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An Interview with Claude Chabrol on La
Born in 1930, Claude Chabrol was the first of the New Wave directors to go into production, with Le Beau Serge (1958). Famous for a series of films starring his wife, Stéphane Audran, such as Le Boucher (1969) and Les Noces rouges (1973), he has now released fifty features. His latest films star Emmanuelle Béart (LEnfer, 1993) and, in La Cérémonie (1995), Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, with whom he has collaborated extensively.
La Cérémonie is adapted from Ruth Rendells Judgment in Stone but, unlike many English or American directors, Chabrols interest in thrillers is not primarily as a source of plot and suspense but as a means of describing the psychology of murder. He is motivated by what he calls the confrontation between character and story. The focus is on character and how the camera can best describe the inner attitudes of his two leads. Chabrol is a womans director and Isabelle Huppert, in recent years his most regular partner, is at her best in La Cérémonie.
La Cérémonie - Synopsis
Impeccably bourgeois Catherine Lelievre employs a young housekeeper, Sophie, who is secretly illiterate. Sophie strikes up a friendship with local postmistress Jeanne, based on their shared sense of dissatisfaction. But, both women harbor dark secrets Sophie was implicated in the death of her father; Jeanne was accused of killing her child. The Lelievre family disapprove of this truculent friendship, and the women decide to enact their revenge.
Your starting point was a novel by Ruth Rendell.
Yes. Her fifth or sixth. The first, I think, to depart from the normal process of police inquiry, with its recurrent detective figure interesting though that process is. In this instance, the novel is a thriller only to the extent that she has chosen to maintain the formal appearance of a thriller. She might easily have chosen to make it a straight novel. I loved the book when it came out, fifteen or twenty years ago, but I hadnt thought of adapting it as it was written, with only two characters, the maid and the postwoman. The maid was called Eunice in the book. She was a wobbly, fat thing, unpleasant really. The postwoman was very different too. They were fairly typically British. So time passed. I read other novels of hers. I saw that she was developing, her work was changing. She was the one to suggest I modified the structure. The process of reading her more recent work told me how I should adapt this one.
What was Caroline Eliacheffs contribution?
She helped me in that, in one shake of a puppy dogs tail, she uncovered the underlying psychological and psychoanalytical structure. That enabled us to restructure it without altering Ruth Rendells vision. She hasnt seen the film yet. Id like to know what she thinks. Ive tried to remain faithful to her way of thinking.
I asked Caroline to clean up the story for me, and she did a much more thorough job than I had expected. When I started working on the book, I had whole chunks of dialogue ready that would consolidate the psychiatric underpinning, so that the characters reactions might remain consistent. Otherwise, we would have spun off into insanity. Very often, when films depict psychopaths, they allow one to forget, for the duration of one or two scenes, that the psychopaths are just that. And then the insanity returns. But in reality, insanity is a continuous phenomenon. Here, Sophies illiteracy is always present, and Jeannes craziness is always there too.
Theres a sense in which the film marks a return in politics for you.
Yes. My last political film was Poulet au vinaigre. What I was interested in then was to show the provincial bourgeoisie as starkly as possible, not in too heavy a way, but so that that critique was definitely a feature of the film. Subsequently, I found no particularly stimulating social phenomena to observe. And it is only now, in the past two years, that I am beginning to reconsider. I had a conversation with a young hooligan which left me with a feeling that society was about to explode, or implode rather, because its not just a marginal phenomenon. So I decided to make something of this feeling, but not in too precise a documentary way. Just as well, because Mathieu Kassowitzs La Haine (1995) makes the point much better than I could have done. Our films are related, in that they reflect the beginnings of this explosion. He sees it as an explosion. I see it as an implosion. The young hooligan I mentioned thought things couldnt go on like this for long, no more than three or four years. Only two more years left!
The film is a stylized account of class war.
Yes. I remember an article, I cant recall who by, it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which said that now the Wall was down, there could be no more class war. Only someone with money could ever say such a thing. Ask the lower orders if class war can ever end! La Cérémonie was an opportunity to deal with this area. Once a screenplay is ready to go, I always try and find a way of including a few personal preoccupations. In this case, it works. The film really does depict a schematic view of class war.
The film constantly draws on panes of glass and mirrors.
Especially the oval mirror in the hall, which is the entrance to another world, the world of the kitchen. I love mirrors. They let one pass through the surface of things. I have to be careful not to overdo it. I often tell the production designer not to put too many in. I love bells too and have to keep telling the editor, Not too many bells! I know I cant turn them down once they are there. But that mirror was essential. A simple, straightforward indication of the separation between two worlds.
And the glass wall at the café, at the beginning?
The first shot? Yes, thats an interesting one. I hope you noticed Jacqueline Bissets head, as the truck passes. I wanted the film to be perfectly constructed, in such a way that the construction didnt show. I decided that in the first shot the trickery must not show, so people didnt think, Lord, this is complicated. The truck had to go past at just the right moment. Jacqueline could not be shot at the turn, when Sandrine passes by on the pavement outside. And how was I going to get the right balance between indoor and outdoor lighting? The usual thing is to use translucent sheets, but that wasnt going to work in this case. There would have been too much of it, and it would have altered the light balance, as well as making it difficult to show Jacquelines face. We decided that the outside should be slightly over-exposed. The result is disappointing. Because it gets even more over-exposed by a changing of the aperture as Sandrine enters. It was much too obvious. So we tried a new trick. We very slightly over-exposed the whole shot, which doesnt show.
It does at the start of the shot, which is very daring.
Yes. The shot is unsettling. We diminished the impact in the print. There was a margin for us to lighten or darken the shot. When the rushes came back, there was a phone call to say, Its over-exposed! Yes, yes, we said. We know. I try, as far as possible, to shoot in chronological order. It helps the actors. In this case, I was determined to start with the first shot, so Sandrine would really feel she was arriving.
Is the camera hand-held?
No. Its a short track, about 50 cm in diameter. Im not wild about hand-held shots. Laying tracks gives you freedom without being too obvious. I use some other tricks. When the two men are in the car and the child starts being insufferable, saying he hopes the maid wont be too disgusting, a tension develops. It was a tracking shot, pulling back on the car, and I used a very slight forward zoom. Its like a sauce beginning to thicken. At least, thats how it feels to me.
How did you cast the actresses?
Initially, I was looking to make another film with Isabelle [Huppert]. I thought, shes got plenty of choice. I wanted to cast her as Jeanne, but I wanted her to choose. She could have easily played the other part. I was thinking of Sandrine for the other character. But she could have played the postwoman. It would have been different, of course. I was delighted that Isabelle didnt hesitate. She said, Ive played the other part already, twenty years ago. But there is a real sense in which they are complimentary.
They are different shapes. Sandrine is all lines and angles, Isabelle all curves, much more than in reality.
Ah, Isabelles curves! For Madame Bovary, I told her she was too thin. The costume designer told me not to worry. She was right. Isabelle can go either way. Its the clothes which make the difference. Her shoulders are not round. Sandrine is thinner than usual in this film, after giving birth. Shes perfect.
What about Jacqueline Bisset?
I wanted someone beautiful. I hadnt thought to make her English. With hindsight, I like the idea. Its interesting and fun. I had thought of casting Caroline Cellier, but she didnt feel up to it. Dominique Sanda was unavailable. My agent, who is also Jacqueline Bissets agent, suggested her. We met and there it was. Shes superb. The fact that she has a slight accent, that French is her second language, that the intonation is sometimes slightly off, makes her seem more fragile, more uncertain, which is good. Its one of the nice surprises I have had on finishing the film. The opaqueness is essential. Openness wouldnt have worked. They each have their little secrets, two of them keep those secrets Jacqueline and her son. The other two give more away, they are less mysterious. They are at home. Theres no mystery about being at home. Shes an immigrant, albeit perfectly integrated.
In your films, its character which immediately grasps one. Do you start with plot situations, or with characters?
