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Slow Burn Suspense - the films of Claude
"I wanted to make the murder inevitable without any blame attaching
to the woman. I wanted to preserve sympathy for her, so that it was essential
that she fought something stronger than herself."
Alfred Hitchcock made this statement back in 1938, but it could almost as easily have been made by the Hitchcockian influenced, but finally rather dissimilar, Claude Chabrol. With Eric Rohmer, Chabrol co-wrote a book on Hitchcock in 1957, and throughout this French filmmaker's work we find characters at the mercy of passions deeply embedded by the social norms they live by. However, if the sympathy Hitchcock talks of is always at one remove in Chabrol, it is because Chabrol deals with characters who are frequently rich and stultified by social mores: one's initial reaction to their misery is to gloat, rather as one might read a tabloid piece about a celebrity's crimson bank balance.
Yet if Chabrol is apparently tabloid in theme, his style has frequently been sophisticated and languorous -- a slow burn examination of his characters' lives with a rapt, patient camera. Consequently, place is of immense importance. Britanny, Massif Central, the Loire Valley, out of season St. Tropez: many a region, small town or village has been focused upon, not simply utilized. In maybe his finest film, Le Boucher, Chabrol gives an onscreen credit to the Perigaud valley villagers who give the film so much of its atmosphere. Even Chabrol's houses are memorable and significant. The stretched, low slung and vaguely Americanized abode in La Femme Infidèle; the minor chateaus of Wedding in Blood and La Cérémonie, each isolated and aloof; the marvelous convivial country house in the early stages of Un Partie du Plaisir, and the nouveau riche home of the garage owner in The Beast Must Die all indicate characters inextricably linked to the place in which they live. A man's home is almost literally, in Chabrol, his castle, and it is equally true that the castle is the man.
Lest we are in any doubt, watch how Chabrol subjectifies the camera even when not utilising point of view. In La Cérémonie, for example, where swift, darting camera pans have all the admiring envy of a petty bourgeois social climber. When a character finally passes comment upon the property, its pleonastic: the camera's already done all the work for us. However, the repetition suggests the depth of envy. If the camera indicates a keen interest, the words of the lowly postal clerk Jeanne give the film a murderous intent. "A la la ... now there's class for you," she says on seeing the Lelièvres' family home. Teamed with the family's maid, Sophie, Jeanne's powder-keg character awaits the fuse of indignation and finds it when Sophie's sacked by this haute bourgeois family. Jeanne returns one evening to the chateau with Sophie, apparently to pick up Sophie's things. They quietly make hot chocolate while the family obliviously watches Don Giovanni in the study. Then we watch as the pair of them creep up the stairs, pour hot chocolate over the master bed, and rip the wife's clothes to shreds.
Jeanne and Sophie then go downstairs, where the music-loving factory-owning father, his second wife, her son, and his daughter are promptly dispatched with their own hunting rifles.
La Cérémonie is simultaneously overwhelming -- the violence is vividly depicted -- and inevitable. In scene after scene, Chabrol builds up motive. Sophie is treated with a mixture of disdain and smug paternalism. We see her alone in the kitchen, plucking the remaining flesh off the family's eaten chicken carcass. As she does so, she's called to clear the plates. Driving lessons and glasses are suggested to her no matter the resistance, and the wife, Mme. Lelièvre, casually touches Sophie's shoulder in a gesture that would be socially violating if reciprocated. The most telling scene, however, is when daughter Melinda discovers Sophie's illiteracy, and she states, more than once, "there is help for people like you."
What we have in La Cérémonie is the coming together of Hitchcockian sympathy and Chabrolian materialism. Chabrol asks us to empathize with two characters who are both deceitful and selfish, and who live by a mixture of fear and envy. He achieves this empathy first and foremost by the most obvious of devices: unsympathetic victims. But that isn't where the film's inevitability lies. Chabrol conveys to us the degree to which the victims' lives are imbibed by tradition. Early in the film the father mentions to the rest of the family, Sophie's lack of silver service skills. We watch as dinners, parties, and television concerts are turned into rituals; throughout we watch the complete complacency central to the wealthy characters' lives.
