Thursday, 25 July 2013

Claude Chabrol: The Art of Suspense

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Born in Paris in 1930, into a comfortable middle-class family, Chabrol was evacuated during the war to the isolated rural village of Sardent in central France. Already a film enthusiast, he set up a makeshift cinema in a barn where he projected German genre films, which he advertised as American ‘super-productions’.

After the Liberation, he returned to Paris, where he studied first pharmacology, then Law, while, at the same time, immersing himself in the thriving cine-club scene. At the Cinematheque Francais, he met Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and was soon invited to write articles for Cahiers du Cinema. A devoted fan of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, he collaborated on a book about Hitchcock with Rohmer which became the first serious study of ‘the master of suspense’.

Backed with money inherited by his wife, Chabrol wrote, produced and directed Le Beau Serge in 1958, a film often cited as the first New Wave feature. Shot over nine weeks in Sardent, using natural light and real locations, the film portrays a detailed picture of working class life in a bleak provincial village. Reflecting the influence of both Rossellini and Hitchcock, the film plays on the theme of ‘the double’, with it’s two young protagonists, Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gerard Blain), mirror opposites locked in a power struggle. Le Beau Serge was well-received, winning an award at the Locarno film festival, and a lump sum of money from the Film Aid board, which enabled Chabrol to start production on his next film before the first had been released to the public.

Les Cousins (1959) again featured actors Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, as a pair of polar opposites, in a plot that effectively reverses the action of the earlier film. This time Blain plays the outsider, a visitor from the country to Paris, who struggles to find a place in his cousin’s social set, just as Brialy found it difficult to re-enter the closed world of the village in Le Beau Serge. Otherwise, however, it is hard to believe that the two films came from the same director. In contrast to the long takes and lyrical landscapes of his first film, Les Cousins is brash, fast-paced and urbane, with an undercurrent of biting satire.

Les Cousins was another critical and commercial success, earning a Best Film award at the Berlin Film Festival, and becoming France’s fifth largest box office success of 1959. Chabrol’s innovative approach to financing became a blueprint for other filmmakers to follow. Meanwhile, the production company he had set up, AJYM, was now able to support the debut films of Jacques Rivette (Paris Nous Appartient) and Eric Rohmer (Le Signe Du Lion). He also served as a technical advisor for Godard on A Bout De Souffle (1960). By using his success in this way, Chabrol was instrumental in getting the New Wave up and running; which in turn contributed to the press reports of unselfish interdependence and collaboration within the movement.

Chabrol’s next film, A Double Tour (1959), was a first excursion into the thriller genre, and displayed many of the concerns – murder, deception and obsession – that would dominate his later work. For his next film, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Chabrol assembled a strong female cast including Bernadette Lafont and Stephane Audran. The film, which follows the lives of four young women working in a shop in Paris, again combined documentary realism with Hitchcockian suspense. On the surface, an easy-going comedy/drama about the love-lives of four working girls, the humorous tone is soon offset by an undertone of tension. Its detailed depiction of Paris and memorably enigmatic ending, make this one of the masterworks of the Nouvelle Vague. 

Chabrol’s subsequent releases, Les Godelureaux (1960), L’Oeil Du Malin (1961), Ophelia (1962), and Landru (1962) failed to recapture his earlier success – until the release of Les Biches in 1968 inaugurated a series of film classics which established Chabrol’s reputation. (

In the following extact, Claude Chabrol discusses his early films with Mark Shivas for an article first published in 1963:

Le Beau Serge (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Mark Shivas: What do you think of your first film, ‘Le Beau Serge’, these days?

Claude Chabrol: I still quite like the opening, and I quite like the village, La Creuse, where I stayed during the war. I hate the film’s ending.

MS: It was symbolic, though, wasn’t it?

CC: But it didn’t come out very honest. In my mind it corresponded to something quite precise, something one often comes across in the world, but...

MS: What were the things that mainly interested you in the making of the film?

CC: First of all, there was the village which I knew well, and I liked the people there very much. That part of it I enjoyed doing a lot. But at the same time I was learning the technical side, and that lost us lots of time!

MS: Haven't a lot of documentary things about the village been cut out during the montage?

