave, Chabrol is a kind of accidental John the Baptist - a precursor without intending to be one. His first film, Le Beau Serge, was made in 1958 and Les Cousins was out by 1959 - the year Truffaut won the Director's Award at Cannes for The 400 Blows, Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour was in competition, and the official arrival of the "nouvelle vague". By 1960, Chabrol was considered already a veteran, getting a credit for providing "technical advice" to Godard on Breathless, the film that launched Chabrol's Cahiers du Cinéma colleague (the mind shies away from the idea of anyone giving advice to Godard, a man known to have literally kicked a producer when he was down).
All this should qualify Chabrol as a quintessential nouvelle vague director. But the psychological profile is not right. The original new wave director was a proselytiser intent on putting traditional cinema to the torch - a Truffaut or a Godard. (Resnais conducted his no less passionate rebellion in a more genteel way.) But Chabrol was - and most likely still is - what the French call a je m'en-foutiste. A marginally polite translation would be a "don't-give-a-bugger bugger". He was even a young je m'en-foutiste during the May Events of 1968, which required considerable je m'en-foutisme. This ability not to take anything too seriously - success or failure - was crucial in surviving a decidedly unsteady early career.
In Le Beau Serge, where a young man returns to find his boyhood hero
a hopeless alcoholic, Chabrol had caught the tragic isolation of life
in a provincial village. The film established careers for Jean-Claude
Brialy and Gérard Blain. In Les Cousins (introducing a future wife,
Stéphane Audran), Parisian students mess around and the bad guy
(Brialy again) gets both the girl and his exams. Chabrol was on the starting
line of realistic youth films. After his second film, the young critics'
eulogies bordered on the demented. "They wrote," Chabrol recalls,
"that I was at the same time Balzac, Beethoven and Velásquez."
He roars laughing at this. Inexplicably, neither critics nor the public
liked Les Bonnes Femmes (Audran again, and Bernadette Lafont), quite a
subtle account of four Parisian shop girls trying to attain a better life.
He was cast into a critical desert for nearly a decade.
So you gave in? "I was young," he protests. "I had no money. I promised my father I would give it a try for a year or two. First I went to the Sorbonne to do my licence en lettres , but I also started to study law."
He did not like the kind of company he had to keep at the Faculté
de Droit. "I went for two days," he says, "but I was so
pissed off I quit. Not only did the work piss me off, so did the people.
I found the atmosphere insupportable." The faculty is notoriously
rightwing. Although it rarely comes across in his films, Chabrol leans
moderately to the left.
I wonder, although not aloud, when we are going to get to the film-making. Not, it was to transpire, for two pipes' time; we still had to have the chicken pox.
"After a night of boozing," he tells me, "coming home on the early morning metro, I saw people were staring at me. When I got home I looked in the mirror and saw my face was covered with pustules. 'Small pox,' said my father, his idea of a joke. It was chicken pox. While it was not serious, in those days it was often accompanied by a pulmonary infection, which I got. I was packed off to Switzerland to convalesce." He was 22. He stayed four months and met a girl.
"I fell in love," he says, "and she fell in love with me." There is sturdy satisfaction in that face with its drifting, smoky halo. Things got better. "It was very droll. Little by little I discovered she had a lot of money, indeed quite an impressive amount." They married within two months.
So finance now being no object (particularly when in those days new wave films cost less than £40,000), he no doubt rushed out and started making films?
Hold on! The Chabrolian way is to savour not rush destiny. "She did not encourage me to work," he says. "I spent the next seven years doing little - reading, painting, listening to music. I did work vaguely for Cahiers du Cinéma and I did some PR work for Fox films, but the earnings were nothing great."
Still, the cinema was gradually closing in on him, this time in the shape of Roberto Rossellini, one of the Cahiers' great heroes. It was not the master's genius that Chabrol experienced, but another well-known trait of Rossellini: he was a bit of a con man in raising finance. This time it was a venture ostensibly to raise money to help young people make 16mm films. Scripts were invited. "I'm convinced it was a fiddle," Chabrol says. "I wrote a 15-page script, which I fashioned in what I hoped would be the Rossellini style. But he said it was unsuitable. I was as vexed as a flea."
The 15 pages were the germ of Le Beau Serge.
At this point, his wife's grandmother died and left her even more money. Destiny was sending too strong a message. His wife now put up the money for Le Beau Serge. "It only cost about £32,000 and my wife became the producer." In his usual lackadaisical way, Chabrol did not go through the customary channels of the then dictatorial body, the Centre du Cinéma, which gave authorisation for films to be made and ensured distribution in France. "I brought the film like a flower to the world," he says, "and I thought 'What the fuck if it fails!' But it won a Prix de la Qualité in Switzerland and the prize money amounted to more than the film cost, so I began making Les Cousins."