If we finally care for Sophie and Jeanne, it isn't for anything intrinsic in their characters; it's because of what they represent. They are finally no more agreeable than the film's rich characters, but the camera's alert eye shows us people sutured in their own wealth and contrasts them with others adrift in their own poverty. We sympathize with Sophie and Jeanne for essentially political reasons. If Chabrol consistently shows us characters whose property and wealth so clearly define their identities, then what about those characters who have no property and no wealth?
Bertrand Russell believed "envy is ... one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions ... it is the basis of democracy." Chabrol shows us this curious process of social awakening not only in La Cérémonie, but also in Les Biches and Les Bonnes Femmes, Innocents with Dirty Hands, and Madame Bovary. Indeed, in one form or another in almost all his work. But he also illustrates how hampered this social awakening is by cramped social expectation and personal neurosis. If characters like the Leliévres, Les Biches' rich bi-sexual Frédérique, and the small town mayor and businessman in Wedding in Blood can define themselves at relative will, no such freedom is offered to the films' less wealthy characters.
In Les Biches, the young street painter "Why" is a virgin picked up by businesswoman Frédérique, initiated into sex, and taken away to Frédérique's villa in St. Tropez.
Why falls in love with local architect Paul, only to see Frédérique swiftly seducing him and, using her wealth and comfort, casually placing Paul in her home. Why is allowed to stay on, but we witness her pushed into the margins, her already frail personality trying to sustain itself without love or personal direction. As with La Cérémonie, it's not surprising when Les Biches' Why kills the wealthy Frédérique. In Wedding in Blood, Chabrol uses a recurring personality type, the autocratic manipulator of The Beast Must Die, La Rupture, Ten Days' Wonder, Masques, etc. to work through the inevitability of killing. The mayor treats his wife as a maid, teases her television viewing, and regards her affair with his assistant as a joke. His is the all-encompassing power that cannot be broken with an act any less severe than murder. In a world of wealthy puppet masters, Chabrol shows us free will backed into a murderous corner. The banished personalities in a materialist world must remove from that world those who so insistently control it. Democracy and envy come together in Chabrol, not unfortunately, in social progress (therein lies his pessimism), but in murder.
If the limits of social expectation are relevant -- that characters can see enough unfairness to show envy, but not enough to become political -- neurosis is no less so. I use neurosis to mean no more than a disease of the nerves: "It is easily understandable that people who are very sensitive in this way are more likely to break down under the stress of living and become neurotic since both psychologically and physiologically they are experiencing more stress..." C. J. Adcock states in Fundamentals of Psychology. This stress in Chabrol comes mainly from the various pressures applied by the bullying figures Chabrol so frequently utilizes. The garage owner in The Beast Must Die humiliates his wife in front of family and guests. He reads out a poem she has written as if telling a joke. His son, equally maltreated, is constantly tortured by murderous thoughts. In La Rupture the film suggests the wealthy father has destroyed his son's mental health, and throughout the movie the father attempts to do the same to the young man's wife. He even hires at great cost a young family friend to play with the woman's mind. In Chabrol's films, money is frequently used psychologically as a tool for bullying and social manipulation, whether consciously or complacently. Wealth, then, can be used not simply as a power tool in itself, for the way it places people comfortably and complacently within a class hierarchy, as in La Cérémonie, but as a game played at one remove by hiring another to do the dirty work: the power of the wealthy permeates everything; it can control situations way beyond one's own personal ego trip. And so in a Chabrol film, by the same token, lack of wealth, the poverty of Sophie and of Why, reduce a person to absolute powerlessness, to having no control even over their very own sense of self. A character like Why in Les Biches becomes so fundamentally envious she desires not just the wealth but the very personality of Frédérique. In such films the poor don't supplant the rich in some utopian paradise; it's as if the poor have little choice but simply to kill them.
