Chabrol’s cinematic gaze

Mehru Jaffer

The world losta critical eye on its commoners the day French filmmaker Claude Chabrol died at the age of 80. Is this an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to behave even more badly in society than before, is the question. 

For half a century the world got used to receiving at least one Chabrol a year that kept it informed as to what its middle class was doing and, above all, thinking, particularly deep in the bowels of the French countryside. Whether it is Madame Bovary (1991) or Les Biches (Bad Girls, 1968), peeping tom Chabrol has disrobed many a seemingly ordinary life as lived in the provinces in the most extraordinary way. He preferred to wink-wink from behind a more leafy green environ that curtains life outside the naked rat race of Paris. 

Chabrol's prime concern as a filmmaker was to entertain audiences despite the nature of themes he chose to explore and his conscience-pricking style. His success both as filmmaker and social critic lay in packaging his plays as psychological thrillers that were nevertheless peppered with fun and wit. 

Chabrol's films thrill not in a psycho way but in the viewers being dragged into a situation that closes in upon them in the impossible-to-escape darkness of a cinema, forcing them to bite their fingernails as they wonder what they would do if caught at a crossroad similar to that which they witness on screen. 

Pick up any Chabrol and find that it is the closest clue to the dark motives behind the white painted faces of the bourgeoisie, so splendidly represented on screen in film after film by ice maiden Stephane Audran. 

Remember Les Biches where the character played by Audran lives in a home where wealth and other worldly objects are displayed as if in a shop. Here the actual emotions and sexual desires of human beings are locked up behind buffoonery and polite smiles. 
Audran's self-indulgent character is a contrast to that of the pauper in the same film, whose innocence and natural beauty is spoiled when a lack of luxury in her own life arouses uncontrollable emotions of jealousy and violence. 

Never one to be mean for the sake of being mean, Chabrol is quick to acknowledge the attractive aspects of middle-class values like an appreciation of new ideas, gender equality, and attraction for adventure and nonconformity.

What better example than Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970) which I revisited immediately after hearing of the death of Chabrol on September 12. In this favourite Chabrol from the late 1960s, Audran's Miss Helen lives a comfortable life in a small French town by herself. She is independent, earns a living, smokes on the street and is liked by her neighbours. 

However, the respectability of the very 'proper' schoolteacher is threatened in her own psyche when she deliberately chooses to conceal the identity of a serial killer from the authorities because she is attracted to him. 

The horror of this self-realisation is hair-raising and Audran acts it out like no other - the tragedy that strikes after the world of a bourgeois is shaken to its roots. Chabrol was clearly not impressed with how good you look, but more interested in what you were thinking. 

He liked to invariably sneak behind what the rest of the world saw as a success story, or as an ordinary, respectable existence. It was his mischievous smile that almost always betrayed the fact that he had already lifted your precious carpet in search of what you might have swept under. 

Chabrol is not known for spoon-feeding his audience or preaching to them as to what they should do to make this world a better place. In many a film, though, he does eliminate the thorn in the side of utopia, leaving the survivors with a greater responsibility to sort things out or face the music of dealing with the same problem all over again. 

Chabrol is the backbone of the French New Wave cinema together with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, and has inspired filmmakers of several generations all over the world. 

The greatest tribute that can be paid to the charming Chabrol is to go back to all his 71 films in order to both enjoy and to enlighten the self. 

I still have to watch Bellamy, a film which Chabrol completed in 2009. 

Now who says that Chabrol is dead.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010

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