“Genre is Chabrol’s MacGuffin.” – Armond White
Claude Chabrol began his career as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s before becoming a key part of the French new wave. He was often labelled the “French Hitchcock” but, with his rigorously intellectual approach to pulp material, it’s more instructive to see his work as the connecting line between the great English auteur and directors like Brian De Palma and David Fincher.
Hugely prolific (he made almost a film a year from 1958 until his death in 2010), he was a director of scrupulous formalism who, despite covering a wide variety of genres and subjects, always returned to thrillers that explored the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of the French bourgeoisie. Like Georges Simenon and Patricia Highsmith, both of whom he adapted, Chabrol was not so much interested in the criminal mind per se, but rather in the complex psychological negotiations that make up that mindset.
Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Despite playing a central role in the nouvelle vague, Chabrol did not make a truly great film until the movement was drawing to a close. Though his respectable début Le Beau Serge (1958) is considered to be the first film of the nouvelle vague, it pales somewhat in comparison with the first features of his Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Of the many films he made during the period, Les Bonnes Femmes, with its bold depiction of female sexuality, is easily the standout. It is also first of Chabrol’s films in which his future wife Stéphane Audran played a prominent role.
Le Boucher (1970)
In the run of films Chabrol made between 1968 and 1978 – often referred to as his golden era – the director repurposed the thriller to explore the baser instincts bubbling beneath the manicured surface of the bourgeoisie. From La Femme infidèle (1969) to Les Noces rouges (1973), the convergence of sex and violence is arguably the defining thematic trait of the period. Le Boucher, in which Stéphane Audran’s small-town teacher falls for a man (Jean Yanne) who may be responsible for the murders of several local women, pushed the idea even further by hitting on something akin to romance in the macabre set-up. Finding enduring truth in the line between love and fear, it redefined what a thriller could be.
La Rupture (1970)
The two darkest films of Chabrol’s golden era both deal with parental responses to attacks on children. Que la bête meure (1969), in which a father seeks to murder the hit-and-run driver who killed his son, pursues its quarry with clear-eyed moral purpose, but La Rupture, following a woman who leaves her husband after he attacks their son, has a bleaker edge that places it in the same tonal register as Roman Polanski’s great psychological horror pictures. It is a film about two very different types of power – the elemental, unhinged power of the untethered mind and, in the thread involving the man’s manipulative parents fighting for custody of the child, the more calculated, insidious power of bourgeois privilege.
Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977)
From ropey spy films to Orson Welles vehicles, Chabrol’s career is full of outliers, but the best, and indeed the most revealing, is his loose Alice in Wonderland adaptation Alice ou la Dernière Fugue. Though the film is an unlikely Cocteau-like detour into the realm of the fantastical, it is still guided by Chabrolian concerns. It is a Claude Chabrol movie played out as a dream, with many of his auteurist traits taking on a peculiar slant amid the disorientating oneiric atmosphere. It was the first of his two tributes to his filmmaking hero Fritz Lang; Dr. M, his Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) remake would follow in 1990.
In Chabrol’s films, the country mansion is the ultimate symbol of bourgeois privilege. The notion of an unspecified evil lurking behind its four walls is especially prominent in the director’s later work – such as La Fleur du mal (2003) and Merci pour le chocolat (2000) – and it typically takes the form of an antagonistic force that is directed either against that privilege (La Cérémonie) or in service of it. Philippe Noiret’s patriarch in Masques is the perfect example of the latter. He plays a charismatic game-show host but, in true Chabrol style, there’s something darker within. The idea of the bourgeois mask concealing murderous impulses is prevalent throughout the director’s work, but there’s a streak of self-awareness in Masques (see the excellent fourth wall-breaking moment) that marks this as one of his best films of the 80s.
Une affaire de femmes (1988)
Chabrol was always interested in the idea of women breaking away from preconceived gender roles, and this notion is especially notable in the three historical pictures he made with Isabelle Huppert – Violette Nozière (1978), Madame Bovary (1991) and Une affaire de femmes. Each film deals with female resilience in the face of overwhelming patriarchal aggression, but the theme is especially potent in the latter. Based on the true story of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud in occupied France during the Second World War, Une affaire de femmes is an impressive work in which the shifting domestic role of its protagonist is projected against a nation on its knees.
Stéphane Audran starred in over a dozen of Chabrol’s films and was an especially dominant presence in the thrillers of his golden era. The elegiac Betty, made 12 years after they divorced, is the perfect epilogue to their earlier work. Based on the novel by Georges Simenon, Audran plays a woman who befriends a young, tempestuous alcoholic (played by Marie Trintignant, the daughter of Audran’s first husband Jean-Louis Trintignant) who is ousted from her family home after cheating on her wealthy spouse. In the gulf between the pair, we sense the weight of the time that has passed since Chabrol and Audran’s 70s run.
From Une partie de plaisir (1975) to Au coeur du mensonge (1999), Chabrol’s male aggressors are typically pathetic figures who act out of impotence and insecurity. But few are quite as pitiful as paranoid hotelier Paul (François Cluzet) consumed by delusions about his wife’s (Emmanuelle Béart) infidelity in L’Enfer, the director’s adaptation of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 film of the same name. Classic Chabrolian themes are prevalent – from the prison of domesticity to the irrational fear of female sexuality – but what distinguishes the picture from the director’s previous takes on male jealousy is that the suspicion is borne of paranoid fantasy, making the dissolution of the marriage feel like an uncontrollable spiral.
La Cérémonie (1995)
Perhaps Chabrol’s greatest achievement, La Cérémonie charts the friendship between introverted, illiterate housemaid Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and extroverted postal worker Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), and culminates in a chilling act of violence. The pair – both on the margins of society – scheme and collude under the noses of Sophie’s wealthy employers, acting out a twisted rendition of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles. Even the title carries menacing connotations, implying that the horrifying finale is some kind of symbolic ritual or reckoning. La Cérémonie is the consummate example of Chabrol’s genius – a ruthlessly exacting vision of class indebted to both the pulp aesthetic (Ruth Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone) and French literary tradition (Jean Genet’s The Maids).
Chabrol’s final work – a tribute to the great crime author Georges Simenon – is a policier elevated to the state of elegy. Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) – a cop investigating a case while on holiday with his wife – is Chabrol’s own version of Simenon’s famous detective Maigret. Despite only making two direct Simenon adaptations, the author’s singular approach to genre, which meticulously exposed the tangled workings of the criminal mind, exacted an enormous influence over Chabrol’s work. The film ends with lines from W.H. Auden’s ‘At Last the Secret Is Out’ – “There is always another story, there is always more than meets the eye.” It’s the perfect epitaph for Chabrol.