Is the war over?

January 20, 2013

Yves Montand stars in the Alain Resnais film, La guerre est finie, from 1966.  It takes place a year or two before that, and is a portrait of a professional revolutionary who is getting worn out by it all.  Montand is Carlos, or Domingo, or any one of a bunch of different alias, a dedicated communist in the anti-Franco resistance.  He’s been hiding his own Spanish identity for so long, moving back and forth across the border with Spain, that he says he sometimes he forgets himself that he is a Spaniard.

Spain was a fascist state in those days – Franco didn’t die for another ten years or so.  People resisting his rule are killed, imprisoned, and harassed. Meanwhile, millions of Europeans and Americans see Spain as the perfect summer vacation spot.  Carlos is wondering if times have changed so much that the old strategies need an update.

Unfortunately, being a member of a communist underground means he has to discuss, theorize, and justify everything in terms of the approved catechism of The Party.  In the image above, he is learning that his controlling committee no longer trusts his judgement: how could he doubt that organizing, yet again, for a general strike is the correct strategy?  He has been in Madrid too long, too close to the day to day struggles.  He has lost site of the bigger picture, the true state of ‘historical conditions.’  He needs a rest for six months, or longer.  Time to reacquaint himself with the timeless truths of Lenin and The Party.  Of course, when the man picked to replace him in Madrid has a heart attack, Carlos is suddenly suitable for work ‘on the ground’ and is told to return immediately.

While all this is going on, Carlos meets Nadine, a young student who with quick thinking, gets him out of a fix with the authorities.  She’s in the anti-Franco movement too, and she involves him in a meeting with her committee.  They are all very young, and they are scornful of the fuddy-duddy Marxists in Carlos’ group who continually use the same old tactics.  He has to admit, they have a point – exactly his criticisms.  But what do they plan to do?  Detonate plastic explosives in a terrorist action to disrupt tourism in Spain.  Carlos walks out in disgust.

What’s a thinking man to do?  He follows orders, and returns to Spain, but Nadine finds out at the last minute that he will be trapped.  The committee taps Carlos’ lover to rush to Spain to try to head him off and warn him.  The film ends without us knowing if she succeeds.  Seems either way, the war is over for him.

Resnais uses his signature editing techniques to disrupt the viewers normal sense of narrative.  It effectively raises the level of suspense while allowing us to follow Carlos’ plight with intense interest.

He loved Balzac

January 16, 2012

In summaries of the plot of The 400 Blows, Antoine, the young boy whose sorry life is chronicled over a period of a few months, is often referred to as “misunderstood.”  Ignored and treated like a piece of wood is more like it.  The adults around him, beginning with his sexy young mother who finds him irritating, his teachers, and adult officialdom generally, have no interest in him at all, his growth, his mind, his feelings, or his future.  They just want to have him “taken care of” in some institutionally acceptable way.

In the only scene in which Antoine reflects on his life, speaking to an (unseen) psychologist at a delinquent ‘observation’ center to which he is sent after being picked up for stealing, Antoine reveals that he knows more about his situation than any adult.  He knows he is an unwanted child, that his mother has affairs, that his parents regard him as a burden, and that the world, generally, sees him as a worthless scapegrace bound for jail or the military.  The film presents his story with great economy, verve, and profound sympathy.  Today, we know it was highly autobiographical of the young Francois Truffaut’s life, who burst onto the scene as a director with this film at the age of 27 in 1959.

I am not a fan of Truffaut, finding him sentimental and too sweet, but this film is stark:  only the soundtrack mars the tone, adding a treacly and naïvely innocent contrast  to the bleak tale of the ‘real world’ grinding young boys to dust between its wheels.  As if we had to have that idea pounded into us that these are, after all, just very young boys.  And speaking of pounding, the title, a literal but misleading translation of the French, refers to the idiomatic expression, faire les quatre-cent coups, which means “to raise hell.”

The only things that rouse Antoine’s genuine enthusiasm are films, and a book of Balzac that his grandmother gave him.  (His mother regards it as rubbish, and sells it.)  Pressed to find a topic for a homework assignment, he plagiarizes Balzac’s story, In Search of the Absolute, which he had been reading with rapt attention that evening.  He even lights a candle to a miniature shrine to Balzac that he creates in his house.  The candle sets the room on fire; his teacher gives him an ‘F’.  The fact that this delinquent, under-achiever had actually read a Balzac story doesn’t interest him at all.