Of course, money isn't always essential for power and control -- only the most obvious and useful way to get what you want. Other methods are adopted in La Partie Du Plaisir, where Chabrol's frequent scriptwriter Paul Gégauff plays the title role, his actual wife playshis fictional wife, and their child plays the fictional child. In a presciently autobiographical film (Gégauff was, like the character here, stabbed to death by his wife in 1983) Gégauff's character is a brutal, violent and egotistical ogre. He has a number of affairs and believes his wife should do so as well. When she happens to do so, his desire to regain control of the whole situation is so great he beats her up, insisting she then kiss his feet.
It is Chabrol's most nakedly emotional film and also his most pessimistic. The luxuries of his more obviously bourgeois movies are less in evidence. A third of the way through, the characters rent swap their country house for a relatively cramped city flat. Gégauff himself, a lean, furrowed presence is rarely seen with his shirt on, and his lithe springiness indicates a man searching rather than consolidating; he's not one of Chabrol's portly manipulators, such as Paul Decourt in The Beast Must Die, nor a weak, piqued husband such Charles Desvallées in La Femme Infidèle: he doesn't have the many playthings expected of the French middle-aged bourgeois. And it's perhaps a still more deeply pessimistic film than most in the Chabrol canon because where in many of Chabrol's films we can find the neurosis, the murderous intent, and the general dissatisfaction in bourgeois protectiveness (La Femme lnfidéle, La Rupture), or basic need (La Cérémonie and Les Biches) -- the characters' evil purpose can be traced to material considerations -- in Une Partie Du Plaisir the problems are more clearly philosophical. As Tom Milne in Time Out put it, "...what emerges from the film ... is the sense of bitter despair underlying the man's full awareness that he had found paradise, but because of his own intransigently idealistic nature, was unable to find peace and harmony there."
While class and wealth are still issues in the film -- Gégauff's wife Daniéle is constantly taunted for her lack of education and breeding -- and Gégauff's character goes on to marry a rich Scottish aristocratic heir, finally Gégauff's interest lies in playing close to the edge of his life (he's frequently drunk). Consolidation is too sedate an emotion for his searching self-image, and having a nice house, the bourgeois life, is not likely to alleviate this man's fear and trembling. The film's pessimism resides in its inability to see possible options for Gégauff's character: his waywardness leads him into a variety of psychic dead-ends. Whereas many of Chabrol's characters follow a fairly clear trajectory (an obsession with murder, with social improvement, with love), Gégauff's life is devoid of purpose. The film's episodic narrative reflects this, and instead of moving forward, it encircles its central character, trying to find motive and direction in a man who seems to have none. It's been referred to as a narcissistic vanity project by some critics, and that makes sense on at least two levels. The first is the autobiographical one. When Gégauff showed Chabrol the project, the director recognized (so clearly was it based on Gégauff himself) that Gégauff was the only one who could play the role. But not only do we witness Gégauff's lifestyle: we also see the futility of it. The autobiographical elements here aren't like Claude Lelouch's, whose vanity projects have alter-egos going off with beautiful women in stunning locations. Chabrol shows us a character who's mainly given to navel gazing. This is the good life turned sour by self-absorption.
Of course in some ways Un Partie Du Plaisir is one of Chabrol's most profound films, but finally it isn't amongst his very best. It penetrates deep into its central character's being but finds no sociological purpose; Chabrol's best films suggest exploration of character must be at one remove with minimal plot and maximum observation of milieu, or through (as we shall later see) a self-enclosed subjectivity.
Un Partie du Plaisir is in a number of ways a return to his earliest work: Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. However, these early films are weighed down by their own schematic necessity, by an attempt at profundity that may not really be Chabrol's thing. It may be that in films containing the input of autobiography, Chabrol feels the need to counter-balance personal input with the theoretical and theological, to escape the idea that they're simply narcissistic explorations of Chabrol's own past, or the those of his friends'.
In Le Beau Serge, Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) is a theology student who returns to the village of his youth and meets up again with Serge (Gerard Blain), a formerly gifted schoolboy who's turned to drink and who endures a listless marriage.
