Take one bourgeois husband, add a suburban home or a sun-washed villa, fill it with a towheaded child or some sinister houseguests, put the gloriously feline Stéphane Audran in the midst of all this, and you’ve got a recipe for murder. Claude Chabrol spent his golden years as a director making Audran, then his wife, the object of innumerable suspicions. This 20-film retrospective includes a weeklong showing of a new print of the 1960 nouvelle vague classic Les Bonnes Femmes (unavailable for screening at press time), and highlights from four decades of cool cinematic investigation into the conflict between human appetites and society.
At 28, Chabrol, a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, made Le Beau Serge (1958), his first feature. A tubercular student (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns home for a rest, but finds that his childhood friend (Gérard Blain) has become a wino and their sleepy village a den of incest and degeneracy. This intimate portrait of provincial despair started the New Wave rolling.
With Les Biches (1968), Chabrol found his true calling—the analytical dissection of lust and betrayal. Audran plays a chic, wealthy woman adrift in Paris, who picks up an itinerant young street artist named “Why” (Jacqueline Sassard), takes her home for a bath, and down to the Riviera for some parties. There, amid the lassitude of St. Tropez in December, they become entangled with an architect (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Les Biches chillingly evokes the ghostly presence of a third person hovering at the margins of a couple’s desire.
Les Biches is playing in the Parisian neighborhood where Audran, an indolent bourgeois housewife, meets her lover (Maurice Ronet), in La Femme Infidèle, made the same year. When her placid husband (Michel Bouquet) catches the scent of adultery, their life of comfort and rectitude turns suddenly dangerous and sordid, a shift Chabrol renders with brilliant restraint and economy. Their suburban home near Versailles, that symbol of neoclassical decadence, comes to stand for larger social values that have gone awry.
Two years later, La Rupture shows that world in ruins, with Audran as (paradoxically) its moral center—an ex-stripper who leaves her husband, a psychotic writer, when his drug-
induced rages threaten their child’s life. To gain custody, her wealthy father-in-law (Bouquet again) struggles to defame her with the help of some hilariously dim-witted and seedy characters. The “rupture” of the title refers not only to the impending divorce, but also to the crumbling of middle-class mores and Chabrol’s wild deconstruction of classical melodrama.
Chabrol is still tilling the fields of despondency that lie just beneath the surface of bourgeois propriety. In Betty (1993), Marie Trintignant flings aside marriage and children and ends up dead drunk in a creepy bar called “The Hole,” where Laure (a still vividly sexy Audran) looks after her. “All my life,” Betty sighs, “I’ve been chasing the wound inside me.” A great director was following.