Claude Chabrol Essay - Critical Essays

Chabrol, Claude


Claude Chabrol 1930–

French director, screenwriter, and actor.

Chabrol is generally acknowledged as an important new wave filmmaker. His films are conventionally constructed and his plots are somewhat similar from film to film. Although his work has been compared to that of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol marries the master's sense of intrigue with a deep probing into human relationships.

Chabrol worked as a publicity man for Twentieth Century-Fox in Paris, and later became a highly regarded film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. He collaborated with Eric Rohmer on a highly respected study of Hitchcock's films, which was published in 1957. Soon after he began working on Le Beau Serge, his first film. This film is considered the forerunner of the new wave, characterized by the use of unknown actors, low budget techniques, and the highly personal attitude of the filmmaker towards his work. Although the critical success of François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour brought the movement to fruition, Chabrol's film set the stage for the acceptance of the less-polished, individualistic style of the new wave film-makers.

Chabrol directed many films during the late fifties and sixties, usually incorporating themes similar to Le Beau Serge, often with uneven results. Les Cousins concerns a relationship between two dissimilar cousins who are law students, and ends in murder. Les Biches involves a ménage à trois between two lesbians and a male lover, also culminating in murder. Les Biches, Le Boucher, and a number of his other films have starred Stéphane Audran, his second wife, in roles which are typically mysterious and doom-ridden.

Chabrol's work has been for the most part commercial successes. His work was at first linked with the works of Truffaut and Godard, but he has since turned to more conventional techniques. Unlike many of the new wave films, Chabrol's films are not autobiographical. "Telling your own story seems disgusting to me," he has said. Rather, his films are detached studies of characters whose sexual ambiguity and overpowering influences on each other most often lead to violent death.

R. H. Turner

[In The Cousins] Chabrol presents a dispiriting picture of a group of Parisian law students who are deadly serious in their cocky rejection and reversal of the expectations that society has of them. Within the circle which provides them with social warmth they avidly and almost ritualistically seek a hedonistic satisfaction which constantly eludes them. To the bourgeois these young people (like our own beat generation) seem to be absolutely free and irresponsible, and this is an image that they cultivate. To Chabrol it is their lostness, their desperation, their huddling together like children, that are most evident. (p. 42)

Chabrol is strong in feeling for the rules of the game as played by these stranded young adults. Paul's friends pour their energies into devising ever new ways to demonstrate their freedom from the larger society which they have not yet entered. Paul himself is an artist in this respect. In Paris, of all places, what better way of showing contempt for tradition and social solidarity than the affectation of Germanisms? At a wild party in his apartment Paul plays the Siegfried music in hi-fi, dons a Nazi officer's cap, and stalks through the darkened rooms reciting German poetry. This is Chabrol at his best, and it is strange that he has been misunderstood precisely here. Bosley Crowther, writing his New York Times' review, could hardly be more wrong in his comment: "The concept of the youth of the...

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Brian Davies

Claude Chabrol is a director who has managed to become more estranged from the critics with each film he makes….

It seems to me that Chabrol has been cast aside not so much because of any failing on his own part but because of a reluctance of the critics to respond imaginatively to his films. By no account could his films be held to be high art but at the same time they are serious, skilled, and to a limited extent, successful works. Leda [A Double Tour] is Chabrol and [co-screenwriter Paul] Gegauff's (one cannot yet talk of Chabrol without implying Gegauff) most complete statement of their ideas, both of film and of meaning, that they have made. The series from Le Beau Serge to Les Cousins to Leda represents a progression in the disentanglement of Chabrol's ideas and style rather than a regression to the level of chic gesture as has been implied. (p. 78)

The moral of [Leda's] fable is simple, and in fact much simpler than Les Cousins, the honest and genuine side triumphs finally over the phoney and conniving mother whose respectability is shown to be a sham. Yet two features of the film complicate this simple conclusion. The first of these is the extraordinary emphasis which is made in the film on beauty and beautiful things…. The parallel between beauty and moral goodness and ugliness and moral badness is repeatedly stated and reaches its culmination when the son pulls faces at himself in the mirror to make himself appear hideous and then smashes the mirror and strangles Leda.

The reason for this is not immediately easy to grasp, but it probably relates to Chabrol's idea of the hero as aristocrat...

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Raymond Durgnat

Le Beau Serge was Chabrol's first film, and its immense success on the French Catholic circuit pioneered the New Wave commercially….

The characters generally have more force and dignity than in Chabrol's later films—even though the village flirt says to Francois, 'You have a way of looking at us as if we were all insects'. In the scenes at the village hop one becomes aware of Chabrol picking out little details in a way that is grotesque rather than faithful to the atmosphere the characters would feel, and hints at the laborious eccentricity of the later films, from which I always get the impression of Chabrol hopping about the world like a hungry crow, snapping up fat, squiggly worms in his quick, horny beak, and dangling them in front of the audience, crowing, 'There's human nature for you'. However, here he approaches his personages with the sympathy and humility which are so woefully lacking after Les Cousins….

[Under] the theme of friendship, the film reveals a rather churchmouse view of existence, with undertones about the transference of sin and expiation from one soul to another, and good and evil being inextricably intertwined in every heart. Chabrol himself later denounced this aspect of the film….

Actually, the film is rather more interesting than Chabrol pretends. Its technical brio, its vivid atmosphere, and its sometimes gripping evocation of friendship, make it worth seeing.

Raymond Durgnat, "Raymond Durgnat on the Film That Started the Wave" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1963; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 9, No. 4, January, 1963, p. 44.

Isabel Quigly

In those ferocious discussions over Form and Content that shake the film world (well, bits of it) from time to time, in which the lunatic fringe on one side maintains that it doesn't care twopence what a film-maker says so long as he says it beautifully, and on the other that it doesn't care twopence how he says it so long as he's got something to say; and the rest of us, non-lunatics to a man, hover somewhere between the two, feeling craven, the name of Claude Chabrol springs to mind, or at least to my mind, in no time. For if there was ever a skilful film-maker with precious little to say, here, as one thin, vivacious, well-arranged nullity after another has proved, he is….

Individualists like Truffaut, Demy and Godard have gone their own way, each a separate, unallied artist, quickly diverging from any 'norm' there might have been at the beginning of that creative outburst, overpraised like most innovations, which the press rather meaninglessly christened 'nouvelle vague.' But Chabrol remains what everyone suspected the whole bunch of them to be, a sort of amalgam of them all, with his alarming, representative figures of Youth (which parody everyone's most gruesome views on the subject), his overheated situations, his whole presentation of life as being at the same time souped-up and squalid, and, of course, his intense, myopic view of human affairs. Obviously Pope had a prophetic view of the cinema when he said:


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Robert Giard

If the cinema of Claude Chabrol is anything, it is glib. What could be more glib than that scene in The Third Lover [L'Oeil du Malin] in which the betrayed husband examines some photographs serving as evidence of his wife's infidelity. The shots constitute a gradual progression from indifferent medium shot, the subject squarely and objectively centered within the frame, to oppressively intimate close-up. This is disarmingly glib….

The flexible, functional beauty of this example is modestly intellectual as well as frankly sensational in its appeal. Here is the cinema of basic literacy; Chabrol employs an articulate and correct grammar of film-making. Such exactness of intention and effect...

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Richard Davis

Very few of us are really interested in an end of term or end of course thesis which is what [Bluebeard, or Landru] appears. There is no point of contact between the audience and what is going on on the screen, and unless, as in certain specific cases the intellectual purpose of a film is so valid and significant that it will survive on its own rarified level, any anti-emotional film, by its deliberate withdrawal, will fail. An art of the people should stay of the people.

Chabrol has so heavily stylised his treatment of the Bluebeard story that form comes to impose a disproportionate tyranny over content. The shapelessness advocated by the young enthusiastic practitioners of the New...

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Roy Armes

Claude Chabrol is assured of a place in any study of the new French cinema, for he was the first of the Cahiers group to make a feature film and as a producer gave Godard, Rivette and Rohmer valuable assistance on their first efforts, but there is less certainty as to the actual merits of his work as a director.