He worked with the master cinematographer of the 40s, Henri Decaë (Le Silence de la Mer, Les Enfants Terribles), and discovered, or established, the career of some of the best French acting talent - Audran, later to become his second wife, Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Lafont - which suggests that for all his insouciance Chabrol was a young man who knew his business early.
As luck would have it, one of the masters of the old guard, Marcel Carné, decided to cash in on a developing "youth" culture with a shallow account of Parisian gilded youth, Les Tricheurs (The Cheats). "By good luck I had the same distributor," Chabrol says, "and he took Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge."
Chabrol has often said he just wants to make films, any films. Since no one would give him money to make a serious film, he embarked on a round of dizzy commercial films (apostasy of the worst kind for a new-wave director), featuring figures such as The Tiger or Marie Chantal. "Many were of a total nullity," he says cheerfully, "but I always managed to have one or two good scenes, just to keep the flag flying."
There was a Shakespearean parody called Ophelia. "I saw it recently
and it was still execrable," he says with satisfaction. But he -
and many others - has a soft spot for Marie Chantal Versus le Dr K. "It
was the story of an evil genius who plans to poison the world," says
Chabrol. "It was based on a celebrated character of the 50s, Dr Schweitzer,
whom I detested." (Albert Schweitzer, Franco-German philosopher and
medical missionary in Gabon, the Mother Teresa of his day, Nobel Peace
Prize winner in 1952, whose reputation as a disinterested compassionate
missionary took a hammering in the 60s.)
Chabrol puts up no defence. But he has interesting things to say about Welles. "Far from being dominating, he was very sweet - except for one day when his wife was away all day and he became more drunk than a man is entitled to be. I discovered a curious thing about Welles. His natural laugh when he was not playing Orson Welles was not that famous HO, ho ho. It was a kind of little titter."
Few talented directors who drift into consistently making trashy films manage to get out of the quagmire. Chabrol describes with some zest the course of such a relationship, relying freely, if not exclusively, on the French expression con. While this means cunt, in France there is greater dispensation for indiscriminate use than here: it can be applied to stupid people or imbecilic behaviour. "You play the con," Chabrol explains, "so that cons will give you money which you can use to make films which are not so con ; but for the cons to give their money you must make connerie films and the more con they are the more the cons give their money. But connerie wins out in the end because the films become so con even the cons won't go along with them."
However, suddenly, with one bound - well two - Chabrol was out of the
His serious career could be said really to begin with his next film, The Beast Must Die (from the book by Nicholas Blake, pseudonym of the poet Cecil Day Lewis). It tells of a father's implacable pursuit of the hit-and-run driver who killed his young son. Typically, Chabrol did not play safe in attempting to consolidate his repaired reputation. For the part of the brutish garage owner responsible for the death, he chose a radio comedian, Jean Yanne, acting in a film for the first time. "Yanne was well known for playing the idiot on radio," Chabrol says, "and there was a danger the audience would not accept him as a murderer."
In fact, there was already an abrasive quality in Yanne's comic performance and his jowly lugubriousness was readily transformed into brutishness. The film was a huge success, followed by an even more impressive work, The Butcher. In this, Yanne (playing opposite Audran) is a village butcher, veteran of the barbarous colonial war in Indo-China, who becomes a serial killer. In this case, Yanne used the appeal of his glum comic character to create a pathetic figure, controversially inviting the audience to sympathise with a killer of young girls.
From now on Chabrol began to hone what is known as a chabrolien style, a highly polished artefact with murder, suspense, but not necessarily mystery at its core. Comparisons are continually made with Hitchcock. True, the silhouette is rather Hitchcockian (for the bulbous Alfred a marginally flattering comparison) and the material is superficially similar. But there is more social depth in Chabrol's locations; where, for example, Hitchcock's reconstructions of Midwestern America are decorated with cardboard impersonations of locals stationed around the main protagonists, Chabrol's rural settings have the authentic character, flavour and tone of the provinces.
Both had Catholic upbringings. Hitchcock carried from this a strain of unwholesomeness, sexual perversity and dread that proved to be thoroughly marketable. Chabrol gave up God early (the closing down of the church in Le Beau Serge, he says, was the signal), but it left him with a tendency to pass moral judgments on everything. This expresses itself curiously in condemnation of films that carry a message. (The French are marvellously inventive intellectually and one would not expect a less convoluted stand from a former critic of Cahiers du Cinéma.) He once declared: "It is immoral to seek to influence people by hiding behind a 'great subject' to impose your theory, as immoral as confessing in public." "Films with a message just make me laugh," he says now.
