Claude Chabrol: Madame Bovery (1991) | poster excerpt
Claude Chabrol: Madame Bovery (1991) | poster excerpt

Criminal Subterfuge and Dark Desires in Chabrol’s Minimalist Murder-Mysteries

While murder and crime certainly run deep in Claude Chabrol’s world of subterfuge, the dark desires of human nature that provoke them run immeasurably deeper.

Lies and Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol - Limited Edition
Claude Chabrol
Arrow Film
22 February 2022 (US)

Coined the “French Hitchcock” by the press, the late Claude Chabrol had, over the course of his career, met with varying degrees of success. His most worthy achievements, Le Boucher (1970), La Rupture (1970), and later, La Ceremonie (1995), stand as testaments to his ability to draft psychological thrillers within a form of highborn naturalism. Chabrol’s films are often enterprising narratives about the war between the classes and his best work illustrates the ambiguity of emotions that result from the crimes that take place in the matters of wealth and poverty.

The filmmaker was often the toast of many a film festival in his long-standing career and, given his grand status in European cinema, was, oddly, never the recipient of his native France’s most coveted film award, the César. But his influence has stretched far and wide, informing a younger generation of filmmakers like François Ozon, whose films have followed a similar trajectory in the mysteries of class-related crimes. Despite the number of misses Chabrol has had in his attempts to gain wider exposure commercially, he managed to secure a permanent foothold among the cinematic intelligentsia who supported his work.

Chabrol’s oeuvre can be divided into two halves: the first half includes the work he did with his then-wife, actress Stéphane Audran; the second half, his later period, prominently features Isabelle Huppert. Much of Chabrol’s work, perhaps the lure of much of it, has seemingly depended on the interpretations delivered by his respective muses. Audran and Huppert’s relatively diametric approaches to their performances ensured that Chabrol’s work, throughout his career, was textured and deep enough to sustain an overall interest in his films – even during the ’80s, the decade of his slump.

Arrow Academy’s latest boxset, Lies and Deceit: Five Films by Claude Chabrol, features Chabrol’s lesser-known and less celebrated films; a selection starring both Isabelle Huppert and Stéphane Audran, as well as some other notable French actors of the day. While these particular films may not have traveled as extensively as his more popular films, they each display the strong intuitive approach in his direction that has allowed each actor to deliver their most signature turns in cinema. These films also display Chabrol’s celebrated style in understatement that often refers to a sort of muted visual palette of minimalism.

Betty (1992)

based on the Georges Simenon novel of the same name, Betty stars Marie Trintignant in the title role as a down-and-out alcoholic who has just been turned out of her wealthy household. Hanging around in bars for much of her days and being picked up by losers, she chances upon Laure (Stéphane Audran) one evening at a restaurant, which she has been taken to by one of the bar patrons. Laure can see right away Betty’s downward spiral into destitution; she herself was once an alcoholic and, with great sympathy, she offers Betty a place to stay at her home. Betty agrees though she is reluctant and mistrustful.

In flashbacks, we begin to understand Betty’s trajectory. Far from the walking mess she’s become, Betty was once a wealthy socialite from the upper crust of society, with a successful husband and two children. We also learn what a miserable and lonely life she led, despite her privilege. An imprudent act of infidelity results in Betty’s dismissal from the family household; she is unceremoniously thrown out onto the streets after she is pressured to sign away much of her entitlements in a divorce settlement. With little in the way of street smarts, Betty ambles hopelessly around the city, often in a drunken stupor.

A giving den mother, Laure works sincerely to give Betty a reprieve from her former life. But it seems like Betty’s recent hard knocks have taught her nothing about friendship and loyalty. A cruel turn of events puts Laure on the receiving end of a terrible betrayal and we then see just what kind of a person Betty really is.

Betty has no real mechanism of plot; much of the narrative movements depend on performance and character. So, it is really a testament to the talents of both leads, who are able to draw so much mileage out of what appears to be a rather thin story. Trintignant, daughter of the more renowned Jean-Louis, turns in a remarkable performance of offhanded insouciance and downbeat charm; her certain laissez-faire way of defining Betty’s presence in a scene powers the narrative with uncomfortable and fascinating energy. Audran, a professional of understatement, manages an at turns sage and broken Laure. Together, these women create a current that begins to fray the sense of security that Chabrol builds in the first half of the film.

Never one to push his actors to an extreme, Chabrol sets up his narrative with a quiet calculation of events that conspire to dangerously merge at an intersection of socio-cultural and personal politics. The ensuing hypocrisies come with the force of a terrible car accident and even when we have a sneaking suspicion of perfidy, we are still stunned by the results. Chabrol’s wit and his uncanny way of deconstructing the comedy-of-manners with such underhanded and bitter upheaval have been much celebrated; in Betty, he leaves no stone unturned in this particular practice.

Perhaps to lull us into an aperture of comfort and safety, Chabrol frames Betty in an aestheticism of muted color tones that are easy on the eyes and give the impression of a hopeful incline in Betty and Laure’s circumstances. Once the emotional carnage lays to waste the scenery, the glassy bourgeoisie façade remains wretchedly intact, as if to explain that there really could have been no other way this story could have ended. Sharp, clever and surprising, Betty carries with it a vicious sting. It is a pernicious reading on the all-too-common but often unheeded idiom, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

L’enfer (1994)

L’enfer continues the theme of disrupted relationships. A story of a marriage breaking down from paranoia, Chabrol fashions a narrative of domestic bliss that soon becomes poisoned by the anxieties that lurk in the recesses of the mind. Paul (François Cluzet) and his wife Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) run a beautifully designed hotel in provincial France, where they live with their young son. Paul, overworked and stressed, begins to have feelings of discontent when he starts observing the behavior of his wife.

