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Claude Chabrol: a primer

For many, the term Nouvelle Vague is virtually synonymous with its twin axes, its most famous practitioners, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But if Truffaut and Godard were destined to become the famous names of the lot, Claude Chabrol was there first.

It was his 1958 film Le Beau Serge that launched the movement, and it was he who financed much of the early New Wave productions.  But it was not quite as perfect an inauguration to Chabrol’s own career, for reasons that were not immediately clear.

What was immediately clear was that the earth had moved. Le Beau Serge took home a prize at the 1958 Locarno film festival, but it was the picture’s popular and commercial success that truly spelled the start of something big.

In 1959, François Truffaut won the Cannes Best Direction prize for his landmark creation The 400 Blows, which was an especially satisfying success for Truffaut since he had previously been banned from attending the festival as a critic for his defamatory remarks about the state of French filmmaking. By the end of the year, no less than 40 new directors had made their first films—and it was Chabrol who financed much of this prodigious output.

Through the auspices of his then-production company AJYM Films, Chabrol paid for short films by both Rivette and Rohmer, Rohmer’s maiden film The Sign of Leo (1959), Philippe de Broca’s The Games of Love (1960), and helped fund Rivette’s Paris is Ours (1960). Although AJYM was not long for the world, Chabrol’s generosity and business savvy pro-vided vital resources to the New Wave at its seminal hour.

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In some ways, it was that business savvy, that real-world understanding, that tarnished Chabrol’s critical reputation, if only by a bit. Despite his inestimable contributions to the New Wave movement, Chabrol would be denied the stature of Truffaut and Godard. Despite his incredibly prolific output, Chabrol would suffer from a certain critical disdain, regarded as the most commercial, and therefore the least interesting, of his New Wave peers.

There are several reasons for this unfortunate and undeserved reputation. For one thing, Chabrol is an unpretentious man given to self-deprecating humor. It is hard to spin an image of the tortured artist around a man who says things like, “[Les Godelureaux, 1960] would only have made any sort of sense if it had lasted five hours and people had walked out all the way through so that there was no one left at the end. If the film had been a complete success there would have been three hundred people in the cinema at the beginning and only three at the end. But you can’t make films on that principle, so it should never have been made at all.”

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Additionally, Chabrol has made perhaps more than his share of clinkers. Working on his 1990 adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel Madame Bovary, Chabrol found the American press talking about his “comeback.” He looked back on three decades’ worth of almost continuous film production and marveled at the idea. “Every film is a comeback because between films you disappear,” he laughed to American Film Magazine. “Americans think I’m making a comeback because in the past ten years I’ve made two bad films and those are the ones they saw.”

Chabrol’s trouble with the critics began as it became clear that he was marching to the beat of a very different drummer. When asked why he seemed so apart from the rest of the New Wave, Chabrol brushed off the question with a tart, “There are no waves, only the ocean.”

Much of the appeal of the New Wave was its sense of a generational shift, a political and cultural awareness of the power of cinema, and a commitment to social realism.  Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge certainly fit that bill, but as he began to take the earnings from that film and funnel them into making more ambitious, more expensive films, he began to demonstrate that his personal statement was a caustic and vitriolic screed on the French middle class. The quiet earthiness of Le Beau Serge was more a consequence of Chabrol’s inexperience technically and his low budget than a deliberate stylistic choice.

Once he was in a position to make a deliberate stylistic choice, he would opt for classical technical proficiency, creating slick, colorful films as adept as Hollywood’s. His spiritual dimension, too, soon displayed a shocking, and indeed quite alienating, sense of cynicism and misanthropy. Chabrol’s cinematic world is populated by cheats and liars, murderers and criminals, and a pervasive sense of corruption and decadence so inevitable that any personal interaction or relationship is liable to erupt in homicide.

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Chabrol was fascinated with film noir and pulp fiction, and a committed fan of both Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, so it came as no surprise that he would tend to make crime thrillers as his chosen specialty. However, his monomaniacal fixation on the thriller genre was a double-edged sword: If he became known as France’s Hitchcock, he was also seen as somewhat lesser in stature to those, like Truffaut and Godard, who freely explored a wide variety of genres. In his simple focus, though, Chabrol perfected his art, and became the modern, European heir to the legacy of Hitchcock and Lang.

Chabrol, along with Eric Rohmer, in fact wrote the very first serious book on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, in 1957.  It was Fritz Lang, however, whose work would most greatly influence Chabrol. Indeed, Chabrol’s moral compass seems much more in alignment with Lang than Hitchcock. In Hitchcock’s cinema, an innocent party is often on the run from the law, wrongfully accused and desperately pursuing the real evil while trying to also stay alive. Chabrol, though, like Lang depicts a world where everyone is guilty, where the guilty parties often escape punishment from an ineffectual legal system.

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Curiously, though, Chabrol does this without exploring very deeply into his characters. In fact, Chabrol has admitted that he is far more interested in the color schemes of his set design and photography than he is with his characters. This profound contempt for his characters, who are almost uniformly depicted as cruel, loathsome idiots, has its obvious consequences for audience identification.

“People have said that I don’t like the people I was showing, because they believe that you have to ennoble them to like them,” Chabrol told Andrew Sarris, defensive about the criticism of his trademark cynicism. “Quite the opposite: only the types who don’t like their fellows have to ennoble them.”

In many Chabrol films, his aloof distance from the characters is so extreme that he reuses the same character names time and again, to emphasize that we should view these people as he does: nothing more than generic character types. In film after film we are introduced to variations on the same basic trio of Chabrolian types: Helene, Charles and Paul. That these films invoke the same generic characters, take place in the same bourgeois social milieu, attack the same corrupt value system, and revolve again and again around the subject of murder causes Chabrol’s filmography to appear as a gigantic whole—each film is but a subset of the larger work. Each film is a riff on the same theme, to be understood best in the context of the rest of Chabrol’s work than on its own.

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Many years ago, through a series of circumstances too convoluted to remember correctly, I ended up with Claude Chabrol’s phone number in my contact list.  I never used it—it was enough of a comfort to know I had it, but to actually use it would have ruined the spell.  I knew if I ever called him, the conversation would instantly devolve into my blathering like an idiot in a real-life analogue of that great SNL skit by Chris Farley way back when (“Hey, do you remember that bit in La Rupture?  He he, wasn’t that cool?”).  Or, worse, the conversation would drift into the awkwardness of the folderol over the rights ownership of Cry of the Owl (Didja ever wonder how that ended up published on my rinky dink label when most of the rest of Chabrol’s body of work was published by reputable outlets like MK2?).  No, better just hold that phone number as a souvenir, mint in the box.

4 Responses Claude Chabrol: a primer
Posted By Richard Brandt : November 30, 2013 9:29 am

I love the films from Chabrol’s Hithcock phase, particularly The Butcher, which is just brilliant and seems a bit more invested in its characters.

Posted By Gene : November 30, 2013 4:12 pm

Le Boucher is definitely my favorite Chabrol film, but I also love Les Biches. I had a hard time with This Man Must Die. It was good but not nearly the masterwork some say that it is. What I find so entrancing about Chabrol’s films is his aloofness and distance. It adds a depth and mystery to the proceedings.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Unpure Chabrol : December 7, 2013 1:48 pm

[…] the last two weeks (one, two) I’ve talked about how his films helped launch the French New Wave but then went off of a new […]

Posted By Le Beau Serge | screengrabsaz : December 17, 2013 4:40 am

[…] Claude Chabrol: a primer (moviemorlocks.com) […]

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