Claude Chabrol’s unexpected death in September 2010 meant the world lost a core director of the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette are now the last remaining Cahiers du Cinema New Wave directors although Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda and Chris Marker remain from the Left Bank group. Chabrol started his film career during a rich period in global film-making through the late 1950’s and 1960’s when mesmerizing films emerged from all corners of the globe. Incredibly, Chabrol remained a prolific filmmaker throughout his career, directing more than 50 features. Chabrol directed his first film in 1958 (Le Beau Serge) and last in 2009 with Inspector Bellamy, meaning he had a staggering average of one film per year over a span of half a century. Not only was he a key filmmaker, he was also a film critic who helped champion other filmmakers via Cahiers du Cinema.
The seven films selected for this spotlight start a decade after Chabrol’s first feature and thus fall outside his New Wave period:
Les biches (1968)
La femme infidèle (1969)
Que la bête meure (1969)
Le boucher (1970)
Juste avant la nuit (1971)
Les noces rouges (1973)
In A History of the French New Wave, Richard Neupert notes:
Le beau Serge and Landru mark the beginning and the ending of Chabrol’s contributions to the New Wave proper.....
His first eight films helped make a New Wave, but film enthusiasts had to wait five years, until Les biches and La femme infidele (both 1968), for Chabrol to help truly remake the commercial French Cinema. page 160, second edition.
Adultery & Murder
Adultery is present in four of the seven films but in three of these films, cheating on a spouse is directly connected to committing a murder. In La femme infidèle, Charles (Michel Bouquet) kills his wife Hélène’s (Stephane Audran) lover in a gush of anger while in Les noces rouges the wife (Stephane Audran) and her lover conspire to kill her slimy husband. In La femme infidèle, Michel Bouquet plays the husband who was cheated upon but in Juste avant la nuit his character cheats on his wife (Audran) with their neighbour’s wife and kills his lover in a fit of resentment during a S&M episode.
Que la bête meure features an obnoxious husband Paul (Jean Yanne) who cheats on his wife with her sister but that infidelity is not the reason for Paul’s murder. At the film’s start, Paul runs over a child and drives away leading the son’s father to track down Paul for revenge.
Murder as a battle for Identity
Jean Yanne’s character Popaul/Paul commits gruesome murders in Le boucher where he plays the title character who cannot curb his inner demons. Popaul is not portrayed as a calculative serial killer but as a man who kills whenever his dark self takes over and pushes him to commit the sinister crimes. One side of his personality yearns to be helped and saved while his darker side forces his hands to drive the knife into his victims.
In Les biches, Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) invites a young street artist (Jacqueline Sassard) into her Parisian apartment and tries to seduce the young woman. The young woman never reveals her name so Frédérique names her Why. Frédérique takes Why to her villa outside the city and surrounds her with luxury in order to woo her. When Why pretends to show interest in Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Frédérique gets jealous and pounces on Paul herself. Initially, Why is not taken with Paul but after Frédérique dates Paul, Why wants Paul as well and craves a threesome but Frédérique purposely keeps Why at a teasing distance. The sexual atmosphere that Frédérique creates results in Why losing her identity so much so that she starts dressing and talking like Frédérique in the belief that will allow her to win Paul. Eventually, Why realizes that she will always be a double unless she eliminates Frédérique to fully assume her physical identity.
Arrest as a release from guilt
In Les biches, no guilt is associated with the murder but in some of the other films, the main character is tormented by their reckless murders. Michel Bouquet portrays this guilt with a cold precision in both La femme infidèle (as Charles Desvallees) and Juste avant la nuit (as Charles Masson). In La femme infidèle Charles is relieved to be apprehended so that he does not have live a life of lie. Charles murders his neighbour and best friend François Tellier’s wife in Juste avant la nuit but is tormented by his guilt. He confesses his crime first to his wife Hélène and then to François. Incredibly, both tell him to forget the incident and move on. At first, François’s forgiveness seems to relieve Charles but eventually his guilt possesses him. He makes up his mind to turn himself in but is prevented in doing so by Hélène who cannot bear the humiliation of seeing Charles behind bars.
