Claude Chabrol Richard Combs - Essay

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 adumbrate the later films (particularly Innocents), removing moral complexities from bourgeois revenge-and-guilt plots … and trying them out for size on characters who will either distend and toy with them with Wellesian presumption or kick them about with the raffish conceit of a Belmondo. A comic book motif is tossed into a couple of early shots of Docteur Popaul, to cue the way we should see its hero; his vaunted preference for ugly women because only they have "moral beauty" remains as narcissistic a mannerism as the way he combs back his hair…. [Chabrol's closely worked moral patterns] are resoundingly overturned by Docteur Popaul—the bull in Chabrol's china shop; to such an extent, in fact, that the Providence which reliably helps Popaul out of every jam has little to do with Lang and begins to look, self-mockingly, like the nastiest Hollywood convention…. (p. 27)

[What] most limits Chabrol here is his failure to come up with any kind of formal strategy for holding all the jokes and narrative shifts together (certainly nothing like the wicked toying with the story-telling processes themselves that underlies La Décade and Innocents). He seems instead to have stuck to his original thriller material, with all its twists and surprises, despite an equally evident compulsion to send it up; the result, particularly in the final scenes, is an indigestible conflation of plot and camp parody. But for all its uncertainties and excesses, Docteur Popaul remains a genuine and quite appealing Chabrol oddity, and not the ignominious flaunting of the director's vulgarity for which it has been taken and roundly condemned. (p. 28)

Richard Combs, "'Docteur Popaul' ('Scoundrel in White')," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1976), Vol. 43, No. 505, February, 1976, pp. 27-8.