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Claude Chabrol, 1930 - 2010

David Hudson

Just this summer, in June, we were celebrating Claude Chabrol's 80th birthday with a roundup of appreciations. Now, as the AFP and other news outlets are reporting, he's died earlier today.

"Chabrol began his career as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma," Charles Derry has written in an assessment for Film Reference. "With Eric Rohmer, he wrote a groundbreaking book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock, and with his friends (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and others) he attempted to turn topsy-turvy the entire cinematic value system. That their theories of authorship remain today a basic (albeit modified and continuously examined) premise certainly indicates the success of their endeavor. Before long, Chabrol found himself functioning as financial consultant and producer for a variety of films inaugurating the directorial careers of his fellow critics who, like himself, were no longer content merely to theorize."

Derry suggests dividing the oeuvre into "five semi-discrete periods: 1) the early personal films, beginning with Le beau Serge in 1958 and continuing through Landru in 1962; 2) the commercial assignments, beginning with The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood in 1964 and continuing through The Road to Corinth in 1967; 3) the mature cycle of masterpieces, beginning with Les biches in 1968 and continuing through Wedding in Blood in 1973, almost all starring his wife Stéphane Audran, and produced by André Génovès; 4) the more diverse (and uneven) accumulations of films from 1974 to the mid-1980s which have tended neither to garner automatic international release nor to feature Audran in a central role; and 5) the more recent films of higher quality, if sometimes uneven still, produced in the 1980s and 1990s by Marin Karmitz's company MK2 and including a new set of regular collaborators."

In 2008, Kevin B Lee posted "an online dossier" on Chabrol, in which he quotes, among many others, Terrence Rafferty, who wrote in the New York Times in 2006: "In the best Chabrol movies, like Le Boucher, the thriller mechanics are almost irrelevant; what keeps you on the edge of your seat isn't wondering whodunit, but wondering how you're supposed to feel when you find out. Because Mr Chabrol won't tell you. But this is a tricky game for a filmmaker to play with his viewers. And in the years since his glory days of the late 60s and early 70s, Mr Chabrol has lost as many times as he has won. Even a method as distinctively counterintuitive as his can turn predictable. (Especially if you're as compulsively prolific as he is). And when he isn't in top form, his calculated opacity is alienating rather than fascinating; the sly correctness of his style can make him seem as dangerously repressed as his most poisonous bourgeois characters. Mr Chabrol has suffered, in a sense, from the sort of anxiety of identity that he has so often visited on the nervous middle-class people in his films. He has a reputation, a position: the world knows who he is, and what a movie with the Claude Chabrol brand should be. He isn't always so sure."

In a biographical essay written in the mid-90s and published last year in Parallax View, Richard T Jameson hits a turning point. The year, naturally, was 1968: "Set principally in wintertime Nice and exquisitely photographed in iridescent color, Les Biches was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films ever made. It was also a riveting psychological suspense film, boasting a supremely enigmatic narrative in which motive, gender roles, and identity itself were ever in flux — an on-screen addendum, as it were, to the director's study of Hitchcock. After nearly a decade's floundering in stylistically adventurous but wildly uneven filmmaking, Chabrol had emerged as a master of cinema, in matter of both technique and the medium's inherent disposition to ambiguity."

From Catherine Grant, another remarkable collection at Film Studies for Free: "Le Génie de la liberté: In Memory of Claude Chabrol."

Viewing (2'20"). Cargo's Simon Rothöhler posts a clip from Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's Avida featuring Chabrol.



Chabrol made six feature films in the 00s, and for Pablo Suárez, writing in the Buenos Aires Herald, two are stand-outs. In Merci pour le chocolat (2000), "Chabrol proves once again how aware he is of the narrative control required to build an entire universe of secrets and deceit through the prism of Swiss haute bourgeoisie. Along the vein of the best classic cinema, this is one of those almost uncanny features where each shot and every single scene serves its purpose." And in La fleur du mal (2003), "he delivers a most rigorous version of the psychological thriller in order to focus upon on his character’s miserable lives, hidden agendas, and utter hypocrisy."

"Critical roundups will say that he likely had the most up-and-down filmography of almost any figure to come out of the New Wave," writes Glenn Kenny, "and they'll be pretty much correct in that — believe me, I've seen Dr M... not to mention Quiet Days in Clichy... but even at his least-fully-engaged, the ironic intelligence was always at work somewhere. And his best work, and there was an awful lot of it, could spring at you as if from out of nowhere; have another look at The Cry of the Owl some time. A singular voice, to be sure."

