Chic Thrills: Five Films by
Claude Chabrol, With A Little Help From Stéphane Audran February 10, 2020
Notes on The Unfaithful Wife, Le Boucher, Just Before Nightfall, Violette Nozière, and Betty
hroughout his career, the French filmmaker Claude Chabrol was enamored of one conceit in particular. What might happen if the pristine lives
of the bourgeoisie were suddenly disrupted by murder, deceit, and the like? Because Chabrol’s directing style is purposely cold to the touch — his features often feel like “tone poems on a thriller theme” as noted at one point by critic Pauline Kael — and because the people and environments which characterize them are more or less in line with each other, sometimes what he puts out can feel akin to exercises. His masterpiece, probably, is 1995’s La Cérémonie, because it was so straight-to-the-bone chilly that it lingered and lingered — a sensation exercises rarely stir.
Chabrol’s most consistent artistic partner was the actress Stéphane Audran, whom he made 25 movies with and to whom he was married from 1964 to 1980. They met on the set of a
feature Chabrol wasn’t directing in 1959, then collaborated for the first time with Les Cousins (1959). The latter was Chabrol’s second directorial effort; Audran played a supporting role in it as a seducer. Chabrol definitely had a preferred “stable” of actors. But arguably no performer (besides his other muse, Isabelle Huppert) was better reflective of his oeuvre than Audran, whose genius lies in her blink-and-you’ll-miss-them subtleties and her cautious impenetrability.
In her films with Chabrol, Audran obviously played a plethora of parts. But at their core they were for the most part comparable. She typically played well-off women who saw their lives jarred by something varyingly traumatic. (Cheekily, Chabrol named the Audran character in many of their collaborations “Hélène,” with the husband or lover or good friend of that character “Charles.”) Usually in these movies she would see through life-altering consequences — sometimes as a victim of karma and sometimes as the secondarily affected person who’s going to eventually be able to move past a particular development. It’s engrossing to watch Audran saunter through Chabrol’s movies. So frequently composed is she that part of the reason her and her partner’s features compel lies in our anticipation. Will something happen that will break up her stillness and/or her angular, baroque beauty?
Stéphane Audran in 1969's The Unfaithful Wife.
y the end of the ‘60s, what was considered “Chabrolian” — and what would be expected of a product between the director and his muse — was arguably established with The Unfaithful Wife
(1969), the first of the many Charles/Hélène films that especially proliferated over the next five years. In the film Audran plays the eponymous character. As the movie opens, she’s about two weeks deep into an affair with a writer named Victor (Maurice Ronet). We cannot assume why, exactly, she’s so drawn to him (he’s not very attractive or charming), so we can infer that the pull is rooted more in the escape that he provides.
Hélène is a hausfrau and keeps her home in the Parisian countryside. It can be lonely; it doesn’t seem like she has much of a social life. At the most her day might consist of driving into the city with her bland, thin-lipped husband Charles (Michel Bouquet). He’ll go to work; in the interim she’ll do some shopping, get some spa treatment. Perhaps indulge with a movie or two until he gets off. Charles starts to suspect that Hélène is having an affair a little into the movie after he senses that she’s not actually going to the places at which she says she’s planning on spending time. He hires an investigator; the investigator finds what Charles thinks he will; then Charles, not to give too much away, ends the affair by force.
This is a storyline suitable for soap-opera treatment; it even hits some of the same notes. But this is melodrama with the heat sucked out. It’s hermetic. Music rarely plays (so rarely that even during touchstone moments of suspense, it’s dead silent), and even when characters have inflicted violence or are going through the emotional wringer, at the most their faces will faintly twitch in certain spots — the mouth, the eyes, the forehead — but not so drastically as to leave a line that could only be smoothed by plastic surgery. To experience a catharsis would be too noisy a thing in the chic, stylish environment in which these characters live. The movie doesn’t so much get a rise out of us as it does get us to lap up the conviction in Chabrol’s filmmaking. It isn’t easy to make what should have been a blatant soap opera feel so airless and detached without seeming somehow apathetic. Yet Chabrol has made a smart and understated psychological thriller that, in less careful hands, likely would not have been either.