Going Places?

November 6, 2011

“Life affirming?” or simply trash?  To say that you don’t like a film like Going Places, 1974 (the original French title is slang for “testicles”) is to immediately fall into the camp of the stuffy bourgeois uptight people against whom it tried so hard to transgress.  To say that it is a meaningless exercise in superficial nihilism mixed with sentimentality is, to some critics, to offer it high praise.  What’s a crank to do?

Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere play two narcissistic, sadistic, and thoroughly macho-misogynistic hoods who rob and screw their way across southern France in this ‘existential’ road movie.  Oh, they’re not really misogynistic, because they are really happy when their sex partner (Miou-Miou) finally has an orgasm with a young ex-con.  They’re just angry that they didn’t give it to her.  Of course, this is after they abused, terrorized, and shot her earlier in the film, but she likes their style.

The two buddies love each other.  And when there are no girls around to fuck, the big one will screw the smaller one.  (One of the errors repeated in many reviews is that they do not have sex, but it’s pretty clear that they do.  And the raped one says he feels humiliated.  His buddy says it’s natural between friends.  Another error is to call Isabelle Huppert a co-star, when she’s onscreen for only a few minutes at the end.)  They force themselves on women with a mixture of brutal charm – they are handsome – and outright intimidation.  But hey, they are always laughing.

The amazing thing about this film, besides the scenery, is that it isn’t totally revolting, but then I’m not a female.  It’s very slick, beautifully shot, and the actors are great.  It’s just…er…why make this film?  Unless you really are into machismo bonding and treacly buddy sentimentality, and why is that anything but the same old, same old?  Oh yes, there’s Jeanne Moreau, tragically beautiful, making love to the two young hunks and then shooting herself in the vagina so she can have a period one last time…pretty sick, eh?  But it’s art.  There’s also a fair amount of comedy, sometimes right out of Laurel and Hardy; two guys, similarly dressed, different physiques, moving in sync.

Cars, stolen and borrowed, are a crucial prop in the movie, symbolizing bourgeois materialism and providing locomotion in this road movie.  The Citroen DS, France de luxe, is the car that starts them going and ends the film.  (The boys hate France – stealing a Citroen has got to really stick it to the buggie establishment!) Their old Citroen breaks down, and they ‘liberate’ Huppert from her stifling bourgeois family after she calls her father a stinkin’ engineer.  Ooh!  She drives away with them in Daddy’s DS, after telling the hoods that Maman has 200,000 Francs in her purse.  When she reveals to them that she’s a virgin, the two guys do her while Miou-Miou holds her head in her lap.  God, what nice guys they are.  They leave her by the side of the road because it would be kidnapping to keep her with them, despite her pleas.  Hope they left her car fare.

As they career around the mountain curves, Jean Claude (Depardieu) muses, Why not just drive until we run out of gas?  It doesn’t matter where we go.  We have the sunlight, the fresh air, we can fuck whenever we want…  Sooo existential, so absurd!  I’m just gonna run and get my copy of L’Etranger right away!

Le cercle rouge

October 25, 2011

Le cercle rouge (The Red Circle), is another Melville love song to American crime flicks (and American cars!)  It’s in color, but pretty bleak looking, appropriate for un film noir véritable.  It begins with a phony Buddhist text about the inevitability of men meeting in the red circle – I love that he made that up! – predestination and fate.  The moral heft is provided by a pipe smoking bewhiskered policeman who informs his subordinate that “tout les hommes sont cupables:” all men are guilty.  All.  They start out innocent, but it doesn’t last.  A nice dose of Christian original sin and French cynicism in the otherwise amoral tale.  Between the Eastern fate and the French sin, the red circle is pulled tightly around the men in the film.

I did say men, didn’t I?  I don’t think there is a woman with a speaking part in the story.  Women exist only as chorus girls in a tacky nightclub, scantily clad waitresses who pout a lot with their pretty faces, and one naked woman eavesdropping, and appearing in a photograph which the ‘hero’ contemptuously discards on his release from jail.

