Chabrol vs. Chesterton on cavemen among us

March 7, 2010

In Error there is truth

The universe includes everything right and wrong that can be said about it, so I always pay close attention to statements that are very, very wrong.  You might learn something!  So too, with nasty and critical comments on this blog.  I have a thick skin.

I received a nasty one recently on my post deriding William F. Buckley:

Gessi Says: March 7, 2010

“But only a blockhead or someone uninterested in testing their ideas would be so confident that there is nothing more to know.” And yet the author of this blog is just as arrogant in his certainties as Buckley.

Well, maybe I spoke too harshly of the recently dead, but no matter.  This jibe at my personality led me to other comments on the same post by a Libertarian Catholic blogger with whom I occasionally exchange views.  He mentioned G.K. Chesterton a lot, a man I’ve never read, and one who came up in conversation recently.  And that led me back to Chabrol, and to my lingering feeling that there was something very unsatisfying about his acclaimed film, Le boucher.

Cavemen among us

In an article by Dorian Bell, Cavemen among us*, the author connects Chabrol’s film to Zola’s novel, La bête humaine, and traces the idea that within modern “civilized” man, there lurks a primeval savage that sometimes finds its way to the surface.  This idea is very much associated with Chabrol’s film in many treatments, and Chabrol himself is quoted in the Bell article as saying, “Je me suis demande´ si l’homme était toujours “cromagnonesque.” [I asked myself, if man is always cro-magnonesque.]

Bell does a very good job of dissecting the presence of this idea in the film:  the images of flesh and meat, dialogue about butcheries, human and animal, the juxtaposition of the pre-historic cave drawings with the young children on an outing with their sophisticated teacher, etc. etc.  Unlike most critics I’ve read, he actually hits the point that Hélène is complicit with Popaul in his murders, stating (my emphasis):

Popaul’s violence seems extreme in part because it was successfully consigned to the periphery for so long.  Now it is back, borne by a returning colonial soldier whose crimes Hélène, the picture of purity, cannot bring herself to reveal. Remember that in the years leading up to Le Boucher, the state-sanctioned torture employed by France in the Algerian war had been met by many with similar silence. Complicity, like Freudian atavism, spares no one, and in the guilty figure of Hélène, Chabrol updates the thematics of atavism for the postcolonial era.

Typically, for an academic, he situates the discussion in the cross-currents of imperialism, Freudianism, and an arcane reading of la representation, but he is on to a lot of things here.  Problem is, what if you reject Freudianism?  What if you are not a Marxist?  The article assumes that these points of view are beyond question, or at least that it is not interesting to question them.  After all, how then would academics meet their quota of publications?  Alas, I wonder if Chabrol questioned them when he made this film.

Freud’s troglodytes

Underneath all this talk of atavism, primitivism, and savagery -walking through the cavemen’s haunts, Hélène asks her students on the outing, “What do we call a savage desire that has been civilized? An aspiration!”  If this were an irony, I would like it more, but I think it represents a serious attempt to make sense of civilization by Chabrol.  Why should we accept this?  Freud’s very influential but very absurd book, Civilization and It’s Discontents was surely more popular in 1970 than it is now, even in France, and it proposes the idea that civilization prospers by repressing and sublimating the savage impulses of mankind.  What is absurd is that the book was written by a man who remarked, “As a young man, I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” Ah, well, maybe not quite well enough, because Civilization is little but an extended daydream.

Perhaps our ancestors were just as gentle and artistic as we are?  And here we have Chesterton, who writes of the popular notion of the caveman:

So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about, or treating women in general with what is, I believe, known in the world of the film as ‘rough stuff.’ I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded. Nor, as I have explained elsewhere, have I ever been able to see the probability of it, even considered a priori. We are always told without any explanation or authority that primitive man waved a club and knocked the woman down before he carried her off.

We know a lot more about pre-historic man now than we did when he wrote, and this image of the caveman lives on mostly in cartoons and satire, even to the point where it has been recycled ironically as the Geico caveman who is insulted at the prejudice directed against him, but it lives on rather untouched among many intellectuals who are more interested in culture than the science of paleolithic archaeology.  Chesterton is absolutely right – what reason do we have to think that the cavemen was a savage in temperament as well as in material circumstances?   If one is committed to the Freudian view of civilization, it’s a no brainer, but what if civilization (culture) are, as someone somewhere said, simply things to make life easier? People haven’t changed that much – we just get better at making our lives run smoothly…most of the time.  The myth of atavism is just a convenient intellectual crutch for those who would rather not think the hard questions of why we are as we are.  Not so hard, after all, because we’ve always been as we are.

Does Chabrol know what a cro-magnon man was like?  Does he care?  Or has he simply used an idea in-the-air to make a taut thriller with an intellectual gloss that dazzles lots of his followers?  Hélène’s student asks her on the outing, “What would Mr. cro-magnon do if he lived with us now?”  She answers, “I don’t know, maybe he would die...”  [Of course, how could he survive in this civilized hell-on-earth?  Really, Popaul is barely making it as it is!]  Ah, but the little girl says, “Too bad, I think he would be nice.”  We are supposed to think that is childish and cute, but perhaps she understands more than her teacher.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Darwinism and materialism were subject to so much polemical vulgarization, that the elegant refutations of them by G.K. Chesterton have no interest for me, an atheist.  We’ve moved on, or at least I have, but his dissection of the caveman myth is wonderful.  Similarly, Freud’s grand theories about sex, death, and culture, whether in his own words or those of his descendants like Herbert Marcuse, should be consigned to the realm of interesting literary ideas that have had too much influence.  Nobody but scholars of French literature puts much effort into fathoming Zola’s reconfiguration of Darwin into Le Rougon Macquart cycle.  We read the books for their literary value.  Atavism, an idea for the dustbin, along with it’s twin fantasy, the noble savage.

*Dorian Bell – Cavemen among us:  Geneaologies of atavism from Zola’s La bête humaine to Chabrol’s Le boucher.   French Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 1, 39–52


Le boucher préhistorique

March 6, 2010

Le boucher is rated by many as Chabrol’s best.  The blurb on my DVD even went so far as to rate it as one of the world’s greatest films of all time.  I liked it less than his others I have seen.  In some ways, it seems to touch the limits of the auteur way of cinema, and what people have written about it shows how faddishly intellectual many critics are.

In his usual precise, refined, and exquisitely minimalist way, Chabrol tells us the story of two people in a beautiful provincial town who form an unlikely couple.  He is the town butcher – unpretentious, charming in a bluff way, friendly and warm, and obviously, to us, the viewers, but apparently to nobody else, deeply troubled by his life experience, especially his years in the army fighting France’s colonial rearguard actions.  He knows all about blood, from his job and the army.  She is a classy and educated beauty from…Paris, perhaps, who is the school mistress.  She’s young for the job, but very capable.  She has self-confidence, manners, and a great wardrobe.  They meet at the wedding of one of her teachers and become friendly.  Seems like he is more into her than she is into him, definitely.  In conversations, he makes more and more allusions to the horrors he’s seen, but she doesn’t bat an eye – seems scarcely interested.

That is the story, except that there are some grisly murders going on in town – a madman is on the loose.  Given the way films are, how can we not suspect the butcher of doing the bloody business?  Despite the many reviews that cite nail-biting suspense, I felt little.  I don’t think that is a fault of Chabrol’s – I don’t think he works that way, but it says a lot about his reviewers.  The real story is the relationship of these two, and how little we understand it.

On an outing to the woods, Popaul, the butcher, sounds  out Hélène, the schoolmistress on love and sex.  She isn’t interested – she was jilted years ago and prefers to be celibate.  He says being without sex can make you crazy, and he is disgusted by her remark that there are ”other ways.”  She just doesn’t want to take the risk – then she gives him a birthday present of an unusual cigarette lighter.  (How did she know it was his birthday?)

