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Claude Chabrol 1930-2010

If there ever was a filmmaker who seemed like he’d go on forever, it was Claude Chabrol, who released his most recent film, “Bellamy,” last year at the age of 79. Alas, such is not the case: word has arrived from Paris that Chabrol died on Sunday, a few weeks after his 80th birthday.

The AP obituary is here, and my New York Times obituary is here. Le Monde has a tribute page here that includes testimonies from everyone Gerard Depardieu to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the right-wing leader who was Chabrol’s schoolmate in the 1940s.

I had the pleasure of meeting him several times, most recently in 2006 when the Torino Film Festival hosted a dauntingly complete 70-title retrospective of his film and television work. A very funny, very gracious man, with the perpetual look of a startled owl and an openness to everyone who approached him. A great director and a great critic, his loss leaves the world of the cinema appreciably smaller.

73 comments to Claude Chabrol 1930-2010

  • Barry>”If you mean that it is a sequence which isn’t essential to the narrative but gives the audience lots of pleasure”
    Yes, I meant that.

    “I think we wouldn’t have to go too far to find similar examples in Chabrol and Lang.”
    Maybe. But I think it would be much rarer than in Hitchcock’s movies. Lang’s last films are tops of “working drawing” (sorry for the wrong term, I try to translate “épure”).

    Blake> I agree with you. Is “dreadful” a pejorative word? If it is, then I didn’t mean that.

  • Ian Birnie

    I can’t resist adding to the list of titles above the names of two Chabrol films that are personal favorites: from the early career, QUE LA BETE MEURE and from the last 10 years MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT. The former is surely one of his most emotionally charged films: the narrative unfolds with an inevitability that is pitiless even for Chabrol, and the tragedy is rendered without a trace of sentimentality. As for CHOCOLAT – the portrait of an haut bourgeois psychopath – it is a text book example of flawlessly elegant mis-en-scene and, though the suspense never rises above simmer, as Hitchcockian as anything he has done. Imagine PSYCHO in the style of THE BIRDS. The last shot is a technically brilliant and tantalizingly ambiguous: as the camera slowly circles the reclining murderess, her gaze fixed and opaque, Chabrol seems to be saying that he alone has pinned the poisonous insect to the wall while paying lyrical homage to this queen of monsters. It’s telling that the ‘monster’ is his great second muse Isabel Huppert and that her performance is among her best.

  • Hi, Ian — Nice to see you here, and thank you for your thoughts.

  • Chabrol was deeply in touch with a culture that is now in danger of being lost: traditional mystery and suspense fiction. Several of the works mentioned here are based on books by Charlotte Armstrong, a Michigan writer who was once famous: MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT comes from Armstrong’s THE CHOCOLATE COBWEB (1948), LA RUPTURE from Armstrong’s THE BALLOON MAN (1968), and MASQUES is in some ways a reworking of THE UNSUSPECTED (filmed by Michael Curtiz). And QUE LA BETE MEURE is from Nicholas Blake’s THE BEAST MUST DIE (1938).

    The walls between classical film and classical mystery fiction are thinner than one might think. The two are deeply linked by common aesthetics.

  • Vivian

    Mike G — This is an interesting comment: “The walls between classical film and classical mystery fiction are thinner than one might think. The two are deeply linked by common aesthetics.” I think I have some idea of what you mean, but do you care to amplify?

  • Vivian

    What a lovely description of CHOCOLAT Ian Birnie provides. It’s a favorite of mine also (one of many), nearly as exhilarating as LA CEREMONIE.

  • Alex Hicks

    There’ve been a lot of references to Chabrol’s thrillers as Hitchcockian, but I don’t recall many scenes in Chabrol films that rely on Hitchcock’s self proclaimed reliance on playing on the difference between that the audience knows and what the characters don’t know. I recall Chabrol relying most often on the more conventional suspense technique of exposing the audience to the character’s own tensions as experience from the characters’ point of view. Further, although Chabrol film’s contain quite a lot of such tension, as well as much pretty classical mystery, they are happily short of the hyped up action spectacle (implausible chases and unarmed combat, miraculously survived explosions and gun fights, and so on) of the action spectacle since the 60s action innovations of the Bond Directors, D’Antonio, Friedkin, Peckingpah, etc. ). So in a sense Chabrol directed neither in the characteristic thriller style of Hitchcock nor in the thriller style of the post-Bond action spectacle. But master of psychological tensions, often aided my classical mystery scaffolding, he was, as well as master of the psychological nuance characteristic of the psychological thriller and mystery at their literary best. Whether Chabrol used his camera like Hitchcock, I can’t precisely recall, though I suspect that he increasingly did after his early turn into crime narrative, but that’s not much a matter of the Hitchcockian suspense (original or imitated) or the modern vogue of roller-coaster-like cinematic thrills.

