By Michael Fox
The murderously genteel Claude Chabrol has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock by so many critics, capsule biographers, trailer producers and pressbook writers that the label "France's master of suspense" is forever stuck to his lapel. The seed was planted back in the '50s when Chabrol co-authored an early book on the then-undervalued British filmmaker with fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critic (and soon-to-be fellow Nouvelle Vague instigator) Eric Rohmer. The most obvious and superficial connection between Chabrol and Hitchcock is that, sooner or later, a corpse is almost certain to show up in both men's films. More substantially, both directors are obsessed with the moral rot under the deceptively thin veneer of middle-class ritual and routine.
The Hitchcock badge has been a convenient way for critics to distinguish Chabrol from his New Wave cohorts Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer. Chabrol made the first splash of that storied group, scoring hits with Le Beau Serge (1957) and Les Cousins (1958). The relentlessly devastating Les Bonnes Femmes (1960, re-released in 2000) signaled the director's longstanding empathy for the struggles of women, represented here by four shopgirls whose aspirations to a better life are mocked and blocked-ultimately to the point of murder, in one case-by the men in their lives.
After a rough patch of flops and jobs for hire, Chabrol rebounded with a flurry of harrowing dramas, notably Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidéle (1969), Le Boucher (1970) and La Rupture (1970), starring his muse and eventual wife Stéphane Audran. Although much of the director's output in the '70s and '80s was unexceptional and unmemorable, he retained his audience and reputation as a reliable supplier of domestic nail-biters that spilled their share of blood.
The key difference between Chabrol and his hero is that Hitchcock was an entertainer first and foremost, and social commentary was a low priority. Sure, Hitch liked to drolly turn the knife in the backs of proper Englishmen and women, and he loved making audiences complicit in rooting for selfish louts, but most of his energy went to polishing the tumblers so his plots clicked just so. He was a topnotch craftsman and a cynic, not a moralist. Chabrol, on the other hand, came of age during the Second World War in Occupied France, where he learned that evil is not an abstraction. His movies, consequently, often display an acute awareness of the most serious consequences of moral weakness and opportunism.
The war is front and center in his 1988 masterpiece, Story of Women (1988), starring Isabelle Huppert as a singularly aggressive and amoral entrepreneur (and independent woman, not coincidentally) who crosses an invisible line. Fifteen years later, the cloud hanging over the wealthy family and the local election campaign of Nathalie Baye in The Flower of Evil consists of hushed-up Vichy-era scandals. Spend enough time with Chabrol's work and you may become susceptible to the presumption-based on impression rather than evidence-that most of the well-off families at the center of his plots made their dough (or inherited it from a father who made it) in some nefarious wartime scheme.
Hitchcock's characters sometimes kept their secrets in the basement-Alexander Sebastian (Notorious) and Norman Bates (Psycho), notably-but Chabrol's characters are too refined to have basements. Their special gift is to pretend they're too refined to have secrets, or to hope they stay buried under the intervening years.
That said, France's dark past has neither explicit nor implicit echoes in The Bridesmaid (2006), Chabrol's most recent film to open in the U.S., and now available on DVD. The story revolves around Philippe (Benoit Magimel of The Flower of Evil and Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher), a twentysomething salesman of home fixtures who lives with his equally suburban mother and sisters. After he falls for Senta (Laura Smet), an agent of anarchy he meets at that blandest and most optimistic of social settings-a wedding- Philippe's ordered and unimaginative life inexorably, inevitably implodes.
Chabrol provides Senta, an enigmatic bridesmaid for one of Philippe's sisters, with an ominous introduction that doubles as an homage to Hitchcock. While everyone in the bridal party is laughing and looking in one direction, she's gazing cold-bloodedly the other way. The shot is clearly intended to not simply evoke the memory but provoke an association with Robert Walker's fixed gaze amidst the sea of pivoting heads at a tennis match in Strangers On a Train. Even if one hasn't seen Hitch's black-comedy classic, it's impossible not to detect in a nanosecond that Senta is a trouble babe. But Philippe is too smitten to see the signs. The overriding tension in the film, which Chabrol generates in just a few shots, has very little to do with what horrible act Senta will commit or precipitate in the last reel. What's agonizing is waiting for the reasonably bright Philippe to recognize that he's in the clutches of a poisonous spider.
Bookmark/Search this post with: