Posted by David Kalat on December 7, 2013
If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience. Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.
I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be). This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.
It is not surprising, given the enormous quantity of films Chabrol produced over the years, that some would be better than others. But in addition to those clinkers that were Chabrol’s own fault, there was a period in the 1960s when he was obliged to sacrifice creative control over his product. And therein lies our story:
Over 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 direction that was unlike that of Godard or Truffaut or the others. Eventually, all the fuss over the New Wave as some kind of revolutionary movement with a specific ideological agenda would fade, and audiences and critics alike would come to accept Chabrol’s work on its own terms—he made alienating and artistically challenging versions of slickly-produced genre thrillers. In other words, he didn’t just fall between two stools, he moved into the gap between the two stools and made it his home for 50 years.
Chabrol’s films were designed to be difficult both for the casual moviegoer and the hoity-toit cinemaphile.
But in the early 1960s, there was a political edge to the New Wave, a generational conflict in which aesthetics were weapons. It wasn’t self-evident in which camp Chabrol’s films were intended to fall, and so the critics attacked them. One by one, Chabrol made fascinating, unique works that pointed towards the kind of film that would one day bring him world-renown, but each time they were savaged.
In the face of the critical drubbing, Chabrol’s films lost money. That in turn led his production company AJYM into bankruptcy. Other producers were unwilling to bank on his ideas.
So simply in order to pay the bills, Chabrol accepted some director-for-hire assignments on a handful of spy spoofs: Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche (“The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood,” 1964), Marie-Chantal contre le Dr. Khâ (“The Blue Panther,” 1965), Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite (“An Orchid for the Tiger,” 1965) and La Route de Corinth (“Who’s Got the Black Box?,” 1967). None were well received in France, and they were scarcely screened elsewhere.
This period was—and is—widely understood to be an embarrassment in the career of Claude Chabrol. I have seven books on Chabrol in front of me as I write this—most of them omit discussion of these films altogether, or consider it sufficient to sum them all up with such words as “minor,” regrettable,” “lightweight spoofs of the spy genre,” and the most dreaded of all—“commercial.”
In a 1970 interview for Movie, Chabrol explained his attitude towards these films, with all his customary self-effacing wit: “In drivel like the Tiger series, I really wanted to get the full extent of the drivel. They were drivel, so OK, let’s get into it up to our necks and even beyond if necessary, but let’s not do things by halves. In the spy stories the silliness was more important than the spying, so they had to fall into the genre of drivel, rather than the spy genre.”
And it is here, in Chabrol’s tongue-in-cheek identification of the Drivel Genre, that we actually get closer to the truth of these much-maligned films. Calling this his “commercial spy film” phase requires us to grossly misuse the words “commercial” and “spy film.”
If by “spy film” you simply mean that there is a motion picture and it includes spies as its characters, and if by “commercial” you simply mean that Chabrol was a hired director on a project written and produced by others, then yes, that’s a fine description. But the problem is that most of the time the phrase “commercial spy film” conjures up notions of the James Bond craze of the early 1960s, and the splashy European exploitation films that were made in the wake of that pop culture juggernaut.
And so, by way of seeing how well Chabrol’s “commercial spy films” fit that mold, let’s examine La Route de Corinth (“Who’s Got the Black Box?”)—chosen because of all the films in this cycle it’s the most easily accessible. Why, you can even get it from Netflix if you want.
In fact, let’s take a look at how Netflix describes it:
Why, that almost makes it sound sensible.
In fact, Who’s Got the Black Box? is a bizarre comedy with weird tonal shifts, in which the male heroes show an abject lack of urgency or investment in their mission, which was assigned by a candy-obsessed superior (!) partly so he could spend time with Jean Seberg while they chase the villainous magicians (!!) and their high-tech radar scramblers (the black boxes of the title) across Greece. Just when you think you have the movie sussed out, the male heroes are killed and Jean Seberg takes their place—the punchline is that instead of being the bikini-clad bimbo that the genre conventions led you to assume, she’s actually far more confident, competent, and clever than anyone else. She kicks ass and takes names, despite a lack of training or any institutional support.
