Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 3, January 2001

 

 

Andrew Slade

Chabrol for Beginners (and Other Interested Parties)

 

 

 

Guy Austin

_Claude Chabrol_

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999

ISBN 0 7190 5271 8 (hb); 0 7190 5272 6 (pb)

197 pp.

 

In _Claude Chabrol_, Guy Austin has written a comprehensive and definitive

introduction to the productions of one of France's most prolific, if not

important, contemporary film makers. From his position in the nouvelle

vague, through his fall from auteurist grace in the 1960s and 1970s, to the

recent reclamation of his career as marked by his return to consideration

in the pages of the _Cahiers du cinema_, Austin fruitfully combines the

details of an artistic life with the concerns of Chabrol's filmic

production. Thus, this bio-filmographic methodology offers to the student

of French cinema both an introduction to the body of Chabrol's work and

plenty of sources for further research, reading, and viewing. The book will

thus prove excellent reading for courses in film and cinema studies for

both student and instructor alike.

 

Austin employs a bio-filmographical method to introduce and sustain his

discussion of Chabrol's lengthy career, one that spans 40 years. Austin

treats the films in their own right, but also in their intersections with

Chabrol's biography. He negotiates these two domains well, generally

focusing his attention on the films and relating them to Chabrol's life

when significant elements of that life inform the film. The bulk of the

book's arguments are rightly given to the explication of individual films

in their historic and generic context within the totality of Chabrol's

production to date.

 

Austin organizes the book more or less chronologically through seven

chapters, with the first serving as a general introduction to Chabrol's

life and work, and his place in the history of contemporary French cinema.

This chapter glosses the major themes of his productions: genre cinema and

the auteurist urge, the tension between good and evil, and above all, the

influences of his friend and screenwriter, Paul Gegauff, from whom Chabrol

learned of the vicissitudes of cynicism and amorality. Despite his enormous

productivity, Chabrol has earned a strange, even ambivalent reputation in

France: 'Until recently, Chabrol suffered from a paradoxical reputation as

simultaneously lazy and prolific: lazy in his uncritical acceptance of any

project that came along, prolific in the number of such projects that made

it to the screen' (2). Austin counters this paradox by quoting from Chabrol

himself, a strategy of which he makes judicious and effective use

throughout the book. Chabrol thus defends himself (in Austin's

presentation): 'a musician must compose, a writer must write, a painter

must paint, and a film-maker must film' (2). Hence, Chabrol's enormous

production. The thrust of the book aims to support the reinstatement of

Chabrol's reputation and succeeds in this without becoming hagiographic; it

is partisan without being reverential and thus sustains an acute

sensibility to the particularities of Chabrol's films.

 

The following four chapters treat specific thematic issues that traverse

the films. Chapter two treats Chabrol's nouvelle vague films and his

ambivalent, yet central, place in the history of the nouvelle vague. Austin

focuses his attention on _Le beau Serge_ (1958), _The Cousins_ (1958), _The

Girls_ (1960), and _The Third Lover_ (1961). The third chapter treats the

films of 'The Helen Cycle'. These films, made roughly between 1967 and

1971, 'explore questions of identity, guilt, and class tension, with a

degree of precision and craftsmanship at that point unprecedented in

[Chabrol's] career' (44). These films of love triangles include, in

Austin's analysis, _The Does_/_Les Biches_ (1967), _The Unfaithful Wife_

(1968), _This Man Must Die_ (1969), _The Butcher_ (1969), _The Break_

(1970), and _Just Before Nightfall_ (1971). In his fourth chapter, Austin

reads Chabrol's films as a turning from the melodrama that marked the Helen

Cycle, to the thrillers that present Chabrol's interrogations of paternity.

In his treatment of 'Family Plots', Chabrol thus turns from the role of the

woman as the center of attention in the cinematic apparatus, and especially

the role of maternity, to explorations of fatherhood; the generic vehicle

Chabrol employs for these explorations is the thriller. The films that

Austin focuses on are: _Ten Days' Wonder_ (1971), _Red Wedding_ (1973),

_Nada_ (1974), _Innocents with Dirty Hands_ (1975), _The Twist_ (1976),

_Blood Relatives_ (1978), _Coq au Vin_ 1985), _Inspecteur Lavardin_ (1986).

In the fifth chapter, Austin directs our attention to 'The power of the

Gaze', that is, to the filmic and diegetic elaboration of looking relations

in Chabrol's cinema. Austin fruitfully relates these films to an account of

cinematic voyeurism in the works of Alfred Hitchcock, especially _Rear

Window_ (1954), that Chabrol wrote with Eric Rohmer which implicates a

spectator's desire to look with the diegesis of the film. In Chabrol's

cinema the gaze works as a menacing figuration in films from the 1980s and

1990s: _Masques_ (1986), _Le Cri du hibou_ (1987), _Dr M_ (1990), and

_L'Enfer_ (1994). In a final set of analyses, Austin follows Chabrol into

what Chabrol himself has called his final, overriding interest: character,

and especially female characters (125); thus Austin groups together what he

calls, 'Stories of Women'. These films begin to appear in the late 1970s

and return in the 1990s: _Violette Noziere_ (1978), _Madame Bovary_ (1991),

and _Betty_ (1992). In the final and capstone chapter, Austin treats

exclusively the film, _Ceremony_ (1995), as Chabrol's final success in

integrating auteurist impulses with genre cinema (168). This final success,

as is always the case in Chabrol's film, happens as an ambivalent and

ambiguous closure.

 

I have written this somewhat tedious summary of Austin's chapters in order

to impress upon the reader the sheer quantity of films that this little

book addresses. Austin accords each of the films at least a couple of pages

and relates the films to one another where he finds: 1, thematic similarity

or difference; 2, stylistic, that is to say, filmic similarity or

difference; 3, filmic innovation; and 4, innovation interior to Chabrol's

development as a film maker. While not every reader will agree to each of

his analyses, they are astute, lucid, and ultimately very useful in filling

in gaps in one's viewing experience. As the Series Editors' Foreword makes

clear, volumes in Manchester University Press's French Film Directors

series aim to bring to an anglophone audience books that 'students and

teachers seeking information and accessible but rigorous critical study of

French cinema, and for the enthusiastic filmgoer who wants to know more'

(vii).

 

While the book is short on theoretical claims, and does not broach

philosophical questions, it offers readers an account of Chabrol's cinema

(including an excellent filmography) that will serve as a background to

further questions that this cinema poses. While one may object to reading

_Ceremony_ as the capstone of Chabrol's career, as Austin is wont to do,

this is an objection that will best be addressed in further research and

writing. Such work will have to account for Austin's interventions in

_Claude Chabrol_.

 

State University of New York

Stony Brook, New York, USA

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Andrew Slade, 'Chabrol for Beginners (and Other Interested Parties)',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 3, January 2001

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n3slade>.

 

 

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