Shot in black and white, in a desolate winter of hard surfaces and huddled bodies, the film's Bressonian qualities leave Chabrol caught between verisimilitude and the theological. He resolves these differences in melodrama. In the film, Francois' eager desire to turn the theory he has been taught into practice resides in his need to save Serge's tortured soul, and Chabrol (using childhood locations and residual Catholicism) seems unable or unwilling to detach himself from the story he tells. Maybe he's too close to Francois' theological preoccupations and perhaps he's not close enough to Serge's indifference. For it's a sense of aesthetic indifference and a sense perhaps of inevitability (with minimal plot mechanics) that motivate Chabrol's best work. Le Beau Serge's finest moments are those which would later become Chabrol's very own leitmotifs: the observational sense of a village's life, domestic scenes of food and drink, the psychological results of the immediate material world. (For example the effects on Serge of both alcohol and the village itself.)
In Les Cousins, Chabrol employs the same actors -- Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain -- this time in a Parisian setting, but he reverses the roles. Now it's Brialy who is hedonistic; Blain worthy and moral. Brialy's Paul is a student who lives for pleasure in a universe without moral absolutes; Blain's Charles, in contrast, still holds to a moral cause-and-effect world, which leaves him searching for puppy dog approval and social significance through hard-work, determination, and affectionate consideration. Again, the film is at its most eloquent not when it's telling us something (for it holds too closely to Brialy's cynicism), but when it shows us late '50s Parisian life. Just as there is enough of a Bressonian presence in the images for Chabrol to require no theological superimposition in Le Beau Serge, so there is more than enough cynicism in the Parisian life without Chabrol's over emphatic interest in Brialy's cynicism itself; Chabrol works too strongly from the irony of one character who succeeds because he has no moral center; while the other character fails because he refuses to let go of a moral code that does not suit the times and the place. Ground yourself in the accidental and provisional, Chabrol seems to be saying, but there would be more ambivalence attached if we didn't feel the heavy irony of late '50s Parisian life, the situation presented, and also Chabrol's mocking tone. The film's conclusion, which has Blain failing his exams, and accidentally shot dead by Charles, is more emphatic than the film's exploration of bourgeois Parisian youth demands. In Chabrol's later work the narrative frame and sociological content become inextricable and consequently rather more convincing.
Chabrol's acknowledged great period came in the late '60s, from Les Biches to Wedding in Blood. There were one or two eccentricities (Ten Days Wonder with Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles) but for more than half a dozen movies Chabrol found a way of combining dramatic necessity with a distanced, sociological and, yes, even political perspective. He did so by telling tales of bourgeois despair in a cinematic style aligned with its subjects but also at one remove from them: Chabrol watched rather than identified. Yet he did so without any Brechtian asides or overt narrative digressions (unlike other Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette). Working with a regular team (including cameraman Jean Rabier and composer Pierre Jansen), Chabrol worked out an aesthetic of deliberate pans, tracking shots, and occasional but strikingly abrupt zooms. Jansen's scores were no more imposing. They reflected not necessarily the characters' inner feelings but a certain metaphysical angst: the jangly impending music of Le Boucher is first heard over the film's opening scenes of Cro-Magnon Man caves, and when we hear it intermittently through the rest of the movie it reflects the film's tone, at least as often as a character's feelings.
The music very rarely manipulates the audience's emotions in relation to creating conventional suspense. For a filmmaker who has worked so frequently in the thriller genre -- and where murder is central to almost all his films -- Chabrol has shown little interest in creating the visceral fear usually so important to the genre. Hitchcock defined the two chief areas of the genre's tension in relation to terror and suspense: "Terror is induced by surprise; suspense by forewarning," he states (Hitchcock and Hitchcock, Faber and Faber, 1995), and goes on to analyze the differences. Terror, for example, is when a married woman having an affair is caught by her husband, and the first the audience knows of the husband's presence is when the bedroom door is flung open. To create suspense, the same scenario would be used, but the husband's movements would also be detailed. The director would cross cut for maximum suspense and perhaps use a shrill, nerve-shredding score.
Chabrol, however, cares little for such manipulation. His are the most scrupulous of thrillers: they tell a story with an emotional equilibrium that closes the gap between the creator and viewer. The key element to Chabrol's films isn't terror or suspense, but rather inevitable surprise. (The response of one with few preconceived notions and a fresh eye.) Chabrol asks of his audience some of the same curiosity he himself brings to the project. Ellen Oumano (Film Forum, St Martin's Press, 1985) quotes a filmmaker saying of Chabrol, "He loves to shoot. Shooting films is a drug for him, so he makes a film a year just to be able to shoot."
As a consequence of having a regular and supportive producer, André Gévonés, who supplied the funding, and a cast and crew Chabrol could work with as if salaried employees, Chabrol brought his filmmaking passion to a series of key films, including Les Biches, La Femme Infidèle, The Beast Must Die, Le Boucher, and Wedding in Blood. Frequently the leading female role was played by Chabrol's then wife Stephane Audran, whose character would usually go by the name of Héléne, with various actors (Michel Bouquet, Jean Yanne, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Michel Piccoli) brought in to provide variations on a common theme. That they would often go by the name of Charles or Paul suggests Chabrol's interest in certain fundamental elements that could then be shaped into an exploration of lives and locale.
In what may well be Chabrol's masterpiece, Le Boucher, Chabrol's opening shot after the credit sequence is a high-perched pan across the Perigaud valley. The distance is measured and thematically exact. It captures the tranquillity of village life by refusing to view the village too closely. The film then cuts to a deadpan long shot of the village that retains the distance but suggests a hint of intimacy as a subtitle gives credit to the inhabitants of Tremolat. Scenes from village life are then detailed, including the preparation for a local wedding. The central story develops out of these early moments, as schoolteacher Héléne and butcher Popaul embark on an intensely punctilious relationship based on mutual denial: Héléne has been hurt in love years previously; Popaul constantly refers to his past as a soldier in the process of denying his present as a murderer.
Its greatness, however, has little to do with the narrative per se, but instead with an attention to detail which carries a palpable unease no matter the twists and turns of the plot. When Chabrol states there are no big or small subjects for his films (Movies of the Sixties, Orbis, 1984), it's an awareness that sociological importance is at least as significant as the apparently large subject of murder. Charles Thomas Samuels, in "Sightings: Hitchcock" (American Scholar, Spring 1970), has said of cinema's suspense maestro that "Hitchcock's films are peopled by mere containers of stress, and set against backgrounds chosen simply because their innocuousness counterpoints terror." In Chabrol's best work, we might reverse the cinematic equation. Terror (or more particularly horror) comes not out of the mechanics of Chabrol's direction but out of his observational sense and his interest in character, as in the scene in Le Boucher where Héléne takes the children for a picnic through the caves of Cro-Magnon man. The subdued horror is manifested in drops of blood. No immediate danger is evident. Héléne leaves the children in the picnic spot while she goes up a hill to inspect a body, but tension permeates the scene. It's a small town, murders are being committed, and the conventional rhythm of suspense cinema is collapsed for a more vivid exploration of its effects on a whole community.
Sympathy becomes a broader based empathy, as narrative gives way to locale. "I think the plot really doesn't matter," Chabrol has said (Film Forum, Oumano, 1985), but obsessive behavior does, which provides the narrative focus. In Le Boucher Popaul's reminiscing masks his own need to kill, where Héléne's tranquil presence is worked at through yoga, a quiet village life and an encompassing concern for her children's needs.
In La Femme Infidèle Chabrol indicates it's only when the husband murders his wife's lover that he becomes a man of passion. In the film's opening scenes, the mother-in-law chides Bouquet's Charles Desvallées for his impending portliness, and later on we see him watching TV with the face of a beached porpoise. He tries to loosen up on a night out with his wife and some friends, but it's when confronted with his wife's lover that his slack, complacent personality recedes and the tension mounts. The murder is an aberrant moment. He tidies the mess with the fastidiousness he has brought to every other aspect of his life. But later we see in his wife's face a renewed interest in a man who isn't entirely predictable. The commonly remarked upon closing shot carries within it the film's paradoxical theme: this man must kill to prove he loves his wife, but as a consequence, he'll be taken away from her. As the police officers pull Popaul away and he looks longingly back at Héléne, Chabrol simultaneously zooms in and tracks out to symbolize this double bind.