The story revolves around an ambitious heist in a deluxe jeweler’s showroom.  There’s a fancy alarm system that only a crack marksman can disarm.  The theft takes place in almost complete silence, and lasts for nearly one half-hour of the film, a nod to Rififi, no doubt, and just as in that movie, they all die.  There is a great sequence during the heist when the marksman, Yves Montand, after carefully setting up his tripod and rifle for the crucial shot at a miniscule target, suddenly grabs the gun off the stand, his comrades in crime are confused and surprised, but in one quick move, he raises the gun to make a sight and hits the target.  That’s good shooting!  Bart, from Gun Crazy, would approve.

The film begins with a prisoner, the ugly fellow below, being escorted on a train by a cop, handcuffed together.  The prisoner makes a brazen escape when the train slows down, and the cop is in hot water.  His superior asks him, “Did you think he wasn’t guilty?”  implying that he let his guard down because he was not tried and convicted yet.  Tout les hommes sont cupables.  The cop seems like a bit of a goof – we see him fussing over his cats – but he’s got what it takes in the end.

The escaped man meets Corey (Alain Delon) by chance, or fate as it were.  Delon’s sang froid is matched by the damp, icy landscapes through which they drive, shooting and looting.  The movie was a joy to watch, especially after a string of B-movie noir duds I’ve tried.

Yves Montand plays an ex-cop gone bad who happens to be suffering from the DTs when Corey taps him for this new job.  He declines his share of the loot:  he’s just happy to be off the sauce, with his ‘beasts’ locked away.  The images below are from his nightmare just before he gets the phone call to join the heist crew.  I like the iguanas, of course.

He makes a pretty quick, and not all that believable, recovery from the depths of alcoholism, finishing up with this sequence as he cooly lowers his pistol for a dead-on shot at his pursuers.  It doesn’t do him any good, of course.

Le deuxième souffle

May 15, 2011

Another film by Meville (the title translates as The Second Wind, as in another chance) with some new turns by the cast in Army of Shadows.  This one is about the world of gangsters, but its tone is not much different from that of his drama of the French WWII resistance, and the theme of honor and loyalty to comrades is important to both.

Lino Ventura plays Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, a very tough thug whom we meet at the opening in the midst of a silent jailbreak.  One man falls to his death:  no one bats an eye.  The only thing that gets Gu excited is the notion that he might be a rat, and the not-too-bright police chief, Fardiano, spreads the story that Gu informed in order to drive him crazy, and maybe to talk.  Eventually, Gu exacts a terrible revenge that includes a signed statement that he did not inform on his mates to be delivered to the newspapers.  His honor among fellow thieves is his

life.  Even the Machiavellian police inspector, Commissaire Brot, grants him his due – after nabbing him  – by allowing the letters to be given to the newspaper.  Brot is always just a little closer to his prey than we expect in a big league Parisian policeman.

The glamor in the story radiates from Manouche, whom we, or at least I, thought was a love interest of Gu’s at first.  She is brought to his hideout for an elegant dinner, for which another thug brings Gu the proper attire.  They embrace on meeting, but we don’t see their faces, so it’s not obvious if their lips are meeting.  Most of the summaries I see of this film assume that they are engaged, or lovers, but later in the story, she is introduced as Gu’s sister.  During dinner, she says,  “We’ve been crooks since we were kids (les gosses)”.  Melville certainly is intrigued by mystified sibling relationships – a key element of the plot of Army of Shadows.

Here’s a post from another blog where the writer observes:

Manouche ( Christine Fabréga ) runs a chic Parisian restaurant, she is very concerned when she learns of Gus’s escape. Is she his girlfriend? An ex-lover? No, she is in fact his sister and their relationship is an intriguing and unique one.

In Melville by Rui Nogueria, Melville says that in French gangster slang “sister” is a term for girlfriend.  I believe Manouche is really Gu’s sister but the implied incest adds a compelling dimension to their relationship and Melville says “If I’ve let it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me- or rather because of the great homonyms Pierre or the Ambiguities.”

Jean-Pierre Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach) using one of  Melville’s lesser-known novels to dispel ambiguity – what a rabbit hole to go down!

The film is based on a novel by the author who wrote the story of Le Trou.

Pépé le Moko

July 5, 2010

Decades before the French came up with the term of endearment, film noir,  for those dark, melodramatic and fatalistic movies churned out by Hollywood in the forties and fifties, they had already made a classic one!  Jean Gabin plays, Pépé, the man from Marseilles, a smooth, handsome, charming, and rather lighthearted criminal who saves his reserves of brutality for when they are really needed.  For two years, he has been hiding out in the casbah of Algiers, the old city of endless labyrinthine streets, and as long as he doesn’t venture forth into the newer colonial town, the police can never get him.