CC: At the outset, the film was at least two and a half hours long. Luckily I showed it to some people and they said, ‘Aië, aië!’ so I cut three quarters of an hour. And in comparison with the original scenario I’d already cut half an hour. So it could have lasted three hours. It was cut mainly in the transitions, and then there were two things which took up a hell of a lot of time. The cutting was done so that the film could be more successful commercially, but I took care to make sure that the topography of the village was respected. So in order to get from one place to another, even if it meant going right across the village, one went right across following the guy or whoever it might be. That took plenty of time!

Then there were things like the baking of bread and scenes in the bistro with people talking among themselves that had nothing to do with the subject of the film but seemed to me to be indispensable at the time. You see, even the tables of the bistro were of very old wood, and so much wine had been spilt on them that they had a unique color. Henri (Decaë) had rendered this color so well that I would have liked to have it in the film. But then everything would have been interminable.

Le Beau Serge (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: Had you ever worked with actors before? Rivette began, for instance, with actors in a short film.

CC: No, I hadn’t done anything interesting. Short films aren’t really the same. But for Le Beau Serge I mainly chose friends and old hams. In using these people, I realized that I liked barnstormers and actors who exaggerated a little. I always encourage them to grimace. If you are afraid you go (makes expression of horror by shrinking back with eyes popping), if you are happy you go (throws up hands in glee)! It’s because of this taste of mine that from time to time actors grimace. The ones I used in Le Beau Serge were good, but not good at that.

MS: Do you prefer to use their natural mannerisms?

CC: Yes, there was the way in which Jean-Claude (Brialy) runs. That was very useful to me. It was when I saw him run like that I made him wear the scarf, because it suited him. Gerard Blain rolls his shoulders like this…when he walks, so I told him to walk faster to accentuate the fact. Little guys with complexes about their size often do things like this to make them look bigger. Hawks must have noticed this too in Hatari! On top of all this rolling motion, he was often supposed to be drunk as well, seeming to lean on one leg first and then the other.

MS: Did you have more technical than acting problems?

CC: I had my main problems with that infernal device they call the camera-blimp! That was dreadful. All the same, there are one or two things I like. In the camera movements there are some that don't serve any purpose: when a man walks across the main square, I put down all the tracking rails I had, maybe four hundred, five hundred meters of rail! I had already intended to do lots of camera movement – travelings which started here and ended there, crossing the main square, ending by going through a door into a house! Fantastic! As the camera followed the actor through the door, he was obliged to walk on the rails – clack, clack, and you could see them too! Then we had to go through little doors inside which there was no room for anything much more than the camera. Poor (Jean) Rabier, he had a hell of a time working on the framing.

Les Cousins (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: What was it about the subject of ‘Les Cousins’ that interested you particularly?

CC: I had both Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge prepared at the same time, in fact; I had the idea for Les Cousins but I couldn’t do it because it would have been too expensive. Construction-wise Le Beau Serge was at once too long and without enough incident for its length. The pieces about the father-in-law were added later. Les Cousins was just three pages long when written down. The situations were more compact. It has more construction. Le Beau Serge was economical, and it was good on the village, but the story was rather tricked up. The people in Les Cousins are real.

MS: What do you like especially in ‘Les Cousins’?

CC: I’m very fond of the tomatoes à la Provencale, and I quite like the second surprise party. The man who breaks the chains... things like that. The background to the party... nothing quite like it on the screen for twenty years... I think I broke all records there! Madness. There’s everything there – Wagner, girls with bare feet, the lot!

MS: Weren’t there repercussions from that film?

CC: Not particularly. There was a little. People didn’t think there were any Fascists in France then: they were that stupid. Now they can see that it was true.

MS: The characters?

CC: I like the character played by Brialy, and Carolus (Blain), quite well. It’s sad that a chap as frank as he ends up a victim of his own foolishness.

Les Cousins (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: Is (Paul) Gégauff’s part in it mainly concerned with the characters or with the construction of the script?

CC: It’s not the construction which is Paul’s part, but the dialogue, which is real Gégauff dialogue. It succeeds in saying in two pages what would have taken me four to say. That’s very useful because it allows you to do a lot more in the same amount of time. And also by Gégauff are one or two little things such as the scene where they talk about the erotic quality of their skin. The whole story depends on this, he would say: it’s a story about skin texture. He wrote that scene in about half an hour.