Until his recent spy films Chabrol had concerned himself principally with personal relationships. His early films depict the close, almost homosexual, relationship of two young men, and a constant theme is the precariousness of love, which, indeed, is treated as almost purely illusory in several works: L'Oeil du Malin, where the apparently successful marriage is undermined by a tissue...

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Gordon Gow

Chabrol, detached but perceptive, takes one of his coolest looks at the instability of human nature in Les Biches, a film which could have been made as an emotional drama but which Chabrol prefers to treat as a suave and objective tragedy with disquieting undercurrents. While the flow of the work is exceptionally smooth, provoking the mind rather than the nerve-ends, and is therefore unusual enough to be set apart from conventional cinema, it still has allegiance to filmic precepts. (pp. 40-1)

For neither of the women [Frédérique and Why] is sympathy invited: to neither is compassion denied. But the aspect is clinical, the visuals serene and uninvolved. The locale shifts early from Paris to...

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The placid surface of Les Biches should blind no one to the spirit that moves within—slightly unbalanced, corrosive, morally alert—unless we are to be as deceived by appearances as one of Chabrol's characters. (p. 17)

Chabrol successfully evokes the stifling quality of daily life during the winter season in St. Tropez, with its outdoor games and flower markets which only add to the boredom and suffocation. The film becomes increasingly more claustrophobic as the characters cut themselves off from reality to inhabit a dream world. The growing sense of social disorientation from the second episode, "Frederique," to the third, "Why," reflects the ascent to power of the film's most deranged...

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Gavin Millar

Nearly a year ago, just after he had finished La Femme Infidèle …, Claude Chabrol said in a television interview that he always made films about the bourgeoisie because that was the class he knew best. And the reason for that was simple: "I am one of them," he went on, "I am one myself—but I don't like them."

He's talking about a class of Frenchmen we should judge as somewhere between comfortably-off and rich. He's fascinated by their high degree of social organisation…. [On] the whole Chabrol seems inclined to view [the organisation] as a defence against the unexpected, against indignity, and against passion. In this aspect, La Femme Infidèle, set as it is in a mansion...

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Margot S. Kernan

Chabrol has found a rich mine of material in what he calls the "little themes," and [in La Femme Infidèle] he is working within a very narrow range, both visually and emotionally. However, within these limits, few directors are more skillful at using a sensuous cinematic style to suggest a world of minimal feelings and reified relationships. (pp. 56-7)

Chabrol establishes his characters as ambulatory objets d'art in luxurious settings. Everything is pretty…. [Hélène] harmonizes so well with the decor of her drawing room—her pale grey eyeshadow echoing the soft tones of the carved wood paneling, her earrings catching the light and sparkling like the television commercials her husband …...

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An artist lives in his art; that is, his art is characterised by the impulses, sympathies and recoils which determine his nature as a human being. Yet equally, for the artist who loses faith, art can become a perverse refuge: an enclosed, private world within which he spins fantasies of his own defeat…. Unlike 'ivory tower' artists, who exclude pain, 'private world' artists … indulge in it masochistically; but, to almost an equal extent, have ceased to explore, to seek out new positive values by which to live.

Chabrol's work has shown a constant tension between these opposing ways of living in his art. Since the rather laboured, and subsequently disowned, Catholic affirmation of Le Beau...

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Tom Milne

[La Rupture] is based on a thriller by Charlotte Armstrong about a woman, blameless in her marriage, whose small son is injured in a fight with her husband, and who subsequently has to fight like a tigress against the forces massed against her when her wealthy father-in-law tries to gain legal custody of the child. The French title, Le Jour des Parques, plays happily on the similarity between 'Pâques' (Easter) and 'Parques' (The Parcae, or Fates).

So, remembering the fascination Destiny holds for Chabrol—whether simply present, as in Lang, or intervening, as in Hitchcock—one sits up, nose aquiver with recognition, as the camera zooms in with awestruck slowness to the black door of...

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Robert Giard

This Man Must Die (Que la Bête Meure) may be Chabrol's Iliad. It is, at least according to the description of that work given by the film's protagonist as he helps Philippe with his homework—Philippe, adolescent son of the man whom he intends to kill for the death of his own young son in a hit-and-run accident. He offers The Iliad as an example of a work which is conventional, even banal, in its story, but unconventional, even "poetic," in its details. That, he announces, makes for art. These very words are a fair description of Chabrol's own film…. The broad lines of the action follow the conventions of a conventional genre: the detective story.

However, Chabrol is nodding...

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John Belton

Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher explores the possibility (or impossibility) of love in a morally fatalistic universe. Working within the conventional context of a suspense thriller, the director creates a world limited by its characters' own perceptions and a love relationship restricted by the imperfect nature of that world.

Nevertheless, Chabrol's sympathetic direction of the story permits his characters a range of emotional expression—although inarticulated and tragically unrealized—that makes their frustrated love affair strangely beautiful. The director develops this love relationship on two levels: first, through the use of genre to define the ambivalent nature of their love and, second,...

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Diane Jacobs

At first glance Henry James' "Bench Of Desolation" seems an odd choice of subject matter for a Claude Chabrol film. A rather low-keyed short story pivoting around a fastidious rare-book shop owner, "Bench Of Desolation" is a far cry from such recent Chabrol oeuvres as Wedding in Blood and Nada. Nevertheless, Bench of Desolation is the finest short film I've seen in years, and I suspect that its success, like that of Chabrol's "Hitchcockian" works, is directly related to an aesthetic tension—in this case the tension between the auteur's sensibility and the author's craft….

[Chabrol] has always been fascinated with the darker aspects of complacency (most often bourgeois...

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David L. Overbey

If Chabrol is to be believed, Les Noces Rouges … is the last film of his Balzacian comédie humaine of French society in the middle twentieth century. In this new film, written by Chabrol without the active help of his usual scenarist Paul Gegauff, the bourgeoisie are less charming, less discreet, less intelligent, and far more corrupt than Chabrol has ever before shown them….

The shape of Chabrol's plot is a classic triangle-murder, owing as much to the tradition of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice as to press stories about the similar murders in Bourganeuf….

The characters and story, of course, no matter what their ultimate source, are pure...

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Tom Milne

In a blue silk dressing-gown royally patterned in gold, the Minister of the Interior sits in his salon watching television. Just for a moment, as his private secretary hurries in to inform him that a terrorist group has kidnapped the American ambassador in Paris, he and his lady, her white hair piled high in a discreet pompadour, are waxwork echoes of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette learning that the mob is at the gates. Seconds later, as a helicopter lands in front of the chateau to whisk the Minister off to deal with the crisis, floodlights illuminate the façade of the building as though it were a monument historique for public delectation.

This superb gloss—the irony, of course, is that...

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John Simon

To the French, the drama of adultery is what the Western is to Americans. And no Frenchman in recent times has churned out more of these dramas than Claude Chabrol, whose specialty is adultery seasoned with murder. Chabrol is an interesting case: a charter member of the New Wave, he is, in terms of camera movement, framing of shots, and subtle sense of how to play on the viewer's sensibility, the equal of his idol, Hitchcock. He falls short only of the true artists: the Welles of Citizen Kane, and the great European and Japanese masters. In his finest film, La Femme Infidèle, Chabrol may have achieved that intensity of perception, sympathy for human joy and suffering, and economy of expression without...

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Penelope Gilliatt

Passions that exist only in infirm half forms are a theme of ["Juste Avant la Nuit"]. Charles's fatal game with Laura is one of danger without adventurousness and of sex without eroticism. His very story is one of calamity without tragedy. The only thing moving about it is the pity of the fact that perhaps, in his catastrophic link with Laura, he was outmatched….

In "Juste Avant la Nuit," the suggestion is that the hero is in a state of madness because he believes that he has savaged the natural order and that the natural order can be reinstated only by his own extinction. The more Charles repents, the more he enforces the death he importunes. He chooses to solicit his wife to murder him, but it is...

