Chabrol bothers. He bothers me too, I must admit. He frustrates my universally recognised, unchallenged right as an art consumer to know where the maker stands, where he wants me to be and what he has to say to me. I prefer a banal message to an undecipherable one. I prefer a banal vision to a constantly changing one. I prefer a hypocritical morality to a morality of hypocrisy. Chabrol stubbornly and viciously backs out on all these consumer rights. His films lack the aesthetic and ethical unity that was written down some two thousand years ago as one of the basic tenets of our art charter. Unity is consoling – we consume culture for that very consolation – and for the duration of a film or reading session, it holds up to us the possibility of a universe (however terrible) with at least a consistent logic, a predictable course. This unity belongs to the rules of good taste and, ultimately, of courtesy. It is the dress, the form of any cultural communication. It is the constituent agreement between art producer and art consumer. Anyone who flouts this limit of propriety, will bring misunderstanding or dissatisfaction (in this case, hatred) on themselves.
Chabrol films are battered, shrivelled, scarred and marked. Fractures and cracks lie beneath or sometimes on the carefully professional surface. The emotional and aesthetic landscape of his films is accidenté [uneven]. This is, however, less a kind of dialectical cinema with didactic ambitions than a cinema of paradoxes and contradictions. Dialectics are a form of controlled accidents, a didactic experiment in breaking the unity of a discourse. Chabrol sticks to his own moodiness – according to the propensities and inclinations of his physical and psychological digestion, he follows now this and now that tendency. Depending on the mood of his crew, he sometimes films in a lyrical manner, at other times in a cynical manner, taking sides for one or the other, or for all, or for no longer anyone. The uneven character of Chabrol films is the result of a digestive process, an organic course of growth and decay, integration and excretion.
My pleasure in watching Chabrol films, therefore, is not of the level of the overall argument, the emotional curve, the dialectical tension of the whole. Chabrol has taught me the hard way not to settle in his films at any point. The most unexpected disavowal unforeseeably awaits you. Rather, I am looking for compounds (as chemistry calls it) of elements, combinations of tonalities. Those who watch a Chabrol film with an eye towards the end, the summary, the conclusion and the final verdict, will be disappointed. It is not the result of the race but its style that counts. Not the destination but the trajectory.
One would think that such sensibility and method would benefit from loose, unstructured, instantaneous films, but no, Chabrol chooses authoritatively closed genres like the detective film, the crime film, the suspense film. And he emphasises their moral aspects throughout the entire film. He clamps his characters (and thus his audience) in questions of right and wrong, duty and impulse, loyalty and infidelity. He places this suspense not in a broad social framework (like Hitchcock) but in a tight family clamp. It is not crimes against the state, against property, against life that are his theme but crimes against conjugal ethics. He tries to clamp his audience in two steel traps: no one can remain neutral when an issue is framed in terms of right and wrong – and what is more sensitive a matter with today’s audience than the morality and problems of marriage? The framework within which Chabrol is manoeuvring simply cannot leave us indifferent. Chabrol’s combination of an extreme and almost simplistically Manichean formulation of a problem applied to a reality as complex as marriage is extra perfidious. He sets his marriage dramas not against a sentimental (Sautet, Lelouch) or understanding (Tanner, Goretta) background but against a reactionary-simplistic one. The combination of marital problems and crime-suspense is the first vulgarity Chabrol saddles his audience with.
But woe betide the emotions of those who yield to Chabrol’s emphatic invitations to simplistic judgements and thoughtless expressions of sympathy! In Dirty Hands, Romy Schneider successively plays the vamp, the murderess and the cynical widow (“une vraie garce” – “a total bitch”), but these descriptions are all reversed in the second part of the film. She becomes the prostitute, the abused, the manipulated and finally the passionate. From an active principle she becomes a passive principle, from a bearer of evil she is purified into a protector of life, from a puppet in a parlour adventure she becomes the main character in a love melodrama. This sequence suggests a shift from less to more, from bad to good, from unfree to free. But Chabrol is after more, after something else. From beginning to end, Romy Schneider’s character remains a conventional set piece. Chabrol plays with the audience’s identification, with the ability to sympathise, a diabolical game of confirmation and denial, of affirmation and problematisation. The real purpose of this entire demonstration are the doubts raised with the audience about its own gullibility and manipulability. He also questions the relevance of moral categories: what is the point of our moral examination system if the same persons can be murderously evil one day and heroically good the next?
I already mentioned that Chabrol is not a didactician or a moralist. Rather, he is a provocateur, an interrupter of smooth talk and good taste, a sneering but not even loud contrarian. Nothing irritates him as much as what is established (judgement, taste, style, opinion). This sensibility is more aesthetic and stylistic in nature.
Recent Chabrol films such as High Heels (also called Scoundrel in White), Ten Days Wonder and The Nada Gang terrorised me. My colleagues (just like me) invented two different Chabrols for it: the burlesque and the realistic one. This, of course, did not solve the problem. The burlesque is one of the stages of Chabrolian digestion. It is one of the most remarkable breaks in a landscape whose lovely, classicist finish we like to admire. A perfect finish? And yet! In Dirty Hands, more perhaps than in other films, it struck me how clumsy this perfectionist can be – and I remember having similar impressions with his other films. However clever his camera work and direction of the actors, there is always something “theatrical” beneath the image. From his actors, he demands expressive, symbolic acting rather than a natural style. The exuberant, affected fragments by Jean Rochefort (as a lawyer), Maistre and Santini (as policemen), and Blech (as a judge who seems to be on the verge of blurting out laughing at Rochefort’s show) are not antithetical to the acting style of the main characters (Steiger and Schneider) but are a humorous variant of it. Chabrol uses his actors in an oblique, upside-down, incomplete way. This often creates an effect of miscasting. In Chabrol’s film, for instance, Schneider is remarkably weaker than in That Most Important Thing: Love and less naturally pretty than in Sautet’s films. Steiger, in turn, belongs to those actors, like Welles, Perkins and Yanne, who walk around in Chabrol’s films all too pointedly as guests – visiting and left to their own devices. Chabrol works best with puppets and masks – not because he is a manipulative director but because he is eminently capable of playing the melodramatics of puppets and masks. Some actors, like Audran and Bouquet, lend themselves brilliantly to this, others like Schneider are too personal to be instrumentalised for this melodrama.
Just as he found – in the present context – a frustrating way to use his actors indeed as actors and not as persons, Chabrol is also a frustrating framer and editor. Chabrol’s shots have none of that visual pantheism that today’s cinema is wallowing in. The frame of his image is very clearly a demarcation, a boundary of a composition, not a provisional halt beyond which there is an ever more explorable space. This demarcation is also found in the montage: with him, a shot never generously draws out. But when it does occasionally happen, with a landscape or a face, it produces very moving effects, so very alienating in this chilly environment.
Who is the enemy against which Chabrol runs this impressive machinery on all levels of his films? What is the “beast that must die”? What is the name and place of the comfort he wants to undermine? What is the temptation he wants to banish? It is the clichés, banalities, brief reasoning and short-winded judgements, the shorthand that makes tastes, the Esperanto of human relations, good taste, moral and aesthetic conventions. A gigantic programme which he doesn’t tackle naively and head-on, but slyly and suicidally at the same time, along the precipices of that which he wants to combat.
Image from Les innocents aux mains sales (Claude Chabrol, 1975)
This text originally appeared in Kunst & Cultuur 8, no. 13, July 1, 1975.
Many thanks to Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman
With support from LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject