The New Girlfriend (2014) – What Lies Beneath (Ain’t So Bad, Ain’t So Bad)

François Ozon is to Claude Chabrol as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are to John Wyndham.

John Wyndham is a post-war British science fiction writer who has long been tarred with the masterful brushstrokes of Brian Aldiss who dismissed his work as a series of cosy catastrophes. The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ stems from the fact that Wyndham was terribly fond of narratives in which everything winds up being destroyed except for the novel’s protagonists and the middle-class lifestyle and values to which they cling. For example, The Day of the Triffids opens with a meteor shower that blinds the majority of the British population. Hoping to make their way out of London, the protagonists wind up being trapped by a mad visionary who is building a new civilisation in which the sighted are manacled to the blind and forced into polyamorous relationships. Needless to say, the characters wind up escaping to the Isle of Wight where they meet up with other sighted individuals and pursue what we are lead to believe will be a more conventional middle-class lifestyle. Fear of change and yearning for the familiar is also present in Wyndham’s later novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which humans are impregnated with human DNA resulting in the emergence of a group of super-powered children who wind up being destroyed before their powers can pose a threat to the rest of humanity. One of the more interesting things about The Midwich Cuckoos is that it was published in 1957, six years before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created The X-men, a series of comics in which super-powered youngsters fight to change the world for the better.

All three writers used science fiction to expose the instability of the status quo and explore the possibility of revolutionary change. However, while Jack Kirby and Stan Lee seemed to welcome these changes with open arms, John Wyndham struggled to see beyond the confines of his own middle-class existence.

The well-educated child of rural pharmacists who moved to Paris for his studies only to discover a love of cinema, Claude Chabrol first made his name as a film critic before following his contemporaries out of the magazine business and into the world of art house film. Early films such as Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins may bristle with the town-and-country animosity of a man who never considered himself Parisian but the films that made him an immortal all speak to the fragility of middle-class identities.

Like many worldly and privileged people, Chabrol was both drawn to and repulsed by the kinds of lifestyles that would have been considered abnormal or unacceptable by ordinary middle-class people. Les Biches – the film that began his most celebrated period – involves bisexual women, gay men, and an assortment of misshapen love triangles that speak both to the ‘straightness’ of Chabrol’s lived experience and his desire to understand what lay on the other side of propriety. By today’s standards, Les Biches seems rather old fashioned as Chabrol presents non-heterosexual relationships as being not just different but downright alien.

Chabrol’s inability to empathise with Les Biches’ characters may explain the rapprochement with the crime and psychological thriller genres that followed. Indeed, while Les Biches suggests that middle-class identities dissolve into something alien and beautiful, films like The Unfaithful Wife, The Beast Must Die, and Just Before Nightfall all suggest that the destabilisation of middle-class identities begins in sex and ends in violence. Many of Chabrol’s finest films are defined by their ambivalence in so far as they function like psychological mysteries that lavish attention on beautifully enigmatic characters before inviting us to make a leap of the imagination that will help us to understand why the characters felt compelled to do the things they did.  This approach to the question of social and psychological otherness is particularly evident in his late-stage classic La Ceremonie, in which two peculiar young women make friends and wind-up murdering the middle-class family who showed them kindness. Why would someone do such a thing? Chabrol doesn’t understand, cannot understand, and must understand.

François Ozon is a director who has always been at ease with the forms of love and affection that lie outside the boundaries of conventional middle-class living. His first film Sitcom describes a family who descend into sexual transgression after the family patriarch brings home a small caged rat. The insane and disproportionate nature of the family’s reaction to the new pet echoes Chabrol’s ideas about the instability of middle-class identities but Ozon dares to suggest that the geeky teenage son might be happier having orgies in his bedroom and that the grumpy teenage daughter might very well be better off as a vicious dominatrix.

Like Chabrol, Ozon’s films frequently revolve around murder but, unlike Chabrol, Ozon chooses to depict these murders as either cathartic (as in Swimming Pool) or simply as the growing pains of a new – and stronger – subjectivity (as in In the House or Jeune & Jolie). When characters do remain wedded to the old status quo (as in Under the Sand) it is inevitably treated as a sign of emotional stagnation and psychological morbidity.

