I know I am showing my unbridled ignorance, opening up myself to a large amount of ridicule and am probably destroying what little credibility I’ve earned during my near decade tenure as a film critic, but the recent death of French director Claude Chabrol was like Ultavox’s “Vienna” to me – it meant nothing. I do not know the man personally, I have only the scantest knowledge and interaction with his work, and while I appreciate his place in the foreign film move from Hollywood overkill to a “New Wave” of post-modern perspective, I just can’t get all that worked up about his passing. Again, I am opening myself up for a salvo of salacious dismissals, and for that I am prepared – but it’s the truth.
What I will not tolerate is the tendency for those inside the biz to belittle my stance as anything less than honest. In my life, I have only seen ONE Chabrol film – ONE – and it was the awful 1975 effort Pleasure Party. More catatonic character study than compelling thriller, the supposed Hitchcock of France didn’t wow me with this weak Me Decade effort. Of course, I was harangued for my incredible cruel review, called every manner of name by people who claimed a greater appreciation of Chabrol than I, and in retrospect, probably was a tad too harsh on the otherwise perfectly ordinary title…but just a tad. All I gave was my opinion, not some manner of dogmatic overview.
See, I am the perfect amalgamation of film school snob and nu-media whore. I am tossed back and forth between the ‘hurry up and review it’ need for contemporary content and the ‘why don’t you know your basics’ bullshit of classicism. In my defense, I am an unquestioned champion of the first true French filmmaking genius, Jean Renoir, and love almost everything he did, even when he answered the clarion call of Tinsel town. I have a great working knowledge of our own American cinematic past, preferring the work of certain stylists (John Huston, John Ford) over the more frilly froth of a Vincent Minelli or a Busby Berkeley.
I even champion the neo-realists of Italy (and their latter reinvention of various hoary old genres) and the counterparts within Chabrol’s own auteurism – Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer. But for some reason, the man responsible for such ‘take their word for it’ masterworks as Les Cousins, Le Scandale, and Le Boucher has been, for me, reduced to a single motion picture entry – and Pleasure Party is no Rules of the Game. As a result, it’s not a question of not knowing about Chabrol’s work per se. It’s really about not having enough genuine experience to make up my own mind on what others consider to be a universal given.
In fact, I would wager that many who are currently waxing poetic about the famed filmmaker are just a tad more clued in than I – just…a…tad. Instead, they are perhaps repeating classroom mantras, or filtering their own experiences (either from the past or the home video present) through a prism of nostalgic revisionism. Something like this happened recently when I panned the problematic, completely underwhelming Wild Grass. As the latest from another beloved French director – Alain Resnais – my heresy was called out and compounded. True, I did appreciate the man for what he made before, especially Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year and Marienbad, but just because Resnais was a master in the past doesn’t mean I have to embrace the mediocrity of his present.
Now, I am not trying to be some manner of contrarian, purposefully pissing off an entire subculture of Chabrol devotees with my seemingly sacrilegious tone. Instead, I am trying to make a valid point about perspective. I keep going back to a statement author Harlan Ellison said several years ago – we aren’t entitled to our opinion, just our LEARNED one – and I know nothing of Chabrol. I guess I could lie and say what a raving genius he is, or argue that I have personally lost a great influence and an authoritative artist, but this would not be the truth. In fact, I dare say I will be a thousand times more devastated if and when someone like John Waters passes than seeing another name I have no frame of reference for leaving our meaningless mortal coil.
It happens all the time, especially in this tacky 24 hour infotainment news cycle. With websites and messageboards dedicated to every fashion and its followers, with “experts” as thick as thieves and twice as dishonest, we are all supposed to know everything about anything and everyone. There is no room for honesty, no place for the “who cares” or “couldn’t tell you” conceit. That’s because among the rabble, someone always does. Someone does care than Chabrol is dead (dare I say, it is a massive outpouring of grief) but for those of us on the far reaches of the outside looking in with big ass binoculars, it’s just another name on the continuing roster of late greats.
Perhaps if I ever find those two elusive things that seem to avoid writers like the plague – free time and extra money – I will head over to Amazon or Netflix, call up all the Chabrol I can off the queue, and immerse myself in the man’s work. Maybe then I will change my arguably unreasonable response. Again, you can feel free to rake me over the careerist coals and claim my lack of true film buffdom, but I just don’t have any feelings one way or the other on the passing of this mythic moviemaking giant. Call me a commercial cow or a mainstream hack, but I truly can’t comment on someone who’s work I do not know. To me, making up some kind of overwrought homily filled with vacant empty if wholly appropriate praise is a bigger sin than suggesting I am clueless. I will take the substantial slings and arrows that come with such a confession. Godspeed Claude Chabrol. I hardly – nay, barely – knew ye.