Getting Something Out

Claude Chabrol is not only one of the most prolific of the New Wave filmmakers (over 50 films in nearly 50 years), but also committed to genre-based narrative. For him, the conventions of the policier seduce audiences whose expectations he can then leave twisting in the wind. He believed he could introduce grandiose notions, like fate, through the follies and foibles of familiar characters in everyday settings.

Like other New Wave proponents, Chabrol published film criticism as a member of Cahiers du Cinéma before he debuted as a director in 1958 with Le Beau Serge. Along with another Eric Rohmer, he published the first extended study of Alfred Hitchcock in 1957. They drew attention to the “Catholic” dimension of his work, in the function of guilt and the transfer of responsibility that occurs in a number of films. While Chabrol shares with Hitchcock a commitment to the crime thriller, their styles diverge in some notable ways. Where the Englishman relied on subjective imagery to encourage audience identification with characters, Chabrol preferred a more objective point of view. He does not judge or force a specific view of characters’ actions upon viewers.

The DVDs discussed in this feature are:

All DVDs were directed by Claude Chabrol and released on 2 August 2005 in the US (Kino Video/KimStim Collection).

Cast: Marie Trintignant, Stéphane Audran
(MK2Productions, 1992)

Cop Au Vin (Poulet au vinaigre)
Cast: Jean Poiret, Stéphane Audran, Jean-François Garreaud
(MK2 Productions 1984)

The Color of Lies (Au coeur du mensonge)
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacques Gamblin, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Antoine de Caunes
(MK2Productions, 1999)

Inspecteur Lavardin
Cast: Jean Poiret, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont
(MK2Productions, 1986)

Cast: Emmanuelle Béart, François Cluzet
(MK2Productions, 1994)

In this, Chabrol drew on one of his other major influences, Fritz Lang, who routinely engaged in what the critic Leo Braudy characterizes as “closed cinema.” He writes, “In a closed film the world of the film is the only thing that exists; everything within it has its place in the plot of the film — every object, every character, every gesture, every action” (The World in a Frame: What We See in Films, 1976). By contrast, the “open film,” typified by the work of Jean Renoir or Robert Altman, loads the frame with material and does not force attention specifically.

The “closed film” perfectly suits both Lang and Chabrol’s interests in the dynamics of fate and the inexorability of character: their protagonists commit to particular choices. On the surface, this approach might seem rigid and detached, miserly in its coldness toward the range of human possibility. Quite the contrary, it conveys patterned detail that makes their films rewarding, one viewing after another.

Chabrol pursues his objectives through an ornate, masterful visual style. Sinuous tracking shots move with an investigatory zeal, their elegance equal to the infamy of his characters. In the celebrated final sequence of his 1968 La femme infidèle, as the protagonist rides in a police car, about to be charged with the murder of his wife’s lover, the lens simultaneously engages in a forward and reverse zoom, conveying both the killer’s attachment to and isolation from his family.

Chabrol views himself as a craftsman, not necessarily an innovator. More than once, he committed to a project that lacked credibility. After a rash of commercial failures at the start of his career, he helmed a sequence of bargain-basement spy sagas, featuring the long forgotten characters, Le Tigre and Marie-Chantal. In a 1982 Cahiers du Cinéma interview, Chabrol considered his work as such: “You mustn’t be afraid to put your hands in the shit to get something out.”

The director’s box office success appears to depend on the security of his relationship with a sympathetic producer. His association with André Génovès, and his company, Films La Boetie, influenced his work from 1967 and 1975, most notably the heart-wrenching Le Boucher (1969) and Que la bête meure (1969). The loss of that association led to another string of variable efforts and temporary residence in the commercial doghouse, until Chabrol teamed up with Marin Karmitz and MK2 Productions in 1984. This association has continued, with few interruptions, until the present day.

