The Unseen Chabrol, Pt 3

As long as we still lag behind him, Claude Chabrol is not dead
by Chris Fujiwara  posted November 11, 2010
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This is the last of a three-part series in which the author discovers some of the Claude Chabrol films he had not seen at the time of the director's death this September. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

As much as Lang's or Hitchcock's, Chabrol's cinema is built on the gaze. Everything in a Chabrol film depends on vision, and especially changes of vision—seeing the same characters from different points of view, in order to show that they are not the same at different stages of the film's trajectory, in different situations, and in front of different people.

The difference between Chabrol's various periods comes down to the type of story, rather than to the way he approaches a story. In his early films, including Les godelureaux (Wise Guys, 1961), Chabrol chooses weak stories—stories that hinge on chance and in which will plays only a small role. (In Les godelureaux, to be sure, revenge motivates the plot, but the petty incident that sets everything off happens by chance.) The youthful characters of Chabrol's early films have not yet become any definite thing, and for that very reason they're preoccupied with presenting themselves, with the choice and maintenance of personae. Appropriately, Chabrol opens a large space in the early films for performance: in Les godelureaux, the dandyism of Ronald (Jean-Claude Brialy), the flamboyant sexuality of Ambroisine (Bernadette Lafont, in one of her best roles). The emphasis on performance determines Chabrol's point of view as that of an ironic spectator, enjoying the appearances of creatures who are beyond good and evil. The drama, which springs from their volatility and fragility, calls for a camera style and a narrative style that can encompass interludes, detours, and sudden revelations.

The later Chabrol films take off from the point toward which the earlier ones (through Ophélia [1963]) lead: the moment when the characters become aware of their responsibility, when they turn inward and reflect on themselves. The plots become stronger than in the first period—so strong that fiction itself becomes a major theme of Chabrol's cinema, as his characters weave plots to protect themselves, to deceive others, or to give themselves a reason to go on.

Godard thought so highly of Les godelureaux that he not only put it on his Top 10 list for 1961 but even named it one of the six best French films since the Liberation (along with films by Ophüls, Renoir, Bresson, Cocteau, and Rouch). Rohmer liked the film, too: in his 1961 essay "The Taste for Beauty," he compared Les godelureaux favorably with Shadows and cited it as a modern film proving that the cinema is the equal of the older, established arts. Though Chabrol himself thought Les godelureaux "futile," it has a self-contradicting vitality that it shares with no other film; darkly funny, poignant, and disturbing, this rarely seen work seems to draw an end to an era (the mythical period of the beginning of the French New Wave, glorying in possibility) and herald a new age of uncertainties and compromises.

In L'ivresse du pouvoir (A Comedy of Power, 2006), Chabrol methodically breaks down the authority and the prestige of the traditional figure of the hero who sets wrongs right-a role assumed by Isabelle Huppert as a crusading judge. As in Bellamy (Inspector Bellamy, 2009), the main character's success as a professional crime fighter comes to appear more and more equivocal, as we delve into the intricacies of the hero's latest case and learn more about the problems in his or her private life. "There's something you lack," the judge's fretful, neglected husband in L'ivresse du pouvoir tells her. "Someday I'll tell you what it is," he adds, more threateningly than teasingly. The suspense of waiting for him to tell is uniquely Chabrolian.

Dry, witty, and disarming in Chabrol's superb late style, filled with unexpected traps and twists, L'ivresse du pouvoir is a complementary film to Les godelureaux. The heroine of L'ivresse, middle-aged, has accepted both the corruption of the world and the equivocality of her own role as justicer. On the other hand, youth and wealth isolate Ronald, in Les godelureaux, from a world that he only mocks and attacks from outside, without admitting that he is implicated in it. In L'ivresse, everything unravels, both the corporate culture of kickbacks and the judge's marriage. In Les godelureaux, the ties, obligations, and responsibilities that bind someone to the world, that make someone an adult, are still to be formed. In the playing-out and the letting-go of Ronald's plot, the film hints at the onset of that process.

