Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Claude Chabrol: The Mystery of Character

La Cérémonie (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Born in 1930, Claude Chabrol was the first of the French New Wave directors into production with Le Beau Serge (1958). He went on to direct a series of classic films starring his wife, Stéphane Audran, including Le Boucher (1969) and Les Noces Rouges (1973). La Cérémonie (1995) was adapted from Ruth Rendell’s novel Judgment in Stone and starred Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the new housekeeper of a wealthy family, who befriends Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) – a postmistress with a grudge against the family.

Chabrol’s interest in thrillers is not primarily as a source of plot and suspense but as a means of exploring the psychology of murder. He is motivated by what he describes as the confrontation between character and story. The focus is on character and how the camera can best describe the inner attitudes of his two leads. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Claude Chabrol on La Cérémonie from 1995:

The starting point was a novel by Ruth Rendell. Her fifth or sixth. The first, I think, to depart from the normal process of police inquiry, with its recurrent detective figure – interesting though that process is. In this instance, the novel is a thriller only to the extent that she has chosen to maintain the formal appearance of a thriller. She might easily have chosen to make it a straight novel. I loved the book when it came out, fifteen or twenty years ago, but I hadn’t thought of adapting it as it was written, with only two characters, the maid and the postwoman. The maid was called Eunice in the book. She was a wobbly, fat thing, unpleasant really. The postwoman was very different too. They were fairly typically British. So time passed. I read other novels of hers. I saw that she was developing, her work was changing. She was the one to suggest I modified the structure. The process of reading her more recent work told me how I should adapt this one.

Caroline Eliacheff helped me in that … she uncovered the underlying psychological and psychoanalytical structure. That enabled us to restructure it without altering Ruth Rendell’s vision. I’ve tried to remain faithful to her way of thinking.

I asked Caroline to clean up the story for me, and she did a much more thorough job than I had expected. When I started working on the book, I had whole chunks of dialogue ready that would consolidate the psychiatric underpinning, so that the characters’ reactions might remain consistent. Otherwise, we would have spun off into insanity. Very often, when films depict psychopaths, they allow one to forget, for the duration of one or two scenes, that the psychopaths are just that. And then the insanity returns. But in reality, insanity is a continuous phenomenon. Here, Sophie’s illiteracy is always present, and Jeanne’s craziness is always there too.


My last political film was Poulet au Vinaigre (1984). What I was interested in then was to show the provincial bourgeoisie as starkly as possible, not in too heavy a way, but so that that critique was definitely a feature of the film. Subsequently, I found no particularly stimulating social phenomena to observe. And it is only now, in the past two years, that I am beginning to reconsider. I had a conversation with a young hooligan which left me with a feeling that society was about to explode, or implode rather, because it’s not just a marginal phenomenon. So I decided to make something of this feeling, but not in too precise a documentary way. Just as well, because Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine (1995) makes the point much better than I could have done. Our films are related, in that they reflect the beginnings of this explosion. He sees it as an explosion. I see it as an implosion. The young hooligan I mentioned thought things couldn’t go on like this for long, no more than three or four years. Only two more years left!

I remember an article, I can’t recall who by, it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which said that now the Wall was down, there could be no more class war. Only someone with money could ever say such a thing. Ask the lower orders if class war can ever end! La Cérémonie was an opportunity to deal with this area. Once a screenplay is ready to go, I always try and find a way of including a few personal preoccupations. In this case, it works. The film really does depict a schematic view of class war.

My starting-point is the relationship between the story and a character. On this film, the audience is not aware of the fact that there is no story. The characters gradually reveal themselves, their relationships evolve, but there is no real plot. Like Simenon, I’m a great believer in structures that arise out of the confrontation between different characters. I take an important characteristic that determines the character (e.g. sex, for Betty), and try to monitor its development in relation to others. It’s chemistry, really. A chemistry of affinity. Although I make plenty of thrillers, I am not really interested in plot. What I am interested in is the mystery, the intrinsic mystery of the characters...

- Extract from ‘Claude Chabrol The Positif Interview’, 1995.


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