Claude Chabrol: an online dossier

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One of the stable of Cahiers du cinéma critics, Chabrol inaugurated the New Wave with Le Beau Serge (1957), Les Cousins (1958) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Like other early New Wave films, these were characterized by independent production, location shooting, new stars (Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran) and a focus on a young, disaffected generation. Chabrol soon departed from this idiom to enter on a prolific and varied career embracing comedies (Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Khâ, 1965), thrillers (A double tour / Web of Passion, 1959), war films (La Ligne de démarcation, 1966), political thrillers (Les Noces rouge / Blood wedding, 1973, Nada, 1974), a "lesbian" drama (Les Biches / The Does, 1968), and more; his filmography runs to over forty features. If there is unity in Chabrol's work, it can be found along two axes. The first is his work with his main star (and for a long time, wife) Stéphane Audran, especially Le Boucher (1970) and their superb "drama of adultery": La femme infidèle / The Unfaithful Wife (1969), La Rupture / The Breakup (1970) and Juste avant la nuit / Just Before Nightfall (1971). The second is Chabrol's dissection of the French bourgeoisie, which ranges from the incisive to the affectionate, usually in the thriller format. At the incisive end are Que la bête meure / Killer! (1969) and Violette Nozière (1978); more affectionate are Poulet au vinaigre / Cop au vin (1984), Masques (1987) and Le Cri du hibou / The Cry of the Owl (1987). With his lush adaptation of Madame Bovary (1991, with Isabelle Huppert), Chabrol made an excursion into the Heritage cinema genre, though Betty (1992) and L'Enfer (1994) signal a return to the bourgeois thrillers. Ironically, given Chabrol's critical beginnings, there is a comfortable "quality" to his films, which is, however, far from unpleasurable.

— Ginette Vincendeau, Encylopedia of European Cinema

If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory, if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol—film critic, filmmaker, philosopher—whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal. His partisans find especially notable the subtle tone of Chabrol's cinema: his films are apparently cold and objective portraits of profoundly psychological situations; and yet that coldness never approaches the kind of fashionable cynicism, say, of a Stanley Kubrick, but suggests, rather, something closer to the viewpoint of a god who, with compassion but without sentiment, observes the follies of his creations.

Chabrol's work can perhaps best be seen as a cross between the unassuming and popular genre film and the pretentious and elitist art film: Chabrol's films tend to be thrillers with an incredibly self-conscious, self-assured style—that is, pretentious melodrama, aware of its importance. For some, however, the hybrid character of Chabrol's work is itself a problem: indeed, just as elitist critics sometimes find Chabrol's subject matter beneath them, so too do popular audiences sometimes find Chabrol's style and incredibly slow pace alienating.

—Charles Derry, Film

Along with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol’s name is famously associated with the pathbreaking criticism of Cahiers du Ciné ma and the rise of the French new wave. But whilst Truffaut and Godard saw themselves as auteur and innovator, to survey Chabrol’s long career is to see a craftsman productively immersed in the conventions and compromises of mainstream filmmaking.

Born in Paris in 1930, Chabrol was evacuated during the occupation to the Creuse department in the Massif Central. Growing up in the village of Sardent, he and a friend set up a makeshift ‘cinema’ in a barn. Playing the roles of programme director, exhibitor and projectionist, Chabrol got around the German prohibition against Hollywood by advertising German genre movies as American “super-productions”. Returning to Paris after the Liberation, he began attending the thriving postwar ciné-clubs and cinémathèques, where he met Truffaut, Godard and Eric Rohmer. An ardent fan of Lang and Hitchcock, he was invited to contribute articles to Cahiers. Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock would have profound influences upon Chabrol’s own films. From Lang, he derived a sense of cinematic space, the relationship of image to narrative, the prospect of entrapment. From Hitchcock, he derived a sense of irony, the relationship between guilt and the individual, and the prospect of murder. Supporting himself by working at the Paris publicity office of 20th Century-Fox, in 1957 Chabrol and Rohmer published an influential book on Hitchcock.

In a 1956 Cahiers’ review of the Hollywood thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Chabrol wrote that director Robert Aldrich had created brilliance out of “the worst, most lamentable…the most nauseous product of the genre fallen into putrefaction”. Whilst the mid-1960s is not regarded as his most interesting period, like Lang and Aldrich, Chabrol showed that he could turn his hand to a range of genres and sources. The director has made thrillers, spy spoofs, a war film, and over the years has adapted, amongst others, the work of Patricia Highsmith, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Ellery Queen, Henry Miller and Georges Simenon. Arguably, his critical fall from grace owed something to a classical lucidity of approach that was out of favour in the mid-1960s. Writing of Hitchcock, Chabrol had drawn attention to an “interdependence of form and subject”. But Hitchcock’s own critical stock fell at this time, while Chabrolian irony was increasingly regarded as cynicism. Another Hollywood figure with whom Chabrol has been compared is Billy Wilder, also derided for his ‘cynicism.’

Recently, Chabrol has worked with producer Marin Karmitz (Three Colours Trilogy) and is highly regarded as an elder of French cinema, having worked with many of the best actors and technicians of the postwar period. Although occasionally contentious – Une Affaire des femmes’ account of wartime collaboration excited controversy in 1988 – his work seldom generated the cinephiliac excitement attending Godardian experimenta, nor drew the devoted crowd that followed Truffaut. Yet, for Ginette Vincendeau, the bulk of Chabrol’s work elicits “a comfortable ‘quality’ which is…far from unpleasurable”. The best of them belong in a pantheon alongside vintage Lang and Hitchcock.

Richard Armstrong, MovieMail. This text also appears as part of Chabrol's Senses of Cinema Great Directors biography

In the best Chabrol movies, like “Le Boucher,” the thriller mechanics are almost irrelevant; what keeps you on the edge of your seat isn’t wondering whodunit, but wondering how you’re supposed to feel when you find out. Because Mr. Chabrol won’t tell you.

But this is a tricky game for a filmmaker to play with his viewers. And in the years since his glory days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mr. Chabrol has lost as many times as he has won. Even a method as distinctively counterintuitive as his can turn predictable. (Especially if you’re as compulsively prolific as he is). And when he isn’t in top form, his calculated opacity is alienating rather than fascinating; the sly correctness of his style can make him seem as dangerously repressed as his most poisonous bourgeois characters.

Mr. Chabrol has suffered, in a sense, from the sort of anxiety of identity that he has so often visited on the nervous middle-class people in his films. He has a reputation, a position: the world knows who he is, and what a movie with the Claude Chabrol brand should be. He isn’t always so sure.

Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times. Another New York Times Chabrol appraisal by Stephen Holden

If Chabrol is apparently tabloid in theme, his style has frequently been sophisticated and languorous -- a slow burn examination of his characters' lives with a rapt, patient camera. Consequently, place is of immense importance. Britanny, Massif Central, the Loire Valley, out of season St. Tropez: many a region, small town or village has been focused upon, not simply utilized. In maybe his finest film, Le Boucher, Chabrol gives an onscreen credit to the Perigaud valley villagers who give the film so much of its atmosphere. Even Chabrol's houses are memorable and significant. The stretched, low slung and vaguely Americanized abode in La Femme Infidèle; the minor chateaus of Wedding in Blood and La Cérémonie, each isolated and aloof; the marvelous convivial country house in the early stages of Un Partie du Plaisir, and the nouveau riche home of the garage owner in The Beast Must Die all indicate characters inextricably linked to the place in which they live. A man's home is almost literally, in Chabrol, his castle, and it is equally true that the castle is the man.

Lest we are in any doubt, watch how Chabrol subjectifies the camera even when not utilising point of view. In La Cérémonie, for example, where swift, darting camera pans have all the admiring envy of a petty bourgeois social climber. When a character finally passes comment upon the property, its pleonastic: the camera's already done all the work for us. However, the repetition suggests the depth of envy. If the camera indicates a keen interest, the words of the lowly postal clerk Jeanne give the film a murderous intent. "A la la ... now there's class for you," she says on seeing the Lelièvres' family home. Teamed with the family's maid, Sophie, Jeanne's powder-keg character awaits the fuse of indignation and finds it when Sophie's sacked by this haute bourgeois family. Jeanne returns one evening to the chateau with Sophie, apparently to pick up Sophie's things. They quietly make hot chocolate while the family obliviously watches Don Giovanni in the study. Then we watch as the pair of them creep up the stairs, pour hot chocolate over the master bed, and rip the wife's clothes to shreds.

- Robert McKibbin, Images Journal

The following quotes found on the Charles Chabrol page of They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

"If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory and if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol - film critic, filmmaker, philosopher - whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal...Chabrol's work can perhaps best be seen as a cross between the unassuming and popular genre film and the pretentious elitist art film." - Charles Derry (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"Chabrol, whose admiration for the Hitchcock thriller style is evident in some of his own films (The Champagne Murders, This Man Must Die, Cop au Vin), is more typically concerned with exploring, in a curiously detached way, personal relationships (Les Cousins, Les Biches). His favorite target remains the urban French petite-bourgeoisie, the milieu of his youth." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"While Claude Chabrol is certainly one of the most important filmmakers to have emerged from the the French New Wave, his consistency of theme and assured, expressive style are often betrayed by poor material, resulting in a career as uneven as it is prolific...A consummate craftsman, his interest in human emotions often seems intellectually motivated, which may explain the erratic nature of his work." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

"Emotional relationships marked by physical and psychological violence distinguish Chabrol's films." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I like making black and white films in natural surroundings, but I much prefer shooting a color film inside a studio where the colors are easier to control." - Claude Chabrol

"It's often wrong to write for specific actors because one ends up using what is least interesting about them, their mannerisms and habits. I prefer not to write for specific people." - Claude Chabrol