PITY POOR CLAUDE CHABROL, THE UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED FIGURE OF the French Nouvelle Vague. Somewhere along the line, for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some demented, Chabrol's reputation has floundered. And this despite the fact that with more than 50 movies under his belt, he's the most prolific of his peers. Renewing one's acquaintance with the cream of his oeuvre will make one curse the critical consensus that gathered around Chabrol in the late 1970s and painted him as little more than a very talented dancer in the wide, black shadow cast by Alfred Hitchcock.
Quite apart from the disservice this myopic assessment does to Chabrol's bleakly funny, often deeply unnerving movies, there is also a tendency to forget the crucial role played by Chabrol in helping his fellow Cahiers du Cinema critics (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette) become filmmakers. His debut, Le Beau Serge (1957), is the first real movie of the New Wave, inaugurating most of its innovations, such as gritty location shooting, greatly increased camera mobility, a concentration on youthful, marginal characters, and a broad frame of cinematic reference. Better yet, Chabrol's production company became the gateway through which all the others passed on the way to international success. He and Rohmer also co-authored a famous early study of Hitchcock's work, and with Truffaut in tow, he interviewed Hitchcock in Paris in 1955 (after accidentally falling into a frozen pond, much to Hitch's amusement).
With his contemporaries, Chabrol laid out in the pages of Cahiers many of the precepts that would guide him as a filmmaker. His personal manifesto appears in his succinct essay “Les Petits Sujets” (“Little Themes”), in which he declared that there was no structural difference between a movie tackling a big, portentous subject and one grounded in the smallest details of everyday life, and that one could apply the broad, grandiose brush strokes of the larger kind of movie the better to enrich the smaller themes he was attracted to. Herein lies the basis for Chabrol's love of relatively simple but never straightforward stories that could be stuffed with symbolic detail, thematic and visual doublings, halvings and mirror images, horrible twists of fate and the blackest kind of humor. A movie such as The Butcher is, on the surface, just a titillating murder mystery. Closer examination of its beautifully proportioned elements reveals it to be a study of the ways in which the realities of death are repressed by society, only to emerge in the grotesque form of a rural psychopath.
Chabrol has never downplayed his admiration for the Master of Suspense, but he has always claimed that a greater influence was what Tom Milne has memorably described as “the bleak geometry of Fritz Lang.” Lang's fatalism and his mathematically precise structures (they're like the proverbial steel traps) both have their echo in Chabrol's films, in which motive and action unfold with the formalized logic of repetition and exchange found in a minuet. Add to this the baleful, illusion-free gaze of a Buñuel (both he and Chabrol love insects) and the lushly conceived mise en scène of Sirk, who shares Chabrol's fondness for bourgeois depravity, and the result is a director whose simple, elegant classicism is simultaneously less cluttered, and more expressive and densely allusive, than much of the work of his more renowned peers.
From those 50-odd movies the UCLA Archive has picked a mere 11, and fans will no doubt moan about the omissions. Where, for instance, is Les Biches (The Does), the lesbian melodrama that inaugurated Chabrol's décennie prodigieuse in 1968, and which prefigured The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Chinese Roulette, by fellow Lang-Sirk freak Fassbinder. Also missing is the best of his early work, Les Bonnes Femmes, and some sense of his concerns beyond middle-class melodrama, as might have been illustrated by, say, his archival documentary about World War II collaboration, The Eye of Vichy.
This is to carp unnecessarily perhaps, because there is truly an embarrassment of riches to be enjoyed here, in a fairly representative sampling that concentrates on the great flurry of masterpieces he produced in the late '60s and early '70s (La Femme Infidele, This Man Must Die), but also includes work from the '80s and '90s, such as Cop au Vin, L'Enfer (Hell) and Inspecteur Lavardin. The great majority feature Chabrol's sometime wife, the icily repressed but indelibly expressive Stéphane Audran, always hiding her motives and emotions behind her suntan, fake eyelashes and top-shelf catwalk fashions. If you value crisp, elegant, precise and intellectually toothsome cinema, and you've never seen a Chabrol film, there is a mother lode of pleasure to be had over the next few weeks. And once you've seen these 11, you simply won't be able to keep your hands off the rest, an erratic selection of which is available on video.
CLAUDE CHABROL: INNOCENTS WITH DIRTY HANDS | UCLA Film and Television Archive at the James Bridges Theater | January 22 through February 6 | For further details, see Film & Video Events in Calendar.