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Anatomy of a murderous milieu

The veteran French director’s X-ray lens is as sharply focused as it ever was

The Girl Cut in Two (15)
dir: Claude Chabrol

A full half-century separates Claude Chabrol’s latest picture from his debut, Le beau Serge, commonly known as The Film That Kicked Off The Nouvelle Vague. But there is little evidence in The Girl Cut in Two that his X-ray lens, with its alertness to emotional fissures invisible to the naked eye, is losing clarity.

All right, so we could do without the fantasy epilogue that explains the title, but it is important that the film ends, as Le beau Serge did, with a lingering shot of a face that we have spent the preceding couple of hours trying to decipher.

In the earlier film, the privilege of that close-up went to Gérard Blain as Serge, a snarling drunk reduced finally to helpless, hopeful laughter by the wailing of his newborn child. Now it is Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a TV presenter flashing a sunbeam smile that bears no trace of her off-screen turmoil. That surname is a double joke. Gabrielle is a weather forecaster and, depending on your definition of innocence, possibly not as pure as the driven neige.

She has fallen in love with Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), a celebrated (and married) novelist who dispenses literary quotations the way other people offer handshakes. Charles whisks Gabrielle off to his city pad, where she allows herself to be seduced. “I’d like you to kiss me,” she says, pointedly setting aside his copy of The Handbook of Behaviour for Little Girls.

The film is careful to show that whatever Gabrielle does, no matter how unfathomable or extreme, she does because she wants to. We judge her at our peril.

Competing for her attentions is Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), spoilt-brat heir to a pharmaceutical company. Paul mistakenly believes he can have whatever he sets his sights on. He also resembles the singer from the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s unclear which is the greater misfortune.

Gabrielle puts paid to Paul’s sense of entitlement, choosing to rebuff, as anyone would, a proposal that incorporates the words, “I could marry you, if you like.” When she declines, he tries half-heartedly to strangle her.

But perhaps Charles’s affection is equally dubious. His manner is more sophisticated, his anger expressed with silence. The turning point of their relationship comes on Gabrielle’s birthday. Charles brings her to a members’ club where his friends line up to say “Bon anniversaire” in a most intimate fashion.

If any director can bring both discretion and subdued horror to a scene like this, it’s Chabrol.

The blast of Puccini and the lurid, red-tinted photography at the start of the film surely add up to a knowing joke; Chabrol is no Almodóvar, after all. He is the master of control and concealment, permitting the psychological suspense in his films to leak out in tiny, poisonous drops. Not for nothing is his most infamous sequence the school field-trip in Le Boucher where dollops of ketchup fall from an overhanging cliff-shelf on to the children’s picnic spread. Only it isn’t ketchup.

In Le beau Serge, Chabrol chose not to dramatise the scene in which an elderly man rapes the woman he once believed was his daughter. What he served up instead was far more tactful and more shocking: the woman sobbing as she told how he “slipped in here like a serpent”.

There are no sex scenes in The Girl Cut in Two, either, only charged instances of innuendo. Some are comical, such as the moment when Charles’s fingers freeze over his computer keys as Gabrielle, wearing peacock feathers in an unusual place (and I don’t mean the study), crawls under his desk. Others are elegantly creepy: for instance, the shot of Charles following Gabrielle as she climbs the club’s stairwell into the darkness.

Even for a spiral staircase, it looks gratuitously twisted.

Anyone familiar with the murder in 1906 of the architect Stanford White, the details of which form the basis of Chabrol and Cécile Maistre’s script, will know that the story doesn’t end with Charles, Gabrielle and Paul reaching a civilised agreement (as they might in a mid-period Bertrand Blier or Barbet Schroeder film).

But while the characters punish one another ceaselessly, Chabrol goes easy on them. He reserves his outright disdain for Paul’s wealthy clan, which emerges unscathed, even fortified, from the whole sorry business.

If the director, who turns 79 next month, has lost anything over the years, it isn’t his ability to sniff out the injustices of class, or his desire to rage against them.

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.