The Kino Video/KimStim collection of five Chabrol features that fall into this period bring some of them to the U.S. market for the first time, or for the first time with any degree of commercial penetration. All the prints are impeccable, and each DVD includes an introduction by French film scholar Joel Magny, combining brevity, clarity, and specificity. In the space of five or so minutes, Magny contextualizes the work in Chabrol’s career, underlines major themes and visual strategies, and selects key passages that cut to the core of each film.

The accompanying original French trailers feature Chabrol introducing his new product. Additionally, The Color of Lies includes a production documentary showing Chabrol’s legendarily relaxed sets; he habitually works with the same crew, several being members of his own family (his wife is a script supervisor, his daughter a production assistant, one son a composer, and another an actor). L’Enfer incorporates an introduction by Chabrol as well as an audio commentary, its clarity and detail only supporting the precision and thoughtfulness typical of his work.

The films featuring Inspecteur Lavardin kick-started Chabrol’s career during a lull and began his long and fruitful association with MK2 Productions; Karnitz marketed Cop Au Vin as Chabol’s “second first film.” The picture’s success led to a sequel as well as several television productions, not directed by Chabrol, which ended with the untimely death of lead performer Jean Poiret in 1992. Chabrol had never worked before in such an overt manner in the procedural mode. While a number of his films had involved protagonists set upon figuring out the guilty party of a violent act, Lavardin was his first – to use the French term – flic. And typical of Chabrol, the Inspector possesses a well-honed capacity to ferret out clues as well as enough quirks of personality to make him more than interesting in his own right as a character.

Lavardin superficially resembles Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Colombo, as he insinuates himself into an upper-class milieu and lets on to less than he knows about each case. But Lavardin is at once quixotic and overtly brutal, engaging in literal arm-twisting or threatening blackmail in order to solve a crime. He possesses no envy or admiration for the wealth of others, and what little we learn about his life away from the crime scene indicates a solitary person. An intruder into established communities, he plays on their inhabitants’ fears and suspicions like a master conductor.

In Cop Au Vin, a group of conniving speculators try to eject a wheelchair-bound invalid, Madame Cuno (Stéphane Audran), and her postman son Louis (Lucas Belvaux) from their home in order to construct a lucrative development. The Cunos, however, are not beleaguered innocents: they steam open their antagonists’ mail, engage in nocturnal surveillance, and dismiss virtually anyone outside their circle as beneath contempt. Lavardin enters the scene when one of the conspirators dies in a car accident and the wife of another turns up missing. His eventual solution of the case involves establishing the guilt of certain characters and, much to the viewer’s surprise, more or less exonerating others.

For Inspecteur Lavardin, the wife of the initial victim, writer Raul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine), has married Lavardin’s former paramour, Hélène (Bernadette Lafont). Once more, the solution to the mystery permits the Inspector to take on a quasi-divine dimension, as he dispenses justice on his own terms rather than strictly observing the fine line of the law. Whereas the majority of Chabrol’s plots might be characterized as “why-dunits,” with the focus on motivation, both the Lavardin films are classically structured “whodunits.” Yet they remain entertaining, due to the assured filmmaking, engaged performances, and complex moral grammar.

Betty, the adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon, is a different matter. A character study of a self-destructive, sexually compulsive, alcoholic, upper-class woman, it taxes viewers’ capacity for empathy aggressively. When we first meet Betty (Marie Trintignant), she is engaged in a drunken binge, moving from bar to bar, picking up one man after another, a creature of impulse without calculation. At Le Trou (The Hole), she meets the proprietor, Mario (Jean-François Garreaud), and a supportive older woman, Laure (Stéphane Audran), Mario’s lover. As Betty spirals further into debauchery, the film switches time sequence again and again, detailing past events that led to her present state. As a young woman, Betty chances into a relationship with the rigid son of a military family of means, who reject her when she begins a series of affairs.

The details of Betty’s descent indicate a kind of psychological case study of sexual obsession and masochism, yet Chabrol refuses to categorize her condition. Instead, she’s rendered rich with possibilities, in part through repeated close-ups of the captivating, yet ultimately confounding, features of Trintignant and Audran. Even the most excessive of Betty’s behaviors possesses a kind of triumphant quality of self-assertion.