A similar obsessional contradiction is apparent in Wedding in Blood, with Audran and Piccoli lovers in a small town where Audran's husband is mayor and Piccoli his assistant. For these characters, passion is not necessarily equated with murder, but they realize their shared love is beginning to lose its initial excitement. It's becoming compromised and furtive. Piccoli murders his willowy, lifeless wife, and when blackmailed by the mayor -- Audran's husband -- over a business deal that may destroy the community, he kills the bullying control freak also. Never are the adulterers so clearly in love as in the film's closing moments, where they sit in the back of a police car as if a couple just married. The handcuffs like a perverse matrimonial gesture.
In such films, motive becomes not only psychological but geographical. Both Audran and Piccoli have no interest in living anywhere else, and thus they accept the consequences of their imprisonment over the flight that could have saved them from the law. In Le Femme Infidèle it's suggested to Bouquet's Charles that he live not in the distant outskirts but in Paris. Perhaps such a move would have ended his wife's affair as readily as the gruesome method Charles deploys. Instead Charles stays put, living his contented life as long as he possibly can. In Le Boucher, we see the importance of geography once again. Popaul frequently makes clear his admiration for the village in which he lives -- an escape to somewhere else isn't an option. When Pauline Kael states "everything seems to be on the same level of interest to Chabrol" her admonition represents the perspective of a disappointed thrill-seeker. It is, perhaps, more fruitful to see Chabrol's movies as an extension rather than a simplification of the thriller genre. He evens out the tone, guts it of its conventions, and places it within the realm of reality rather than the artificiality of the fair-ground ride.
It was, of course, Hitchcock who drew on the analogy of the fairground to explore elements of the thriller (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Faber, 1995), and David Thomson (Movie Man, Secker and Warburg, 1967) has said of Hitchcock's fondness for back-projection, "that Hitchcock utilizes [it] more successfully than most directors because the relationship between person and background in his films is conceptual rather than real." In Chabrol the relationship is inextricable and so one turns away from thrills and resolution and towards the philosophical and the realistic.
These are elements so fundamental to Chabrol's style, that over determination results when he forces them -- as in his earliest work, and also in Un Partie Du Plaisir -- but it's also a style which has deserted him when he's drifted too far from the loose thriller format which provides anchorage. Chabrol has made a number of films one attributes to him simply because the credits inform us of his culpability or because one devotes time and energy to dragging up buried themes. These latter films include the aforementioned Ten Days' Wonder, and also Blood Relatives, Folies Bourgeoise, The Blood of Others, and Quiet Days at Clichy. We might also include the askew sci-fi Dr M, while resisiting too readily to exclude from his major work the fussy, protective adaptation of Madame Bovary, the political thriller Nada and Innocents with Dirty Hands. These latter three films show a filmmaker adrift from his technique and method, but nevertheless they hold up as purposeful digressions.
They do so because they illuminate Chabrol's importance, without quite undermining his purpose. Madame Bovary, released in 1991, contains elements of Chabrol's key work -- bourgeois boredom, excitement through adultery, provincial setting -- and in noticing such recurrent themes we can see also where Chabrol's strengths lie. If we see them being worked out even in his less successful movies, then what elements make his great movies so masterful? Maybe the answer lies in what Robert Bresson described in his "Notes on the Cinematographer" as the need "to leave the spectator free [while] at the same time you must make yourself loved by him. You must make him love the way you render things. That is to say: show him things in the order and in the way that you love to see them..." As many a critic has pointed out, there is no such freedom in Madame Bovary. "It's as suffocating as the heroine's predicament," Time Out said -- and this results from a premeditation which is alien to Chabrol's best work. The sense of discovery central to Le Boucher et al, is absent: it is, after all, an adaptation of a 19th century novel, a book Chabrol had wanted to adapt since the beginning of his career. Also, the details Chabrol's camera would pick up as a consequence of observing contemporary life and mores, are in Madame Bovary the result of research and reference.