When Hélène discovers the body of her teacher’s wife while on an outing with her class to the Cro-Magnon cave paintings nearby,  she finds the lighter that she gave Popaul, and conceals it.  I believe that this is a key moment in the film, and I was  surprised  that in the ten or twelve discussions of this film that I looked through, few mention it, or comment on its significance.  The reviewers are too busy discussing the nature of evil:  is the killer responsible for his deeds, or did society (the war) make him do it?  Only one Everyman reviewer hit on a key question:

The wife and me couldn’t make head nor tail of this movie. The schoolteacher doesn’t want no love or kissing. But she seems to like the butcher well enough. She even gives him a present. . .Now when the school teacher finds the cigarette lighter next to the body, it bothered her some. But she doesn’t do nothing! I never have been a lawyer, but I would say that makes her an accessory to a crime.

Later, she has dinner with Popaul, and he produces the lighter when she pulls out a cigarette.  She recognizes  it and begins sobbing with relief – that means he didn’t do it.  He has the lighter.  He offers to leave, and she says, “No, I need you!”  Finally, while painting her room as a favor, Popaul discovers his lighter in her drawer and realizes that she found it at the crime scene.  He takes it!  Then he comes back to kill her, confesses his madness, his love for her, and stabs himself.  She takes him on a long drive to the hospital, punctuated by his running chat about his obsessions, his lover for her, how only she could help him.  She is extraordinarily cool, hardly seems concerned.  He dies.  She looks at the river – what is she thinking?  Close call?  What have I done?  I’m all alone now?  No clue…

Hmm… Why did he take the lighter?  He couldn’t guess that she was perfectly willing to let him stay free, slashing girls, as long as he would be good company to her and not try and get her into bed.  Many reviewers raise the issue of whether Hélène is responsible for his crimes by refusing his request for love.  After all a man ain’t nothin’ but a man, and if he can’t get no lovin’, who knows what he gonna do!  Basic needs, savage substrate beneath civilized veneer…all fluff and window dressing I say.  To the extent that Chabrol intended to convey those facile ideas, he veered onto the wrong track.

No, the commenter had it right.  Hélène is the accomplice, and is responsible.  Not because she didn’t want to go to bed with him – why should she?  Doesn’t she have the right to live singly if she wants?  My guess is that a lot of reviewers think she does not, think that this is unnatural.  Hah!  Probably they wish they were in bed with Stéphane Audran!  Nope, she is responsible because she is a deeply selfish and amoral person who is unperturbed by the fact that she left a murderer loose to kill an innocent woman just so she could carry on with a relationship that satisfied her.  Popaul is pathetic and mad, she is truly frightening.  This is the underhanded brilliance of the film, but I think a lot of critics have missed it with their preoccupation with social criticism, class mores, conventionality, the violence that underlies all culture, yada, yada, yada…

Or…is Vincent Canby correct when he says:

I find it impossible to accept the suggestion that Chabrol ultimately makes, that is, that Mile. Hélène could have saved the psychotic killer from himself had she not been afraid to love, and that, by withholding her love, she is in some way as much of a beast as he is, fit to be condemned to eternal loneliness.

Not sure who is outfoxing whom in this maze, but it seems to me that Chabrol is not suggesting that she is beast for simply withholding her love for the reasons that I suggest.  Why else would he be so insistent on the point, through the police inspector, that if no clue is found, more women will die, and that if she has anything at all of interest, she should contact him immediately.  Not to mention that he compliments her on her remarkable sang froid when she found the cropse.  She knows what she is doing, or might be doing, and she does it anyway.  Her real crime is quite pedestrian after all, and says little about the state of civilization.  When Popaul faces her with a knife, she closes her eyes.  If he kills her, she knows she deserves it.  He’s actually a better person than she, so he kills himself.

I said that this film hints at the limit of the auteur.  After feasting on Chabrol, I feel the need for some industrialized entertainment.  One man, one intellectual, one vision, one set of obsessions…not the only way to do art.  Hitchcock famously said that this is one of two films he wished he’d made.  I sort of wish he had too.  His blood curdling humor and total lack of intellectual hobbyhorses might have made for a more powerful tale.


Violence – exemplary and otherwise

February 25, 2010

The brilliant Professor Wanowsky weighs in on the most crucial political question:  evolution or revolution?