Ozon’s last film The New Girlfriend is an interesting point of comparison as it not only deals with a new subjectivity emerging from the ruins of conventional middle-class lives, it also positions Ozon’s tanks in Chabrol’s front garden by being not only an adaptation of a story by one of Chabrol’s favourite writers but also an adaptation that replaces the blood-soaked ending of the source material with an ending that is beautiful, empowering, and supremely progressive.


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REVIEW – Les Cousins (1959)

LesCousinsFilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s second film Les Cousins, which has just been re-released by the ever-excellent Masters of Cinema.

Les Cousins tells of a young man who moves to the city in order to study law. Sharing his uncle’s place with his far more sophisticated and extroverted cousin, the young man finds himself being sucked into his cousin’s glamorous lifestyle filled with parties, girls and dubious European noblemen. Initially, this relationship works quite well as the cousin likes to be the centre of attention and the young man’s inexperience makes him feel like an older brother and a community leader. However, when the young man attempts to become romantically involved with a young lady in his cousin’s entourage, the cousin takes umbrage and decides to assert his supremacy. Disgusted both with his cousin’s behaviour and his own loss of focus, the young man throws himself into his studies but this only provokes his cousin into more frequent and louder parties:

Things come to ahead when Charles is trying to study for his finals but Paul keeps having loud parties. Charles pleads with his cousin to do some revision but Paul’s confidence is absolute… he knows what he is doing and revision is an absolute waste of time. As with Le Beau Serge, Chabrol presents the tension between the two boys as being social and psychological in nature but in truth their disagreement is a moral one: Charles writes endless letters home to his mother promising that he will succeed in his studies and suggesting that his desire to work is born of a sense of duty to do right by his parents. By not only refusing to study but also making it harder for Charles to study, Paul is challenging the moral order of Charles’s universe. In Charles’s mind, Paul is doomed to failure because the universe does not reward provocative layabouts. This means that when Paul does pass his exams with flying colours, Charles is forced to examine not only his faith in the moral nature of the universe but also his conviction that his duty to his parents obliged him to study: What if the best way to succeed really was to wear a smart suit and hang-out with dubious Italian aristocrats?

I mention Le Beau Serge as Les Cousins can be read as a response to that earlier film. Where Le Beau Serge is rural, Les Cousins is urban. Where Le Beau Serge is about a town-mouse visiting a familiar countryside, Les Cousins is about a country-mouse visiting an alien city. Where Le Beau Serge is about taking responsibility for the actions of another, Les Cousins is about remaining true to yourself.

Somewhat handily, Masters of Cinema have decided to time their re-release of Les Cousins with a parallel re-release of Le Beau Serge (that I also reviewed for FilmJuice). While both films work beautifully on their own, many of their subtleties only become apparent when viewed one after the other.

REVIEW – Le Beau Serge (1958)

LeBeauSergeFilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s first film Le Beau Serge, which has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema.

Le Beau Serge tells of a young man who returns to his home town in order to recuperate from an extended period of illness. Upon arriving, he becomes obsessed with a childhood friend who, despite showing real signs of intelligence and potential as a child, has now fallen into drink and bitterness. Puzzled by this unexpected fall from grace, the young man sets about trying to solve the riddle of what happened to the handsome Serge of his youth:

While much of the initial narrative energy comes from François’s attempts to solve the mystery of le beau Serge, the second half of the film increasingly comes to focus upon why it is that François is so obsessed with saving first Serge, then Marie and then the entire village. Though Chabrol offers us no easy answers, the depth of François’s guilt is such that his attempts to protect Serge and his family eventually come to seem insane and messianic. Why doesn’t François leave? Why didn’t Serge leave? Why doesn’t anyone leave a life that is manifestly killing them?

Chabrol is a director with a somewhat misleading reputation for producing thrillers. Though many of his most famous films (including Le Boucher, This Beast Must Die and La Ceremonie) include a bloody murder and a good deal of psychological tension, the truth of the matter is that Chabrol is and always was a moralist. Not in the sense of lecturing people about right and wrong but rather exploring why it is that people make certain decisions and how they come by certain strange beliefs. Unlike Chabrol’s later films, which dressed the morality up in murder and tension, Le Beau Serge strips the core of the Chabrol experience right back to the very core and asks two very salient questions: Why did Serge turn to drink? Why is Francois obsessed with saving him? A truly wonderful film by a truly wonderful director.

Interestingly, Masters of Cinema have chosen to re-release Le Beau Serge on the same day as they re-release his second film Les Cousins. As I explain in my review of that film over at FilmJuice, the two films function as a pair: Complementing each other through their many differences and juxtapositions.

REVIEW – The Master (2012)

masterMy review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has just gone live over at VideoVista.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, the film follows a thoroughly disreputable alcoholic and adventurer as he tumbles from steady job, to menial labour and finally into alcohol-sodden destitution. While on a particularly epic bender, the alcoholic (played by Joaquin Phoenix) finds his way onto a ship commanded by an equally disreputable mystic (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Clearly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, this mystic is in the process of founding a cult that borrows as much from traditional mysticism as it does from experimental psychology. Sensing a degree of kinship despite the differences in their fortunes, the two men begin a sort of epic bromance that eventually comes to trouble the mystic’s terrifyingly ambitious and controlling wife. Much like the mystic, she sees the similarities between the two men and so she is worried that the alcoholic’s refusal to mend his ways will wind up dragging down the mystic.

The tension between the two characters reminded me very much of Claude Chabrol’s wonderfully murky Juste Avant La Nuit (1971), in which two characters are bound together by their intense resemblance as well as their intense hatred of what the other person represents. In my review of Juste Avant La Nuit I noted that:

The early British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once said that we do not want to kill the people we hate most, instead we want to kill the people who evoke in us the most unbearable conflicts.  This is because it is human nature to try to resolve inner conflicts decisively.  To be one thing or another.  Much conciliatory art (such as the films that dominate the Gay Indie film scene), is based upon the idea that conflicts are a result of confusion.  Confusion that can be solved simply by ignoring one part of our nature.  However, the reality is that inner conflicts define us as people and drive us forward.  They are not battles that can be won, they are battles that are forever being fought and the dust cloud that rise from the battlefield is who and what we are.  When Charles met Laura and her need for complex sexual power dynamics, he was reminded of the conflicts that rage within his bourgeois existence : The urge to be free, the urge to be submissive.  By having an affair with Laura, he was forced to confront his own uncertainties and rather than assume the responsibility for ending the relationship, he chose to erase Laura.  To erase the source of his confusion and the reminder of his own conflicted nature.

While I enjoyed the film quite a bit, I am also aware that it felt like a wasted opportunity. As I say in my review:

While there is no denying that The Master is a beautifully made and surprisingly intense film, it is also a film that fails to make full use of its considerable assets. Indeed, despite being inspired by the founder of scientology, Anderson’s film offers no real commentary on cults other than the rather bland observation that the men who lead them are occasionally rogues. This criticism can also be levelled at There Will Be Blood in that Anderson took a complex satirical novel about the Tea Pot Dome scandal and reduced it down to a story about an oil baron being a bit of a prick. That Anderson’s films lack anything approaching a subtext or a message is undeniably a result of his placing characters at the centre of his creative process. There Will Be Blood and The Master suggest that, while this process can produce very intense films with beautifully realised characters, it is not particularly adept at producing smart films and that is a terrible shame.

The Master had the opportunity to explore not only the psychological aftermath of the Second World War but also the complex psychological dependencies that go into establishing a cult. However, rather than exploring these huge meaty issues, Paul Thomas Anderson produced little more than an entertainingly intense two-hander that is all about the performances. Which is a shame really…

The Girl Cut In Two (2007) – False Dichotomies

Morality takes as many forms as there are cultures to manifest it.  For some people, it is a question of commandments.  For others it is a question of ideals.  For other groups it is a question of economics, minutely calibrated cost-benefit analyses.  But for all of these systems and all of these cultures, morality always boils down to a series of dichotomies : Should I do X or should I do Y?  Simple binaries that make the world.  Works such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) encourage us to see our relationships in similar terms.  Do we want a love filled with the peaks and valleys of passion,  or do we want a pleasingly mild existence, an emotional even keel?

Claude Chabrol’s 2007 film La Fille Coupee En Deux seems to attack this vision of human relations.  We expect to have to make a trade-off in our personal lives, but what happens if both of our options are bad ones?  Chabrol hints at an answer.  An answer which, like Chabrol’s great films of the late 60s and early 70s, depends upon a viciously cynical vision of the class system that continues to corrupt French life.  But is this vision perhaps too cynical for its own good?

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La Rupture (1970) – The Tragic Demise of a Picaroon

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.

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Nada (1974) – The Political is in fact The Personal

It was never going to be easy for Claude Chabrol to move on from his most productive period.  Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Chabrol produced a series of films that would not only secure his reputation to the present day, but also leave an indelible mark upon what comes to mind when one thinks of French cinema.  Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) and Les Noces Rouges (1973) were shot almost on top of each other with a similar cast of actors who almost came to resemble a repertory company performing only the works of Claude Chabrol.  A company of actors who knew exactly what was expected of them in a series of films that positively simmered with anger and resentment at the provincial bourgeoisie who ran the country and defended the status quo while angry young men such as Chabrol climbed the barricades in the hope of creating a better world.

However, watching the films of this period, it strikes me that Chabrol and revolutionary politics were never going to be a perfect fit.  Chabrol’s vision of the world is deeply morally complex.  When he looks out the window he sees shades of grey rather than the stark black and white demanded by revolutionaries willing to use force to change the world.  In fact, while films such as La Femme Infidele, Que La Bete Meure and Les Noces Rouges did a brilliant job of critiquing the middle classes by suggesting a world of sex, passion, drink and self-destruction beneath the mannered politeness and brass-buttons, these criticisms also humanised them.  There is something almost comical and easy to empathise with about the husband in La Femme Infidele who kills his wife’s lover but never mentions it to her or the man in Que La Bete Meure who tracks down his son’s killer only to discover that the man’s entire family are hoping that someone will kill him for them.  These are not the kinds of people you simply put up against a wall… these are weak, pitiful and ultimately on some level sympathetic creatures.  They are victims of the system just like everyone else.  Given the general timbre of Chabrol’s work during the late 60s and early 70s, Chabrol’s political history and the political climate of the French cinema scene at the time (Cahiers du Cinema was run by a Maoist collective during the mid-70s) it was clear that something had to give and the result was Nada, a satirical comedy-thriller based upon a noir novel by the influential French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, that sees Chabrol turning his ire from the bourgeoisie to the functionaries of the state and the radical Leftists who would overthrow them.

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Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) – Yearning for Submission

When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism.  Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert.  He is begging for ignorance.  Cursing his intellectual nature.  Wishing for simplicity.  This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.

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Les Noces Rouges (1973) – Rumour and Calumny

It is surprising how much contemporary French cinema owes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944).  One of Sartre’s more accessible pieces, No Exit is set in hell and features three utterly hateful and narcissistic characters slowly coming to realise that the ultimate torment is not only to be stuck in an unhappy relationship but to be stuck in that relationship because one lacks the ability to either leave it or change it for the better.  The worst hells imaginable, suggests Sartre, are the ones that we create for ourselves out of our failings and cowardice. Since the New Wave, French cinema has been dominated by what is sometimes called the “film d’appartement”, a film that is character driven and relationship-focused and which draws its drama from putting a bunch of people into a closed space and allowing them to work out their problems.  Claude Chabrol is no enemy to the ‘Film d’Appartement’ sub-genre.  In fact, you could say that he is one of the masters of the form.  His mastery comes from his willingness to not only put incredibly strange characters into his apartment, but also to allow his relationships to work themselves out naturally, regardless of how bizarre or brutal the eventual denouement.  Wedding in Blood is an excellent example of Chabrol’s approach to script-writing as it is not only funny and fascinating, but also merciless in its desire to turn a cinematic social experiment into a work of satire.

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REVIEW – Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972)

Videovista has my review of Maurice Pialat’s splendid We Won’t Grow Old Together.

I absolutely adored this film, so much so that I went out and purchased the rest of the Pialat films that Masters of Cinema/Eureka have released.  Aside from the fantastic performances and the brutality of the relationship dynamic on display, I was also struck by how much Pialat’s style is reminiscent of that of Claude Chabrol.  Keep an eye out for more Pialat pieces in the near future.