MS: Didn’t he have any ideas as a scenarist?

CC: No, no, no ideas of construction.

MS: So the symmetrical construction of the film is your work?

CC: Yes, I like symmetry. I like it when everything comes together at the end, but one mustn’t strive for symmetry. It annoys me to strive for ‘rhymes.’ It’s good working with Gégauff because he takes a delight in destroying casuistry. I like what Paul does.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: What was it that appealed in the subject of ‘A Double Tour’?

CC: I read Stanley Ellin’s book when I was doing my military service and there was one thing which I found very remarkable then: a chap who’s very conformist and then suddenly takes off rejoicing into nature. The subject was impossible. There was one thing in it about a key which locks a granary. I have never understood whether the important thing was that it was locked or that it was unlocked! So I cut that out. And I amused myself with the mythological aspects of the story: Leda, and there were swan references in the house! Then there was the scene of the row between the man, Dacqumine, and his wife, the first version of which was refused by the Hakims who were producing the film: it was much more horrible than the scene we eventually shot. It was entirely physical with the bloke saying to his wife, ‘You look a mess, your armpits smell bad,’ and other nasty things. Finally there was the character of the Hungarian, Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo). He interested me. But at the same time, this was a mistake because the film would have done better at the box-office without him. It didn’t do badly, but without this bizarre guy, spectators would have been less upset by the film. He was a worrying element, spending his time saying and doing outrageous things to offend people.

MS: In ‘A Double Tour’ André Jocelyn plays the role of a person who excludes or destroys beauty, a person who seems to crop up quite a lot in your films – ‘L’Oeil Du Malin’ and ‘Ophelia’ as well.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
CC: Joselyn represents a certain type in French society — the son of a good family, rather degenerate, a bit queer. Jocelyn is good at portraying that kind of character.

But let’s imagine a young chap who’s intelligent, sensitive, kind, handsome, who lives in a milieu which is unintelligent, insensitive, ugly, hard, and yet he cannot abandon the milieu because his roots, his family are in it. When he comes face to face with something that contradicts what he has been brought up to, it’s inevitable and normal that he will try to destroy it. In L’Oeil Du Malin it’s a bit different: the wish for destruction comes more from the man’s mediocrity than from anything else. The reaction is to turn their destruction outwards, preferring to fire on others. One finds the same sort of thing in present day politics – the young people who have become plastiqueurs. I’m sure their origins aren’t so different from those of the Jocelyn character in A Double Tour: they’re people who have problems inside themselves, inside their families. That sort of character interests me a great deal.

MS: It’s the opposite in ‘Ophelia’, isn’t it, a bit like ‘Vertigo’, where the character wants to make his dream concrete and thus destroys the real thing?

CC: It’s very much like Vertigo, and that’s a film I admire very much. I saw it again when I was making Ophelia and I found it totally unbearable. I found ridiculous arguments so that I could say to myself, ‘What is all this driveling nonsense?’! But the arguments that I used to myself when I was making Ophelia were ridiculous.

MS: ‘Vertigo’ certainly had its influence, because there were things in ‘L’Oeil Du Malin’; there were very similar shots.

CC: Oh yes.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: And the color in ‘A Double Tour’... the field of poppies. You said that the main problems were Decaë’s.

CC: There’s one thing which I hate about color films... people who use up a lot of their despairing producer’s money by working in the laboratory to bring out the dominant hues, or to make color films where there isn’t any color. The hell with that! I like to have the screen full of color, twenty colors on the screen at once, fifty colors. There are no dominants despite what people have said.

MS: It must have been awful for Decaë...

CC: Yes, but the result was very faithful... and it was horribly complicated. I mean the golds and the interiors, with the windows with the colored glass giving the faces three colors at once. The relationship between the interiors and the Provence exteriors was very important, and coordinating the ideas of the decorator and costumier, the cameraman and the director, are specially important in color movies, and much more difficult than for a black and white film. I like making black and white films in natural surroundings, but I much prefer shooting a color film inside a studio where the colors are easier to control. Some colors are very difficult to render, and you must compensate to get the color you want on the screen. It’s pretty complicated, but not so much for me as for the cameraman. I say to him, ‘You see this, you see that. I want that exactly rendered as it is. Is that possible?’ In the studio there are no troubles about the sun going in!