He appears, like Hitchcock, to be apolitical, but he derived great satisfaction
from having Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire wipe out an entire
bourgeois family with Uzi machine guns in La Cérémonie.
True, it was Ruth Rendell's idea (A Judgement In Stone).
Chabrol honed his skills on material taken from high-class sources (such as Simenon, Rendell and Blake), often sauced with sardonic observation of the bourgeoisie. Violette Nozière (1978) tells the story of an 18-year-old murderess (Huppert with Audran) in 30s Paris. In Les Noces Rouges, the murderous pair Michel Piccoli and Audran and their impetuous coupling are presented with a malicious wit. "I personally don't like monsters," Chabrol says, "but a crime story is a vehicle for describing characters and milieu. I like to deconstruct the story, but if it were presented in an extremely intellectual way it would pass over people's heads."
In 1991, he finally took on what his fans had long hoped from him, a "big" subject - Madame Bovary. He admitted later that he was in "a blue funk" embarking on this work. "I had wanted to do it for years, but was afraid. Then I said to myself, I am 60, if I don't do it now I never will - and I have the perfect actress, Isabelle."
Actually, Huppert, the heartbreakingly tragic creature of The Lacemaker (1977), would have been ideal; but she had accumulated, artistically, such a carapace of sophistication and perversity that she could not really come down to Emma Bovary's level of vulnerability and tragic wilfulness. There was another weakness: while Chabrol has the skill convincingly to convey the kind of passion that might lead to murder, he does not portray the profound emotions that torment what one is tempted to call "real" people such as Emma Bovary. And that almost flawless fluency and apparently technical expertise, which has long characterised a Chabrol film, somehow worked against Flaubert's anguished story.
Huppert continued to serve him well. At this stage, the reader will have remarked the repeated presence of Huppert and the absence of Audran and, being attentive, might well have noticed the brief overlapping of these two cherishable creatures in Violette Nozière. This is where the tabloids would run stories of rival stars in on-set cat fights for the affection of their director. But Chabrol's life provides little of this kind of material, and not just because of strict French privacy laws.
It is unlikely that Chabrol had an extra-mural relationship with Huppert.
A lièvre à la royale or an enchaud à la périgourdine
would not be safe in this man's hands (after all, his lunch breaks during
shooting are legendary). "I am not one of those directors like Bergman,"
he says, "who feel obliged to sleep with their leading ladies. I
do not like agitation on the set."
"So why did you leave Audran?"
"Because I found myself becoming more interested in her as an actress than a wife," he says. (Audran has had a substantial independent career working with Buñuel and even in English, in Brideshead Revisited.)
The children of his first marriage continue to work with him, his daughter as an assistant, his son Matthieu composing the music for a number of his films, including La Cérémonie and his most recent, Merci Pour Le Chocolat. This latest is classical Chabrol territory; it, too, has Huppert in a decidedly un-Bovary role as stepmother in one of a pair of artistic families. The families may or may not be linked by an identity error at the hospital at the time of the birth of their children, now adolescents. In this film, one of Chabrol's other passions (after food and suave mayhem), classical music, plays a central role. "The nouvelle vague directors always liked to pepper their films with a touch of classical music," I remind him.
"Mostly Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring," he says and, scornfully waving his pipe in the air, begins yodelling the Bach piece. "They knew little about music," he says, "but music is really part of my life."
In Merci Pour Le Chocolat, a concert pianist (Jacques Dutronc) gives lessons to a student, Anna Mouglalis, who may be his daughter, while the stepmother schemes. There is a lot of Rachmaninov (good stuff for a film but whom curiously Chabrol professes not to like). The rest is pure Chabrol, intriguing, well characterised, suspenseful, smooth as a ride in a DS Citroën.
Looking back to those unsteady beginnings, you realise that Chabrol - prematurely successful, then despised, then serenely placed, if not at the top, on a pretty respectable elevation - is quietly one of the great all-round successes of the nouvelle vague. His output of more than three-score films is way beyond that of his old Cahiers pals Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and even the astonishingly productive Rohmer. You would imagine he'd be an automatic choice for Hollywood. He has none of the nouvelle vague "blemishes" of wild creativity, no intrusive political or social preoccupations. He is the professional whom Hollywood should love - films always brought in on time and on budget. But he has resisted defection.
"I was approached a dozen times," he says, "but negotiations always ended in confusion." It is very likely that Hollywood was baffled by a director used to having control over what he is doing in an atmosphere of emotional tranquillity and bonhomie. Not very Sunset Boulevard, that.
As for working in England: "You can't eat anything in England," he says. "You stopped eating beef just when you discovered it was safe. That was 10 years ago. Do you want to be immortal?"