"Hitchcock's black humour and fascination with guilt pervades the majority of Chabrol's films, most of which have murder at their heart," writes Ronald Bergan for the Guardian. "However, although Chabrol's thematic allegiance to Hitchcock remained intact, his stylistic mastery came close to matching the magnificently bleak geometry of Fritz Lang, another mentor. The prolific Chabrol — he made more than 80 films over 50 years — rang endless changes on the theme of infidelity leading to murder. His dissections of bourgeois marriage were spiced up by the presence of Stéphane Audran, his wife from 1964 to 1980, who played adulterous and/or betrayed wives in almost all of their films together, making it one of the most captivating husband-wife teams in all cinema.... It is easier to come to terms with the consistency of Rohmer's moral tales, Truffaut's efforts to win friends, and Godard's to influence people than Chabrol's ambiguity. But his is a perfectly legible oeuvre. Its stylistic and thematic unity has been achieved by the same team – cinematographer Jean Rabier (1960-1991), editor Jacques Gaillard (1958-1975), composers Pierre Jansen (1960-1982) and the director's son Matthieu (1982 onwards), writers [Paul] Gégauff and Odile Barski (1978-2009), and a faithful company of players supporting Audran and subsequently Isabelle Huppert.... For a man who said 'I love murder,' Chabrol was one of the most benign and witty men one could ever meet."

The Telegraph on Chabrol's role in the New Wave back in its earliest days: "Chabrol used the profits from Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins to fund Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion (1959) and Philippe de Broca's Les Jeux de l'Amour (1960) and Le Farceur (1961), and to help pay for Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient (1960). He also acted as 'technical adviser' on Jean-Luc Godard's first feature, A Bout de Souffle (1959), but this was a token credit to enable Godard to piggyback into the cinema on Chabrol's shoulders; in practice, Godard was an innovator who needed no technical advice." Chabrol "played cameo parts in numerous films, both his own and his friends', beginning with Jacques Rivette's short Le Coup du Berger (1956). His most fully-rounded role was as a parody of himself, opposite his wife, Stéphane Audran, in a 20-minute short, La Muette, that he contributed to the portmanteau picture Six in Paris (1966). They played gluttonous parents whose constant bickering leads to a sticky end when their small daughter plugs her ears against the din and subsequently fails to hear their cries for help."

Dave Kehr notes that Le Monde has a tribute page "that includes testimonies from everyone [from] Gérard Depardieu to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the right-wing leader who was Chabrol's schoolmate in the 1940s. I had the pleasure of meeting him several times, most recently in 2006 when the Torino Film Festival hosted a dauntingly complete 70-title retrospective of his film and television work. A very funny, very gracious man, with the perpetual look of a startled owl and an openness to everyone who approached him. A great director and a great critic, his loss leaves the world of the cinema appreciably smaller."

Libération is collecting remembrances as well, and what's more, the paper's posting clips to its main story.

"My own favourite among Chabrol's films is among his very earliest: Les Bonnes Femmes, or The Good Time Girls, from 1960." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: "It is a tale of violence and sexual obsession, certainly, but atypical; it is hardly a straight suspenser, but much more modern in its perplexingly oblique depiction of fear and horror, which mixes in the kind of single-girl romantic comedy found in Varda's Cléo From 5 to 7, Godard's [Breathless], Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us. Four young women work in a French store and dream of getting away somewhere, anywhere. Their lives unfold aimlessly, without the tight, structured plot for which Chabrol would later be known. They have encounters, adventures. There are laughs, and we might expect a rueful, bittersweet finale, such as that which might conclude something from the British kitchen-sink school. But Les Bonnes Femmes ends far more nastily. It was a fascinating work from Chabrol: the man who anatomised the middle-class French body politic with a sadistic twist of the scalpel."

Also in the Guardian, a picture gallery.

Chabrol "developed an elegant, formally distant style, built around controlled camera movements that often seemed to be describing the imprisonment of his characters in a stifling social order," writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. "His style was studiously cool, his detachment from his characters disguising a deeper compassion for their plight as victims of a hypocritical middle-class moralism. He employed close-ups with discretion, as if he were declining to violate the privacy of his characters out of a concern for bourgeois propriety. But behind the well-bred manners could be found a sly, mocking sense of humor — a quality Mr Chabrol carried over to his frequent appearances on French talk shows.... 'Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating that intelligence,' Mr Chabrol once observed, 'Intelligence has its limits while stupidity has none. To observe a profoundly stupid individual can be very enriching, and that’s why we should never feel contempt for them.'"

In remembrance, Jonathan Rosenbaum republishes his 1997 review of "probably the greatest and most masterful of his later films." At the time, he wrote, "I've seen 33 of his 46 features, but nothing in over a quarter of a century that's quite as good as La cérémonie [1995], an adaptation of Ruth Rendell's novel A Judgement in Stone."

I've been avoiding reposting links from the "Chabrol @ 80" entry, but Greg Ferrara's comments convince me that one definitely bears repeating: "Ray Young probably introduced more cinephiles and movie fans alike to Claude Chabrol than any other person and I can think of no better tribute to the great Chabrol than to direct you to Flickhead's Ten Day's Wonder Blogathon celebrating the works of the French master."

Craig Keller has created a tribute.

Roger Ebert runs an interview he conducted with Chabrol in 1970, "at midpoint in his life, just as he had emerged from a period of neglect and was making some of his best films."

Viewing. "Claude Chabrol en 10 vidéos" at Les Inrocks.

Updates, 9/13: "Half a century ago, in the Cinémathèque in Paris, he was, every evening, the funniest of them all, breaking up the tension of the ideological and aesthetic debates with his contagious wit," writes Volker Schlöndorff in Der Tagesspiegel. "This was the Chabrol Touch: Always look at people and they way they act with a fresh eye, discover something funny, contradictory, true in them. The butcher who wraps a meat cleaver instead of a bouquet of flowers in colored paper and hands it to Stéphane Audran — that was Chabrol."

Chabrol "admitted choosing locations for his films partly for the quality of the local restaurants," reports John Lichfeld in the Independent. "'If you have two possibilities, it would be cretinous not to choose the one where you eat best,' he once said. Chabrol's death was a 'real shock,' said Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival. 'He was 80 years old but he continued to work, and the energy, feeling and joie de vivre that he always showed made you think he'd always be around. Claude Chabrol is part of our national patrimony... for his films and also for his personality.'"

Le Monde's readers contribute recollections and clips; and Ben Walters introduces a series of clips for the Guardian.

"My interest and occasional obsessions with Chabrol's work were an active passion for more than two decades," writes Ray Young, who, you may remember, blogs as Flickhead and hosted last year's Chabrol Blog-a-Thon. After recalling a photo that sparked his interest when he was 12, maybe 13, he goes on to ask, "And the films? Where do I begin? My admiration makes objectivity nearly impossible, years of picking out obscure symbols, half-glance metaphors, unseen needles resting on top of imposing haystacks. My interest has never been academic — others infinitely smarter than myself can provide you with coherent analyses of Chabrol's repeated use of small cars speeding down dark roads; of sexual triangles soured by obsessive-compulsive romantics and control freaks; the famous use of food and dining for color and tension; the significance of the Hélène cycle; the odd lighting and set design, too often cheerless and overexposed; the awareness of power in family and the threat of nepotism; the freewheeling abandonment of genre forms; and his relentless interest in the fundamentals that sparked the French Revolution.... You shouldn't read about these films before seeing them. Going into a Chabrol, expectations can shortchange the nuance.... I thank him for what he gave us, and look forward to revisiting his work over the coming decades. He was a sly fox."



"Parallels are perilous," concedes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "[I]t would be tempting to call Claude Chabrol, who died on Sunday at the age of 80, the Falstaffian figure of the French New Wave... But if Falstaff had lived in the 20th century, he might well have made movies and been spared the royal rebuff, and he might have resembled the cheerfully caustic and openly hedonistic Chabrol.... Chabrol was the cinematic equivalent of a graphomaniac — in 52 years, he made about 70 films, and the haste sometimes showed, in positive and negative ways. Following the ideal of the Hollywood studio director that stopped existing around the time his own career started, Chabrol made commissioned films, personal films, films in many genres (though he made the detective story and the Hitchcockian suspense thriller something of a specialty), films on high and low budgets, and the result was a sort of automatic writing in which the personality — insolent and sybaritic, easygoing and paradoxical, deeply intelligent yet casually superficial, passionate yet capable of stunning detachment — shines through unmistakably. At his best, he was, simply, the peer of his peers."

"Chabrol's films are as much a study of a country and its people as an aestheticism with a certain penchant for glorifying actresses," writes Agnès Poirier in the Guardian. "'Chabrol was France' say many commentators today. It is true that his oeuvre, like Balzac's comédie humaine, is as much a mirror of France as a perspective on the other side of the mirror, the hidden truth under the social varnish. His cinema went behind the beautiful landscapes, behind the quiet comfortable homes of the bourgeoisie, and laid bare the travails and turpitudes of the French. Chabrol could be very nasty and very funny: this is when he was at his best. Chabrol was ferocious but never judgmental or preaching. He didn't have any advice to give us, no message to pass. He may have been a pessimist but one with a furious appetite for life."

At In Contention, Guy Lodge looks back on Le Boucher, "a character-study-as-thriller so perfectly and precisely formed it hurts a little to watch it."