This is not to say that the cops don’t know where he is, only that it is futile and foolhardy to try and arrest him there.  He is among friends, people who are no friends of the police.  One local inspector is on quite friendly terms with him, joking with him that the date of his arrest is written already (Asiatic kismet) and that he need only wait.  In the image above, Pépé jokes with the policeman, talking to him as if he is a pretty tart who has accosted him on the street.  “What nice mascara you have, dear,” Pépé tells him, and then tweaks his nose while walking away to a romantic rendezvous.

Pépé is tough, but he has a soft spot.  Yes, he is undone by women, although not quite the way you would expect.  I thought I knew the film’s ending, but it surprised me.  He is done in by three women:  Inez, his gypsy lover; Gaby, the gorgeous and gorgeously dressed Parisienne who starts out slumming fashionably in the casbah but falls for Pépé; and Paris, la belle Paris that he misses so much that he smells the metro in Gaby’s perfume.  He is done in by nostalgia for his old haunts – hiding out in the Algiers has become insufferable to him, and he does something desparate, just as the inspector knew he would.

He confesses that he was only pretending to sleep – he was daydreaming of Paris.  That’s what she is to him.  Her perfume, it smells of the the metro!

Sometimes, one must be brutal to get the truth, especially from a weasel informer. “That’s the truth!,” he squeals. “Find another truth,” and he keeps on choking him.

Gaby is always dressed to the nines because she is the kept woman of a wealthy businessman.  But she is tired of him, and wants to go to the casbah.  He tells her, “I won’t have you acting like a…” “Like what, exactly?  That’s what I am to you!”  The girl has few illusions.  She throws her jewels on the bed and storms out, but, wait!  “I must be crazy!!”   She retrieves the jewels and then walks out.

A simple lie keeps Gaby from running to him.  She has no choice but to stay with her Monsieur.  Pépé’s lover comes to the fancy hotel to warn him away from the trap that awaits, but the shot of her through the revolving door to the lobby shows the unbridgeable distance between that world and her world, the casbah.  She never gets inside.

He’s caught.  The inspector handcuffs him, but grants him a wish.  He lets him stay to watch the boat sail away with Gaby.  Through the bars – he’s imprisoned already, by his own desires – he can barely make her out on the deck, taking a last look at Algiers.

The shot zooms into her perfectly fashionable face and suit.  She doesn’t see him or hear him over the noise of the engines.  She’s in another world, the world of Paris, already.

Pépé dies.  Killed by a femme fatale?  Victim of his own dreams and longing?  Plaything of society?  The inspector and his lover attend him in a tableau, the sagging pathetic corpse brought low, the bending figures, the vertical lines of judicial and penal order, that brings to mind The Deposition.

This essay from the Criterion edition of the DVD, discusses the tremendous influence of this movie on all subsequent gangster and noir flicks.


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.

Les Biches – Chabrol (1968)

March 4, 2010

Got to hand it to Chabrol, he knew how to keep politics and art separate when he wanted to.  1968, and what does he make, a jewel-like exercise in psychological storytelling.

Les Biches means, the does, or fawns, and also the girls, or chicks, with connotations of bad girls.  One is a street artist who draws fawns on the sidewalk, and is picked up by Stéphane Audran, a rich, bored, bi-sexual ice queen.  The other girl is a bit of cipher, and she becomes absorbed by, and obsessed with the identity of her keeper.  There’s a bit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here – one woman being transformed into another, albeit from very different motives.  There’s not much suspense – the end is clearly foreshadowed early on – and the male character in this dysfunctional ménage is rather ambiguous:  what will he do at the end when he arrives to find that the double has killed his lover…accept her as a replacement?

The cool, precise aesthetic that is the draw of this film struck me forcibly during this brief sequence showing Frédéric rising from her bed, dressed in immaculate white pyjamas, in her rather spartan bedroom.  Look at how she gets up – she doesn’t bend her back at all!  Her posture is ramrod straight.  It looks as if she is sliding off the bed quite naturally, but every element of her movement is controlled and thought out, like a model, an actress, a creation.

This blogger gives an extended treatment in the same vein to the climactic murder scene, focusing on the precise camera work and editing of Chabrol.