The great French film critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol, one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. With the death of Eric Rohmer earlier in the year and widespread speculation that the most recent films of Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) will be their last, it is beginning to feel more and more like the end of an era.
Chabrol was never the most respected of the major French New Wave directors; the quality of his amazingly prolific output probably varied more wildly from film to film than the work of any of his compatriots. But the man made more than his fair share of masterpieces, especially during an incredible six year run from 1968 – 1973, and he cultivated a style that was completely and unmistakably his own. Absorbing lessons in technical virtuosity from his heroes Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol made “classical” thrillers that were shot through with a vein of dark comedy, a scathing critique of the bourgeoisie (which, crucially, one always felt contained an element of self-criticism) and a legendary appreciation for fine cuisine.
Chabrol once wrote an amusing article honoring American genre master Robert Aldrich in which he named a “dirty dozen” of his favorite Aldrich films. Given Chabrol’s obsession with food and scenes involving eating, here is a “baker’s dozen” of my own favorite Claude Chabrol films.
In chronological order:
Les Cousins (1959)
Chabrol’s second feature, about a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to share an apartment with his decadent, city-bred cousin, is one of the most significant early French New Wave films and contains seeds of the director’s mature work; a darkly ironic tragedy contrasting two characters on opposite ends of the moral compass.
Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Chabrol’s first masterpiece follows a quartet of young women as they search for love in a modern, freewheeling Paris. What starts out as a charming and humorous document of a newly-swinging era gradually darkens until Chabrol delivers a shocking and unforgettable finale.
L’avarice (1962) / La Muette (1965)
One respect in which Chabrol absolutely schooled his fellow New Wavers was in the making of short films. The highlights of the omnibus films The Seven Deadly Sins and Six in Paris respectively, L’avarice and La Muette are like perfectly executed short stories, featuring droll, devilishly clever endings worthy of Poe, and guaranteed to stick with you for a very long time.
Les Biches (1968)
The beginning of Chabrol’s mature period is this elegant psycho-drama about a love triangle between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s architect and two bisexual women: the rich, beautiful Frederique (Chabrol’s then wife Stephane Audrane) and a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Chabrol’s philosophy of “simple plots, complex characters” pays dividends in this mysterious but humanistic character study.
La Femme Infidele (1969)
One of Chabrol’s best loved films is this stylish and ingenious thriller about a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and plots the murder of her lover. Chabrol expertly employs Hitchcock’s famous theme of the “transfer of guilt” so that the movie becomes a fascinating inquiry into the concept of moral relativism.
This Man Must Die (1969)
The story of a grieving father who hatches an elaborate scheme to find and get revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his only son, this is yet another beautifully crafted thriller that gains resonance through its examination of the weighty themes of solitude, grief, guilt and justice.
Le Boucher (1970)
My personal favorite Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.
La Rupture (1970)
As a pure genre piece, this may be Chabrol’s most entertaining film; in advance of an ugly divorce / child custody battle, a wealthy older couple hire a private investigator to “find dirt” on their daughter-in-law at all costs. Jean-Pierre Cassel is terrific as the slimy P.I. and the film’s psychedelic climax will blow your mind.
Wedding in Blood (1973)
The end of Chabrol’s golden age is marked by this brooding, sinister tale of marital infidelity and small town politics. Stephane Audrane plays the last in a series of cool, enigmatic Chabrol women named Helene, this time as a mayor’s wife engaged in an affair with her husband’s assistant, a perfectly cast Michel Piccoli.
Story of Women (1988)
Both atypical and a return to form, this Isabelle Huppert vehicle recounts the true story of a woman who performed illegal abortions during the second World War in Nazi-occupied France. A complex and riveting historical drama featuring one of Huppert’s very best performances.
La Ceremonie (1995)
The masterpiece of Chabrol’s late period, this pertinent study of contemporary class warfare centers on the relationship between Sophie (the great Sandrine Bonnaire), an illiterate maid, and Jeanne (Huppert again), the postal worker who spurs her on to stand up to her wealthy employers. In a career filled with memorable finales, Chabrol outdoes himself by ending La Ceremonie on a note of apocalyptic perfection.
The Bridesmaid (2003)
A lot of Chabrol’s post-La Ceremonie work was devoted to lightweight genre fare, agreeable but forgettable mysteries like The Swindle and Merci pour le chocolat, but he made a roaring comeback with The Bridesmaid. In this unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a salesman falls in love with the enigmatic title character and, unaware that she is mentally unstable, jokingly agrees to “exchange murders” with her. A deeply satisfying, multi-layered film, as fun to think about afterwards as it is to watch.