The film has been remade several times. The most prominent example is the Oscar-nominated, Adrian Lyne-directed Unfaithful, from 2002. I haven’t seen any of the reimaginings, but I have a hunch that none recreate the commanding coldness of the earliest incarnation.
habrol and Audran’s next film together, Le Boucher (1970), again features Audran playing a woman named Hélène. But she isn’t someone’s sedate spouse — instead she’s the single headmistress of a
school in a small, picturesque countryside village. She came to the area a few years ago in the aftermath of a breakup. (The move, essentially, was a coping mechanism.) She has since learned to love her job and her independence. Her blissful solitude, though, is interrupted as the film opens, when she meets Paul (Jean Yanne), a butcher, at the wedding of one of her colleagues. They’re chummy at the ceremony; Hélène is happily buzzed. When Paul walks her home (an act dramatized through a stunning, uncut sequence that runs through the village’s fairy tale-looking streets for almost four minutes), it’s confirmed to us that this will certainly not be the last time these characters see each other.
A little after, unusually grotesque murders start bubbling up around the area. We suspect, based on Paul’s frequent invocations of war (he served in the military for 15 years and above all else remembers the constant reminders of human disposability) and the sometimes-misogynist language he uses, that he might be the culprit. We’re not sourced a red herring to blame, either.
Paul and Hélène become close friends fast. He stops by her classroom one afternoon to present her with a slab of lamb wrapped up as if inside the paper was a rose. They have dinner a few times. Although it’s made clear that Hélène eventually does conclude that this new man in her life may indeed be the town murderer (she discovers a victim on a cliffside while heading a field trip for her students and Paul’s lighter sits next to it), Chabrol still douses the movie in ambiguity. We aren’t sure whether Hélène truly isn’t aware of how much danger she’s in, or if she knew, even before finding that corpse and that lighter, that Paul was the killer, and that was part of the reason she found him fascinating.
The emotional, Hitchcock-suspenseful finale is so compelling because, if to objectively speak about what happens during it, it sounds facile — like a neat conclusion. But Audran, drenched in tears throughout it but with her face stiff, makes it almost impossible to decisively know what she’s thinking. Is she scared of or thrilled by Paul’s possible barbarity? Both? How does the revelation of the truth genuinely make her feel? In fact we know little of what these characters are thinking. We gather that Paul likes Hélène in part because she’s unattainable. (After that doomed relationship from so many years ago, she explicitly shares a rigid disinterest in pursuing another romance.) But if, say, Paul is the killer, has this unattainability caused him to let loose a stifled thirst for blood? Or was a homicidal outburst always inevitable?
Filmmakers less calculating than Chabrol might leave us with all these questions and have us conclude that this is a result of faulty writing — that the screenwriter didn’t think about the myriad possible interpretations and the accompanying unknowns. But the overarching, not-totally-plot-related mystery has a creepy intentionality under it. This is a straightforward thriller only if you choose to not really scrutinize the minutiae of these characters and their neuroses. Le Boucher blurs the villain/innocent person
dichotomy; we aren’t even sure how Paul and Hélène would characterize each other. Chabrol has engineered a riveting trick mirror of a movie.
n 1971, a film acting as something of a reversal of The Unfaithful Wife — Just Before Nightfall — was released. It similarly starred Audran as a housewife named Hélène and Bouquet as her husband Charles. Only this time
it’s the latter doing the cheating, and instead of having the infidelity confirmed during the second act of the movie, it’s the first thing we see. Just Before Nightfall commences with Charles mid-rendezvous with his mistress Laura (Anna Douking), who is also the wife of his best friend (François Pérrier). It will be their last. Charles and Laura’s affair thus far has consisted of some sadomasochistic stuff (which Charles says later in the movie he was never very comfortable with). During a standard-for-them act of erotic asphyxiation, Charles accidentally kills Laura.
For most of the movie Charles is tormented on two fronts. Does he tell Hélène (at minimum) that he’s been adulterous? Does he tell the friend he’s betrayed what transpired? Should he go to the police? The dark twist of Just Before Nightfall is that Charles has an almost certain chance of getting away with his crime even if he tells his loved ones the truth. He must decide, then, what his fate is going to be. The movie in some ways seems a comment on how members of the upper class can get away with almost anything if their bank account is secure enough and if those closest to them are loyal enough. But even more than that does Chabrol seem intent on making a movie that ponders what might happen if someone has committed the perfect murder but has only done so by accident, and if that someone never wanted to be a killer.
Part of what was brilliant about Audran in The Unfaithful Wife was how we noticed her panic escalate under her skin once she started to realize something was off. Her closest counterpart in Just Before Nightfall, as played by Bouquet, is engaging, in contrast, because he’s sweatier, more palpably anxious. So by design, getting on the treadmill of his keyed-up thoughts is more doable. He
shakes us up more.