    He was a great director, in particular for the high level at which he sustained his prodigious output – its stylistic craft and psychological depth and nuance– for over 50 years, his popularity aided, almost throughout those years, by skillful use of traditional thriller and mystery devices.

    It would be interesting for someone to articulate, or re-circulate from past criticism, what well springs of auteurist self expression might have made for such sustained creativity.

  • The only Claude Chabrol film I have seen is “Au coeur du mensonge” [“The Color of Lies” (1998)]. The mise-en-scene of the homes of the writer and artist fully demonstrate the class difference and makes for a wonderful shot while there are also colors (i.e. deep red, light blues) associated with particular characters and moods. The ending is just chilling. The wife comes home and the physically handicapped husband, René, is totally indifferent to her; he probably just committed a thief to jail. The camera does a 180 around him, getting closer the whole time, and then he screams to his wife “Viviane! C’est moi.” Her dedication to René is so pure and moving. I would consider “The Color of Lies” Hitchcockian as René’s anger and frustration towards the writer, who his wife had been seeing, plagued him with guilt, flipped his world around and got him to kill. Chabrol, like Hitchcock, asks how would an ordinary man deal with this situation. I guess maybe it is also a little Dostoevskian. A Hitchcock title that immediately comes to mind is “Torn Curtain”. I was just at TIFF and I mentioned the passing of Alain Corneau and Claude Chabrol to a couple of Parisians that were there and they only had good things to say about the two French directors. On a side-note two films that I saw at TIFF that I really liked are Vincent Gallo’s “Promises Written in the Water” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym”. Kelly Reichart’s new movie, a western, “Meek’s Cutoff” seems to have been really well received too; a friend commented that it was as if Gus Van Sant directed “Heaven’s Gate”. On the subject of Classical Mystery Fiction, I really like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1930). Its chapter 2 title, Death in the Fog, really encompasses the mood of noir. The story’s emotional core, for me, is in the confessional/interrogation between the detective Sam Spade and the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy. I really got the impression that Sam really liked Brigid and saw kind of saw a parallel to himself, a mixture of vulnerability and endurance, which is the reason he reveals so much of his history to her. These moments are so personal and heart felt. No matter how hardboiled his front is, I got the impression that he was saddened by being double-crossed, especially by her. A contemporary mystery detective film that I liked, which emphasized just this, is David Fincher’s “Seven”. I was deeply disappointed with John Houston’s adaptation that discarded these moments and instead used silly flashy cinematographic tricks, like a close-up of a tire spinning. Also, in the book, most of chapter 10 “The Belvedere Divan” takes place in a hotel lobby and reading it my first impression was that it would make a terrific long-take, something along the lines of the bravura sequence at the beginning of “Touch of Evil”. That would have been the right way to do that scene justice.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Things one is surprised to learn – Nicholas Blake, the author of The Beast Must Die (which became Que la bete meure), was actually Cecil Day-Lewis, poet laureate of England, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ father,

  • Gregg Rickman

    Thanks to Mike Grost for first drawing our attention to the profound links between Lang and Chabrol, a comment subsequently amplified on by several others here. To borrow a phrase from an essay I recall liking on Truffaut/Hitchcock/Renoir, “a man can serve two masters” — I’d hate to say who was more important to Chabrol, Lang or that more obvious influence. (Someone should mention how both Hitchcock and Chabrol incorporated food into their crime scenes.) Worth seeing: a Y2K documentary, FRITZ LANG: CIRCLE OF DESTINY (available as an Image DVD), in which Chabrol appears (although it’s not as I recall Chabrol but instead Pierre Rissient who makes a food reference with the inexplicable pig on his T-shirt).

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Just watched Que la bete meure (for the first time since its release) – one of the things Langian I noticed is the brutality and force in the scenes of violence between characters, one that I recall also from A Piece of Pleasure offhand, and likely others. Lang and Chabrol seem polar opposites in some ways – the former was the opposite in his reputation as a bon vivant that Chabrol had. I suspect a deeper study of violence in Chabrol. Lang and Hitchcock films would show the first two had more in common with each other than with Hitchcock.

