The Saturday Auteur

Claude Chabrol: the new wave filmmaker who exposed the French bourgeoisie
By Arijana Zeric | Film+TV | 4 December 2021

‘Les bonnes femms’ by Claude Chabrol, 1960

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur

“I’m not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live.” – Claude Chabrol

A busy bon vivant known as the joker of the French new wave, Claude Chabrol’s oeuvre encompasses an astonishingly dark universe of money, immorality and repressed emotions.

Born in 1930 in Paris, Claude Chabrol started his career as a writer for the quintessential film magazine Cahiers Du Cinéma in the early 50s. Inspired by F.W. Murnau, Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, his love for crime stories and thrillers was fuelled by an equal despise for the bourgeoisie – with all their depravity and desperate attachment to appearances. In Chabrol’s mind, even after a murder has been committed among their circle for the most profane reasons, they insist on adhering to their superficial values. How vulgar would it be to utter any grievances?

Chabrol’s brilliance is in his ability to unravel these lies, hypocrisy and weaknesses with acute attention to cultural references and mentality, such as at the dinner table – whenever they eat, the masks are off. It is at the table, where secrets are most likely to be revealed and those carefully crafted facades can slip with any remark. They talk about rats and death as if they are talking about themselves, not sparing their own children this disturbing chatter of lies and self-deceit.

La Ceremonie by Claude Chabrol, 1995

Chabrol’s film debut, Le Beau Serge, in 1958 marked the very beginning of the French New Wave and with this milestone, he became one of the most popular and prolific filmmakers of his time. Over the next five decades, he released on average more than one film per year. 

Le Beau Serge by Claude Chabrol, 1958

A tendency to work with the same technicians, crew members and actors informed much of Chabrol’s work. This famille cinéma provided him with a sort of comfort when shooting but it was also true to Nouvelle Vague parameters, ensuring the coherence of his work, and the term Chabrolian was established. Starting in the 60s, he embarked on a fruitful collaboration with his second wife Stéphane Audran, whose ethereal flair would turn her into a well-known figure of french cinema, often associated with the portrayal of the Haute bourgeoisie. 

His dark and unassuming style of creating suspenseful slow-burners has earned him the title of the ‘French Hitchcock’, although his movies lack the typical Hitchcock humour, they riff on a specific cynicism marked by the fierce observation of the social class he criticised the most.

Les bonnes femmes, 1960

Four young saleswomen are working boring jobs in Mr Belin’s small appliance store. After work, each of them seeks to escape the emptiness of their lives in an effort to find true love. Ginette is secretly a singer in a nightclub, Rita is putting up with the belittlement of her boyfriend whilst trying to get married, Jane is a big flirt who regularly ends up with dubious figures and Jacqueline dreams of the grand amour to arrive: when she notices that a mysterious man is following her around, she naively thinks it must be love.

The atmosphere is consumed by the nothingness of their existence, only to be contrasted with occasionally erratic behaviour. As a drama, it is a testament to the time, wrapped up in bittersweet comedy but, unlike other filmmakers, Chabrol offers no hope. It is what it is. The girls aren’t heroines, they are allowed to exist in a man’s world for their amusement – ready to be removed from the picture at any time. The men’s only effort is to try to conceal their lack of respect. Despite their different personalities, the sleek early-60s styling gives the girls a bland uniformity, making them appear more alike and exchangeable. Their friendships are not of protective nature but serve the purpose of finding a mate. 

Initially unsuccessful upon its release due to its bleak outlook, Les Bonnes Femmes is now considered to be one of Chabrol’s early masterpieces.

‘Les bonnes femms’ by Claude Chabrol, 1960

La femme infidèle, 1969

The successful Charles Desvallées is suspicious of his wife Hélène’s fidelity. To be sure, he hires a detective, who confirms the hunch. Once he finds out where the other man lives, Charles goes to his house and kills him. Soon the inspectors arrive and start asking uncomfortable questions. Hélène guesses what has happened, without having to exchange a single word with her husband.

Once again, Chabrol puts his wife Stéphane Audran in the centre of this bourgeois mishap, her immaculate elegance embodying what the french refer to as la classe. Charles is a middle-aged man, slightly out of shape, with a stern look. Together they form a sophisticated couple, a perfect image of the suburban french upper class that is held together more by virtue than vice.

The boredom is first apparent in the bedroom. As Hélène lies seductively on top of the sheets, her husband is underneath them. This visual representation of lifelessness in the bedroom is all too revealing. After delicately trying to seduce him, she eventually turns her head away, frustrated by the absence of passion in her marriage. 

Quiet and suspenseful, Chabrol shows us that the bourgeoisie is once again not able to live up to their grand gestures. The murder is anything but planned and occurs more on a whim rather than cold-blooded vengeance. This is similar to the later film Juste avant la nuit (Just before nightfall) – admitting to killing would be inappropriate. What is the use? It will only create a scandal. And no one wants that. When Charles and Hélène exchange one last look in silence, it appears they have never been closer. 

‘La femme infidèle’ by Claude Chabrol, 1969

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