Saturday, May 19, 2012

Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol, the great French filmmaker who died in 2010, made movies for over fifty years – more than sixty of them, as well as various television projects - and his career embodies the richness and bumpiness of a full and varied life. In his youth, he was part of the French New Wave, fresh and modern, drawn to everything excluded to that point from classical cinema. In his maturity, he became known as an acidic observer of the weaknesses in human nature, making several unforgiving studies of murder and adultery and betrayal. As an old man (he lived to be 80, working right up to the end), he became a cinematic (and, by all accounts, actual) gourmet, generating a startling variety of variations on themes of corruption, deception and compromise.

Alice ou la derniere fugue

 Although esteemed, Chabrol’s reputation was certainly more mixed than that of contemporaries like Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and it’s tempting to say he simply liked making movies too much. His filmography teems with oddities – lumpy international co-productions of the kind where you can tell the actors were speaking their lines in different languages, genre quickies of the sort that would go straight to DVD these days. Actors like Rod Steiger, Jodie Foster, Mia Farrow and Alan Bates turn up in his lesser films, not one of them achieving anything that would make the cut in their obituary essays. Sometimes his films feel rushed and ragged, as if churned out under strictures applied in some mysterious game show.

The mid-70’s were a particularly quirky period in Chabrol’s career; none of the films he made in that period made the cut for a Bell Lightbox retrospective a while back. I recently rewatched three films he made in succession in 1976, 1977 and 1978, and while they wouldn’t really be an adequate entry point for someone unfamiliar with his work, they’re a wonderfully quirky encapsulation of why he’s so rewarding. The best of them, by some distance, is the one he made in the middle, Alice ou la derniere fugue. It starts in the middle of domestic desolation; a young wife (played by Sylvia Kristel, of the Emmanuelle films) gets summoned by her husband, and forced to listen to his insufferable account of his day and his problems. When he’s done, she calmly announces she’s leaving him. She drives with no fixed destination in mind, ending up a guest at an old man’s country house after she has an accident during a storm. The following day, the house is empty, and there’s seemingly no way to leave the grounds. Realizing she’s being manipulated by some force beyond this world, she attempts to shield her inner life from her manipulators, while looking for a way out.

Blood Relatives

 In the end, the film falls into the same category as countless other cinematic teases, with the closing scenes requiring you to reinterpret all that’s gone before. But Alice is an unusually alluring puzzle, rich in the texture and rhythms of the old house, constantly disquieting for Kristel’s icy delicacy and its quietly sustained cruelty. The character’s name and the premise certainly evoke Alice in Wonderland, but there’s nothing down this rabbit hole except squandered promise, a theme carrying a strong feminist subtext here (albeit somewhat ambiguous, as it would have to be in a movie built around a then-icon of erotica).

 After this, Chabrol came to Montreal, for the French-Canadian co-production Blood Relatives. It stars Donald Sutherland as a detective investigating a young girl’s brutal murder; the only witness, her cousin, identifies her own brother as the killer, driven crazy by an incestuous attraction; but the familial dysfunction goes deeper than that. This is one of those wayward co-productions I mentioned, perfunctorily written for the most part, suffused with a feel of just trying to get it done, with international actors meaninglessly present in supporting roles (Donald Pleasence though is very memorable as an unreformed sex offender). It benefits in the home stretch from some structural quirkiness, as Sutherland spends most of the last half hour reading the dead girl’s diary, after which the mystery is wrapped up in about five minutes. And the denouement features some authentically Hitchcockian echoes (a recurring influence on Chabrol’s work). One can’t help cherishing any movie that brings Canada into the sphere of the greats, but unfortunately it only adds to our reputation in that era for squandering our artistic opportunities.

The Twist

 The Twist, or Folies bourgeoisies, is much weirder. Bruce Dern (allowed to indulge his intense line readings to the point of extreme unpleasantness) plays an American writer living in Paris, married to a Frenchwoman (played by Stephane Audran, Chabrol’s wife of the time and the star of many of his best films), undergoing a creative block, having an affair (with Ann-Margret!) and generally approaching a breaking point. The film sometimes evokes Blake Edwards of all people, illustrating the writer’s chaotic inner and outer world by bending normal rules of behaviour and interaction, spiced up with sometimes quite lurid fantasies). Taken at face value, Chabrol’s handling often feels rather stunned here too, as if he were simply trying not to fall off the bus; the film patently doesn’t “work,” assessed against any conventional criteria.

 And yet there’s something true at its centre, about how our rituals and obsessions and proprieties have become an end in themselves, rendering us distorted and miserable, eroding our natural bonds, and pushing us into absurd attempts at over-compensation (for instance, the wife suddenly purchases a flamboyantly impractical old country castle).

I think Chabrol wanted to make a film that strands the viewer, teasing us with the prospect of  a relatively conventional comedy of manners but then withholding almost all the pleasures and pay-offs that accompany that; it ends with an incoherent flurry of behaviour shifts, ending with a highly unconvincing expression - delivered in the dark - of a willingness to try. You feel the twists, the bourgeois follies, could perpetuate themselves forever.

Chabrol’s reputation would be much the same as it is if he’d never made these three films, and as a general rule of course, in a world of excess choices and too little time, we’re better off seeking out a director’s major works before burying down to the secondary ones (two of his most esteemed early works, Le beau Serge and Les cousins, came out on Criterion DVD a while ago). But I must admit I love these lost children of world cinema, in all their imperfections; in the same way that you love someone more for their eccentricities and quirks than for the stuff on their resume. They’re a part of the reason why I perpetually think of my crazy consumption as a true nourishing adventure, not merely an obsessive duty. 

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