A pair of gems from French filmmaker Claude Chabrol
It's strange to think of Claude Chabrol as a French New Wave pioneer after all these years. While some new wavers have passed on (Francois Truffaut) and others have taken a nosedive into navel-gazing irrelevancy (Jean-Luc Godard), Chabrol just keeps cranking out unnerving little psychological dramas, often revolving around crime, seven of them featuring his muse, Isabelle Huppert.
With his edginess and his passion for Huppert, it's easier to associate him with more contemporary French-language filmmakers, including Michael Haneke and Francois Ozon (both of whom also worship at the altar of Isabelle), then with his original gang.
This week Koch Lorber delivers the first and most recent Chabrol/Huppert collaborations on DVD. "Violette" (1978) is the chilling tale of a beautiful teenage sociopath taking her parents for a deadly ride in pre-World War II Paris. "Comedy of Power" (2006) is a chilly portrait of a dogged French magistrate who coolly takes down an old boys network of corporate corruption. Neither DVD comes packed with extras, but the films speak for themselves.
American audiences probably know Huppert best for her work with the indie filmmakers Hal Hartley ("Amateur") and David O. Russell ("I Heart Huckabees"). But it's her French films that established her as a sort of inscrutable porcelain goddess with an unbreakable gaze and relentless demeanor, a little screwed up but tough as nails. Her character's nickname in "Comedy of Power" is "the piranha." At one point the piranha's husband calls her "smooth as stone." Both descriptions are pretty apt, but there's also something dangerously sexy beneath, or perhaps even because of, the icy exterior.
The piranha needs a vacation, but she never takes one. She's too busy bringing down bigwigs who think they can play her because she's a woman. Single minded, obsessive, quietly righteous, eerily confident, she was born to seek out and destroy corruption of any kind. Chabrol depicts her progress with a minimum of narrative fuss or shtick; if she's a piranha, then he's a shark, churning forward with little wasted effort. He's also a bit of a feminist who relishes his heroine's severity. When the judge's boss tries to throw her off the scent of her volatile case, he pairs her with another strong-willed woman, thinking they will tear each other to pieces. He's wrong. It's the men who rat each other under the piranha's methodical methods.
Both "Comedy" and the superior "Violette" thrive on a jagged sense of moral ambiguity, teasingly inviting the audience to apply black-and-white standards to hazy shades of gray. It's hard to feel sympathy for the spoiled murderer at the heart of "Violette." She lies to her parents and scams her lovers before moving on to deadlier business. But the adult world around her, at home and out in the world, is also deeply compromised, and Violette is expert at playing this compromise to her advantage. Is she a devil or a victim? Chabrol never lets us settle on one answer, because he knows the tension is driving the drama.
Compromise, of course, is a big part of the French World War II legacy, and we're meant to connect the historical to the personal in a film made some 30 years after the war ended. But Chabrol, even with his interest in bourgeois rot, is no polemicist. A student of Hitchcock, he's more concerned with what people do to each other than the external forces at work. His battleground is the psyche. And he's still firing off rounds at age 76, in an era when the New Wave and most of its heroes have been consigned to text books.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Stephane Audran, Jean Carmet, Jean-Francois Garreaud and Guy Hoffman. Directed by Claude Chabrol. Not rated (nudity, sexual content, violence). 123 min. $24.98.
COMEDY OF POWER
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Francoise Berleand and Patrick Bruel. Directed by Claude Chabrol. Not rated (language, violence). 110 min. $29.98.