One of the key members of French new wave, Claude Chabrol died this weekend at age 80, having made nearly as many movies — almost all of them thrillers — as years he lived.
Like his colleagues Francoise Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, Chabrol was a film critic before he was a filmmaker, with a keen and then radical appreciation for American genre films. Presciently hailing Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly (a movie so outré the New York Times declined to review it) as “the thriller of tomorrow,” Chabrol informed the readers of Cahiers du cinéma, that Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides had taken “the most deplorable, the most nauseous product of a genre in a state of putrefaction: A Mickey Spillane story” and “splendidly rewoven it into rich patterns of the most enigmatic arabesques.” Together with Rohmer, Chabrol published the first serious book on Alfred Hitchcock in 1957 and he would remain a life-long Hitchcockian.
Chabrol made his first feature, Le Beau Serge, in 1958, hitting his stride with his fourth, the unsettling crime film Les bonnes femmes (1960) which would also served to introduce his wife Stephanie Audran. This chic and seductive actress would an axiom of Chabrol’s cinema during his most fertile period. Made in rapid succession, the domestic thrillers Les Biches (1967), La Femme Infidele (1968), Le Boucher (1969), Just Before Nightfall (1971), La Rupture (1973), Wedding in Blood (1973), and The Nada Gang (1974), were all shown at the New York Film Festival and/or commercially released.
The quality of his work decline thereafter although the prolific filmmaker did regularly return to form, producing at least one outstanding film per decade, notably Violette (1978), The Story of Women (1988), and La Céremonie (1995). All referenced particularly notorious French crimes and, not coincidentally, all starred Isabelle Huppert who superseded Audran as Chabrol’s muse.
Then New York Film Festival director Richard Roud wrote of La Rupture that Chabrol “walks a tightrope between melodrama and tragedy — and he doesn’t fall off.” That was not Chabrol’s only high-wire act. His movies are further distinguished by their mordent humor and abiding distaste for the habits of the French bourgeois, despite his own notable appetite for bourgeois gustatory pleasures. (Dining at the home of his sometime distributor Dan Talbot, Chabrol sniffed a carefully selected Bourdeaux and generously allowed that his host was pas un vin idiot — that is, an ignoramus.) Most crucially, Chabrol was a hardcore cinephile who made popular movies — or rather movies in a popular mode.
Chabrol’s last film to be released here, A Girl Cut in Two (2007), updated the scandalous case of fin de siècle architect Stanford White, shot dead by the jealous young millionaire who married his teenaged former mistress, and transposed it to a world of corrupt, self-satisfied literati and rich fools. Back in 1963, Andrew Sarris, the first American critic to champion Chabrol, wrote in the Voice that the director was neither a moralist nor an aesthete but “an uncompromising satirist of human behavior” who proved that “stupidity when viewed honestly and sympathetically is the stuff of poetry.”
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