My introduction to the universe of Chabrol occurred in the early 1970s when I was a teenager, spending afternoons in the public library pouring over copies of Film Comment, Take One, Evergreen, and Cineaste. At first the name intrigued me — how many Chabrols do you know of? — followed by the films themselves. I loved horror, mystery and thrillers, and here was someone being hyped as the French Hitchcock.
Leafing through an edition of John Willis’s Screen World, I was drawn to a photo of a gaunt man, scary and enraged, holding an infant over his head, poised to throw it. The caption said it was Jean Yanne in Chabrol’s Le Boucher. Right then and there, I needed to see the film, but how? Where? His films were difficult to find in my bucolic Long Island neighborhood, and I had yet to master the streets and avenues of Manhattan or discover the movie timetables of The New Yorker, Cue, The Village Voice or The Soho News. Not only did it take me over a decade to see Le Boucher, but also to realize the error in Willis’s book: the still was from La Rupture!
Paul Gégauff was a novelist and screenwriter who wrote the screenplays for Chabrol’s Les Cousins, À Double tour, Les Bonnes femmes, Les Godelureaux, L'oeil du malin, Ophélia, Les Plus belles escroqueries du monde, Le Scandale, Les Biches, Que la bête meure, Docteur Popaul, and Les Magiciens. He appeared onscreen in Chabrol’s La Ligne de démarcation, and wrote and starred in Une Partie de plaisir (‘a piece of pleasure’), based on his quasi-autobiographic novel. In it, Gégauff plays himself, co-starring with his ex-wife and daughter — none of whom were professional actors. “[Gégauff] fascinated me by pushing the limits of self-destruction,” said Chabrol, “by his taste for extraordinary paradoxes and his real elegance. But he also showed me just how far this could take him into self-destruction.” On Christmas Eve of 1983, Paul Gégauff was stabbed to death by his second wife.
Among his pet themes were triangular relationships and the duality of nature, the merging of opposites exemplified by Les Biches (1968). In one scene in that film, Jacqueline Sassard’s character pretends to be Stéphane Audran in a mirror until realizing she’s being watched by Jean-Louis Trintignant. The scene was nearly identical to a moment in René Clément’s Plein Soleil (1960), when Alain Delon mimics Maurice Ronet in a mirror. The earlier film was based on a Patricia Highsmith novel adapted by Gégauff. No fan of Clément, it’s doubtful Chabrol was aware that Gégauff had lifted from his own material.
Gégauff also inspired the character ‘Paul’ (sometimes ‘Popaul’ or ‘Paul Thomas’) who appeared in fourteen Chabrol films: Les Cousins, Ophélia, Le Scandale, Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, Le Boucher, La Rupture, Docteur Popaul, Les Noces rouges, Le Sang des autres, Une Affaire de femmes, L'enfer and La Fille coupée en deux. “Gégauff’s apparent racism and right-wing views, like his drinking and womanizing, made a tantalizing contrast with Chabrol’s own left-wing humanism, and his status as a Catholic family man,” wrote Guy Austin in Claude Chabrol (French Film Directors). “The attraction and contrast between Chabrol and Gégauff was to be represented time and again in two character types, Charles and Paul… Charles is an ironic version of the young Chabrol: innocent, reserved, repressed. Paul is Gégauff: cynical, charismatic, provocative.”
Consistent with his interest in mythology, ‘Hélène’ has been a recurring character in nine of Chabrol’s films. Inspired by Helénē of Troy — “the face that launched a thousand ships,” hence the catalyst or center of action — she’s been played most often by Stéphane Audran: L'oeil du malin, La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, Le Boucher, La Rupture, Juste Avant la nuit, Les Noces rouges, Le Sang des autres and Inspecteur Lavardin. In Greek mythology, Helénē was the daughter of Zeus and Leda; in Chabrol’s La Décade prodigieuse, Orson Welles plays the Zeus figure, while Leda is the mystery woman played by Antonella Lualdi in Chabrol’s À double tour.