There is simply no way to reconcile this thing with the commercial spy genre output of its era: Chabrol steadfastly refuses to indulge in the spectacle that typically drives this sort of film, and the choice to make it into a feminist statement that lampoons the ineffectiveness of the male characters is bold but entirely out of step with the genre conventions.
Aside from Black Box, the rest of these mid-60s spy flicks are tough even for intrepid Chabrol fans to see—unless you are willing to wade deep into the waters of out-of-print French DVDs without subtitles. But since that describes my peculiar brand of masochism quite well, I can share with you my discoveries from watching these obscurities.
The hypothesis that these mid-60s spy flicks don’t deserve to be considered as proper Chabrol films due to the circumstances of their production, while a prevalent attitude among even his fans, falls apart quickly once you actually watch the films.
How Chabrol are these things? Let me count the ways.
First, there’s the fact that they were made with much of his production team intact (such as Director of Photography Jean Rabier, composer Pierre Jansen, and editor Jacques Gaillard)—and indeed, this was how he managed to keep his core team together once he lost his production company. He even keeps much of stock company of players in place—here’s Stephane Audran, there’s Michel Piccoli. Chabrol even gives himself ludicrous cameo roles, as if to emphasize that he’s having a blast doing what he’s doing.
The sense of humor is also unmistakably Chabrolian—it’s the same arch, sardonic wit that suffused his earlier film Landru (and would infect The Twist to its detriment. Chabrol’s humor works best when used as a seasoning, not the main ingredient).
Perhaps the most noteworthy stamp of Chabrol’s personality on these films is the way that, beginning with the second Tiger film onward, he starts to prioritize the women characters, eventually allowing them to take over the screen at the expense of the men. This has nothing to do with the genre expectations of this macho film style—the James Bond cycle has little room for women as anything other than sex objects, and the films desperate to steal away some of the 007 audience base weren’t generally inclined to challenge the conventions of that franchise. But Chabrol was on his way to discovering that his movies were at their best with female leads, and these spy thrillers were a key stepping stone in that development.
And his attitude of constant recycling is in place throughout: the second Tiger film substantially upgrades the first, but taking everything that worked, discarding what didn’t, and adding new ideas in their place. Meanwhile, Chabrol poached the finale of the first Tiger film for his later masterpiece Masques, and dots all of these films with the same surrealist imagery that he later highlighted in Alice. Many years later, once he’d effected his “comeback,” Chabrol exercised the prerogative of his auteurist stature by making films about Fantomas and Dr. Mabuse—films whose pulpy preoccupations would have fit in perfectly alongside the likes of Marie Chantal vs. Dr. Kha.
For a man who had become a filmmaker through his love of American B-movies and thrillers, he invested a lot of his idiosyncratic personality into these films. That the results were no better than they were certainly should not have been held against Chabrol, though it was. It was a sacrifice of creative control that none of his peers endured. And since these films came out under Chabrol’s name, he was first in line for the critical drubbing that ensued.
It was also not lost on Chabrol that he had been painted into this corner by his former peers—the critics. The reason Chabrol had been forced to accept these assignments was because his own personal films had been losing money—a consequence of having been harshly treated by French critics at the time. Chabrol resented the fact that they had robbed him of his audiences in such a way that he had to take on the Tiger films simply to pay the rent, only to be slammed all over again by the very same critics. “Merde!” Chabrol said, “It was because of them!”
And perhaps this is where Chabrol sinned—his critics wanted him to treat these “commercial” productions with the same contempt and loathing that they had. How dare Chabrol embrace them? How dare Chabrol act happy that he was being paid to make movies with his friends for the entertainment of others?
The fact is, they are clearly of a piece with later (and better) Chabrol. The critics who try to dismiss this period of Chabrol’s career as beneath criticism due to its allegedly commercial origins are doing themselves, and us, no favors. Because here’s the thing: as prolific as the man was, Chabrol left behind a finite body of work. He’s left this world, and there will never be any more Chabrol films. How does it make us any happier to artificially reduce that number?
And make no mistake about it—any attempt to ignore these films as unpure Chabrol is merely artificially reducing the count of Chabrol films. These films may be drivel (there’s no arguing that) and some may be crappy, but they are decidedly Chabrolian: they were made by his production team, with his actors, using his idiosyncratic techniques, to play with the same themes and ideas he spent his entire professional life exploring.
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