Just Before Nightfall is an intriguing character study; The Unfaithful Wife is a subdued subversion of the psychological-thriller formula. Audran is predictably astonishing in the former feature, too: Here she plays a wife so unusually unwavering in her support than underneath her aura of unconditional love she also brings some suspicion to light. Is she hiding something, too?
ome of the most dramatic secret-keeping to happen in a Chabrol/Audran collaboration happens in Violette Nozière (1978), one of the few times the director worked with the biographical. The film, also notable
for being Chabrol’s first time working with Huppert, who would grow to become a favorite of his, is based on the sensational story of the eponymous Nozière.
Often analogized to American alleged murderess Lizzie Borden, Nozière, born in 1915, is best known for poisoning both her parents when she was 18. Her father died; her mother just barely survived. Leading up to the infamous incident, Nozière was making extra money by stealing from her parents and working nights as a sex worker. When she at one point contracted syphilis, Nozière told her parents that the disease was in fact genetic, not a result of her sexual conquests. After convincing them of her virginity, she then gave them pills (i.e., the poison) for “treatment,” at the behest of, she said, her doctor. In the film, Nozière is played with an ominous unknowability by Huppert, who looks chicly sinister in her armor of black furs, hood-like black hat, and pomegranate-red lips. Her mother is enlivened by an atypically scattered, at-the-top-of-her-game Audran. The paterfamilias is played with a purposeful vagueness by Carmet.
Nozière, as a character, is inscrutable. As was the case with the heroine of Le Boucher, we cannot be sure what she’s thinking, which in turn makes her more interesting. Chabrol traverses two ideas: that Nozière is in fact wicked in her essence but also that she has been conditioned to become that way. (She says, spoiler alert, that her father has been sexually abusing her since she was 13 years old.) Chabrol doesn’t altogether tell us that Nozière is misunderstood and that maybe she wasn’t what she was made out to be after all. He doesn’t conclude that she’s an all-out guileless villainess, either. He straddles a middle-ground not often seen in movies like it. He recognizes and picks at the nuances without trying to claim that he definitely knows something is for sure one way or another.
Character unreadability ordinarily works a lot better in the thrall of fiction than in biography. There’s an expectation, when watching a film about people you could/can run into on the street, that you’ll finish it with a better understanding of them. With fiction, question marks can happily dangle in the right setting. With Violette Nozière, Chabrol proves that these notions are not firm. What makes the feature work is that it tries to figure out who Nozière was and gives us what appears to be a full, almost objective picture of her. But such doesn’t mean Chabrol is obliged to confidently conclude who she precisely, unquestionably was.
fter their 1980 divorce, Chabrol and Audran collaborated four more times. Although their artistic bond remained, Huppert soon became the auteur’s preeminent muse. The former husband and wife’s last
film together, Betty (1992), underwhelms — it feels like a capital-E exercise. Again, Chabrol has crafted an intelligent drama revolving around characters poisoning each other, though when I say poisoning I mean psychologically. The title character is played by Marie Trintignant, who initially seems made of glass. When we meet her, it’s evident that something terrible has only recently happened to her: her hair and clothes are messed up in a just-got-in-a-fight way and she’s in a drunken stupor.
Emotionally frail Betty is eventually noticed at a bar called The Hole by an older, wealthy alcoholic named Laure (Audran). The latter takes Betty in, letting her waste the days in bed in a hotel room she keeps like an apartment. Laure feels for Betty, since it sounds like, based on her guest’s recollections, she’s just now facing life alone after her society husband divorced her for a petty reason and took sole custody of their kids. Slowly, though, it’s revealed that Betty’s story doesn’t paint the full picture, which changes the victim-savior dynamic we first get used to.
When Chabrol made Betty, he was looking to see what he could come up with when backing a film that didn’t really have a plot. Indeed the feature is without a cut-and-dried narrative — it’s more so centered on the truth about its eponymous character coming to the fore. Though without a secure storyline secured to these characters, the stylish dispassion employed by Chabrol does lose some of its potency.
Still, the movie is plenty riveting. That’s mostly because Trintignant, whose acting here is of the meticulously expressive kind that suggests she’s not entirely truthful with herself or with others, is so magnetic. She gets us to care about what has happened to Betty while also making it not matter if the outcome has a crookedness — a sense that it's "off." Such is in line with what the majority of Chabrol’s films are so good at. Regardless of where a conclusion takes us, it has the feeling of a blip, almost. The thematic and situational similarities between Chabrol’s deliciously icy films work together to remind us how futile, at the end of the day, our lives and crises are. But with well-matched collaborators like Audran to help leaven his ideas, futility is temporarily lent importance and gravity — a need to be sedulously examined, distracting us from the futility of our own lives.
The Unfaithful Wife: B+
Le Boucher: A
Just Before Nightfall: B+
Violette Nozière: B+