Skip to content

Cinematic Vocabulary – The Opening to This Man Must Die (1969)

June 26, 2009

As with most of the big names of the New Wave, Claude Chabrol began his cinematic career as a critic for the Cahiers du Cinema.  This critical career culminated with the release in 1957 of a book about the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  This attraction to Hitchcock’s style and subject matter followed Chabrol when he ‘crossed the aisle’ from criticism to film-making and his early output quickly earned him a reputation as the ‘French Hitchcock’ and the influences can also be seen in the film I am going to be writing about today.

Que La Bete Meure (1969) was adapted by a novel by the British poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis.  It is the story of a man who tries to avenge the death of his son by tracking down the man who ran him over.  After seducing the man’s sister-in-law and infiltrating himself into the killer’s family, the grieving father discovers that the family have no more love for the thuggish monster than he does.  The scene I want to talk about is the extraordinary opening sequence leading up to the death of the child and the father’s discovery of the body.

The scene opens with a blurry shots that quickly snaps into focus on a young child playing on a rather desolate beach.  The camera zooms out and shows that the child is utterly alone and has been for quite a while.  There are no footprints in the sand.  No parents looking on benignly from a nearby café.  In fact, the parents are conspicuously absent, neatly foreshadowing what will come to pass.

The Opening Blur

The Opening Blur

Alone on the Beach

Alone on the Beach

Next, we see the car.  A mustang.  Moving fast and accompanied by what can only be described as a funeral dirge.  The piece is Vier Ernste Gesänge by Brahms, sung by the post-War contralto Kathleen Ferrier.  A singer noted for the particularly dark timber of her voice, a timber reportedly due to a birth-defect.

Chabrol cuts back and forth between the child and the car.  We see the child moving up the beach and the car eating up the road and immediately a sense of tension is created.  These two bodies, even though they don’t know it yet, are on a collision course.  As the scene progresses, it becomes more and more tense.  Shots from the inside of the car show the changing countryside and we expect the child to suddenly spring into view but we do not know when.

The view from Inside the Car

The view from Inside the Car

The cutting back and forth is accompanied by the music fading in and out, as though it is playing on the car’s radio.  As with the absent parents on the beach, this is another act of foreshadowing that serves to ramp up the tension.  The dirge is not for those already dead, but for those that are about to die.  Chabrol lays down further morbid imagery as the village is filled with old churches, local shops called “The Pope” and a tolling bell.  The absurd Gothicism of it all is almost unbearable but it is precisely the heavy-handedness of the imagery serves to increase the tension.

Death

Death

When the car finally hits the child it is dramatically downplayed.  There is no slow-motion.  No screaming child.  No death-rattle as the child closes its eyes for the last time.  It is impersonal… just another bump in the road.  The only emotional reaction comes from the woman in the car and even then the driver mutters “Ta Gueule!”… “Shut it!”.

We then move into a fixed shot.  It could have been the last thing the child saw.  The camera points up towards the grey sky, the old church peeks into shot on the lower left-hand side.  The camera does not move but people move in and out of shot.  By not moving the camera, Chabrol is making it clear that he does not want us to focus upon the locals’ reaction.  He wants us to focus upon the final thing the child saw.  That is the object of the scene.  That last minute of life.

Fix1

Fix2

Fix3

Eventually, with surprising slowness, the child’s father comes into shot, he picks up the child and howls his anguish and sadness.  Suddenly the emotional impact of what has just happened hits us.  By downplaying the moment of the child’s death and focussing our attention upon what happened immediately after, Chabrol has kept all of that built up tension in a holding pattern.  Suddenly, with the arrival of the father, that tension is released.  The father is a simulacrum of the audience’s sense of tension, his howl of anguish could almost be fuelled by the breath of our collective exhalation.  And because the father is the audience’s simulacrum, he is instantly sympathetic even though we know nothing about him other than the fact that he shares our shock and horror and what has just happened.

FixedFather

Jean Cocteau once said that for some people, style is a way of saying something simple in a very complicated way.  For others, it is a way of saying something very complicated in a simple way.  Given the ease with which Chabrol is capable of making us emotionally invest not only in the child’s death but also the father’s struggle, it strikes me that it is the second of Cocteau’s remarks that is closer to the truth.  Dialogue, character and plot ; in cinematic terms, all of these are just long-winded ways of communicating what a great director can say with visuals alone.

7 Comments
  1. June 26, 2009 11:58 am

    A great piece about a great director.

    > Dialogue, character and plot ; in cinematic terms, all of these are just long-winded ways of communicating what a great director can say with visuals alone.

    Absolutely, and as I contest the fundmental difference between Television and Film. If more British directors were able to abandon dialogue in favour of the sort of visuals Chabrol so masters in the example above the charges of being ‘TV writ large’ wouldn’t be so readily made by critics.

    There remains though a myth about Chabrol that I cannot help questioning and that is this presumption that he’s ‘the French Hitchock’. I have never seen sufficient evidence of this in the actual work itself. Hitchcock was flashy, there was a ghoulish wit at work, he thrilled. Chabrol is darker, more meditative, poetic even. He exploits silences where Hitchcock embraces screams and bursts of cacophonic strings. The problem I have with the idea that he’s the ‘French Hitchock’ is it implies he’s living in a shadow. When Chabrol is as complete and accomplished as any director I can think of.

    Have you see ‘The Girl Cut In Two’? They say it’s a return to form.

    Like

  2. June 26, 2009 1:18 pm

    I suspect that, in the early days of his career, he welcomed it. He wrote a book about Hitchcock and he did make intelligent thrillers so I can understand why someone would make that leap.

    As for style… Hitchcock is a lot more noisy and flashy I agree. I’m not sure about his being darker… Hitchcock is pretty perverse beneath the veneer of commercialism.

    Like

  3. Guy A. Savage permalink
    June 28, 2009 12:13 am

    Thanks for this, Jonathan. I have a copy of it but haven’t watched it yet.

    Like

  4. June 29, 2009 1:18 pm

    You’re quite right – Hitchcock is dark too. And I’m sure Chabrol enjoyed riding pinion on the comparisons initially. But I can’t shake the fact I go to them for different things. Chabrol is fixated with the way people function psychology – their inner life replete with its deceptions. Hitchcock uses characters largely as a vehicle to propel a narrative – often paranoid, often twisted, but always action-fuelled. Chabrol rarely deploys humour. Hitchcock loves it. Hitchcock exploits big moments. Chabrol exploits intimacy.

    Elsewhere, an interesting comparison between Hollywood and Chabrol can be made if we consider ‘Un Femme Infidele’. In Chabrol’s hands it’s a masterpiece, a subtle and chilling study of jealousy and how a decadent middle-class can admonish themselves of guilt if it suits them. The remake ‘Unfaithful’ by Adrian Lyne, is simply a functional thriller, devoid of the touches Chabrol brings. It has no atmopshere nor real objective. A very useful illuminator then on what distinguishes a great director from an average one.

    Like

  5. June 29, 2009 10:44 pm

    I agree that a case can be made for the distinction you’re making here Richard. Yes, Chabrol is a much more reflective director than Hitchcock. Yes, Hitchcock’s genius is mostly technical.

    HOWEVER, I think that reading the two directors in those terms may be down to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that Chabrol’s reputation is much more grounded in art house than Hitchcock’s and as a result, I think it’s possible to sit in a Hitchcock film and JUST look at the technical stuff. For example, I watched Rear Window a little while ago and while I adore the technical aspects of the film (the set especially) and the way that Hitchcock fills the lives of these little people with real depth but I also think that there’s some real psychological depth there.

    For example, the way that the film suggests that speculating about the lives of others (the backbone of gossip) is universally attractive but at the same time, we are all too reticent to subject our own motivations and beliefs to the same levels of scrutiny. Plus there’s all the stuff about how looking at life through a lens and framing up the perfect shot might also make you reticent to emotionally immerse yourself in something real.

    So while I haven’t seen enough of either directors’ works to form a full conclusion, I think that Hitchcock might well have been short-changed as a dramatist while Chabrol’s technical skills might also have been down-played.

    Like

  6. June 30, 2009 12:55 pm

    I think this is about right. I have no interest in detracting from Hitchcock at all but I do think Chabrol warrants greater critical and popular understanding which is why I groan at the ‘French Hitchcock’ tag – clearly he’s far greater than an imitator charge might suggest. I’m not sure how far into his back catalogue you’ve explored but I recommend pretty much everything in the Chabrol Boxset Volume 1. Inspirational all, even when standards slip. Boxset 2 is staring at me from the shelf, still in cellophane.

    As for Hitch, you’re points are spot on as always. In fact I would say Rear Window is possibly his greatest film, very much for the reasons you locate above. It’s the film where the audience feels most complicit in the obsession.

    For me, Hitch’s great arthouse experiment – though it obviously played well beyond the art house circuit – is Vertigo, which is extraordinarily dreamy and dark (no wonder Lynch cites it as his favourite film and riffs upon the central motifs so often). It even begs the audience to empathise with an obsessive man who dresses up a woman as his dead ex. Terrifyingly they do.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. Film Log For The First Half of 2009 « Ruthless Culture

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: