More Chabrol is always a good thing. I review the French master director’s debut feature, Le Beau Serge, for its Blu-ray release over at Slant.
Claude Chabrol’s most recent release follows his typical trajectory: small coincidences of fate lead to extreme acts of passion which leads to inevitable jealousy and sudden violence. But A Girl Cut in Two seeks to unearth this devastating path not by suspense, or even erotic underpinnings, but through an examination of generational manipulation.
Twenty-something Gabrielle falls for an older writer, who then cuts off communication with the broken-hearted girl just as he’s seemingly done countless times before. Gabrielle then gets approached by a rich, spoilt young man, a cavalier heathen who wants to marry and fulfill some sort of social obligation. The two men have a uneasy past together and the stage is set for a battle of passive-aggressive side comments and savage social lashings, all over this young woman unaware of the twisted game in which she’s wrapped up.
In the end, naivete becomes a key motif, something taken advantage of by the older, wealthy sect, and suffered by the younger crowd eager to rise in the ranks. The film seems acutely benign in Chabrol terms, that is until the final moments, when the director puts his heroine on display in a theatrical gesture of recognition. The twists and turns of her decision-making has literally torn her apart, creating the first graceful step toward grizzled adulthood.
The slow long take that begins Claude Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil turns out to be a sly flash forward, setting the dire mood of the film beautifully. Yes, this will be another Chabrol exploration of the devastating ramifications human weakness has on the modern French bourgeoisie. Chabrol unravels the inevitable dirty secrets and family skeletons precisely, setting in motion a series of events that seem altogether destined and cyclical. But The Flower of Evil doesn’t pack the punch of the other Chabrol’s I’ve seen, possibly because the snooty characters revel in their own seediness without much care for the outside world, ultimately understanding that their guilt and panic are worth subverting as long as the cars, power, and money keep flowing in.
Everyone talks about the connections between Chabrol and Hitchcock, but what about the French master’s stylistic similarities with Robert Altman? Maybe someone has brought this up before (seeing I’m watching Chabrol for the first time), but the roving zooms, emphasis on ambient sound, and long takes in Chabrol’s hypnotic serial killer film Le Boucher especially remind me of Altman more than anyone else. This steadied, almost lyrical approach to the thriller genre provides an unending amount of discomfort while building toward something horrific.
Le Boucher follows the relationship between a butcher and a headmistress, a romantic entanglement framed by the growing unrest over a serial killer striking a rural French town. Chabrol uses emotional response to play with the viewers expectations about character and genre. In fact, every aspect of Le Boucher, from the aforementioned filmmaking techniques to the muted and stoic performances, subverts the thriller genre, mixing extreme formal devices to reveal Chabrol’s patented spatial menace. While the end result comes across as a bit pretentious, one can’t help but revel in the somber and intoxicating process of repressed desire and brutal, offscreen murder.
There’s a brilliant moment at the end of Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie in which housemaid Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and her blue-collar friend Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) stand atop a staircase gleefully overlooking an unbeknownst wealthy family huddled together on the couch listening to Mozart. For a split second, these working class girls have the upper hand. In one shot, Chabrol captures a small and devious victory in the escalating class struggle that’s gone on for nearly the entire film. The small disagreements, the calculating grievances, and the petty discords all lead to a devilish ending drenched in blood and irony, coated in sly subtext.
Chabrol’s film reminded me of a subtler version of Haneke’s Funny Games, yet La Ceremonie is an altogether more accomplished feat. Instead of relying on shock value, or reflexive artifice, Chabrol enraptures his story in mood, atmosphere, and character, burning through scenes with a manipulative and deceiving mise-en-scene that frames small, fleeting glances of jealousy, indifference, and hate. In La Ceremonie, the corridors of mortal sin, brimful with black humor and underlining menace, “reveal the hidden evil in supposedly the best people,” as one earlier wealthy party-goer so aptly foreshadows.