In Les noces rouges, Lucienne Delamare (Stephane Audran) and Pierre Maury (Michel Piccoli) appear to get away with the perfect murder when they kill Paul Delamare (Claude Piéplu), Lucienne’s corrupt political husband. However, Lucienne’s daughter suspects wrong doing and writes a letter to the police which mentions her mother’s affair with Pierre. That letter leads Lucienne to accept her guilt and give herself up along with Pierre.
Political games & backstabbing
There is a tiny element of political manipulation shown in Les noces rouges where Paul Delamare (Claude Piéplu) is shown to be a shrewd politician who is willing to use people around him as pawns. Paul wants to use his mayoral position for personal profit and is even willing to allow his wife to have an affair with Pierre as long as Pierre assists in Paul’s profitable ways. However, Nada is the only true political film out of the seven which depicts a violent clash between police and a terrorist group over a hostage. The film also shows the sly political games that exist within the various arms of a government that can lead to back room deals and public scapegoats.
Familiar actors and names -- Charles, Paul and Hélène
Stéphane Audran was married to Chabrol from 1964 until 1980 and is the leading star in five of the seven films. In each film, her character is given a slightly different look but it is in Les noces rouges that her character is finally unrecognizable mostly because of her brown hair. Her character is named Hélène in three of the films. In four of the films her character has a passionate love affair whereas in the fifth film her character plays a quiet obedient housewife who stands by her husband even after he cheats on her and commits a murder.
Michel Bouquet gets a similar first name of Charles in La femme infidèle and Juste avant la nuit because both characters are cut from the same cloth of guilt and inner turmoil resulting from murder. Jean Yanne’s character is called Paul in both Le Boucher and Que la bête meure but his character is not entirely similar in the two films, which is why in Le Boucher his character is given an alternate name of Popaul. Claude Piéplu’s character of a corrupt politician in Les noces rouges is strikingly similar to Jean Yanne’s character in Que la bête meure, so it is not surprizing to see Claude Piéplu’s character is also named Paul. Interestingly, Michael Duchaussoy’s character who seeks revenge for his son’s killing in Que la bête meure is also named Charles and Paul's sister-in-law is named Hélène. A character of Paul is also found in Les Bitches but in that film the character is a passive observer of sexual games in between two women.
Dominique Zardi and Henri Attal get varying roles in five and four of the seven film respectively. Both get the most screen time in Les Bitches but after that, their roles get smaller yet both are easily prominent and recognizable in their few minutes of screen time. Zardi and Attal are also found in Juste avant la nuit, La femme infidèle and Nada with Zardi getting an extra appearance in Que la bête meure.
Que la bête meure offers the most twist and turns in the planning and execution of a calculated murder. Charles wants to avenge for his son’s murder and plans for a long painful suffering of the murderer. Armed with an accurate theory about the criminal’s identity, a stroke of luck leads Charles to the killer’s sister in law Helene. Charles seduces Helene to get to Paul but once he meets Paul and his family, he realizes that everyone despises Paul, including Paul’s son. What follows is an elaborate game where even the son is involved in the killing of his father, thereby completing the murder cycle.
Chabrol was an admirer of Hitchcock and labeled a French Hitchcock by some for his use of similar motifs of murder and mystery. However, the films in this spotlight show that Chabrol was a bit more subtle than Hitchcock in his murder films and handled the turmoil and crime in a calmer manner. The killers do not panic after they commit their crime and none of them run away. So when police want to find the murderers in La femme infidèle and Les noces rouges, they simply go their homes and arrest the criminals with no fuss. Also, like Hitchcock, Chabrol uses music effectively to alert of impending danger but unlike in Hitchcock’s films, the music in Chabrol’s films is not heightened and does not draw too much attention to events.