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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Can art ever articulate the truth? The films of Maurice Pialat display a grave ambivalence towards that question. With his first film, L’Enfance Nue (1968) Pialat showed a real animosity towards not only traditional forms of cinematic story-telling, but the very conceit and artificiality of fiction itself. Pialat is a director who wants to put the real world on the screen without the traditional intermediaries of editorial or narrative. However, despite this hostility to the artificiality of artistic representation, Pialat never returned to his roots as a documentary film-maker. Instead, he produced films such as Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble (1972) and La Gueule Ouverte (1974). Films that presented themselves as traditional dramas, but which were in fact elaborately dramatised autobiographical meditations upon his own life.
Police is a film that continues Pialat’s tradition of ontological uncertainty. It is a work of genre by a film-maker who loathed fiction and a character study by a man who seemed to believe that there was no such thing as the self. Unsurprisingly, Police is a film that exists under a permanent ontological fog.
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Back in the early 00s, I was studying the philosophy of science. Studying philosophy is very similar to being one of the generals, comfy in a French chateau miles away from the front and seeing the world purely in terms of previous wars fought by previous generations. I was taught the history of philosophy in terms of rationalism vs. empiricism rather than within a proper historical context (I did not truly understand the point of Leibniz’s philosophy until I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle). Sometimes we would hear news of young South American Logicians doing wonderful things with multi-variant logical systems and the smarter kids had sensed a shift in academia’s prevailing winds and hitched their philosophical wagon to actual scientific research rather than debates held by angry young graduate students who were now port-soaked emeritus professors. However, one battle I was all too eager to fight was the one between science and continental philosophy, part of the wider academic clash of empires known as the Science Wars. In all the books, all the arguments and all the pages of incommensurable bickering that went on, I still remember someone pointing out that, for all the political anger of critical theorists, no member of the working class had ever actually benefited from a piece of critical theory. This is something of a cheap shot as the suggestion is that, as academic debate is an irredeemably bourgeois activity, leftist critical theorists are all hypocrites of the highest order. One might well quibble with this rather haughty and dismissive comment but it does seem to be close to the opinions held by Maurice Pialat.
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