My previous post on the film, La cérémonie, evoked some comments on class conflict and violence.  This is an issue that has interested me for some time:  both the serious questions about whether or when violence is justified, or even practical;  and the way that violence is romanticized by political types of various stripes.  I consider the Left and the Right, the bolshevik and the fascist attachment to violence to be romantic, overtly so in the case of most fascists, especially the Italians, and covertly so among the devotees of the cult of terror in revolutionary Russia.  (They liked to think they were always being scientific.)

Pancime’s comment on that post got me thinking once again of an old comic by Robert Crumb – click on the image to see the entire rant by Professor Wanowsky (my italics):

Reading Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and current school texts and academic works in this country – all of which celebrate or promote violence – leads me to believe that there is a violent strain of the revolutionist left that is still strong and seeks to depose by violence whoever it constructs as its enemy. In this country that enemy is despised in part merely for its commitment to peaceful change.

Ah yes, the eternal argument between the “candy-assed liberals” and the real radicals committed to change.  The good Professor captures the tone of that split so well!

Pancime also pointed me to the Papin sisters, who were an inspiration to many French intellectuals (what is the matter with those guys…and gals?) and certainly to Claude Chabrol.  Two maids who maimed and killed their employers and were found huddled together in bed in 1933.  For some, there was clearly a ideological frisson to be had if you could stomach the bloodshed.

“In its broad outline, the tragedy of the Papin sisters was immediately clear to us. . .One must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters. The horror of this all-consuming machine could only be rightfully denounced by an exemplary act of horror: the two sisters had made themselves the instruments and martyrs of a sombre form of justice… For two bourgeois women hacked to pieces, a bloody atonement was required.   The killer wasn’t judged.  He acted as a scapegoat…” (my italics)

Simone Beauvoir in La Force de l’âge

This intellectual romanticizing of violence, often dissembled as hard-nosed realism, is not foreign to America:

In America all too few blows are struck into flesh. We kill the spirit here, we are experts at that. We use psychic bullets and kill each other cell by cell.

Norman Mailer

Moving along to the right, we have the oft-quoted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who put his aesthetic into practice and  became an early supporter of Italian fascism:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns.

And finally, Lenin, in a rare moment of intellectual undress:

I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. These days, one can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. Hence, you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm – what a devillishly difficult job!

This quote was spoken in full by the heroic Soviet figure skater man-of-ice while Melina, the hot socialist babe, is trying to get him to warm up to her in the fantastic film WR:  Mysteries of the Organism.


Ladies in Distress – Chabrol & Pakula

February 22, 2010

 

The film world is not one that features lots of strong women characters, unless their strength is heavily overlaid with softness, and unless they are in distress.  Two females here:  the first is Catherine from Claude Chabrol’s Masques; the second, of course, is Bree from Klute - both are victimized by predatory males and need saving by a handsome young man.  At least they show a lot of spunk in the process!

These two go together well in their sort-of minimalist approach to the thriller, and the creation of a stifling atmosphere of “paranoia.”  In Masques, we find a young man staying at a plush country estate with a fabulously popular host from a French TV game show – a gong show for old people, without the gong.  The young fellow is writing his biography, so he says, but he is obviously searching for clues about a missing woman.  The host’s young female ward, Catherine, is a wilted flower of a young woman, under continual medication, sensitive to the sunlight, tall, slim, and pretty in that emaciated pale way that some French women bring off on-screen.  We learn that the older man is a monster behind his mask, willing to kill his mother for a good picture by Monet, and probably killing with poison the young woman whom he is also fleecing of her inherited wealth.  The cat and mouse game between the young and the old man ends with the priest of TV good feeling de-frocked on-screen, and the two young people happily betrothed.

This film is very clever and witty.  Small bits of dialog are so revealing.  The host is horribly allergic to feathers – they will be his death!  When his thug-chauffeur is carrying the drugged body of the young girl to her nasty end, he comments, “Oh, she’s light as a feather.”  Little touches like that abound in this film, and all the characters are wonderful, but especially Phillipe Noiret, as the devil with a beaming face.

