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A master of murder

French film director Claude Chabrol, who died late last year.

French film director Claude Chabrol, who died late last year.

Published Jan 12, 2011


It’s a bit morbid to start off the new year with a tribute to a late film director, but the death of French director Claude Chabrol at the age of 80 somehow passed me by at the end of the last year and he’s far too important to ignore.

I first remembered Chabrol’s films from my film society days at Rhodes University in the mid-1970s. He once said: “I love murder”, and he seemed then to be a French version of Alfred Hitchcock with a critique of the French bourgeoisie added on. That’s not the worst way to see his career even now.

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In all, he made more than 60 films in his half-century of film-making, an extraordinarily prolific output, and of course many of them were mediocre. The quality of his best films, however, shone like diamonds through the dross and will be with us for ever.

Chabrol was one of the members of the so-called “nouvelle vague” (new wave) in the late 1950s and early 1960s – which included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette – who reacted vigorously against classic French narrative cinema.

In the late 1950s, Chabrol and Rohmer wrote a book about Hitchcock, analysing what were initially regarded as superior entertainmentsin terms of his Catholic background, focusing on such traits as guilt transference.

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The English suspense master’s black humour, macabre touches and rich sense of guilt both fascinated and influenced Chabrol in his own films.

It was the French new wave who gave birth to the idea of the “auteur” theory of film-making in which the personality of the director as the supreme creator persists through his works, even if they are studio projects.

It’s a theory that has largely, but not entirely, been discredited in these days of industrial film-making, but it certainly held true for a minority of film-makers in those days.

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These theories were mulled over and sharpened during the 1950s when Chabrol and his collaborators contributed a series of vitriolic articles in the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema that had been founded in 1950 by the film theorist Andre Bazin. The magazine is still flourishing today.

Chabrol’s first film, Le Beau Serge (1958), has gone down as the first film of the new wave. It was followed, more famously, by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1959).

Chabrol’s golden period came in 1967-73 with a series of films about murder and betrayal. These included Les Biches (1968) which started the famous husband and wife collaboration of Chabrol and Stéphane Audran. In this mesmerising, masterly film, Audran plays a woman with lesbian leanings who picks up a young, impoverished Parisian girl, a liaison that has a deadly ending.

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Audran’s second film for her husband was La Femme Infidele (1969) in which she plays a predatory wife who betrays her husband.

Probably the greatest of their collaborations, however, was Le Boucher (1970), a chilling drama in which she plays a lonely schoolteacher who becomes involved with a butcher. When local girls are found dead, suspicion builds on who may be involved.

Long after their divorce, Chabrol memorably explained: “My rapport with Stéphane as an actress is more agreeable now than when we were married. When you spend your days and nights with your wife and then you look through the camera and see her again, it’s just too much.”

Chabrol’s dissection of the French middle classes, and in particular the bourgeois family, was ongoing. An instinctive member of the left, Chabrol once said: “The only love that can really exist in the bourgeois family is the love of parents for their children, I’m not against marriage or the family, only the bourgeois family.”

Commenting on this, a critic once said: “Here he resembles Luis Buñuel (the famous Spanish film-maker with a strong anti-clerical bias), although Buñuel attacked the bourgeoisie from without with a machete; Chabrol attacked them from within with a dinner fork.”

Some of Chabrol’s best later work was with the actress Isabelle Huppert, with whom he was never emotionally involved.

Their collaboration began with Violette Noziere (1978), in which Huppert plays a murderess who poisoned her family, followed by Une Affaire de Femmes in which she plays an abortionist who becomes the last woman to be guillotined in France. Huppert also played the title role in Chabrol’s 1991 version of Madame Bovary and this was followed by his adaptation of a Ruth Rendell thriller called La Ceremonie (1995) in which Huppert played a shady postmistress with a shady background.

l Claude Chabrol, film director, born June 24, 1930; died September 12, 2010. - The Mercury

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