The New Wave was launched in 1958 with Claude Chabrol’s first feature, Le Beau Serge. Chabrol has since proven himself the most industrious of his generation, with some 55 features to his credit. Although he’s as personal a director as the New Wave produced, he has always differed from his colleagues by his willingness to work on mainstream projects, often using detective fiction as source material, mining the genre for cool and near-surgical examinations of bourgeois and provincial life. However, his long career has been as uneven as it has been prolific, as evidenced in “The Other Claude Chabrol,” MOMA’s series of 11 Chabrol rarities—some theatrical features, others commissioned for French TV that have never made it into American theaters.
Best of the bunch are two period pieces: The Necklace(2007), from the well-known Guy de Maupassant tale, and The Bench of Desolation (1974), based on an obscure Henry James story. In Necklace, Cécile de France is extremely moving as a young wife whose love for pretty things leads to her undoing. Bench, set in a seacoast town in Edwardian England, concerns the misadventures of a rare-book dealer blackmailed by his ex- fiancée when he refused to marry her. In this visually stunning film, Chabrol’s preoccupation with surfaces serves to establish his characters’ isolation. Its elegant sheen can be chalked up to Jean Rabier, the director’s brilliant cinematographer, who has played a key role throughout most of Chabrol’s career.
Less essential viewing, Monsieur Bebe (1973) is an unconvincing absurdist comedy about the unlikely adventures of an elderly concierge, and Invitation to the Hunt (1974) a murky story about a pompous businessman who receives his cruel comeuppance. Both of these TV films contain unpleasantly stereotypical gay characters, though Hunt is worthwhile for a brief appearance by the great Jean Martin (the unforgettable paratroop commander Colonel Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers) in the role of a sadistic nobleman. This creepy film was written by novelist Paul Gegauff, who scripted a number of Chabrol’s pictures dealing with the breakdown of marital relationships— and was stabbed to death by his wife in 1983.
Even less essential viewing, Fantomas (1979) is a major disappointment. Pioneer Louis Feuillade made one of the first great European movies with his serialized screen version of Marcel Allain’s story about the emperor of crime, the mysterious black-hooded bandit. It has been remade since by a number of hands—Chabrol’s draggy and tedious version may be the least impressive, with the wishy-washy ex–pretty boy Helmut Berger as the master criminal.
When his more personal films of the early 1960s failed at the box office, Chabrol, down and out, embarked on a series of undemanding commercial assignments for theatrical release, which included the two “Tiger” films in MOMA’s show. He was under no illusions about them, noting in an interview that “Code Name: Tiger is not a film I did for pleasure.” The “Tiger” flicks (Code Name, 1964, and An Orchid for the Tiger, 1966) were a short-lived attempt by the French to turn out James Bond–style action pictures. Orchid, the nastier of the two, is a tad more fun, but both are uninventive, bargain-basement Bond. Chabrol completists will be in seventh heaven with this show; others would do well to lower their expectations.