Only months after the death of Eric Rohmer, the French New Wave lost another of its titans when Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) passed away last September. Easily the most prolific of the five leading New Wave directors (after Godard, Rivette and Truffaut), Chabrol remained ever true to the New Wave branch nurtured by genre cinema. While Rohmer pusued his own, unclassifiable path, Truffaut made his name through autobiographical films and period pieces, and Godard and Rivette embraced an increasingly experimental cinema, Chabrol steadily directed lean narrative films whose keenly observed realism typically drew inspiration from the suspense film and psychological thriller.
Chabrol was born into a wealthy family and studied law before deciding to devote his life to his greatest passion- the cinema. (In fact, Chabrol’s money underwrote some of the first films of his fellow New Wave filmmakers.) Supporting himself by working in 20th Century Fox’s Paris publicity office, Chabrol spent the rest of his time watching movies and, increasingly, writing about them before directing his first films in 1958. A run of successes that lasted into the following decade found Chabrol working with bigger stars and bigger budgets, a trajectory that led him to the brink of financial ruin in the mid-1960s and a quick retreat to relatively smaller, modestly budgeted projects. After a relatively fallow period from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, Chabrol began a slow and steady resurgance with his second film starring Isabelle Huppert, Story of Women, a prolonged comeback that continued well into the 1990s and until his death.
Chabrol’s reputation as one of France’s great filmmakers rests first upon his films of the late 1950s and the late 1960s. Eschewing overt visual stylization, these films favor a cool, crisp classical style that makes clear Chabrol’s admiration for Fritz Lang. His other master was Alfred Hitchcock who inspired Chabrol’s ironic distance from his characters as well as his fascination with pathology and its roots in sexual (mis)behavior. Chabrol’s ability to work quickly and efficiently, combined with his constant return to the suspense and thriller genres, allowed him to remain both prolific and popular for decades.
The genre trappings served to lure audiences into films that were typically minutely detailed examinations of the middle and upper classes at their most petulant, mercurial, narcissitic and, at times, depraved. While one could read Chabrol’s work ideologically as a sly appraisal of patriarchy and bourgeois convention. Yet rather than ardent critique, the films offer chillingly calm exegeses of individuals crushed by the obdurate weight of convention and ironically cool assessments of the human capacity for unspeakable cruelty. Resisting any easy definition, or division between, good and evil, Chabrol’s retain their power to charm and to chill. – Haden Guest
Special thanks: Delphine Selles-Alvarez Cultural Services of the French Embassy (New York); Anne Miller, Eric Jausseran Consulate General of France, Boston; Matt Jones UNCSA Moving Image Archives; L’Institut Français.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran
France 1960, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. French with English subtitles
Released the year before Godard’s Breathless, Chabrol’s early entry into the cool realism of the French New Wave is a dark, haunted sketch of modern living. “Independent” and inaccessible, four pretty Parisian shop girls spend empty days encased behind glass amusing one another with trivial intrigue and imagined drama. At night, they become superficial entertainment for a steady stream of male spectators. Waiting for a truly virtuous hero to make his entrance, the women fall prey to the conventional, romantic dreams their storefront displays advertise. For Rita, this could be her upper-class fiancé; for Jacqueline, her enigmatic admirer on the motorcycle. As mysteries start to unfold, the women more often find themselves faced with macabre perversion rather than the love each desires.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacqueline Bisset
France 1995, 35mm, color, 112 min. French with English subtitles
When Catherine hires the enigmatic, taciturn Sophie as a maid at her family’s remote mansion, only a slight unease ripples beneath the discreet formality of La Cérémonie. Detached and automated, Sophie’s odd behavior quietly evolves from mildly amusing to inexplicably disturbing. As the family’s charitable attempts to comprehend Sophie’s idiosyncrasies fall flat, she latches onto the town’s eccentric postmistress who fills Sophie’s silences with her own bitter assumptions about the wealthy family’s sins and excesses. Disrupting social convention, the symbiotic duo uncover subtle layers of hypocrisy and condescension among a comfortable society bound by unspoken contracts and rituals. Sophie’s secret flaw only explains part of the cold ceremony she too seems ordained to conduct.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Stéphane Audran, Michel Bouquet, Maurice Ronet
France 1969, 35mm, color, 98 min. French with English subtitles
The “Hélène Cycle” is the name given to Chabrol’s films of the late 60s featuring Stéphane Audran as the calm, intelligent female lead who sacrifices in order to preserve the stifling requirements of bourgeois social structure. Chabrol’s wife of many years and his star in twenty-five films, the mesmerizing Audran plays the guilty woman of the title with unsettling poise. Both camera and characters sustaining an elegant, controlled detachment, the tense psychological drama gradually unravels onto a social stage where love is betrayed but never emotion. With only a few precise outbursts, an agonizing maintenance of the couple’s civil façade persists even through the remarkable denouement in which the deepest feelings are expressed without a voice raised or a tear shed.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Madeleine Robinson, Antonella Lualdi, Jean-Paul Belmondo
France 1959, 35mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles
On the heels of a colorful parade of characters, Lazlo Kovacs bursts into the oppressive palace of Thérèse and Henri with irreverent rebellion and boisterous joie de vivre. Ushering in an inevitable changing of the guard in French society and cinema, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character (whose name will reappear as his character’s alias in Godard’s Breathless) shakes up the bourgeois regime in Chabrol’s whirlwind murder mystery. Unwilling to compromise any longer, Henri jeopardizes his material wealth and social standing for the modern bohemian Leda. His miserably uptight wife will not go out without a fight and the crossfire that ensues is as absurdly Nouvelle Vague as it is Hollywood melodrama and gilded European classicism.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Juliette Mayniel
France 1959, 35mm, b/w, 112 min. French with English subtitles
Reversing the roles they play in Le Beau Serge, Gerard Blain takes the part of hard-working Charles who visits his decadent city-dwelling cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy). As in the previous film, Chabrol goes to elaborate lengths to intricately undermine these superficial archetypes. Plain-spoken Charles is determined to study hard and pass his exams while Paul throws extravagant parties, courts various women, and theatrically skirts the edges of danger. Their mutually mixed feelings for one another motivate each to pursue the same lover and ultimately exchange certain fates. Artfully expressed through extraordinary camera work, miraculous mise-en-scène and a darkly humorous script by Paul Gégauff, Les Cousins is a complex of personalities and personas intertwining in a tragically modern world.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michèle Méritz
France 1958, 35mm, b/w, 98 min. French with English subtitles
Frequently cited as the first New Wave film, Le Beau Serge was Chabrol’s bracing, unembellished induction into filmmaking featuring a cast of unknowns – many of them non-professional actors – and set in a bleak, provincial French village. After a serious illness, François has returned from Paris to convalesce in his hometown. As soon as his old friend walks obliviously past him in a drunken stupor, François makes it his mission to rescue Serge from the plague of this hardscrabble existence. Quickly upsetting the village’s static status quo, the righteous, intellectual François is drawn into its incestuously vicious circles. By the time the defining moment finally approaches, he risks becoming Serge’s martyr rather than savior.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Michel Duchaussoy, Caroline Cellier, Jean Yanne
France 1969, 35 mm, color, 110 min. French with English subtitles
In another collaboration with screenwriter Paul Gégauff and cameraman Jean Rabier, Chabrol exquisitely renders a harrowing exploration of the modern conscience by way of Hitchcock and Hollywood. When a children’s fairy tale writer loses his only son in a hit-and-run accident, he vows revenge in the manner of an epic Greek tragedy. Although an uncanny mixture of chance and lucky guesses leads him to his prey, surrounding the perpetrator is a peculiar assortment of relatives immobilized by their own apathy and culpability. Confronted by those desperate for love and a scapegoat, the deceptive writer might have to revise his plot. With as much suspense and humor as Hitchcock yet laced with an icy social critique, Que la Bête Meure is a taut thriller in which the monster may be the only one not wearing a mask.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Marie Trintignant, Stéphane Audran, Jean-François Garreaud
France 1992, 35 mm, color, 103 min. French with English subtitles
Betty’s face dominates the screen as she drinks herself into oblivion at “The Hole,” a bar of misfits and lost souls. Tragic pieces of Betty’s story surface out of order: flashes of a bourgeois life with a dull husband and domineering Psycho-esque mother-in-law, telling bits from childhood and a string of tempestuous relationships with men – all translated by the psychoanalytic commentary of a lover. A self-proclaimed “drunk and whore” whose existence parallels the double lives of Chabrol’s other dissolute heroine Violette Noziere, Betty is torn between all of the roles expected of women and her own base desires. Chabrol’s fascination with the feminine continues in this engrossing portrait of a woman emotionally undressing before the camera and her newfound confidant.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Stéphane Audran, Jean Yanne, Antonio Passalia
France 1970, 35 mm, color, 93 min. French with English subtitles
Without the sinister opening credit sequence, Le Boucher could be initially mistaken for a romantic comedy starring Hélène, a pretty school teacher and Popaul, a cynical, brooding butcher who has just returned from the Algerian War to resume life in an idyllic French village. Their burgeoning love is blocked by respective emotional scars and darkly accentuated by news reports of serial killings. The butcher’s persistence and the encroaching murders set Hélène on edge – threatening to expose the cracks in this picaresque shell. Alternating between spectral serenity and jarring discord, the film eerily details the myriad acts of violence committed by the emotionally civilized.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Romy Schneider, Rod Steiger, Jean Rochefort
France 1975, 35mm, color, 121 min. In English
The premise of Innocents with Dirty Hands comes straight out of The Postman Always Rings Twice: an attractive woman married to an older, impotent man meets a handsome young man. But once the femme fatale and her lover have marked the husband for murder, Chabrol’s film (set in glamorous St. Tropez) shifts from film noir to suspense thriller with the disappearance of her accomplice giving the widow more questions than answers. Although Chabrol was often accused of a noticeable reticence towards sex in the early stages of his career, the sexual frankness of this film continues the emergence of the erotic that began the previous year with Pleasure Party and would continue through subsequent films.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Isabelle Huppert, François Cluzet, Nils Tavernier
France 1988, 35 mm, color, 108 min. French with English subtitles
Inheriting the throne from Stephane Audran, Isabelle Huppert became Chabrol’s muse for the next several years beginning with this film. Here she plays Marie Latour with startling nuance in this adaptation of a true story that took place during 1940s German-occupied France. After successfully helping a neighbor who has botched an attempt at abortion, Marie enters into a new business enterprise with icily pragmatic opportunism. Many facets of her thriving operation mirror the hypocrisy and ambivalent morality of the time – Marie remaining indifferent, if oblivious, to questions of either depravity or the Nazi threat. When her husband returns broken from the war, Marie finds him a job as a spy for the Germans and takes a lover for herself. With signature resistance to judgment, political stance, or trite commentary, Chabrol horrifically and humanely examines the unexamined life up to its bitter end.
Directed by Claude Chabrol. With Paul Gégauff, Danièle Gégauff, Clémence Gégauff
France 1975, 35mm, color, 100 min. French with English subtitles
This remarkable film marks a culmination of Chabrol’s long association with Paul Gégauff, the bad-boy of the French New Wave whose career as a screenwriter and occasional actor was colored by his lasting reputation as a ladies’ man and a provocateur. Little known in this country, Gégauff was an early associate of Rohmer’s and worked on a number of Chabrol’s first films as well as his celebrated series of films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gégauff wrote Pleasure Party’s autobiographical script about the failing marriage of a solidly middle-class husband and wife who, in a last-ditch attempt to preserve their relationship, agree to the “open marriage” that results in disaster. Gégauff also, however, played the film’s lead with, quite extraordinarily, his own ex-wife and daughter acting alongside as fictional versions of themselves taking place in Gégauff’s home.