Above: On the one hand, Benoît Magimel's extravagance; on the other, Ludivine Sagnier's simplicity.
Claude Chabrol is a trespasser, one who has ventured into an uncharted place where the droll is almost totally sublimated into the sinister, and it is nearly impossible to tell when his films are joking or when they are cutting. And speaking of cutting, his latest film, the, ahem, drolly titled A Girl Cut in Two, is par for the course. That is to say: it is hilarious and hurtful, formally and dramatically as precise as a blade, and so fully in possession of its powers and at ease with its elegant fluidity that most will, as is usual, toss the film off as Chabrol doing it all over again. And maybe he is. Yet there is not a little devil's advocate in me to ask whether it is riskier to make a new movie every time around than to remake the same thing again and again, pursuing subtle tangents and perfecting the method.
Leaving that question to the cinema philosophers-and by that I mean the filmmakers themselves-let's get back to A Girl Cut in Two. Based on the notorious Stanford White shooting in the early 1900s, Chabrol and fellow screenwriter Cécile Maistre update the story to modern times-modern meaning a time of convertibles, the media, fleeting fame, and spoiled rich kids; all of which is to say, no update at all.
The edge of the film, its supreme mastery, comes from the humor; or, that is, not precisely from Chabrol's jokes but the handling of the jokes. Case in point is Caroline Silhol's marvelous performance as the widowed matriarch of Lyon's richest, most famous family. Understandably and predictably, Chabrol skewers her class by portraying her as fooled by all that goes around her, a figure decades ago having retreated into a slightly discomfited, feigned daftness. But only Silhol can bring to the role a comic void, as if simply looking at the character we can see the gulf she has had to place between herself and the insipid, immoral vulgarity of her life. And before anyone chalks the character up to caricature, we must note that Chabrol is not all mean: there is a brilliant, split second movement of the camera at the film's conclusion that humanizes the character so subtly and instantaneously that one marvels at the formal expression, if not the kindness of the gesture.
If I dwell too much one a secondary character and not on the central triangle of naive and beautiful local weather girl (Ludivine Sagnier) caught between philandering with the married man she loves, a famous local author (François Berléand), and the attractions of Silhol's wild, millionaire prodigal son (Benoît Magimel) it is because of course we've seen this plot all before. As must be continually rammed down the throats of anyone even casually interested in taking cinema seriously: it's all in the execution, how the thing is done, not the thing itself. Look no further than Benoît Magimel's truly extravagant performance, a walking flamboyant anachronism that somehow calls no epoch his own, but is thrilled by his own embodiment of such a cliche. (Witness too, the screenplay's strange softening of his character, ascribing to him real, if confused and ultimately hypocritical, feelings.)
Abut Magimel against the eyes wide shut-ness of Sagnier, who is drawn to fame and money as sweetly as anyone desiring happiness material and loving, and we start to see Chabrol's method, a story of social masks at once archetypal, subtle, and exaggerated to an extreme. Indeed, the ending would make Michael Powell and Antonioini proud, a splendorous explosion of artful decor and magic, caught in the bind of The Lady Without Camelias, the de-masked, previously innocent beautiful girl putting the mask back on, but a mask of such degraded quality that it cannot disguise the recognition and unhappiness of the way society works. All of which is to say that yes, Chabrol has done it again, and it is great.