Claude Chabrol

les-cousins

I begin this post not with a comment about the film but about Claude Chabrol’s interview with Mark Shivas (originally in the 1963 volume of Movie). Consider the following exchange discussing Chabrol’s first film, Le Beau Serge:

Q: It was symbolic, though, wasn’t it?

A: But it didn’t come out very honest. In my mind it corresponded to something quite precise, something one often comes across in the world, but . . .

Q: What were the things that mainly interested you in the making of the film?

Not that far removed in my reading from Robert Bresson’s withering, “I think you want me too much to explain what I did” response to another interviewer, the interruption here is positively jarring. Did Chabrol merely trail off and shut up, prompting the interviewer to try a different approach? It was only the second question of the interview. Was he drifting into some sound bite talking point that the journalist had heard before? It certainly isn’t as though the interruption takes the dialogue to a new level or brings it back to a point that is being evaded or abandoned; it doesn’t change the immediate subject nor, in fact, change the general direction nor tenor of the interview. It’s a puzzling exchange.

A few years ago, I went on a press junket for a major studio release. One of the things that I learned is that there are interviews and there are interviews. It was readily apparent to me (if, it appeared, to no one else at my table) that I was among professional actors and directors whose job included developing a talent for interviewing. Specifically, they understood that their job at that moment was to market the film they had made, not by listening to and answering probing questions, but by using their professional skill and experience to segue from whatever question they were asked to the talking points the marketing department of the studio had given them. Ignore the question, get to the sound bite. The more rooms in which you repeat the sound bite, the more likely it is to appear in the reviews and write-ups.

One of the actresses I interviewed was an accomplished veteran of several releases. Another was a younger and less experienced newcomer. The biggest difference I saw between them was not in their actual performances in the film but in the ease and dexterity with which the first moved from a particular line of questioning to the statement she wanted to give about the film. The second gave an impassioned and interesting mini-speech that left a few people in the room scratching their heads and wondering how it related to the question asked. It didn’t.

So what I’m left with is a reminder that an interview is a collaborative project, just like a film. The end result is something which is contributed to by a host of factors: a good question (screenplay), patience to listen (editing), openness to the process (acting), etc.

Claude Chabrol, who is still alive and still working, has seventy-one directorial film credits listed at IMDB.com. By means of comparison, Michelangelo Antonioni has thirty-six, Robert Bresson seventeen, and Peter Brook a mere baker’s dozen. Luis Buñuel has thirty-two, less than half Chabrol’s output, but enough for the “uneven” quality of his work to tarnish his reputation according to Andrew Sarris. Of Chabrol, Sarris says that he was “forced to accept commissioned projects” (75) in the mid-sixties. In other words, when approaching Chabrol, I had strayed, perhaps for the first time in my informal self-education in masters of world cinema, into the dichotomy between artist/auteur and yeoman worker. Ask Charles Dickens or Stephen King how hard it is to be taken seriously when your output doubles that of your peers.

So what are we dealing with in Chabrol? Artist who occasionally had to take the hack work to fund his next project or competent clock puncher who is going to have a few good films and a few bad ones over the course of a lifetime? And which is Les Cousins or Les Bonnes Femmes?

I appreciated Les Cousins well enough, but it struck me as dated. Is that one of those observations that critics make to dismiss a film without actually having to justify their opinion? The film deals with Charles, a young provincial who comes to Paris to study and shares a flat with his cousin, Paul. The decadent Paul manages to pass his exams, but the the plodding Charles does not, and his constant comparison of his situation to Paul’s leads Charles to depression and worse.

There are two back breaker’s in Charles’s situation. Paul seduces (well, not exactly), the girl whom Charles idealizes, and Paul passes his exams with little effort while Charles fails after scrupulous studying. Charles plays a variation of Russian roulette with a sleeping Paul…and ends up getting tragically, ironically, and accidentally killed with his own gun. Chabrol says of the ending: “It’s sad that a chap as frank as he ends up a victim of his own foolishness” (78).

