Our wicked, wicked ways
June 24, 1930—September 12, 2010
There will be obituaries, reminiscences and critiques, by writers who will bestow him grace and intelligence. For he once was a respected contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma and a founding father of the nouvelle vague with Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and Truffaut, a position he essentially sacrificed for commercial gain. Then there were the wives: the first rich enough to foot the bill on his earliest pictures; the second, actress (and frequent star in the ‘60s and ‘70s) Stéphane Audran; the third, his widow Aurore, who’d been working on the set side by side with him and several of their children since the 1970s. From what I’ve read, he was close with his family and friends, and photographs show us a curious, academic, densely spectacled face about to light up over a private, and probably dirty, joke.
I was first drawn to him when I was twelve- or thirteen-years-old, rifling through copies of John Willis’s annual Screen World in the public library. One volume offered a terrifying scene, of a gaunt, Frankenstein-like man in a fit of rage, holding a scared little boy over his head. The caption read, “Jean Yanne in Claude Chabrol’s The Butcher.” At the time I didn’t know this was a gaffe on Willis’s end (the man in the shot was Jean-Claude Drouot in Chabrol’s Rupture), but the very name ‘Chabrol’ had an odd feel, velvety, like a soft binding on a rare volume of secrets.
Somewhere along the way, the press likened him to Hitchcock, and he was soon labeled ‘The French Alfred Hitchcock’ — mostly out of convenience or ignorance by anyone satisfied to receive his pictures as murder mysteries or thrillers. This must’ve delighted Chabrol, for it probably made financing his projects easier. He’d worked with most of the major French stars since the late 1950s (although, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything he made with Catherine Deneuve), and several Americans, the latter often in obscure Canadian and European co-productions that were harder to see than his French pictures.
And the films? Where do I begin? My admiration makes objectivity nearly impossible, years of picking out obscure symbols, half-glance metaphors, unseen needles resting on top of imposing haystacks. My interest has never been academic — others infinitely smarter than myself can provide you with coherent analyses of Chabrol’s repeated use of small cars speeding down dark roads; of sexual triangles soured by obsessive-compulsive romantics and control freaks; the famous use of food and dining for color and tension; the significance of the Hélène cycle; the odd lighting and set design, too often cheerless and overexposed; the awareness of power in family and the threat of nepotism; the freewheeling abandonment of genre forms; and his relentless interest in the fundamentals that sparked the French Revolution.
I once felt he rivaled Buñuel on that last count, as a knowledgeable observer of class mores and ethics. Unlike Buñuel, Chabrol is less caustic and more sympathetic to the working class, sensitive to the words that go unsaid in otherwise heated discussion; and the hidden ramifications of class rule on an individual’s manner and thinking. I was (and still am) a fervent supporter of La cérémonie (1995), a masterpiece on class conflict and oppression where Chabrol’s meticulous eye for choreographed body language (circulating among a dream cast of Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset) shows us that the dropping of a handkerchief could easily set off a full-scale war.
You shouldn’t read about these films before seeing them. Going into a Chabrol, expectations can shortchange the nuance. These are works about attitudes and behavior, from an artist balancing decency with corruption. If I were asked to recommend any specific titles from what’s available on DVD, La cérémonie, À double tour (1959), Les Bonnes femmes (1960), Les Biches (1968), La Femme infidèle (1969), and Le Boucher (1970) would be good places to start. For advanced studies, however, watch and re-watch his segment “La Muette” in Paris vu par (1965); the miraculous La Route de Corinthe (1967); the Oedipal quagmire of Ten Days’ Wonder (1971); Nada (1974), a political treatise on terrorism that out-Z’s Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969); Une partie de plaisir (1975), an acidic dedication, of sorts, to Chabrol’s screenwriting collaborator and longtime friend, Paul Gégauff; the wondrous Poulet au vinaigre (1985), the director’s witty answer to American TV detective shows; and especially Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and La fleur du mal (2003), where forked tongues wag in worlds of ulterior motives.
Now that he’s no longer making movies, the individual titles may begin to blur and the oeuvre may take shape as a vast singular entity, with as many crevices, nooks and hiding places as the human mind itself. I thank him for what he gave us, and look forward to revisiting his work over the coming decades. He was a sly fox.