Chabrol visits again the theme he treated in Ten Days of Wonder:  the evil, controlling God-the-Father, but with a lighter touch.  The only problem I have with the film is that Catherine’s impetuous infatuation with the young houseguest – she brings him some hangers and then embraces him passionately and without preamble! – seemed very odd to me.  Was she spending her time there waiting for a new guest to fall in love with..?

The woman who needs saving in Alan Pakula’s Klute, is not a pretty young thing – she’s a hard-as-nails independent prostitute.  The man stalking her is unseen by her, ever watchful, powerful, rich, and psychotic.  Anyone who has watched a lot of movies won’t be surprised by anything that happens in this film – do we need to be surprised to feel suspense? – all the tension comes from the characters.  We know that Klute will save Bree, but will they stay together?  Will Klute ever open up and … smile?  Will Bree ever allow herself to not be in control of her life and feelings?  That’s the real suspense story. 

The film is eerie and sinister.  In this age of cell phones, pocket digital equipment and cameras, the tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder at the center of the psychotic vortex is a devilishly scary prop.  The dispatching of the villain, wonderfully played by Charles Cioffi, is simple, clean, and abstract,  in keeping with the look and feel of the movie.  A real pleasure, this one.


Chabrol & Playing God – 1925

February 7, 2010

Van Horn lives and rules in 1925 forever.

Ten Days of Wonder is a film by Claude Chabrol based on a mystery novel by Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of two cousins who produced a stream of very popular mystery tales and products in the 40s and 50s.  Chabrol said he became an avid fan during the German occupation of France:  I don’t share his love of mysteries – even Poe’s tales of deduction leave me cold – but I liked this film a lot.  It’s a weird gothic tale with a soundtrack by Bach.

I find it hard to grasp the notion of Chabrol getting the idea to make a movie of a Queen book, but, like any culture-struck Yank, I guess French means Art to me.  On their side of the sea, they are fascinated by our pop culture – Jerry Lewis, murder mysteries, noir, and detectives.  I don’t quite get it, and thus, the New Wave of French Cinema leaves me cold.  Funny, this issue doesn’t come up for me with Hitchcock, another cinematic artist who was at home with the whodunnit, and to whom Chabrol has a close connection.

In the film, the elder van Horn (Orson Welles) lives in splendid isolation in an Alsatian manor, and likes to pretend it’s 1925 – everything was good then.  His drunken mother hangs out in the attic.  His adopted son, Charles (Anthony Perkins)  worships him, but has a father complex, as well as a passion for his young stepmother, a pretty, lithe thing that God, …er Dad, rescued from rural poverty and then married.  She worships him too, of course, but loves Charles.

The two lovers fear the wrath of Father and are being blackmailed by an unknown caller who is in possession of some love letters that Charles sent.  After the second money drop, I figured out the identity of the blackmailer – am I good with voices or was I supposed to know? – but since I don’t care about cinematic exercises in deduction, it didn’t matter to me.

Charles, poor stressed-out boy, is subject to blackouts now and then that last for days,  and he fears he may kill someone during one of them.  He invites Paul Regis (Michel Piccoli), his former professor, to the manor to try and help sort things out.  Paul’s renowned logical mind can surely produce some light in his darkness, and he consents to play the part of the Ellery Queen detective figure in this drama.

I have never read an Ellery Queen, and this plot doesn’t make me want to start now.  Ah…but in this film, the entire story is a complex fabric of themes related to patriarchy, oedipal frustration, sin, repression, arrogance, Original Sin, and more…There’s something about these lapsed Catholics (Chabrol was one) – the old black magic never quite lets go.  The film seemed to me to be two running parallel at once – the weird psycho-drama,  and the tedious detective story.  Clearly Chabrol is someone I must investigate further.  The only film of his I know is La Ceremonie.

The stills below are from the mesmerizing sequence when the elder van Horn/Yahweh (Welles) exacts his terrible revenge on his young wife, Helene (Marlène Jobert)

This sequence recalled to my mind another strange film that involves a mad, arrogant, male god-figure who dispatches passive beautiful women using a straight razor with balletic finesse, The Night of the Hunter.

On the DVD, there is a comment by Chabrol that is something like, “What I like is beautiful women being sliced with razors in circumstances  très distinguées.”  Hmm…and that chilling blue!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers