From the standpoint of 2008, the French new wave that broke half a century ago is a towering monument to a particular moment— a solitary whitecap in a Courbet seascape. What was that surge?
As a film critic or a filmmaker (or, in most cases, both), each of the nouvelle vague big five—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette—had his moment as a Young Turk. And any of the four survivors (Truffaut died in 1984) can claim the laurels of a grand old man.
Chabrol, who should soon be shooting his 70th feature, is at once wildly prolific and utterly faithful—at least to the conventions of the commercial thriller. Rohmer, 88, is more literary but no less consistent in his concerns. For four decades, he’s been making droll, dialogue-driven “moral tales” in which confused young people hack through the thicket of their romantic entanglements, mainly by talking about them. (No filmmaker is more devoted to dialogue. Is it any wonder that Quentin Tarantino is a fan?)
Fifty years back, these two Cahiers du Cinéma critics collaborated on the first book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker then considered by most to be a mere entertainer. As auteurs, they would each take Hitchcock’s example, if not in the same way: Chabrol assumed the master’s black humor and fascination with guilt, while Rohmer, more professorial, followed Hitchcock’s moralism and allegiance to pure cinema. (As prolix as they may be, Rohmer’s movies are neither theatrical nor novelistic.)
Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two and Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, both opening this week (after local premieres at the last New York Film Festival), are quintessential works, even though both are adaptations. While Rohmer takes on an “unfilmable” classic text, Chabrol is an enthusiastic tabloidiste. Darkly droll, A Girl Cut in Two updates the scandalous case of the celebrated fin de siècle architect Stanford White, shot dead by the jealous young millionaire who married White’s teenage mistress, a showgirl.
An old-fashioned cineaste, Chabrol came to the story by way of its 1955 Hollywood version, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, and he transposes it to contemporary Lyons. Charles, a successful novelist and practiced libertine (played with seasoned suavity by François Berléand), vies with Paul, the young and unstable heir to a pharmaceutical fortune (given a memorable foppish swagger by Benoît Magimel), for the favors of an innocent TV weather girl, Gabrielle (wide-eyed, luscious Ludivine Sagnier).
Confident yet vulnerable, she falls for the (much) older guy. On their first date, Gabrielle accompanies the famous author to a literary auction where he presents her with a rare 1,000-euro edition of Pierre Louÿs’s s&m classic The Woman and the Puppet.
Gabrielle’s mother may run a bookstore, but the infatuated weather girl, a true product of TV, doesn’t read any foreshadowing in Charles’s gift (nor does she seem to know which way the wind’s blowing). In love for the first time, Gabrielle allows herself to be debauched by the veteran roué. Then, after a nasty breakup and an ensuing breakdown, she marries the preening young fool on the rebound—thus effectively incinerating them all.
A Girl Cut in Two is a spry piece of work. Chabrol uses this sinister clown show as a means to puncture the media world’s hot-air balloons—as well as to highlight the hypocrisies of his favorite target, the haute bourgeoisie. The latter class’s villainy is embodied not so much by Paul’s strutting insouciance as by his mother’s agonized affect and impossibly taut neck. Still, although directed for mordant comedy, the spectacle of a naïve, lower-middle-class woman’s misadventures in a nest of wealthy vipers is initially unsettling and ultimately gut-wrenching.
Chabrol has always been a sensitive director of actresses. (He’s provided Isabelle Huppert with the lion’s share of her strongest roles.) Sagnier, however, is more object of sympathy than active presence. The world revolves around Gabrielle; she’s humiliated but never defiled. Sliding deftly over the sleaze, the filmmaker is as accomplished in manipulating his characters as Charles is—if not so self-regarding.
Putting his creatures through their paces with a child’s fascination, Chabrol, who has more than once compared himself to an entomologist, is never more attentive than when regarding the antics of those specimens whom he most obviously loathes.
The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, a film which Rohmer has suggested will be his last, is a costume pageant that serenely conflates two—or perhaps three—historical periods. The source is Honoré d’Urfé’s 17th-century pastoral romance, itself set in an imagined fifth-century Gaul; the feel, however, is oddly contemporary.
As pedagogical as he is, Rohmer has always favored movies with young protagonists. Some recent films, notably his 1999 Autumn Tale, did feature a more mature cohort. But with Astrea and Celadon, the filmmaker returns his attention to the blissful self-absorption of youth—something that, in his oeuvre, is akin to contemplating the state of nature.
At once silly and straight-faced, Astrea and Celadon is a paradoxical experience. The comely shepherdess Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) sees her beautiful beau Celadon (Andy Gillet) “making merry” with another girl at a rustic fete. Misinterpreting this ruse (designed to fool his disapproving parents), she forbids Celadon to ever speak to her again. He straightaway attempts to drown himself in the river but, unbeknownst to Astrea, is rescued downstream by a group of nymphs, lovely and upscale. Taken to their castle, lovelorn Celadon imagines himself in heaven—as well he might—and, for reasons necessary to propel the narrative to its logical conclusion, disguises himself as a girl. The result is not so far from Some Like It Hot.
Togas and off-shoulder tunics aside, Rohmer makes no particular effort to periodize this tale of star-crossed love. On the contrary: Although his Gallic pagans present themselves as crypto-Christian (and their halls are incongruously graced with Renaissance paintings), Astrea and Celadon is far less stylized than previous Rohmer costume films, like Perceval or The Lady and the Duke. This open-air talkathon—in which a simple misunderstanding compounded by the literalist interpretation of a single sentence serves to sunder doting shepherd and adoring shepherdess—is of a piece with the rest of his work. As always in Rohmer, seeing is not believing and mistaken identity is a given.
Throughout human history, Rohmer suggests, attractive young people and the occasional interested elder (in this case a druid priest) have discussed at length the nature of love, truth, and fidelity. The movie’s gravity has the effect of raising Rohmer’s career-long concerns to cosmic heights.