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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Young and Promising is the next best new TV comedy about “struggling millennials”

It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

You know things are bleak when every mainstream comedy derives its humour from just how fucked up it is to be young today. Girls, Broad City, Search Party, Insecure, Fleabag, Love, This Country, You’re The Worst... the list of on-screen women in their 20s “just doing their best to figure it all out” is endless.

Over on Channel 4 tonight, a new overgrown child of the genre debuts, albeit one with a slight difference. Young and Promising (or Unge Lovende) makes its way to mainstream UK TV from Norway’s NRK (the channel that brought us Skam, the best teen drama of the decade) as part of All 4’s Walter Presents programme, which offers a chance to experience shows from around the globe. It’s Norwegian, subtitled, gently funny and very honest.

Young and Promising is written by its lead actress, Siri Seljeseth, who plays Elise, an aspiring comedian based in LA who returns home to Oslo to renew her tourist visa. The show also follows her two best friends (played by Seljeseth’s real friends from the Nordic Institute of Stage and Studio): Nenne (Gine Cornelia Pedersen), a waitress and unpublished fiction writer, and Alex (Alexandra Gjerpen), who is at the crucial stages of auditions for the Norwegian National Academy of Theatre for the fourth year in a row. 

It’s Elise whom we see the most of in tonight’s opening double-bill, which follows her from LA to the US Embassy in Oslo as she tries to get back to California. In Norway, it watches her struggle to handle a relationship she had left hanging, with her ruggedly handsome best friend Anders, whom she slept with the night before she first left for LA. It’s her home life, however, that’s most intriguing: her domineering father has cheated on her nervous, psychoanalytic mother and is having a baby with another woman. Who? “I don’t think that is relevant in this situation,” he insists. “This won’t affect you in a greater extent.” 

Meanwhile, Nenne is rejecting male publishers who fetishise her work as a new cool feminist voice. She uses her waitressing job to her advantage, assisting a senior publisher suffering from alcohol-induced vomiting and diarrhea in order to call in a favour later. But it’s Alex who has the stand out plotline, with some of the most complex and moving scenes of the show. She is simultaneously the most ambitious and most disillusioned character, played at breaking point by Gjerpen. When, in a key audition, her male scene partner suddenly forces his hand between her thighs, she snaps, and spends the rest of the episode lurching between hot tears of guilt over losing the scene, and painful conversations with peers about “being in character”.

Young and Promising has drawn countless comparisons to Girls, as any new show about mid-20s creative women does, but it’s friendlier, less cinematic and more down to earth than much of that series. The laughs don’t hit as hard, but its lead characters are fundamentally much more likeable. If you’re a struggling millennial comedy addict, or searching for something to fill the Norwegian hole Skam left in your life, Young and Promising is for you.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.