So there it is. Shocking…but in a safely ironic way that reminds me more of adolescents giggling at their own swagger for being unconventional than mature insight into the human soul. Life isn’t fair, and that may mean there is no agency. Or maybe there is but it is indifferent to us. In it’s own way, the problem on the surface of this film isn’t that much different from the one in Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. Do I like the latter simply because it’s own ironic ending is a happ(ier) one? Perhaps. But the truth of the matter is that while there may be infinite ways to develop the same themes in art, the recognition that virtue isn’t always rewarded already feels a little stale by the middle of the last century–and the work seems stuck, having not yet solved the structural problem of how not to let any happy ending imply the recognition of God’s imminence or any sad one His absence or indifference.

The most interesting scene in Les Cousins is not the climactic shooting but the seduction scene that isn’t really a seduction. In it, Paul convinces Charles’s muse to sleep with him, and he does it less by means of persuasion than by logic, not so much breaking down her defenses as describing her nature to her in such a way as to prompt the recognition and assent that there is nothing good or faithful in the world.

Yeah, the problem of female desire isn’t exactly new either. Even more interesting, Chabrol says of this scene that it was mostly the work of collaborator Paul Gegauff: “And also by Gegauff are one or two little things such as the scene where they talk about the erotic quality of the skin. The whole story depends on this, he would say: it’s a story about skin texture” (78).

Perhaps the use of “little things” is simply idiomatic understatement. Perhaps, though, in conjunction with the “he would say,” it indicates that Chabrol appreciates the ring of Gegauff’s dialogue but doesn’t see it as being crucial to the story. I think it is. Florence’s decision to go with Paul is the bridge between intention and inevitability that creates what ambiguity in the theme there is–is our loneliness and isolation simply the result of our inability to love or is it what causes us to reach out for love’s poor substitute since we know the real thing doesn’t exist?

Chabrol would examine these questions again in Les Bonnes Femmes, but returning to a theme doesn’t necessarily mean one is developing or deepening it. I happened to see The Swindle around the same time, and Isabel Huppert’s performance as a seductive grifter with a partner more fatherly than husband-like was another in a line of Chabrol’s women who become less erotic or beautiful the more frank they are about their sexuality. I think this a shame–and a bit of an untruth. At least a half untruth. The sexiest women are the one’s most in tune with their desires. That’s not to say that feeding one’s desires is always sexy–but neither is squelching them, even if doing so helps the opposite sex idealize you.

The girls of Les Bonnes Femmes are not femmes-fatale, but they are grotesques in their sexuality borne more out of boredom than desire. Of the characters in this film Chabrol says:

I wanted to make a film about stupid people that was very vulgar and deeply stupid. From that moment on I can hardly be reproached for making a film that is about stupid people. I don’t think that it’s a pessimistic film. I’m not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live. When we wrote the film the people were for Gegauff, fools. It was a film about fools. But at the same time we could see little by little that if they were foolish, it was mainly because they were unable to express themselves, establish contact with each other. The result of naivety, or too great a vulgarity. (81)

Chabrol goes on to say that he has been accused of not liking his characters because he doesn’t ennoble them. I agree with him that one doesn’t have to ennoble a character to demonstrate empathy or sympathy, but his last line of the above quote suggests that the way they live is as much a function of their internal defects (too much vulgarity) as vice versa. He goes on to insist the girls aren’t “idiots” but that they are just “brutalized by the way they live.” Of course, “the way they live” is an elusive phrase that could mean they are victims of their environment or merely that they are idiots for living the way they do…in a vulgar and naive fashion.

I’m not suggesting Charles is right in Les Cousins. I’ve read my Simone de Beauvoir, and I understand that being the Madonna can be just as restricting as being the Whore. That said, I just don’t feel any sympathy for women emanating from these movies; I don’t really feel much sympathy being directed towards anyone. There is a passive, neutral tone that holds off the audience’s inherent move towards identification. We are observers in Chabrol’s world–and if the observation is careful and non-judgmental, it is also a bit cold.

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