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: ‘A Double Tour’ is very exact on the colorings of the south of France.

CC: It was also very important to get the decors right for the South. There were family photos in the house we used, and the paternal grandfather of the house looked exactly like Dacqmine.

MS: Were you happy with the actors there?

CC: That was rather complicated. Everything was prepared, the locations were chosen and all that. My first choice for Leda was Suzy Parker but she didn’t fit in with the decor at all. So Antonella Luaidi was chosen. The plot had to be modified a bit... she became an Italian who had known a Hungarian in Japan. Rather remarkable! I also wanted Charles Boyer for the Dacqmine part. On the other hand Madeleine (Robinson) was just what I had wanted.

MS: Jean-Paul Belmondo’s gastronomic orgy was quite something...

CC: Yes, I’ve often noticed that in films people don’t really stuff themselves full when they’re eating. So now I work on the principle of having at least one meal in all my films. After all, one must eat. And after all, again, it’s very scenic. It’s difficult to put across on film, to get everyone in the shot without cutting to and fro. I’ve often thought of having a table made with a hole in the middle for the camera to film meal scenes!

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: ‘Les Bonnes Femmes’ is perhaps your most ‘symmetrical’ film.

CC: Symmetrical? From the symmetrical point of view it’s symmetrical!

MS: In the montage or what?

CC: In my last version there was a final quarter of an hour of flashes of people in the street leaving their work between six and seven. That was cut. At the outset it was more symmetrical. The whole thing came full circle.

MS: Most people either think that ‘Les Bonnes Femmes’ is a masterpiece, or they’re violently against it.

CC: I wanted to make a film about stupid people that was very vulgar and deeply stupid. From that moment on I can hardly be reproached for making a film that is about stupid people. I don’t think that it’s a pessimistic film. I’m not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live. When we wrote the film the people were, for Gégauff, fools. It was a film about fools. But at the same time we could see little by little that if they were foolish, it was mainly because they were unable to express themselves, establish contact with each other. The result of naïvety, or a too great vulgarity.

People have said that I didn’t like the people I was showing, because they believe that you have to ennoble them to like them. That’s not true. Quite the opposite: only the types who don’t like their fellows have to ennoble them.

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: But the cinema is an art of identification and that makes it annoying for the spectator. And that is perhaps the reason for the film’s failure commercially.

CC: As the film shows vulgar people, who explain themselves instinctively without any kind of mask, so spectators and critics talk about ‘excess.’ But the girls aren’t shown as idiots. They’re just brutalized by the way they live. They’re simple girls who are impressed by savior-faire, by people who do things, tricks and conjurors for example. Maids and shop girls love this sort of thing. The poetical side doesn’t really interest them. You see much more grotesque things going on every day than you do in Les Bonnes Femmes. Actually it wasn’t a group of girls in the film. In effect it was one.

Les Bonnes Femmes is the one I like best of all my films. I like Ophelia too, but I prefer Les Bonnes Femmes.

Ophelia was not quite what we wanted. I think it was shot too late. It should have been made sooner and nearer the time when I had the idea. And then it wasn’t shot just where I would have liked: the chateau I had wanted had been sold and that was annoying. And we had changed the scenario around too much by the time the film was made. But I like Ophelia very much...

MS: What is the difference between the projected version of ‘Ophelia’ and the present one when finally made?

CC: I pushed it more towards having fun. And then the original version was more serious. I had the film Hamlet interposed in it. I put the guards back in and a bit where they chase Jocelyn, who puts on a cap and scarf to make them think he’s breaking into the grounds of the chateau. I was obliged to change some of the scenes between Ivan (Jocelyn) and the girl (Mayniel). I’m very fond of Juliette, but she wasn’t quite what I had in mind at the outset for the part. I wanted a girl with a sort of angelic quality, more ethereal, so that one should understand the impossibility of any erotic quality there. I like the little film within the film and the reception that goes with it because it’s more normal than the rest of the film. The hero is normal in comparison with the rest of them. He’s not at all mad. In the context of all the other monstrous people around, the relationship of Jocelyn and Mayniel is not at all strange.

– Mark Shivas interviewed Chabrol for Movie, No. 10, published in June 1963. Text copyright © Mark Shivas.

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