  • Johan Andreasson

    “Que la bete meure” is probably my favorite Chabrol, with its extremely macabre sense of humor. (One big difference to me between Chabrol and Lang is that Chabrol is much funnier.) The mystery aspects are downplayed (you know who the villain is very early on) but as a study of human cruelty and stupidity it’s hard to beat. The actor Jean Yanne (who’s also in “Le Boucher”) is brilliant, and the rest of the cast playing the family that he terrorizes is also very good. Plus the photography is beautiful and really captures the brooding side of the film.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The chapter on Que la bete meure in the 1970 Praeger book on Chabrol, which basically was a reprint of Movie (UK) articles, written (most likely) by Robin Wood in the main, basically is a comparison of the film to Lang’s work; I don’t think there is a mention of Hitchcock in the whole piece.

    For what ever reason my late teen novice cinephile mind did not fully appreciate this film when it came out; I’ve had the DVD for seven years without watching it. So it was a real surprise to be so impressed and moved by the film – Chabrol deals in pretty sophisticated motivations and tragedies here. He himself was in his late 30s when he made it, yet is feels like a film made by Lang when he was much older. And it seems to have been the gateway film for a distinct and very strong period of his career. I’m going to re-experience the next few films pretty quickly, but for now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t become my favorite of his work.

  • Johan Andreasson

    ”And it seems to have been the gateway film for a distinct and very strong period of his career.”

    To me the gateway film is ”Les Biches”, but otherwise I couldn’t agree more. I spent part of this summer watching Chabrol movies from the late 60s and early 70s, and there certainly are worse ways to spend your time. “Le Boucher” is also one of his best, along with “La femme infidèle”, and you wouldn’t want to miss “Les noces rouges”.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    TCM alert –

    They show (for the first time) Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and Joseph Losey’s The Prowler tomorrow (Monday) –

    3&5 PDT/6&8 EDT

  • Alex Hicks

    This quote from Sarris’ “The American Cinema” seems to me to catch his distinctiveness very well: “Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable, and the philosophical dissertation. Lang’s apparent weaknesses are the consequences of his virtues…His characters never develop with any psychological precision, and his world lacks the details of verisimilitude that are so important to realistic critics. However, Lang’s vision of the world is profoundly expressed by his visual forms.”

    The first sentence may indicate some affinities between Lang and Chabrol (nightmare), as for example one between the opening of “Ten Days Wonder’ and the opening Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door” and my Chabrol Favorite — La Femme Infidel” certainly has something of the “the fable, and the philosophical dissertation,” though I think it’s closer to Sophocles than to Aesop or Socrates. However, Sarris’ point about character and psychology seems to me — overwrought though it may be– somewhat true to Lang while not one bit true to Chabot; and Lange’s encompassing visual formalism seems to me entirely unlike the precise, character-centered cinematographic pragmatism of Chabrol.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Considering ”La Femme Infidèle”, perhaps at this stage of his career Cahbrol was even closer to Blilly Wilder than Lang or Hitchcock – well, just a thought.

  • Vivian,
    Classical film and classical detective fiction shared a strong commitment to story and plot; a belief in complexity; a love of craftsmanship pushed to extraordinary heights; a rationalist, scientific world view; characters skilled at intellectual professions, such as doctors, reporters, musicians, lawyers, theater people; a sense of light-hearted fun; and often an extreme individuality of approach: what we call “auteurs” in film.

    That is one of my favorite quotes from Sarris.
    Chabrol’s cinema does sometimes seem architectural, like Lang’s. Chabrol does pick up on buildings and elaborate sets.

    Thanks for the Prowler alert. This is just one of many Losey films I’ve never had a chance to see. ( I do know and love Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”, which has been shown on cable TV.)

  • With this whole discussion of Hitchcock and Lang I think it’s important to point out that different films seem to favor different influences. While Les Biches isn’t particularly indebted to either director, the sets, the costumes, the entire mise en scene could be seen as very Hitchcockian. Every element in every shot seems purposefully placed for emotional impact. We’ve got a lot of nice comments on our salute to Chabrol. If you haven’t seen Les Biches in awhile, see if you agree:

  • One last thought before this week’s subject ends:

    Without Chabrol and other French critics of the 1950’s, it’s likely that none of us would be thinking about movies today. Chabrol and others made a huge cognitive leap: they showed it was possible to think about film, to have ideas about movies. There opened up new possibilities in ideas.
    Anyone who does this makes a huge contribution to human history.

  • Barry Putterman

    Wow Mike. I wonder what I would have been thinking about for the past thirty years had it not been for Chabrol.

  • Steve Elworth

    Mike, I love Chabrol and the other makers and critics of the french New Wave but they are not the only ones who taught us how to think about film. We can also thank filmmakers and critics of all languages. for Critics, we are truly the children of Manny Farber and Andre Bazin and many others.

  • Steve,
    I definitely meant to include Andre Bazin among “French critics of the 1950′s”. And the Cahiers, Positif and all the schools and magazines.