If in Madame Bovary it is the overwhelming attention to detail and a suffocating air of preconception that undermines the film, in Nada it's the result of a political superimposition that is usually only sub-textual in Chabrol's films. Terrorism and conspiracy were themes already being explored in the late '60s/early '70s in the work of politically motivated filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Francesco Rosi, and Gillo Pontecorvo. Chabrol's addition to this group is nothing if not eccentric, The film's about a group of subversives who take an American ambassador hostage and hide out in an isolated cottage. Chabrol's interests, however, lie less in the political machinations that serve as the film's plot than in the individual psychological imbalances and quirks of his characters. Michel Duchaussoy's philosophy teacher, who drops out of the proceedings early on, hurtles towards a nervous breakdown. Fabio Testi's cool-headed fanatic is as masochistic as he is brave and purposeful. Another is impotent, a fourth a surly nymphomaniac. The police chief orders minions around and is himself reduced to sycophantic gesturing when called into the office of his superiors. It's almost a comedy of bad manners and instinctive frustrations. Chabrol indicates the political system isn't the cause of neurosis and unhappiness; it's just another area in which personal distaste can find an outlet. (An approach rather at odds with Rosi et al's.) It's Chabrol's most political film, yet it tells us less than either La Cérémonie or Les Biches about what might move people towards political consciousness. Nada is finally about self-hatred working out of a political scenario.
Innocents with Dirty Hands again indicates self-hatred, but this time the politics are purely personal. Rod Steiger is an impotent drunkard living in the South of France. Romy Schneider is his beautiful younger wife who takes as her lover a local thriller writer who is short on cash. A plot is hatched, the husband apparently dispatched, and Schneider left to go slowly mad amongst more plot twists than Chabrol knows what to do with. The Riviera backdrop recedes the more the narrative screw is turned, and the leading players take on increasingly concentric characteristics: all serving the central function of plot. It is in the incidentals -- Jean Rochefort's lawyer and the two police inspectors -- that one finds freshness, not in the film's ostensible story.
"In film you find reality more by significant detail," Chabrol has said (Film Forum, Ellen Oumano, St Martin's Press). In Madame Bovary, Nada, and Innocents With Dirty Hands, one senses Chabrol is tied by conventions that aren't quite his, and for all the wriggling quirks of style, the films are hampered by expectation rather than discovery, The significant details may not be instinctive enough for a filmmaker who has said the problem with documentary is that "you wait, you wait, it's too long for me," and of narrative that "I hate plots."
It is unfortunate, then, that it is Chabrol's impatient mode of inquiry that has led him into so many cinematic cul de sacs. He's a filmmaker who must make films as a man needs air to breath. In the '60s, he could aesthetically justify such a stance. Mid-'60s potboilers allowed him to master his craft and led into his great period. But in the '80s and '90s, Chabrol's desire to make at least a movie a year has carried with it the insistence of the compulsive. He often seems like a gambler who can't leave the table. Nevertheless there is the hint of a late great period with the already discussed La Cérémonie and also 1994's L'Enfer: films which remain within the thriller genre but also extend it. The latter film takes the frequent Chabrolian theme of marital infidelity and subjectifies it to the point of madness. Based on a script by Le Diabolique's Henri-Georges Cluzot, the film opens breezily and optimistically with Paul buying up the hotel he's spent a number of years working in, marrying the beautiful Nelly, and fathering a child.
Nevertheless Chabrol makes clear in the film's initial stages the business pressures that Paul has taken on board: Nelly's friend states the hotel must have cost a fortune, and though Paul's been saving for years and been left money by his mother, he's still "up to here in debt." He starts to drink, becomes abrupt with hotel residents, and dismisses the competition with insistent certitude. Driving into town with the local doctor, Paul refers to a nearby hotel as a group of "amateurs." As he becomes increasingly contrarily oblivious and belligerent to the reality around him, Paul becomes suspicious of his wife's every movement. He becomes especially jealous of a local playboy named Martineaux.
Opening and closing on the same image (a pan across a village road). L'Enfer is a suffocatingly self-enclosed tale that uses frequent close-ups and point of view shots to take us into Paul's mind. Moments of surprise, for example, are contained within Paul's perspective. In a scene where a cyclist crosses Paul's path, the viewer's mild shock comes from our following his jealous pursuit of Nelly so closely, not from the seriousness of the incident viewed objectively. Chabrol's close-ups, though, aren't only conventionally empathetic, they're also paranoically intense. On a number of occasions he adopts the cramped two-shot familiar to lngmar Bergman, with Paul in the foreground and Nelly behind him within the frame. This is the cinematic vocabulary of crisis, from the master of distanced observation.
With L'Enfer, and to some degree La Cérémonie, we can see an increased intensity of approach that, though maybe too early to tell, could lead to a clearly broadened aesthetic. If it does so, it will be in marked contrast to the early films with their interest in realism curdling into melodrama and the middle period's empathetic yet dispassionate look at bourgeois lives. In L'Enfer and La Cérémonie, Chabrol provides melodrama as subjective consciousness: we do not feel Chabrol manipulating events (as we did in the early work). In these two films, Paul and Sophie neurotically trying to make sense of their lives. They are desperately self-protective.
Chabrol's main achievement in each film is the concentrated attention he gives to characters whose lives are on the verge of falling apart: Paul's obsessively needs to believe completely in his wife's love in L'Enfer and Sophie insists on withhold recoginition of her illiteracy in La Cérémonie. These are characters for whom Chabrol eschews his modulated tone as he combines elements of melodramatic form with his own approach to the thriller genre. Such a reading helps give shape to so many apparently flaccid Chabrol exercises: Folies Bourgeoises, with its adulterous plotting and paranoiac central character, and Ten Days' Wonder, where the protagonist neurotically wants to murder his father. It indicates a need to try out melodramatic modes for the purposes of more intense scrutiny of character.
One's desire to give meaning to a body of work, rather than accepting the fortuitousness of half a dozen great films and half a dozen very good ones, may indicate the intellectual double-jointedness of the auteurist critic. However, Chabrol is a filmmaker whose reputation is far from set. Where his Nouvelle Vague compatriots are placed within the realm of art, Chabrol is still seen by many as an efficient stylist -- an Hitchcockian too lazy to work as hard as the master at creating suspense. As Annette Kuhn makes clear in The Cinema Book: "In terms of their construction of narrative space and time, Chabrol's films in general ... are narrated in a more or less classical manner. Chabrol's work is rather marginal in relation to the formal traits of art cinema..." He may, then, slip into the category of hack, his films unprotected by reputation and cut and pasted for TV presentation and rarely shown on the art film circuit. If we instead see him as an evolutionary artist, one whose achievements come out of working failure, rather than the theoretical consistency of Robert Bresson, we can see in such nonsense as Ten Days' Wonder, and such disappointments as Innocents with Dirty Hands, in the overdrawn characters and digressive asides, a filmmaker working towards a bigger, creative picture.
With over forty movies in his catalogue, ascribing such status to Chabrol may require more energy, patience, and fortitude than most critics would care to spare. But even my own piecemeal work suggests a filmmaker with certain preoccupations, a finally anti-Hitchcockian style, and a way of telling stories that is neither avant-garde nor predictable. "What is important," Chabrol has said, "is the architecture. You can't actually see it in a film, but it is there. It is abstract but you must have it. It's a general form, a balance." This is a statement certainly true of Chabrol's finest work, but it could also be true, in a yet more abstract way, of Chabrol's career as a whole, He is undeniably a filmmaker of some significance, as much an antidote, then, as a slavish follower of Hollywood models of film narration.