She soon tested by Laure, whose initial concern turns competitive. The course of Betty’s ascendance proves to be as complicated as that of her sexual misadventures. The movie’s final shot returns us not to the bar’s central prop: a large glass tank filled with colorful tropical fish. Without pressing the point, the image suggests that, like certain sea creatures, Betty will survive by adapting to her immediate environment. If doing so requires that other individuals must, in effect, drown, so be it.

L’Enfer is unusual for Chabrol, in that it started as a project written and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, that most dyspeptic of French directors. Best known for the thrillers Le Corbeau (1943) and Les Diabolique (1955), Clouzot abandoned L’Enfer in 1964 when a major cast member and then he also became ill. His widow sold the script to Karmitz, who in turn encouraged Chabrol to reconstitute the narrative in his own way.

Clouzot apparently conceived of the relationship between Paul (François Cluzet) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) as overtly sadomasochistic. She gives in to his obsessive demands for fidelity. Chabrol removed the sadomasochistic angle and focused instead on Paul’s obsession and eventual dissolution, reformatting the temporal dimension so that certain portions were sped up to parallel Paul’s confusion and misperceptions.

When Paul and Nelly meet, he has just purchased an elegant hotel, and put himself in considerable debt in the process. They marry and have a son, but the stress of his job and recurrent misreading of Nelly’s outgoing nature leech away at Paul’s sanity. He starts hearing voices that instruct him to spy on his wife and doubt the motives of anyone she meets. Unease rapidly transforms into active hallucinations, as in a powerful scene where Paul imagines some innocuous footage shot by a hotel guest to depict instead Nelly’s affairs. His hysterical interruption of the event and subsequent slapping of his wife before the guests makes Paul’s delusion very public.

A murder eventually occurs, or maybe Paul only imagines it. Chabrol constructs in the last scene an entirely convincing depiction of a hysterical individual, without succumbing to melodramatic performances or visual tricks. Clouzot incorporated clinical information on sexual hysteria and mental deterioration in his original script, and Chabrol does not lose those elements, yet they never turn into a “case study.” L’Enfer sears itself into one’s mind so that the final title, “Without end,” does not seem a rhetorical gesture.

The Color of Lies is one of the best films Chabrol has directed, emotionally searing, consummately acted, and psychologically astute. Co-written by Chabrol and Odile Barski, it takes place in a rural town where a young girl has been murdered. Suspicion falls on her art teacher, René Sterne (Jacques Gamblin), a once prominent artist fallen on hard times since he was injured in a politically motivated bombing. His temperamental personality gives some residents cause to imagine he could commit murder, and René relies on his outgoing wife, Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire), to assuage both his fear of arrest and artistic anxieties.

René feels more than professionally outclassed by the physically attractive and abundantly successful Germain-Rolane Desmot (Antoine de Caunes): a journalist, novelist, and professional talking head in love with his own celebrity (he concedes no contradiction in the fact that he writes for papers of both the Left and Right). Desmot casts his eye on Vivianne as one more conquest, and while her devotion to René appears undeniable, something about the glib and extroverted Desmot attracts her.

Typical of Chabrol at his best, the film features incessant emotional implosions and complicated motivations. No one is entirely what he or she seems, a generic cliché enhanced by repeated visual references to the unreliability of the senses. René fumes when his efforts at landscape painting collide with the transience of available light. His most commercially successful mode of expression appears to be trompe l’oeil; ironically, perhaps, Desmot injures himself when he fails to observe one of the paintings on the wall of the Sternes’ home.

Closure proves to be as elusive as René’s accurate reproduction of the environment. Chabrol gambles on the viewer’s commitment to the couple when he transforms our perspective of their actions and relationship at the very last moment. In most cases, table-turning of this sort amounts to a parlor trick, but here it confers a sense that no one can ever know another’s intentions. It reinforces as well how Chabrol in his 70s is working at the top of his form.

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