My starting-point is the relationship between the story and a character. On this film, the audience is not aware of the fact that there is no story. The characters gradually reveal themselves, their relationships evolve, but there is no real plot. Like Simenon, Im a great believer in structures that arise out of the confrontation between different characters. I take an important characteristic that determines the character (e.g. sex, for Betty), and try to monitor its development in relation to others. Its chemistry, really. A chemistry of affinity. Although I make plenty of thrillers, I am not really interested in plot. What I am interested in is the mystery, the intrinsic mystery of the characters. The best Agatha Christie is Pension Vanilos. Poirot is investigating a student hostel. He discovers the killer, a young man who is on his tenth murder. No one had noticed the monster in him. The idea is magnificent. The last fifteen pages are a true accumulation of horror.
Are there any actresses you find particularly inspiring?
I am not like Ingmar Bergman. I dont need to sleep with my actresses. But I do need to feel there is some communication, some mutual respect. I also have to like what Ive seen. Then I think, Hey, maybe wed get on. Sometimes someone Ive worked with says, Look, you really should meet so-and-so. Or my daughter, who sees practically everything that gets released. She was the one who recommended Virginie Ledoyan. She said shed be right. And she was. I get on with both Isabelle and Sandrine, though they are very different.
Can one shoot with an actress one does not get on with?
I have done. I dont make a meal of it, I hate tense situations. [Maurice] Pialat only works in a crisis. There have been some people Ive found tricky. Dear Romy [Schneider], for example. She cheated me. She said, I warn you, I dont have an ounce of humor. Amazing! A girl who can say such a thing. The trouble was, it was true. It went well. But she spent as much time acting in between takes as in front of the camera. We had a fight at the dub.
Do you write for specific actresses?
No. Its often wrong to write for specific actors because one ends up using what is least interesting about them, their mannerisms and habits. I prefer not to write for specific people.
There seems to be three distinct periods in your work: one during which your main characters are men; one during which Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran share the main parts equally; and now, when you are really a womens director.
Yes, probably. Ive always enjoyed womens company. A woman is subject matter enough. We speak of Hercules labors, not Herculas labors. A woman confronting men is a proper subject, it is inexhaustible. I am fascinated by homosexuals too. A very interesting subject. I even wrote a film about two men who wanted to have a baby. I must have been drunk one night and let the cat out of the bag. The real subject matter was the emptiness of things, compared with human beings. Someone made the film, starring Souchon. They messed it up completely.
Without going into the story of how LEnfer was written, what exactly were your relations with [Henri-Georges] Clouzot?
Clouzot and [Jacques] Becker were the two people who were genuinely kind to me when I was starting out. We played bridge together while Clouzot was in pre-production on LEnfer, and so I saw him again, and his then wife Vera, with whom I was great friends. Making LEnfer was fun, it was pleasant. I tried to make something personal out of a screenplay which was not originally for me and which I had not originally chosen to do.
Which gives the writing its idiosyncratic style, deliberately stylized.
It would have been hard to do otherwise. There was one thing which I thought was tremendous fun, namely finding as many angles as possible within the confines of a single room. Almost half the film is in that one room. I was delighted with François Cluzet, who is great. I didnt want the actors to hate each other too soon. They got on very well. Emmanuelle Béart has lots of energy, shes very strong. Which meant François could let himself slide a little. Finally, we made it into that damn room, after doing the exteriors. They were in there for three weeks, tearing into each other. In the end, they couldnt stand each other. Which is logical! Neither would give in to the other. I expect theyve patched it up since.
What about future projects?
A comedy called Trompe loeil, about appearances. Id like to shoot it in a hotel, during a seaside health cure. People looking after their bodies is always fun. Ive also got a long-standing project which Id like to bring off. When I announce future projects, I always end up doing another film first. I am also thinking about a very free adaptation of an old book by Philip McDonald, Murder Gone Mad, which I think is translated as Le Vampire. Its a story about anarchic crime, people killed for no reason, illogically. A very difficult subject. Having said which, anything could happen. Perhaps Ill treat myself to a TV movie and show what can be done for television. There is a conspiracy in the TV magazines. I get worried when I see Navarro [a French TV thriller series] has three stars and Night of the Hunter only two. I am not being paranoid. It cant be by accident. There must be a deliberate policy of boosting TV movies quite beyond what is reasonable. I dont care how many stars I get, two, three or four, so long as I get as many as Navarro.