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John Russell Taylor

Of all the filmmakers who emerged in the first flush of the French nouvelle vague during the mid-1950's, none has remained more of a problem to critics than Claude Chabrol: mainly because there seems to be no problem. All the rest who belonged to the group of writers on film gathered around the intellectual magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and its inspirer and spiritual leader, André Bazin, were immediately recognizable as, in conventional critical terms, "serious" filmmakers…. But Chabrol, after what seemed like a decent if relatively conservative start in the same direction with Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, drifted off into films that were taken as eccentric, baroque, marginal, camp, and...

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Chabrol has not crystallised himself. On the contrary. Otherwise, in his later works, he would have developed more creatively François' perception at the end of Le Beau Serge that one must lend a helping hand. And thereby—honourably—he would probably have become a great film-maker. Now, with hindsight, the end of Le Beau Serge stands out as an artificially imposed, constipated Christian attitude. And Chabrol has not become a great film-maker—even though he has made many beautiful and successful films and even a few great ones.

Chabrol's viewpoint is not that of the entomologist, as is often claimed, but that of a child who keeps a collection of insects in a glass case and...

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Several episodes [in Les Innocents aux Mains Sales] of legal skirmishing and police detective-work are at once verbosely expository and tiresomely facetious. Chabrol's direction occasionally lapses into repetitive cross-cutting during dialogue exchanges, or alternatively into gratuitous visual and aural excess for moments of eroticism or melodrama. These flaws prevent the film from being ranked among his supreme achievements in the vein of bourgeois sexuality, emotional conflict and physical violence.

Yet Les Innocents aux Mains Sales still possesses many sequences and flashes of great skill, beauty and power: and it remains essential viewing for anybody who believes Chabrol to be one...

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Richard Combs

The last of Chabrol's films from the early Seventies to straggle into this country, Docteur Popaul arrives with a dauntingly unprepossessing reputation as a coarse misogynist jest. Coarse it certainly is, with its abrupt fluctuations between love triangle melodrama, soft-core sex farce and slapstick self-parody—and with a hero whose moral development seems to be from heartless cad to bewildered buffoon….

The exact nature of the Chabrolian spoof, however, is rather easier to identify from the perspective of La Décade Prodigieuse and Innocents aux Mains Sales than it would have been in the context of Le Boucher and Juste avant la Nuit; its strategies roughly...

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James Monaco

Chabrol owes a debt to Hitchcock, but there are significant differences between their universes. Chabrol himself in recent interviews has not missed an opportunity to suggest that Fritz Lang's films might be more important referents than Hitchcock's, and with good reason, I think. Central to the classic Hitchcock film is a sense of the tension in the relationship between pursuer and pursued—an element which is not all that important in Chabrol's films, and which he often avoids completely, as in Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall). Hitchcock's films develop a political sense because the detective so often represents the state and because the pursued is often innocent. But everyone is always guilty in...

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Gavin Millar

No one would pretend that Blood Relatives is vintage Chabrol, nor that it is a profound meditation on sexual relations and the family, sexual taboos and society. But Chabrol has more ability than anyone, within the framework of the thriller, to provoke the odd reflection in his audience, and strangely enough the ironical gaze he directs at our assumptions about what the decent thing is, and who's doing it, is what stays with you afterwards, more than the rather tame unravellings of the thriller plot. (pp. 512-13)

[The] central weakness is the inexperienced lovers, the flashbacks to whose affair seem interminably dull. That apart, there are all Chabrol's other skills to relish: the bloody...

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Tim Pulleine

The tone of the opening [of Chabrol's Violette Nozière], detailing Violette's stealthy nocturnal departure from the scene of the crime, is that of a thriller, mesmerisingly Hitchcockian in its camera style (and possibly one may detect a specific echo of the start of I Confess, a film Chabrol especially admired). Flashbacks ensue, summoning up Violette's double life between the claustrophobic pseudo-gentility of her parents' working-class apartment and the ritual exhibitionism of the bar-room hangers-on in the Quartier Latin, and between the dowdily well-scrubbed schoolgirl of her parents' wishes and the carmine-lipped voluptuary of her forays into amateur prostitution with a succession of callow...

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