Stéphane Audran, La Femme infidèle
The second Mrs. Chabrol, Stéphane Audran served as his Muse in twenty-three films: Les Cousins, Les Bonnes femmes, Les Godelureaux, L'oeil du malin, Landru, Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche, Paris vu par…, Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha, La Ligne de démarcation, Le Scandale, Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Le Boucher, La Rupture, Juste Avant la nuit, Les Noces rouges, Folies bourgeoises, Les Liens de sang, Violette Nozière, Le Sang des autres, Poulet au vinaigre, Jours tranquilles à Clichy and Betty. Her biggest commercial and critical success to date is Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast.
Her successor in the Chabrolian universe is Isabelle Huppert, who has starred in seven films: Violette Nozière, Une Affaire de femmes, Madame Bovary, La cérémonie, Rien ne va plus, Merci Pour le chocolat and L'ivresse du pouvoir. So respectful and trusting of the director, Huppert will reportedly do any Chabrol film without reading the script first.
Outside of a handful of films for Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Marcel Ophüls, cinematographer Jean Rabier worked almost exclusively with Chabrol throughout the 1960s and 70s, on forty pictures beginning with Le Beau Serge (1958), and ending with Madame Bovary (1991).
Most often as comedy relief, but also in straight dramatic parts, Chabrol has used Dominique Zardi in twenty-four films, and Henri Attal in twenty-six. They worked brilliantly together as a team, especially as the houseguests in Les Biches.
Claude’s son Thomas Chabrol has appeared in more than a dozen of his father’s films, making his debut at thirteen in Alice ou la dernière fugue. His jet-black eyebrows have been most visible in La Demoiselle d'honneur (as the detective), La fleur du mal (playing Nathalie Baye’s secretary), and L'ivresse du pouvoir (where he was Isabelle Huppert’s n'er-do-well nephew).
Pierre Jansen wrote the music for thirty of Chabrol’s films throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s, Claude’s son Matthieu Chabrol has been his primary composer with nineteen scores to his credit.
In 2002, I was approached by Pathfinder Home Entertainment to do audio commentaries on their then-forthcoming set of Chabrol DVDs. Then in its infancy, my Claude Chabrol Project provided perhaps more information on the filmmaker than anything else online save for the Internet Movie Database. With so few connections at hand (blogs and internet cinephilia had yet to blossom), I assume Pathfinder considered me a leading authority on Chabrol, to which I thought, “Ha!”
At first I suggested that the eight films in their collection — Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, Le Boucher, La Rupture, La Décade prodigieuse, Nada and Les Innocents aux mains sales — be accompanied by audio commentaries by eight different people, one for each picture, if just to break up the monotony. Having been a fan of Les Biches, I volunteered to do that one with the provision I’d need four weeks to write a script, something that would keep the viewer entertained and to prevent me from blank spaces and repeated ‘ums.’ However, Pathfinder imagined I could handle all eight commentaries myself — fifteen or sixteen hours of chat, to be recorded within three or four weeks, recording to begin immediately, airfare (New York to L.A.), food and hotel accommodations at my own expense. My reward for all of this: several copies of the boxed set.
This is why you don’t hear my voice on any of Pathfinder’s films. I did manage to write a biography which can be found on most of the discs. But don’t bother searching for it. Pathfinder didn’t afford me the luxury of composing anything substantial or polished — what’s there is a hasty first draft, and not very good.
The collection arrived in stores and languished on the shelves: not many people were willing to shell out seventy bucks. Pathfinder’s mad rush was unwarranted and eventually backfired. The commentaries they got were mediocre; the writers and academics from the L.A. area they called in seemed to lack any passion for Chabrol. Far worse were the film transfers: Le Boucher isn’t bad, but the others are blurry and faded, with La Décade prodigieuse an unmitigated disaster. To my eyes and ears, the films looked and sounded better on Connoisseur’s VHS series made fifteen years earlier.
As if to atone for their misdeeds, Pathfinder’s subsequent audio commentary for Chabrol’s Une Partie de plaisir offers film critic Dan Yakir and screenwriter Ric Menello locked in a great discussion. The picture quality is substandard, but the audio track is exceptionally entertaining and informative. (Menello did an equally good job on All Day Entertainment’s Le cri du hibou DVD commentary.)
Labels: Claude Chabrol, John Willis Screen World, Pathfinder Home Entertainment, Paul Gégauff, Stéphane Audran, The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, Une affaire de Flickhead