First of all, Claude Chabrol has passed away.
That puts the count now of the 'Nouvelle Vague' (mostly consisting of the Cashiers du cinema cats - Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette - though not to count out also Jean Eustache, Claude Lelouch, Agnes Varda and Louis Malle, all who got their big works out around the period) down to almost just a handful left: Godard, Varda, Rivette and Lelouch. Truffaut was the first big one, and Rohmer passed on just earlier this year.
But enough of the tally. What about Chabrol? A self-professed Communist (though as he quotes on IMDb, "that doesn't mean I make movies about plowing the wheat fields") and a Hitchcock buff (along with Rohmer he wrote a much-less-notable-than-Truffaut's but still informative book ont the Master), he specialized in thrillers, usually with an erotic or subdued manner to them.
That is, of those I've seen. I can't say to be a Chabrol buff; for that I might leave you another blog, Roger Ebert's wonderful quasi-obituary, which he didn't write so fast as to boggle the mind (he was announced deceased this morning, Ebert's blog appeared at 1 PM). But it does link as well to an obit in the Guardian online. It includes an interesting interview with Chabrol at the 1970 NY Film Festival, just as he was really hitting his stride with his best work (in fact four movies all clumped together that are great or near-great, the links to my reviews of those films just below).
He's the kind of filmmaker I hope over time to see more of, to delve deep into his catalog. Sadly, as with Rohmer, there's not much else one can do. The good news is that there is one last new Chabrol film that has yet to be released (it's been released elsewhere in the world, and at the Chicago International Film Festival, just not in the USA). His body of work is hard to dispute as significant; he probably made some not-so-great films, works that went under the wire (perhaps that's why, not to sound disrespectful, why I've really only so far ventured into some of his more major films). But it's all there, right for the taking.
Such as one I hadn't seen before until tonight:
There's something special about the way that Claude Chabrol chooses to show female sexuality, or just sexuality in general. He's not so prudish as to excise it - by 1968 he doesn't have to, and certainly in France he's not under the strict guidelines that the USA had until just that year - he shows it in such a way as to arouse the immediate gaze of a viewer as the character who is looking (or wants to be looking) at the figure in question. And oddly enough both Chabrol and his former Cashiers du cinema and Hitchcock book writer Eric Rohmer have a thing for the female knee; Rohmer made a whole movie about it (Claire's Knee), while Chabrol chooses to make it a point of interest in his film Les Biches.
In two specific scenes Chabrol uses the knee, and by extension (duh) the rest of the female leg, to suggest just enough. The two main characters meet on a bridge, Frederique and Why (yeah, an Abbott & Costello style character name, it's even referenced jokingly like that when one character gets her name, but I digress). Frederique like Why's drawing, and invites her out for coffee, and then, bolder, invites her up to her apartment so she can take a bath (she's one of those street-level street artists, also called a 'doe' like a deer). Frederique looks on at her new 'friend' in the bathtub, the only thing revealed to her (and by proxy us) is her knee coming out of the water. Chabrol cuts back to it a couple of times during the scene, and it perfectly accentuates the sexual tension in the room. To be sure this is later released in the next scene as Why emerges and Frederique helps her with her shirt. Then the first button on her pants. Cut RIGHT AWAY to black. None of that now for Chabrol, got to keep the story forward.
A knee returns much later in the film, however not Why's but Frederique's, and under a variation on the circumstances. By this point in the story, long by this point after we've seen that Frederique invites Why to stay at her place (how deep a sexual relationship goes is suggested but never shown, maybe very little if anything at all), along with Frederique's two obnoxious (possibly gay) roommates who act like the comedic side characters in a Hitchcock: think of the two neighborhood would-be snoops from Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, only very French and, again, obnoxious. Also entering the picture is Paul Thomas (Z's Jean-Paul Trintignant, an actor with a very peculiar, sad but conservative-looking face), who at first has an attraction to Why - you know, cause she's a "pretty girl" as he says - but then he also goes for Frederique after she advances on him, following a night where Frederique gets anxious at Why and Paul Thomas' tryst.
The love triangle tension keeps thickening all the way until this point with the knee again. It's a love-making scene, this time between Frederique and Paul Thomas. The music isn't tawdry, but rather melancholy- again, calling back to the sweet/sour moments Bernard Herrmann gets so wonderfully with Hitchcock- and Stephane Audran's knee, indeed her whole leg, is mostly all in view in this scene shot with just the 'cinematic night-light' of a bedroom. So much attention is called by Chabrol and his DoP on how to shoot a body, and precisely without being graphic or exploitative. There are chances this material could get into the B-movie realm, just nothing but sex and soap opera emotions.
On the contrary, Chabrol's film gives us characters who are usually cold (with the exception of the 'roommates' who snoop around or make bad avant-garde music), or just distant, even when they mean to be loving. The man enters the picture with these two women, one of whom (Audran's character) is so much more experienced, if not in love and sex than in the ways of the world and how to operate among businessmen such as at a card game she holds at her home. Frederique sees nothing wrong with it, just something that happened... or at least, that's what her first appearance would be. Scenes between characters, Frederique and Why, Why and Paul Thomas, Paul Thomas and his two 'Biches' while all drunk listening to a wailing voice on a record player, have dynamics that keep a viewer guessing. Sometimes just eating a piece of toast at breakfast is grounds for a moment of suspense.
Chabrol is a master at controlling these elements of relationship and gender politics, as he was as well (perhaps much greater and concise) with his film just the following year, The Unfaithful Woman. By the end it's become so cold an atmosphere one might suspect he brought on Robert Bresson as a guest director. It's a menage-a-trois story that takes on some very fascinating angles about how one side plays against another, or another (the oddly named 'Why' played by a beautiful if precisely hollow-ala-Scarlett-Johansson-performance from Jacqueline Sassard), until what will happen next flies out the window. And so much of this is dictated by camera style and the mood of a scene or the dullness of a color, or how Why moves when she walks on a street. His film, as well as others from this exciting period, may seem straightforward as Hitchcockian melodrama, but the movements of the actors and tempo of dialog suggest a radical turn for cinema akin with his other Cashiers people.
Sad then that only one thing should get in the way of it being, arguably, his best film. Those roommate characters, I must stress, almost by design (and if so I respect it), are hard to watch after a while. They're not so obnoxious in the way that most gay or presumably gay characters are in films. They're more-so by just being one-dimensional types who bicker, complain, make facile and stupid observations, and with only one or two exceptions (i.e. a character reading out of a book or finally confronting Why about her happiness) there's really little use of them in the story. Maybe Chabrol's aim is to have some kind of precursor of normalcy, ironically, with such louts around these 'beautiful' people in the lead roles. But it just falls so wrong that I pulled away from the scene when they came on, which is a good quarter of the running time.
Nevertheless, watch Les Biches as something of an essential in Chabrol's oeuvre. When it's at its most grounded in the nature of these two women (aka "Bad Girls") and how they view each other's love and how it spirals out of control for both, it's irresistible in a certain way I've come to expect from Chabrol's work. It may also be a template for other character-driven thrillers he would make over the years.
ADDENDUM: Other Chabrol reviews:
A GIRL CUT IN TWO
THIS MAN MUST DIE
LA FEMME INFIDELE
LES BONNES FEMMES