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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump