909. La femme infidele / The Unfaithful Wife (1969, Claude Chabrol)

screened Thursday March 7 2008 on Pathfinder DVD in Weehawken, NJ

TSPDT rank #798 IMDb Wiki

Perhaps I am willfully misreading through Bunuelian lenses, but I love how Claude Chabrol's wicked and ultimately haunting account of a marriage saved by murder implodes the middle class domestic mindset with its own politely repressed logic and values. And yet there's a line of thinking around this film that maintains the act of killing a wife's lover in order to impress her back into her marriage is presented by Chabrol with sincerity as justifiable, redemptive, even heroic. Perhaps it's to Chabrol's credit that he hides his intentions behind masterful camerawork that alternates between push-dolly scrutiny of a lushly colored, opulently Sirkian mise-en-scene of soft-focus domestic bliss and wide-angle interludes resting within interior spaces quietly suggesting volumes of household dissonance. His direction mirrors his characters' emotionally bottlenecked reticence, presenting small gestures in such a way that the audience must read intention into them, much the same way as the suspicious husband (Michel Bouquet, a perfect fop). While Chabrol's cinematic mirroring of alienation borders on outright satire for the most part (Bouquet's post-murder housecleaning is priceless), in the last act he pulls a startling about-face. He puts repression back on the mantle as a valid and virtuous mode of social intercourse, presenting a stony embrace between husband and wife as a sublime moment of genuine reconciliation. Is this intended as just another ironic layer of self-deluding bourgeois fantasy? Much of it comes down to how one reads the last line, "Je t'aime comme un fou (I love you like a fool)" uttered by the cuckold as either a sincere reclamation of the sanctity of marriage or possessive spousal pathology taken to a fatal extreme. Perhaps it's both.

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Claude Chabrol's richly ironic 1968 melodrama, in which it is shown that nothing revitalizes a dried-up marriage quite like murder. Not the least of the ironies is that the point is made sincerely and responsibly: when the film's smug, tubby hero kills his wife's lover, he genuinely becomes a richer, worthier individual. The observation of bourgeois life (as practiced in France, where it was perfected) is so sharp and funny that the film often feels like satire, yet its fundamental seriousness emerges in a magnificent last act, and an unforgettable last shot.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Few films exemplify Chabrol’s cinema better and more fully than La Femme infidèle . The bourgeois setting, the dangerously repressed characters, the mildly disturbing voyeuristic photography, the discordant music… all the familiar motifs which conspire to conjure up an unsettling world of seemingly middle-class respectability in which deadly passions are struggling to break free. This is the world of Claude Chabrol.

On the surface, La Femme infidèle is a simple tale of marital infidelity and revenge. However, look close and you will see much more than that. Hélène, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is driven into having an affair because she can no longer endure the passionless sham that her marriage has become. Her husband is content to watch pictures of wine classes on an eight inch screen television. She needs much more than he can offer. It is only when he kills his wife’s lover that Charles shows any passion for his wife – a stupid, ill-conceived spur of the moment act of madness, so he can keep his wife for himself. Of course, when Hélène realises what her husband has done, she rediscovers her love for him and she has no further need of her surrogate lover. Of course, by that stage, the edifice of respectability has been completely destroyed and their lives will never be the same again.

The beauty of this film lies in both its subtlety and its charming playfulness. The film has an almost existentialist minimalism in its plot; all of the detail – the drama, the suspense, the comedy – stems from the reactions of the characters to their predicaments. To this end, Chabrol is well served by his leading actors, Michel Bouquet and Stéphane Audran.

- James Travers, Films de France

For the most part, the world of La Femme Infidèle is resolutely good-looking. Chabrol fills his rooms with fresh flowers and with a sense of orderly livability. But the most subtle dislocations catch you up. The camera tracks with lyrical gravity—but with a little too much lyrical gravity, like a gesture so little in excess of the occasion that it would seem nearly perfect if you hadn't sensed that it was also slightly mad. Michel Bouquet, for example, plays Charles with great suavity and grace—except that he stares intently, and I do believe he is a trifle cross-eyed. And though he is the image of a man born to be cuckolded (like a French Herbert Marshall), he happens to have a pretty good time with his wife...

The actress is Stephane Audran, Chabrol's own wife, and she is beautiful, though a little ironic. She controls a sense of social parody so sustained that her simple "Bonjour" becomes a major critique of French language and civilization.

Near the very end of the film, when she accidentally discovers that her husband has killed her lover, she destroys the evidence (no use; the police will come for him shortly) and then walks out to where he is working in his garden. As the camera travels with her, it watches in medium close-up while she composes the beginnings of a smile.

The making of that smile, enigmatic and discreet, must count as one of the finest small passages in the history of cinema—and in the lovely, disquieting art of Claude Chabrol.

- Roger Greenspun, The New York Times, November 10, 1969

One of the best sequences, which manages to be very funny as well as heart-stopping, is when the husband decides to introduce himself to the lover. At first he is polite and matter-of-fact. But as the unsuspecting boyfriend expounds on the extraordinary nature of the woman with whom he is infatuated, nerves snap and the murder results. We see that the husband never really knew his wife, and that's where his anger comes from.

Another amazing section of the film concerns this urbane man's efforts to cover up all traces of his crime - cleaning the flat, dragging the body to his car in a weighted sack and finally heaving it into a nearby lake. This has been done so often before and since in film, but seldom with a greater sense of what such an awful process must be like.

But, all the way through, what could have been just another thriller becomes much more than that. It is also a passionate love story, with its share of intense irony and a pervading sense of the quirkiness of fate.

- Derek Malcolm, The Guardian, in his selection of La femme infidele as one of the 100 best films of the 20th century

The indirectness of the film seems apposite, since Chabrol indicates that the violence which erupts so suddenly in the film is repressed beneath the apparently civilized surface of bourgeois society. Chabrol emphasizes those surfaces: the beautiful greens of the couple's landscaped garden, the shine on the silverware, the bouquets of flowers, the informal family grouping outdoors which is masked by a cheery blue canopy. True to his manner, Chabrol entirely eschews sentiment, and yet—although apparently cold and distant—condemns no one. If this witty, ironic film holds neither Hélène nor Charles completely responsible for her affair, it credits the act of violence the affair precipitates for the rekindling of the couple's passions for each other, as each suddenly sees the other in a new light. By the end of the film, Hélène is all too willing to cover up her husband's crime and lovingly accept the kind of transference of guilt typical of the Hitchcock films Chabrol so obviously admires.

There are very few emotional outbursts or expressions of feeling in the film; the murder of Hélène's lover, which comes unexpectedly; three choked sobs that Hélène gives when she discovers her lover has been killed; and one truly heartfelt embrace between husband and wife. Rather, the emotion, as repressed as the natural instincts of the characters, is displaced instead onto the decor; indeed, there are flashes of red throughout—Hélène's earrings, a bedroom wall, a beauty shop awning, a bright dress, a lampshade, a cabinet, and so forth. As usual for Chabrol, objects are consistently used as symbols; a white, aloof statue that Charles tries to cleanse of red blood and which stands, perhaps, for Hélène; a huge cigarette lighter, which represents the passion Hélène has transferred from her husband to her lover; and the jigsaw puzzle, put together by the couple's son, which seems to represent their marriage and/or the narrative.

- Charles Derry, Film Reference.com

In La Femme Infidèle Chabrol indicates it's only when the husband murders his wife's lover that he becomes a man of passion. In the film's opening scenes, the mother-in-law chides Bouquet's Charles Desvallées for his impending portliness, and later on we see him watching TV with the face of a beached porpoise. He tries to loosen up on a night out with his wife and some friends, but it's when confronted with his wife's lover that his slack, complacent personality recedes and the tension mounts. The murder is an aberrant moment. He tidies the mess with the fastidiousness he has brought to every other aspect of his life. But later we see in his wife's face a renewed interest in a man who isn't entirely predictable. The commonly remarked upon closing shot carries within it the film's paradoxical theme: this man must kill to prove he loves his wife, but as a consequence, he'll be taken away from her. As the police officers pull Popaul away and he looks longingly back at Héléne, Chabrol simultaneously zooms in and tracks out to symbolize this double bind.

- Tony McKibbin, Images Journal

Jim Emerson visually examines the film's opening sequence.

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