Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chabrol & Hitchcock

In January & February, the PFA had a Claude Chabrol retrospective. The series was called "Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock" but only about 30% of the films were directed by Hitchcock.

Chabrol was a founding member of the French New Wave cinema but is more associated with suspense genre films which he excelled; using some of the same techniques as Hitchcock.

I saw four Chabrol films.

Le Beau Serge starring Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy & Bernadette Lafont; French with subtitles; (1958)
Les Bonnes Femmes starring Bernadette Lafont, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon & Clotilde Joano; French with subtitles; (1960)
À Double Tour starring Madeleine Robinson, Antonella Lualdi, Jean-Paul Belmondo & Jacques Dacqmine; French with subtitles; (1960)
The Swindle starring Huppert, Michel Serrault & François Cluzet; French with subtitles; (1998)


My favorite was Les Bonnes Femmes which was listed with its French title in the PFA program. With my limited French, I interpreted the title to be The Good Women or The Good Girls. That was unintentionally funny the English subtitle on the film print interpreted the title as The Good Time Girls whose connotation is closer to the plot.

The film follows four women who work as saleswomen in an appliance store. They are young, attractive women in Paris. It must have been shocking as within the first few minutes, one of the girls (Bernadette Lafont, the sexiest of the four in my opinion) engages with two drunked and gauche middle aged Germans as the door closes on the camera. Rape or ménage à trois? I don't know but I don't think it makes much difference as it seems to be a common occurence in this woman's life.

The other girls have more socially acceptable secrets. One girl moonlights as a singer in a vaudeville type show. Another is engaged to a pompous scion of a (relatively) wealthy family. She must continuously pretend to be more bourgeois than she actually is. The fourth woman is a romantic and when a suspicious looking man wearing sunglasses and riding a motorcycle begins to stalk her, the audience wonders if this will be her true love...or a psychotic murderer?

Using some New Wave editing techniques, Chabrol's film is structured like a social commentary masquerading as a comedy. The film ends on a shocking note which goes completely against the tone of the film. In lesser skilled hands, the ending would be a gimmick and dissatisfying. Chabrol is skilled enough to leave audience in disbelief (at least me).

Filmed in black & white, Chabrol does great job capturing Paris in 1960 - the same era as Godard's Breathless. He also perfectly the boredom of the young women - bored with their job, only slightly less bored with their evening social engagements, bored with their lives in general. Les Bonnes Femmes was a failure at the box office but in hindsight, a seminal film for the French New Wave movement. It holds up as well as Breathless or The 400 Blows.


Chabrol's 50th film as a director was The Swindle. Starring Isabelle Huppert as a con (wo)man who partners with the older Michel Serrault to seduce, drug and steal from businessmen. They always leave some cash so the guy won't know if he just got drunk and spent more than he remembered as opposed to taking all the money and leaving no doubt that he was a victim.

Huppert's Betty is getting a little bored with the scams and wants something bigger. Serrault's Victor doesn't want to take the risk. Unbeknownst to Victor, Betty sets up a bigger scam involving money belonging to an organized crime outfit. She needs Victor's help to pull it off but Victor has grown suspicious of Betty.

Some director could take that plot to a very dark place but Chabrol employs a lighter touch and uses humor to advance the plot. He uses it masterfully as he had for nearly 50 years at that point. Chabrol died in September 2010. Under Chabrol's direction, The Swindle is a suspense film with comedic elements or maybe a comedy with suspenseful moments. I was impressed by the film as it is difficult to merge those two genres. Huppert and Serrault shine as the scammers trying to scam each other.

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