“Everywhere love stories are exactly the same,” Patrice Chéreau, who died in October at age 68, told the Guardian in 2011. “The game of desire, and how you live with desire, are the same.” In the films of this prodigiously accomplished writer-director — who also mounted radical interventions in opera and theater throughout his five-decade career — desire is explosive, raw, terrifying, ridiculous, repellent, and transcendent, often all at once. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chéreau retrospective — comprising nine titles, several of which are rarely screened — commemorates one of cinema’s boldest interpreters of extreme emotion.
Born in northwestern France in 1944, Chéreau was appointed the artistic director of a theater company in Paris when he was only 22; by the mid-1970s, he had overseen stage productions in Italy and Germany and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at the Paris Opera. Despite his early, extensive experience in the high arts, Chéreau was drawn to more lurid material for his first film, 1975’s The Flesh of the Orchid, an adaptation (which he co-wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière, a frequent Buñuel collaborator) of the British crime writer James Hadley Chase’s 1948 novel of the same name. Charlotte Rampling, appearing here at the peak of her decadent glamour (her succès de scandale The Night Porter had come out the year before), stars in this baroque thriller as Claire, a fragile beauty who’s spent most of her life locked up in mental hospitals. Escaping a rustic asylum, she falls in with two men who are themselves fleeing a pair of knife-throwing gangster brothers, their kill skills perfected in their ancient circus act.
Meanwhile, Claire, unaware that she is to inherit millions, is being trailed by her aunt (Edwige Feuillère, part of a troika of continental screen legends cast in smaller roles that also includes Simone Signoret and Alida Valli), a mercenary relative unnaturally attached to her fey son. “May I know what is going on?” one character says as corpses start piling up in a musty Zurich manor in the final act. Though I often wondered the same, Chéreau’s debut film is pure pulp pleasure by way of Greek tragedy, with Rampling gouging out more than one man’s eyes.
A year after The Flesh of the Orchid, Chéreau achieved worldwide recognition (and a fair amount of notoriety) for his iconoclastic staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which he set in the mid-19th century and envisioned as a Marxist allegory about capitalism. His most commercially successful film, 1994’s Queen Margot, is likewise audacious, upending the staid conventions of the period-piece costume drama. In this unrestrained rendition of Alexandre Dumas’s 1845 novel about the 16th-century French Wars of Religion (scripted by Chéreau with Danièle Thompson), crazed kings sweat blood and royals rut in the street while all of Paris becomes a graveyard, the streets clogged with butchered bodies in the aftermath of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
As the sovereign of the title, a Catholic whose forced marriage to a Protestant ruler precedes the slaughter, Isabelle Adjani brings her signature mad ferocity to what might be the last high-profile role of the one-time luminary, whose star has since fallen. “I want to see the image of my death in my pleasure,” she growls to one lover before an early-morning avenue stroll to pick out another, the Huguenot hero La Môle (Vincent Pérez). The actress’s unhinged intensity amplifies the delirium that surrounds her — the villainous actions of her scheming mother, the incestuous lust of her brothers, the endless death and rot. Chéreau magnificently orchestrates the chaos while glutting our senses.
For as much as Chéreau was devoted to sprawling, clamorous stories with enormous casts exhibiting outsize passions — as evinced further by the tempestuous couples and exes, both hetero and homo, in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998) — he also excelled in more modestly scaled portraits of emotional and sexual entanglements. (His first and only English-language film, from 2001, was, after all, called Intimacy.) But the love he explored onscreen wasn’t always carnal: One of the best films about siblings, Son Frère (2003) tracks the growing closeness between Thomas (Bruno Todeschini) and Luc (Éric Caravaca), two brothers — the former straight, the latter gay — who have been estranged for years. Their rapprochement tentatively begins when Thomas, the elder sib, shows up at Luc’s apartment to announce that he has a rare blood disorder, asking his kid brother to accompany him to the hospital the next day.
Son Frère toggles between several weeks in a Paris clinic during grayest, grimmest late winter and summertime in Brittany, where Luc cares for Thomas in their family vacation home, and quickly becomes a profoundly moving account of two men repairing a long-frayed trust. Yet this film about vulnerability, both emotional and especially physical, betrays not one trace of easy sentimentality, adhering to a rigorous compassion throughout.
While Son Frère probes the delicate process of reconciliation, Gabrielle (2005) brilliantly anatomizes a volcanic split. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1897 short story “The Return,” Chéreau’s finest literary adaptation, which sticks to the original’s era, was co-scripted with his frequent collaborator Anne-Louise Trividic. Pascal Greggory, one of Chéreau’s stable of regular performers (and for many years the director’s romantic partner), plays Jean, an overweening publisher. Of Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), his wife of 10 years, he remarks in voiceover, “I’m proud of what she is — impassive.” Though Jean and Gabrielle’s convivial weekly dinner parties further enhance their social standing as a model couple, their marriage has long been sexless: “We have no intimacy, nor any need for any,” he thinks. But she needs it, leaving her husband for the man she’s been having an affair with, only to return to a reeling Jean later that afternoon — both to further punish him and to debase herself. The destabilizing action is matched by Chéreau’s off-kilter visuals: The film unpredictably switches between color and black-and-white; a torrent of words occasionally fills the screen. In their flawless performances, fluctuating between icy control and wild abandon, Greggory and Huppert are nearly consumed by ricocheting fury, regret, and humiliation. “There won’t be any more love. And you can live with that?” Jean roars at one point. He can’t — and neither can anyone else in Chéreau’s fervent universe.