Gilbey on Film: Claude Chabrol - an appreciation

This great director was much more than simply a "French Hitchcock".

The occasion of Claude Chabrol's death at the age of 80 is not the time to get into any spurious arguments about the best and worst of the Nouvelle Vague, the critics-turned-directors who flew the Cahiers du cinéma coop. But on a personal level, Chabrol's films, especially his extraordinary run from Les biches in 1968 through to Les noces rouges in 1973, were always infinitely more fascinating and mysterious to me than the cool-cat tomfoolery of the early Jean-Luc Godard works that have become the mastheads of that revolution.

Remember, it was not A bout de soufflé or Truffaut's The 400 Blows which represented the first howl of the Nouvelle Vague, but Chabrol's 1958 debut Le beau Serge, a simmering drama that approaches with tenderness characters steeped in poverty and savagery.

I only came upon that picture a few years ago, and it cast a new light on my understanding of Chabrol, who has so often been pigeonholed unhelpfully as the French Hitchcock. (Even that tag never stuck for me: by some freak accident in the chronology of my youthful viewing, I was exposed to his 1968 masterpiece Le boucher before I had even seen Psycho.)

Le beau Serge won Chabrol the Best Director prize at Locarno, but isn't greatly admired today. It doesn't have the gutsy iconoclasm of Godard and Truffaut, or the intellectual game-playing of another ex-Cahiers colleague, Jacques Rivette; its religious symbolism and rustic setting (it was shot in the Limousin region where Chabrol grew up) makes it feel more of a piece with, say, Pasolini's Mamma Roma.

But the thoroughness of its psychological insight lays the groundwork for the fraught dynamics that would fester at the heart of Chabrol's finest work, from the warped love triangle of Les biches to Violette Nozière (1978) starring Isabelle Huppert (in the first of six films for Chabrol) as a patricidal teenage prostitute. The elliptical shooting and editing style in Le beau Serge only compounds the aftershock of unseen horrors -- like the rape scene which is reduced to a shot of the victim sobbing that her attacker "slipped in here like a serpent."

More than half a century later, Chabrol was still proving that explicitness has nothing on intimation in his last released work, The Girl Cut in Two. (Meanwhile, his final completed film, Bellamy, starring Gerard Depardieu, screened at last year's London Film Festival but remains unreleased here, though there is a Region 1 DVD available.)

Chabrol's pictures chipped away in a deceptively civilised fashion at the façade of bourgeois respectability, always finding blood-spattered immorality mere millimetres beneath the surface. One thing which set him apart from Hitchcock was his predominantly poker-faced filmmaking style; Hitchcock can practically be heard cackling behind his hand during parts of Psycho, The Birds and Marnie, but it is not always clear whether Chabrol's attitude is one of devilish amusement or anthropological curiosity. He understands his characters well enough, but what does he make of them?

Here he is, talking about the hedonistic quartet of young women in Les bonnes femmes (1960), and differentiating between his attitude toward character and social context:

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 [the screenwriter, Paul] Gégauff, 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.

The films are highly accessible, and intricately constructed, but Chabrol's perspective is often harder to crack. Despite his admission that "You have to avoid taking oneself too seriously", the humour in his movies is more deeply embedded, more enigmatic, than in Hitchcock's work. That said, he wasn't averse to Hitchcockian in-jokes or silliness, like the sign in a butcher's window in Poulet au vinaigre (1985), which reads: "Closed due to murder" (a macabre backwards nod to the plot of Le boucher).

But whereas Hitchcock sometimes lets the audience off with laughter, Chabrol gave the impression that the films were part of some broader political project which would last beyond the closing credits of any one picture. No matter how often this self-proclaimed Marxist aimed his barbs at the bourgeois, there was always the sense that there was more work to be done, that he knew each film was only one poisoned arrow in an ongoing shower.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism