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Claude Chabrol's films break down the dubious critical barrier between art cinema and popular cinema. Rejecting the avant-garde and the experimental, Chabrol chooses to work within the confines of established genres. He has in fact filmed farce, melodrama, fantasy, war films, spy films and glossy literary adaptations. Chabrol has excellent new-wave credentials and is in some ways a representative figure for this innovative film movement in French cinema. For the small budget of 32 million old francs, he was able to shoot Le Beau Serge over nine weeks in the winter of 1957/8 and film it in what was essentially his home village. Chabrol has known periods of great success (the launching of the new wave in 1958, the superb Hélène cycle of the late 1960s, including his most famous film Le Boucher for his return to form in the 1990s). He also has had periods of inactivity and failure. His depiction of the middle classes usually concentrates on the family. Le Cri du hibou begins as Masques ends, with a framed image from which the camera slowly tracks back to reveal the presence of a spectator. Given that in Chabrol's cinema women are often lacking in financial or social power, there are limits to the ways in which they can either define themselves or escape their situation. This is spelled out most clearly in Les Bonnes Femmes, where the potential escape routes are sex, marriage into the bourgeoisie, a career, romance or death.
Claude Chabrol's films break down the dubious critical barrier between art cinema and popular cinema. Chabrol sees no shame in considering himself a craftsman and takes pride in bringing his films in on or under budget. Rejecting the avant-garde and the experimental, Chabrol chooses to work within the confines of established genres. Chabrol has in fact filmed farce, melodrama, fantasy, war films, spy films and glossy literary adaptations. Although Chabrol wrote some of his most famous films alone, he collaborated with his friend Paul Gégauff on many screenplays over the first twenty years of his career. Perhaps the most productive influence within Chabrol's crew, Gégauff was also the most destructive personality. Une partie de plaisir dramatises, and hence exorcises, the power of Gégauff's personality. To Chabrol, he became a close friend and a fascinating model of cynicism and amorality.
Claude Chabrol has excellent new-wave credentials and is in some ways a representative figure for this innovative movement in French cinema. For the small budget of 32 million old francs, he was able to shoot Le Beau Serge over nine weeks in the winter of 1957/8 and to film it in what was essentially his home village. To make his first film, Chabrol returned to the scene of his wartime childhood, the village of Sardent in central France. The reason for this was mainly financial: he had intended to shoot Les Cousins first, but that story was set in Paris and would have been twice as expensive to film. The reception of Les Cousins was, however, in one way problematic, and was a sign of things to come for Chabrol.
The Hélène cycle, strictly speaking, comprising La Femme infidèle, Que la bète meure, Le Boucher, La Rupture and Juste avant la nuit, sees Stéphane Audran cast repeatedly in the central role as the often inscrutable Hélène. It is characteristic of Claude Chabrol, particularly in the carefully crafted Hélène cycle, to include in his films miniature versions of the main narrative. Barely used before Chabrol's period of technical experimentation in the mid-1960s spy films, zooms are central to his film style in the Hélène cycle. L'Express, Le Nouvel Observateur and Cahiers du cinéma all remained blind to the sly critique of the bourgeoisie in films such as Les Biches and La Femme infidèle. They chose instead to detect in Chabrol's work a celebration of the middle classes. La Rupture crystallises the melodramatic tendencies of the Hélène cycle and the inter-class tensions implicit in Les Biches and Le Boucher.
Claude Chabrol's depiction of the middle classes usually concentrates on the family. Ten Days' Wonder invokes that basic paradigm of family tensions and of mystery thrillers, the Oedipus myth. In contrast with Ten Days' Wonder and Les Noces rouges, Chabrol's subsequent film does not concern murderous bourgeois families. Folies bourgeoises is an outlandish parody of Les Innocents aux mains sales and Les Noces rouges; hence, the plot centres on a love triangle and an impotent husband. Like Les Noces rouges, and many of Chabrol's films since Les Biches in 1967, Les Innocents aux mains sales explores the changing power relations within a triangle of characters. The theme of repetition which characterises Chabrol's representation of fatherhood in Blood Relatives is echoed in the narrative structure. In Ten Days' Wonder, Une partie de plaisir, Blood Relatives, Poulet au vinaigre and Inspecteur Lavardin, the house is also a patriarchal space.
The gaze simultaneously demonised and celebrated in Masques is that of the apparently all-powerful game-show host, Legagneur. The conflation of the gaze of God and the gaze of television, explored by Claude Chabrol briefly in Inspecteur Lavardin and at length in Masques, is embodied in Dr M by the media tycoon Marsfeldt. Masques continued Chabrol's mid-1980s renaissance under the auspices of the producer Marin Karmitz. But Karmitz refused to produce or even distribute three of Chabrol's next four films, Le Cri du hibou, Dr M and Jours tranquilles à Clichy. In terms of both style and theme, L'Enfer is cinematic where Dr M is televisual. L'Enfer concludes with two endings, one in which Paul kills Nelly, and one in which he fantasises her murder, then recovers his lucidity long enough to realise that he can no longer tell what is real and what is imagined.
Women in Claude Chabrol's work are often trapped, frustrated or disadvantaged. It seems that Chabrol chooses more and more to base his films on stories of women because he shares the traditional view that they are more enigmatic than men. The case of Violette Nozière, which Chabrol filmed in 1978, is notable in that, unlike the others, it concerns the relationship between a young woman and her family. In many ways, Une affaire de femmes is a companion piece or sister film to Violette Nozière, di fait divers in which a woman is found guilty of a crime against the family. Even Madame Bovary could be said to have a fait divers at its origin. Betty, like Madame Bovary, is a faithful adaptation of a novel, telling the story of an unsatisfied young woman who seeks to define herself outside the social and familial roles offered her.
Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie can be considered the pinnacle of his career so far. But not only is La Cérémonie a masterful film in its own right, it can also be seen as a compendium of some of the motifs that characterise Chabrol's work as a whole. Above and beyond individual cases, the fait divers as a form can be usefully compared to Chabrol's cinema in general. The film thus functions both as a thriller and, in a political sense, as an illustration of the class war which Chabrol continues to observe in French society. The representation of Sophie, Violette and Julie as variations on the femme fatale is partly dependent on Chabrol's use of the expressionist mise en scène associated with film noir. Ambivalence characterises Chabrol's male characters, for example the noble avenger-cowardly liar Charles in Que la bête meure or the white knight-greedy manipulator Wolf in Masques.
By virtue of being Claude Chabrol's fiftieth film, Rien ne va plus is an important auteurist landmark. Rien ne vaplus does include self-conscious, auteunst references to Chabrol's earlier films, such as Juste avant la nuit, Les Noces rouges and Betty. Various interviews and reviews have quoted Chabrol's assertion that Rien ne vaplus is his first autobiographical film. Common with the James Bond series and Chabrol's mid-1960s work such as the two Tigres and La Route de Connthe, Rien ne va plus features exotic locations, elaborate scenes of pursuit and interrogation, outlandish thugs and an eccentric crime lord. Like the archetypal Bond film, it begins in a casino and ends in a remote, romantic hide-away. Above all, the film refers back to Chabrol's 1965 spy spoof, Marie-Chantal contre Docteur Kha. Like Chabrol, Victor is a professional, a craftsman, who steers away from grandiose projects and prides himself on his pragmatism.