The French New Wave is justly famous for many things, many different cultural geysers and tidal fluctuations and siroccos. But when we talk about the law firm of Godard Truffaut Rivette Chabrol Resnais Demy Varda Marker & Rohmer, we're usually talking about French spontaneity, romance, cinephilic experimentation, rock & roll, lost youth, indie pioneering and so on. We're talking about Godard's self-autopsying indeterminacy, Rohmer's bell-jar romanticism, Truffaut's kids, Rivette's dream-time paranoia park, Resnais' narrative contraptions. But we rarely talk about Claude Chabrol, because Chabrol is simultaneously the most orthodox of the Wavers and the most commercially successful (several of his last decades' films weren't released here, but twice as many were), catnip to middle-class audiences who like their Euro art films with a dose of genre plot and not so much esoterica.
That may seem to imply a degree of hackdom, but Chabrol was a consummate craftsman, perhaps with more in common with elder statesmen Henri-Georges Clouzot and Georges Franju than with his uppity Cahiers du cinéma–grad contemporaries. Habitually drawn to the wet pulp of murder thrillers (taking on Rendell, Highsmith, Simenon), Chabrol had genre on his side; though he was often saddled with a Gallic sub-Hitchcock brand, he was a far less formal, less manipulative and less visually controlled filmmaker. (Truffaut, in his Hitchcockian detours, had a bit more of a use for the vernacular; the Hitch action editing turned The Soft Skin's melodrama into a leveling study of domestic cataclysm.)
The eight “thrillers” in LACMA's series, running from Friday through Feb. 5, don't turn the suspense crank so much as ponder the genre's ambivalences — when they involve crime at all. Chabrol made films about homicide and its vapor trails as if he loved to see modest, middle-class French life hit with a silent bullet and then shatter, in undramatic slow motion. Murder was never a moral issue in Chabrol's universe, but just something that happens, around which the moral verities of the bystanders, victims and sometimes the perps must realign and settle.
His debut, Le beau Serge (1958; screening Jan. 29 at 5 p.m.), is more of a spontaneous, dramatic collision between a young man (New Wave axiom Jean-Claude Brialy) returning from Paris to the provincial hamlet of his youth and struggling to “save” his once-brilliant friend from a life as a despairing, grieving drunkard. Minor but intimately shot and dealing out its Christian-symbolist cards with a deft delicacy, Chabrol's film was the first New Wave film to get noticed, followed by Les cousins (1959; Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m.), a deliberate B-side to Serge. Brialy and Gerard Blain reverse their country mouse/city mouse roles and quietly limn the odyssey of Blain's student's initiation at the hands of his cousin into the amoral, quasi-Beat life of Parisian youth, and his falling disastrously for a floozy (Juliette Mayniel, soon to be the skinned victim of Franju's Eyes Without a Face).
The low-keyness, pro-am style and focus on in-between moments are what established the New Wave in many ways: It can be startling to realize that before the first handful of New Wave features and shorts, movies didn't attend at all to idle hanging out, or plot-irrelevant intimacies, or cramped-apartment chitchat. However realistic, movie scenes still propelled their plots; now, they luxuriated in reality.
La bonne femmes (1960; Feb. 4, 9:45 p.m.) was Chabrol's first Chabrolian film, a deeply cynical, on-the-street tale of four Parisian shopgirls — '60s face Bernadette Lafont, the forgotten Clotilde Joano and Lucile Saint-Simon, and the future Mrs. Chabrol, Stephane Audran, she of the eclipse eyes and Cadillac cheekbones — whose consumerist dreams of romance and riches lead them into all kinds of ill-advised romantic entanglements and, eventually, a crime of passion. This is Chabrol's version of the ultrarealist film that nailed down Paris life — and did so just as evocatively as The 400 Blows and Breathless — but its climactic murder became a Chabrol signature: the story as a slow boil, with various concerns and character arcs, which bubbles obliviously toward a stroke of violence that restructures our perceptions in an instant.
By La femme infidèle (1969; Jan. 28, 7:30 p.m.), Chabrol had moved away from the black-and-white impromptus that defined the movement and graduated to large-scale, hazy-Technicolor epics of betrayal and domestic rupture. The film is, more than anything else, the methodical examination of an emotional passage for Michel Bouquet's bourgeois husband, who suspects his wife (Audran) is having an affair, and whom Chabrol films as though every discreet moment of his ordinary day is a hand grenade ready to go off. Eventually he detects the lover and kills him, which is when, in typical Chabrol fashion, things get really interesting back home.
More famous, This Man Must Die (1970; Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m.) is one of Chabrol's most memorable straitjackets, a vital predecessor of Park Chan-wook's vengeance films, in which the father (Michel Duchaussoy) of a hit-and-run victim sets out to find the culprit and make him pay. This leads him to the killer's sister-in-law, with whom he fakes a romance in order to insinuate himself into the family. And there's the rub — the family itself (including the boorish killer's own son), with whom Duchaussoy's rather featureless hero grows perilously close, complicating his allegiances. But the revenge plot never disappears, and what some characters know before others know they know them makes the movie roil like a sulfur pit — quietly. Hitchcock would have been consumed with the visual/physical cascade of events, but Chabrol is all about the unbroadcast ticker tape going on behind everyone's eyes. In the end, the mysteries aren't solved (and therefore safely diminished) but only get larger.
Through 1988's mesmerizing WWII abortionist saga Story of Women, and a strangely placid adaptation of Madame Bovary in 1991 (neither screening in LACMA's series), Chabrol continued to pursue his trademark obsessions, as if returning again and again to cool scenarios of psychopathology infiltrating the quotidian eventually would reveal to him a grand, extracinematic truth about humanity. Or maybe he couldn't resist a good yarn.
La cérémonie (1995; Jan. 29; 7:30 p.m.), from a Ruth Rendell book, is another homicidal bolero, in which Sandrine Bonnaire's timid housekeeper, newly employed by an affluent family, strikes up a friendship in town with Isabelle Huppert's local nut job–cum–postal clerk. Both women reveal elusive hints of past psychotic behavior, and as their relationship becomes increasingly irresponsible and destructive, the maid's household (which includes mother Jacqueline Bisset and daughter Virginie Ledoyen — Chabrol clearly loved women) grows familiar crosshairs, and a class-war massacre looms.
Merci pour le chocolat (2000; Feb. 5, 5 p.m.) offers a pregnantly comic twist on the psychopathy syndrome, with Huppert manipulating her family and environs by way of an endless succession of poisoned cups of hot cocoa. I'll take The Bridesmaid (2004; Jan. 28, 9:20 p.m.), a psychodrama of typically brisk efficiency and relaxed gallows humor adapted from another Rendell novel. The semifunctioning family at the center is sketched in — responsible son with incestuous lurkings (Benoit Magimel), high-spirited single mom (Aurore Clement), bickering sisters — before we meet the titular catalyst at a family wedding: Senta (Laura Smet), a sensuous but off-putting seductress with a mysterious past. Magimel is all pro, busy deciphering life with his eyes, as the chump who gets vacuumed in by the girl's impulsive devotions and Nietzschean delusions, but Smet, all eyelashes and butterscotch skin, is the film's prize. She doesn't act out the character's slowly revealed pathologies so much as keep them barely contained behind her mesmerizing stare. Pomposity-free and genre-sharp, Chabrol sets us up, of course, which is at least half the fun.
LE BEAU CLAUDE: EIGHT THRILLERS BY CLAUDE CHABROL | Jan. 28-Feb. 5 | LACMA's Bing Theater | lacma.org La femme infidèle, one of the