Nelly, well-meaning and lighthearted, goes about her life and work in a carefree manner, an approach to a lifestyle unfamiliar to her husband. This causes an uncomfortable twitch in his psychology; it seems Paul is undecided on how a married couple should behave and his thoughts toward his wife soon turn dark. Why is she so blithe all the time? What is she really thinking? Does she think about him as much as he does her? It isn’t too long before the suspicion grows into paranoia, which then boils to a panic.

It appears, at first, that Nelly’s seemingly sexual indifference toward Paul is the initial source of his anxieties. But there lurks something far deeper, perhaps a toxic pedagogy that has instilled in Paul an outmoded and unreasonable standard of marriage and relationships. The slightest action on Nelly’s part – even running out to do some errands – sends Paul’s mind racing.

What becomes clear over time is that Paul is in the grips of an anxiety disorder that is being tested and challenged beyond the issues of marriage. Paul’s hotel business is threatened due to the local competition and he is forced to do much upkeep in and around his hotel. Much of these troubles are projected onto his marriage. The brewing sense of danger comes from Paul’s refusal to see any possible connection between his fears of failure and his relationship insecurities.

Paul’s intrusive thoughts, which we hear in voiceover, plague his mind. They reveal him to be a scared, vulnerable, and lonely man who is mistrustful of everyone. Nelly brings much life to the hotel and its patrons. Paul, however, does not see this; for him, Nelly exists only within his emotional proximity.

Much of L’enfer’s suspense depends on Paul’s reactive behavior, which Chabrol films at an uncomfortably limited distance. Forcing the viewer inside the protagonist’s head ensures that every gesture committed within the narrative is one that is equally felt by the viewers so that we see the downward spiral steps before Paul descends it. L’enfer’s strength lies in Chabrol’s dependable technique of weaving his narratives in environments of glacial calm, where the air seemingly precipitates no atmosphere of evil or menace. In the clean, bright, and sunny French countryside of L’enfer, away from the bustle of a city equipped with medical and law enforcement services, the helplessness of these characters becomes painfully evident.

Madame Bovary (1991)

The themes of marriages and the dissolutions of relationships in the wake of pathological behaviors feature, as well, in Chabrol’s adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Starring Isabelle Huppert in the titular role, Chabrol’s Bovary is written not as a hopelessly romantic and impulsive spendthrift, but as a hard-edged and selfish woman who plans her married life with the shrewd percipience of a business tycoon.

Madame Bovary follows the life of a married couple, Emma and Charles Bovary, who live in Normandy during the mid-1800s. Emma finds her husband dull and, from time to time, berates him over his slow-wittedness. Emma craves excitement and wants a thriving social life. It is only when the couple moves to another town that Emma sees larger opportunities for a more stimulating life. But ennui gets the better of her and she remains restless.

Emma soon begins a series of affairs, which give her the excitement she craves but strains her relationship with her husband and child. Once Emma falls under the thrall of her various suitors, her appetite for the finer things in life increases considerably. Buying things on credit with no concern over the costs, she runs the household deep into debt. With no way to pay the costs and unable to tell her husband of their financial ruin, Emma resorts to a most desperate act as a way out.

It’s easy to see why a narrative like Madame Bovary appealed to Chabrol. Its story of the delusive seductions of the blue-blooded communities of provincial France has been an old stomping ground of his, examined through a lens of varying eras. The setting in 19th century France offers Chabrol a more transparent reading of the class struggles between the rich and the poor and Madame Bovary is one of the most definitive, if not overly ostentatious, stories of its era to outline the attractions of decadence and excess.

Chabrol certainly has an eye for the narrative and he coaxes his viewers comfortably into that bygone world of regional France. But his one misstep is the casting of Isabelle Huppert. A formidable actress who has a precise way of psychologically narrowing in on her characters with an exactitude that is almost frightening, Huppert is rather stiff in her role. Bovary, depicted in Gustave’s source material as an interminable dreamer, appears a hardened and fussy opportunist in Huppert’s embodiment.

Huppert, who served as Chabrol’s muse in his films throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, has offered pitch-perfect performances in his other films, like Une Affair de Femmes (1988), La Ceremonie (1995) and Merci pour le Chocolat (2000). Here, she seems to struggle with displays of passion; an emotion befitting of Bovary since much of the character’s choices are dependent on intense desires and weakness of will. Huppert’s performance here is too psychologically-encased and would have perhaps been better interpreted by fellow actress Isabelle Adjani, whose dramatic fervencies have riddled many a character she’s played.

Huppert does add an underlining smugness to her Bovary that seems a subtle indictment of the various players around her. But she’s also fighting the scenery, and often swallowed up in the billowy extravagance of crinolines and corsets. Chabrol does, however, keep the scenery under the attentive care of his observant eye, the panoramas of the French countryside resplendent and rich with period detail. Perhaps an effort in vanity, but still one worth visiting to see how a professional of the seriocomic thriller manages a classic of French realist literature.