Why this might not seem so easy
Few of the directors associated with the French New Wave have demonstrated such a varied approach to genre as Claude Chabrol. From crime thrillers to war films, psychological power-plays to costume dramas, there are few archetypal forms that Chabrol did not tackle throughout his long career. Though rising through the ranks of the nouvelle vague, Chabrol’s cinema came to embody a more traditional, perhaps even mainstream focus on thrills and drama. He is the movement’s great entertainer, earnestly drawing upon the influence of Hollywood without the postmodern cut-ups and ironies of his contemporaries. This doesn’t mean that his films are throwaway fancies. Often his roaming eye can’t help but heighten the more unusual aspects of a genre.
With a steady working output from 1958 right up until his death in September 2010, Chabrol’s back catalogue ranks among the largest of the New Wave filmmakers. Knowing where to begin is difficult, with well over 60 feature films, documentaries and television episodes to explore. Add to this Chabrol’s eccentric switching between different genres, and the chances of hitting on a film unique to itself, rather than reflective of the director’s body of work as a whole, are high.
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The best place to start – Le Beau Serge
The best place to start with Chabrol’s work is at the beginning, with his very first feature, Le Beau Serge (1958). Kickstarting the nouvelle vague proper, Chabrol’s debut is a far cry from his future genre work but is also one of his strongest films. Following François (Jean-Claude Brialy) on his return to the rural village of his birth, Le Beau Serge is a powerful examination of class boundaries and the melancholic discovery of a sense of loss when returning to (and recognising) more humble roots. François’ childhood friend, Serge (Gérard Blain), has since become an alcoholic, marooned in village life after his plans to study elsewhere were ruptured by the pregnancy of Yvonne (Michèle Méritz).
For a first feature, Chabrol’s film is startlingly mature in its assessment of social frustration and rural isolation, building on themes akin to those of Emile Zola. Though far less visually experimental than other films soon to come out of the French New Wave, Chabrol’s debut retains a sense of stability usually found in the country’s preceding cinematic era, known as the ‘tradition de qualité’, albeit mixed with the urgent social and political questioning of a youthful new cinema. It’s an earnest, subtle masterpiece.
What to watch next
Chabrol’s second feature, Les Cousins (1959) was initially planned as his debut but pushed back due to the expense of shooting in Paris. The film is a cynical portrayal of partying Parisian life and reunites Jean-Claude Brialy with Gérard Blain as polar opposite cousins sleepwalking towards a grim future. Chabrol’s film is incredibly masculine, something he seems to have realised when making its partner piece, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). That film follows a group of shop girls going about their daily lives and is less cynical than Les Cousins, but it remains effective in addressing the same newly emergent Parisian youth.
Les Cousins and Les Bonnes Femmes marked the beginning of Chabrol’s work with the actress Stéphane Audran: a fruitful relationship, then a marriage between 1964 and 1980. Though collaborating on a range of quality films together, including The Third Lover (1962), The Champagne Murders (1967) with Anthony Perkins, La Femme indfidèle (1969) and Line of Demarcation (1966), among the strongest is Les Biches (1968). The film follows a troubled ménage à trois that is slowly hollowed out by the commodity fetishisms of the late 1960s. It mixes quiet undertones of eroticism with a lavish, moneyed visual palette. Chabrol would never make anything quite so calculated again.
Audran worked on a vast array of films with Chabrol, a number of which were the thrillers he became famous for. The brilliant Le Boucher (1970), Just before Nightfall (1971) and Red Wedding (1973) are as good a collection as any to show the range of themes from which Chabrol could eke tension and drama. All possess the same sense of detachment that came with the end of the 1960s, soon to be replaced with the tense, harsh dramas of the 1970s.
A few films often omitted from discussions on Chabrol deserve more attention too. His underrated The Nada Gang (1974), following a terrorist group’s kidnapping of an American ambassador, is surprisingly gritty, with far more in common with the political films of Costa-Gavras than Chabrol’s usual thrillers. Equally, Chabrol’s 80s double bill following the mean but enigmatic Inspector Lavardin (Jean Poiret) – in Poulet au vinaigre (1985) and Inspector Lavardin (1986) – is under the radar and retains that delicious French mix of rural murder-mystery and série noire brutality.
Finally, as with Audran, Chabrol formed strong working relationships with a number of leading men and women. The most successful was undoubtedly with Isabelle Huppert, from her early career to the twilight years of his. All seven collaborations (including Violette Nozière (1978), A Story of Women (1988) and Madame Bovary (1991)) are accomplished films, showcasing the range of both actor and director. The strongest is La Cérémonie (1995), a bizarre and brutal Ruth Rendell adaptation in which Huppert leads Sandrine Bonnaire astray in a desolate rural France, culminating in a Michael Haneke-esque home invasion. It’s one of the great, left-field French films of the 1990s and remains a shock today, even by Chabrol’s standards.
Where not to start
Even by the director’s own admission, Folies bourgeoises (aka The Twist) is atrocious. A bawdy comedy following Bruce Dern and Audran exploring the limits of their relationship, the film can’t decide if it’s a quaint comedy of manners or a lurid, surreal romp. Even Jean-Pierre Cassel and Charles Aznavour fail to save it. It’s car-crash watchable, perhaps, but the film remains a terrible place to start exploring this great director’s work.