Chabrol is a director whose best work is done in the margins of broad moral argument. The films of his so-called ‘Golden Period’ from the late 60s to the early 70s are a series of incendiary attacks upon an upper middle class morally corrupt enough to murder for the sake of social standing. In films such as Les Noces Rouges (1973), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969) and Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) wealthy people murder their way out of bad relationships and awkward situations. They do this, more often than not, because they simply lack the imagination to solve their problems any other way. And therein lies the strength of Chabrol’s vision.
Chabrol presents the bourgeoisie as morally corrupt but also deeply tragic figures. For all of their wealth and privilege, they are trapped inside a system that forces them to care about the wrong things. For example, in Les Noces Rouges, a couple find illicit love but when they are uncovered by the woman’s husband, they are shocked to discover that he does not mind their affair. If anything, he sees it as a positive development as it will keep his wife happy and ensure her lover’s loyalty to him. Incapable of understanding his cunning rejection and manipulation of bourgeois moral codes, the lovers murder him thereby sealing their fates. Similarly, in Que La Bete Meure, a man tracks down the killer of his child only to discover that the man’s entire family want him dead. They want him dead but they lack the courage to simply leave him or to denounce his many cruelties. As cowardly and morally corrupt these characters might appear, they are also the tragic victims of a twisted social order. An order that uses money and privilege to trap them in a situation whereby the characters are forced to deny their own feelings of unhappiness and claustrophobia.
La Rupture (a.k.a. the Break-up, based upon Charlotte Armstrong’s 1968 novel The Balloon Man) is, at first glance, not Chabrol’s most subtle film. It summons up Chabrol’s typically louche and corrupt bourgeoisie but makes it appear all the more monstrous and deranged for the fact that it is attacking an almost saintly working class woman. As horrors and injustices are melodramatically heaped upon her, it seems as though there can be no excusing or forgiving such behaviour. But, once the film ends, you realise that the character responsible for all of these terrible crimes might have been different. He might have been free. La Rupture is a film about the breaking of a picaroon upon the wheel of modern capitalism.
The film’s opening sequence is simply astonishing. Helene (Stephane Audran in sensational form) is preparing breakfast for her son. Suddenly, there is a grunt and a huge bare-chested man appears from out of the bedroom. He scratches himself obscenely, his greasy black hair falling over his bulging eyes as he suddenly attacks Helene. Evidently this is her husband Charles (Jean-Claude Druot). Their terrified child runs between them and Charles picks him up and, with a hideous roar, smashes him brutally against the edge of the table. Horrified, Helene arms herself with a frying pan and batters her husband into submission. From there, Chabrol whisks us to the waiting room of the hospital where Helene is interviewed by two unsympathetic policemen who appear convinced that her attack on her husband was unprovoked. The lack of sympathy continues when Charles’ father Ludovic (Michel Bouquet) arrives. The old man will not hear a word said against his son. He announces that the marriage, which he obviously did not approve of, is over and he sweeps out of the room having created the impression that Helene is a violent, deranged woman who lived off of her wealthy husband. So strong is this impression that I initially thought that Chabrol was planning on revealing that Helene’s vision of nightmarish domestic abuse had been some kind of drug-induced hallucination. This impression is clearly quite intentional on Chabrol’s part as not only does it establishes the world-view of Charles’ parents, it also fore-shadows the truth that they will attempt to force upon the world.
Reality imposes itself when Helene pays a visit to a kindly lawyer. In a heartfelt speech, she tells her story. A story of humble working-class origins. A foray into nude dancing to pay the bills. A love story with a man who dreamed of writing but would not work. An unhappy time spent living with in-laws who spoiled their son and allowed him to become a drug addict and a long period of working nights in order to pay the rent and bring up her son. Helene is, as the film points out, a saint. Not only is she blameless for the misery that has befouled her life, she has also repeatedly adapted herself and shouldered the responsibilities that others refused to take on. However, Charles’ parents refuse to see things this way. Refusing to accept their responsibility for nurturing the Frankensteinian monstrosity that is their son, they become obsessed with depriving Helene of custody of her son.
Lacking money, Helene moves into a bed and breakfast near the hospital and discovers this bizarre demimonde of the dispossessed. A world full of cackling old ladies who are forever playing the kind of strange card games that figure in Tim Powers novels, self-loathing tragedian actors and overworked junior doctors, the B&B is run by a family that is seemingly built out of pure despair. With the B&B due to be torn down (by one of Ludovic’s companies naturally), the couple have turned on each other. Saddled with a mentally handicapped daughter, the husband has become a hopeless drunk and the wife a ferociously repressed martinet. Sensing an understandable degree of kinship with this bizarre cast of characters, Helene relaxes. That is until Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel, father of Vincent Cassel) arrives.
Thomas is a essentially a picaroon. The son of a wealthy industrialist forced out of his own company by Ludovic, Thomas has experienced poverty and it has sharpened his wits, instead of becoming a mindless addict like Charles, he has adopted a world-weary cynicism which, when combined with his knowledge and access to the world of the bourgeoisie makes him a formidable agent. One who is hired by Ludovic to gather evidence of Helene’s various misdeeds. Thomas returns home to his one room apartment (plastered with pornographic images and shared with a nymphomaniac named Sonia (Catherine Rouvel) whom we seldom see clothed and who seldom says anything that is not an attempt to lure her man into bed or a childish expression of pique.
Spurred on by the promise of a job in Ludovic’s company, Thomas uses his skills to shut down Helene’s lines of credit but he soon discovers that she does not draw on anyone’s credit. She is responsible for her actions. Thomas even starts to fall in love with Helene, gnashing his teeth over the fact that Ludovic would have him kill her despite the fact that she is completely blameless and above any kind of moral reproach. However, with Ludovic promising the Earth for custody of his grandchild, Thomas’s morals slowly dissolve. He constructs a frankly ludicrous scheme to frame Helene but the scheme starts to unravel almost as soon as it is underway. As Thomas surrenders to the moral decision he made, his true face starts to emerge : a sweaty, bedraggled man who offers a bag of poisoned sweets to the woman he loves in the hope that he’ll get a good job out of the deal.
Helene is painted in such glowing terms that it would have been difficult to construct a film around her. She is so morally upstanding and forgiving that she effectively lacks agency in a universe so acutely moral as Chabrol’s. Even when she does act, her actions lack any kind of dramatic tension. We know that she will always do the right thing. In fact, Helene is almost a plot device, a moral touchstone that reveals the moral character of the people around her. As a result of this, it is more rewarding to look upon La Rupture as a film about the decline and fall of Paul Thomas. Indeed, once he appears, it is clear that the film’s narrative is shaped around him and not Helene.
Thomas is a fascinating character as he is an evolution of Chabrol’s typically tragic bourgeois archetype. Those characters tend to initially appear monstrous and unsympathetic only to soften as Chabrol shows the extent to which they are victims of the system. Thomas, in contrast, is initially sympathetic. He is a handsome rogue armed with a sexy girl and a wilful disrespect for the bourgeoisie. But Thomas then chooses to surrender that worldliness by attempting to refashion the world according to the desires of the morally corrupt bourgeoisie. Instead of following the traditional picaresque path of using his wits to expose the hypocrisy and brutality of the system, he willingly submits to it. He becomes its agent. The tragedy of Paul Thomas is that his fate might have been so different… He could have had Helene and he could have had revenge upon the man who destroyed his father, but instead he was ground down and destroyed by the system he was seeking to enforce, his clever plotting and scheming reduced to farcical plans and pathetic pleading. Such is the power of the system and the corrupting allure of money and status.