"Made in rapid succession, the domestic thrillers Les Biches (1967), La Femme Infidele (1968), Le Boucher (1969), Just Before Nightfall (1971), La Rupture (1973), Wedding in Blood (1973) — all starring Audran — and The Nada Gang (1974), were all shown at the New York Film Festival and/or commercially released," blogs the Voice's J Hoberman. "The quality of his work declined thereafter although the prolific filmmaker did regularly return to form, producing at least one outstanding film per decade, notably Violette (1978), Story of Women (1988), and La Céremonie (1995). All referenced particularly notorious French crimes and, not coincidentally, all starred Isabelle Huppert who superseded Audran as Chabrol's muse.... Back in 1963, Andrew Sarris, the first American critic to champion Chabrol, said it best when he wrote in the Voice that the director was neither a moralist nor an aesthete but 'an uncompromising satirist of human behavior' who proved that 'stupidity when viewed honestly and sympathetically is the stuff of poetry.'"

Updates, 9/14: "There was something so damned likeable about Claude Chabrol," writes C Jerry Kutner at Bright Lights After Dark. "He had a remarkable enthusiasm for films and the process of filmmaking which translated into an enthusiasm for life in general." An annotated list of his favorites follows.

"Jean Renoir once said that every great director makes the same film over and over," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr, "and I can think of those for whom that's true: Hitchcock, Ozu, Sam Fuller, Renoir himself — and Chabrol, if you subtract out the movies he made to pay the rent and all the other wayward projects a working filmmaker must contend with. That, I think, is the ultimate compliment: Chabrol was a working filmmaker like his Hollywood heroes, yet within his enlightened journeyman's journey he carved exactly the path he wanted."

He also points us to James McCormick's top ten Chabrols at the Criterion Cast.

Jim Emerson reposts his "Opening Shot" piece on La femme infidel.

"The camera, author John Berger wrote, is a man looking at a woman," notes Time's Richard Corliss. "Hitchcock often told stories of men with a toxic focus on women (Vertigo, Psycho); so did Chabrol — like every moviegoer, he was the viewer as voyeur. A connoisseur of the sexual appraisal that men send women's way, he identified its power, sickness and high mortality rate. Looking can kill you, he suggested — unless you're a professional, like a movie director. Paris-born but sent to the provinces during the war, he came back to study pharmacology — appropriately, because this director saw all desire as a dangerous drug; he was an anatomizer of eroticism, the suave coroner of desire. When a man and a woman got together in a Chabrol movie, someone was sure to end up hurt."



Updates, 9/16: "Chabrol's films, especially his extraordinary run from Les biches in 1968 through to Les noces rouges in 1973, were always infinitely more fascinating and mysterious to me than the cool-cat tomfoolery of the early Jean-Luc Godard works that have become the mastheads of that revolution," writes Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman. "Chabrol gave the impression that the films were part of some broader political project which would last beyond the closing credits of any one picture. No matter how often this self-proclaimed Marxist aimed his barbs at the bourgeois, there was always the sense that there was more work to be done, that he knew each film was only one poisoned arrow in an ongoing shower."

"I only met Claude Chabrol once, but our encounter was one of the most unique and pleasurable times I've ever spent with a filmmaker," blogs Todd McCarthy. "I vividly remember one exchange, which began by my supposing that he and Orson Welles must have enjoyed some fine meals together while making Ten Days Wonder in 1970. Oh, yes, Chabrol confirmed. They were shooting in Alsace and the hotel where they were staying had a superb restaurant in which Chabrol and Welles dined every evening for the two weeks the American acted in the film. Welles brilliantly held forth, of course, but even a gourmand such as Chabrol was given pause by the extent of his companion's appetite; each night, Chabrol recalled, Welles ordered and consumed exactly the same thing — two chateaubriands for two, accompanied by two bottles of red wine."

Updates, 9/17: In the Guardian, David Thomson quotes Chabrol — "You can make a film about the French Revolution, or a squabble with the next-door neighbour, the apocalypse of our time or how the barmaid became pregnant, the last hours of a hero of the Resistance, or the inquest on a murdered prostitute. It's all a question of personality." — and ultimately remarks "that over the years there have been some expert filmmakers who never asserted themselves but left a body of work that outlasts more ambitious directors. Sometimes impersonality and self-effacement come through in the end."

Sheila Johnston has dined, lunched and taken tea with Chabrol all over Europe. In the Telegraph, she recalls one meal in particular ("scallops in millefeuille pastry, followed by pigeon with wild mushrooms in Armagnac, as my notes record") before noting, "One of the great mysteries that has exercised Chabrol's observers is the stark mismatch between the shadowy obsessions chronicled in his films and the man's own impregnably jovial façade. On screen: pain, jealousy, betrayal, perversity, cruelty both mental and physical and, as often as not, murder. In person: geniality, generosity and an endless fund of anecdotes."

Viewing. Thomas Groh collects Arte's various reports and remembrances, which you can watch in either French or German.

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