An unusually blatant case of a Chabrol character in discordance with the world is the hatter in Les fantômes du chapelier (The Hatter's Ghost, 1982), laughing to himself, cocking his head in response to voices only he hears, barking out requests for bread or such with incongruous vehemence. His clear nuttiness turns the film (based on a Georges Simenon novel) into an extension of Juste avant la nuit (1971): how obviously berserk does a respectable bourgeois have to get before his friends lock him up? A bit too much of a showcase for Michel Serrault, Les fantômes du chapelier nevertheless remains an excellent film, done with Chabrol's mature mastery: the images seem to wrap up the characters in a warm soft cloud; the camera movements describe a world in constant metamorphosis, where beings take on the status alternately of undeniable flesh and blood or dream bodies of liquid light (Aurore Clément as the town prostitute drifting across a bar out of focus in a light blue dress). Though Serrault's mad hatter is a serial killer of women, this is one of a number of Chabrol films (Le beau serge [1958], Les cousins [1959], etc.) in which the central relationship is between two men. Charles Aznavour's little tailor, ignored or scorned by everyone as a foreigner in the tiny provincial town where the film takes place, externalizes an abjection that the hatter feels but keeps concealed (only to avenge it on his victims), whereas the hatter represents, for the tailor, a window on a society closed to him. The two depend on and mirror each other: the hatter needs the tailor as a silent witness to his crimes; the tailor needs the hatter as a proof of the horror of the world.

The two other films I watched for this last installment of my Chabrol series may be minor works, but each of them has something of Chabrol's verve, his sense of oddness, his art of building scenes and stories for an ambivalent eye that readily adjusts its perspectives. A spy thriller based on a premise that might have made a good Hitchcock film (a spy's widow picks up her husband's mission where he leaves off when he's murdered), La route de Corinthe (Who's Got the Black Box?, 1967), shows a deadpan destructiveness next to which Topaz and Frenzy look like humanist manifestos. Because Jean Seberg plays the lead, the emptiness of La route de Corinthe is more irritating than that of Chabrol's "Tiger" films (Le tigre aime la chair fraiche [1964], Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite [1965]), and Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Kha (1965). One wishes that Chabrol had delved into her character's emotions, entered into her feelings toward her husband (Christian Marquand) and his colleagues (Maurice Ronet, Michel Bouquet), asked more of himself and his star. But if Chabrol avoids exploring Seberg's soul, perhaps that's in order not to exploit it—in the context of a film that, as befits its genre, exploits everything: actors, landscapes, architecture, geopolitics. A cool superficiality and a certain disposable quality are not weaknesses of La route de Corinthe, but strengths: because of them, Chabrol stays honest. But this honest director gives himself little to do here, other than amuse himself with colors and stage action with succinct elegance. Seberg's impatience in her showdown scene with the Fu Manchu of the film seems to express Chabrol's own attitude.

The speed of Dr. M (Club Extinction, 1990), on the other hand, comes less from impatience than from the need to compress a complicated plot. The film transposes Norbert Jacques's and Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse mythology to a futuristic Berlin—though one where the Wall is still the dominant physical and psychic fact, so that the tearing-down of the Wall not long after production left Dr. M suspended in a zone of historical fantasy where its prophecies, already disproven by events, become the proposals of fairy tales. Which is thoroughly appropriate, even if sometimes Dr. M hardly seems like a Chabrol movie, with its elaborately incomprehensible narrative, its gadgetry, its video billboards, and its standard-issue leads (Jennifer Beals, Jan Niklas) who act as if they were between two other films. Then suddenly the camera will track forward, separating itself from an actor, or a mise-en-scène of mirrors and windows will emphasize that a scene is being looked at from a precise position, or a character will stagger around an airport searching for someone to confide his secret to, and we are in Chabrol's world again. The film must be seen for the cut from a stark and geometrical rock club where everyone is dressed in black to a bunch of vacationers in light blue pajamas wandering around some sand dunes. Dr. M is a film in which Chabrol feels the need to step back and see the world as a disassembled jigsaw puzzle: solving it requires paying attention to colors and forms, likenesses and differences, and not worrying about what the pieces will finally represent. 


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Koch Lorber Films
Isabelle Huppert in L’ivresse du pouvoir, directed by Claude Chabrol


The Unseen Chabrol, Pt 1 by Chris Fujiwara
The Unseen Chabrol, Pt 2 by Chris Fujiwara
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Chris Fujiwara's latest book, Jerry Lewis, is published by University of Illinois Press.

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