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Staying power

French New Wave's Claude Chabrol goes for number 54

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Say "French film" and certain images come to mind: scathing social critique, sex, crime, beautiful women and bad behavior, and a mastery of film language so absolute, you often wonder why anyone else bothers.

A man whose work traffics in those extremes of perversity and pleasure, Claude Chabrol makes films that are illustrations of the highest achievements of French cinema. From his New Wave debut Le Beau Serge in 1958 through a lifetime of work, Chabrol's films crackle with sex and intrigue, murder, and a view of French society so penetrating and cruel you'd think he was British.

Few have had the staying power of this 76-year-old French dynamo. Like so many great directors of the French New Wave, including Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Chabrol began his career as a film critic, writing for Cahiers du Cinéma. But he has found his life's work as a director. Chabrol's range has proven astounding, though it is the thriller that has most often captivated Chabrol, leading some to call him "the French Alfred Hitchcock."

The thriller format, and the frequency with which murder plays a part in Chabrol's oeuvre, suggests violence is a way for Chabrol to show society's ultimate destructiveness. Individuals struggling against repression, especially the specific repression of France's class-oriented system, gives his films a suffocating, slow-burn quality.

Some have mistaken Chabrol's elegant understatement and scrupulous realism for moral apathy or even cruelty. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther once called Chabrol "the gloomiest and most despairing of the new creative French directors." But while Chabrol's films are undeniably dark and despairing, what they offer is a brutally honest mirror image of life: the profound struggles of people, often women, against a suffocating society to counter all the gassy reassurances that life is an endless pleasure cruise.

Which is often what is served up in more conventional Hollywood fare.

Evidence of that tendency to shock and fascinate can be found this fall both in the release of Kino's DVD set Claude Chabrol's Tales of Deceit: Five Films About Wicked Women, Crooked Cops, and Disastrous Affairs (with L'Enfer, Betty, The Color of Lies, Cop Au Vin and Inspecteur Lavardin) and the release of Chabrol's latest, The Bridesmaid.

All of these films prove how a director who has been making films for six decades has remained, on evidence of his latest, as intense and as provocative as ever. While most films end with the clenched lips and swelling violins of romantic fulfillment, Chabrol's films leave the distinct impression that this director will not be satisfied until the body has been discovered in the chifarobe and the female heroine, as in Betty (1992), has realized that fulfillment and freedom can only come through a denial of her role as a good wife and mother. In most films, women are supposed to affirm such roles, not cast them aside.

Critic Henry Sheehan has rightly called Chabrol "probably the cinema's most consistent feminist." One of Chabrol's marvels has been his idiosyncratic, sexually unhinged and fiercely independent women, craving love and ending up still hopeful, broken or free in the end. From his 1960 masterpiece, Les Bonnes Femmes (about a group of lovelorn Parisian shop girls imprisoned by their station in life), to the callous stay-at-home abortionist living in Nazi-controlled France in 1988's The Story of Women, the women in Chabrol's films simply try to cope with the miserable cards they have been dealt.

In a Chabrol scenario, a seemingly placid middle-class world in The Bridesmaid begins to show cracks in the facade. Outside a well-tended middle-class home stands a news reporter and police investigating the case of a missing girl. This notion of mischief and sex crimes sets the tone for a film that promises at multiple junctures to finger a suspect, fix on a motive or break the case, but for the most part takes its engrossing time making us wait and wonder.

The titular bridesmaid is a spooky, sensuous young woman, Senta (Laura Smet), who lives in the basement of a crumbling mansion and captivates Philippe (Benoît Magimel) when he first glimpses her in a wretched bridesmaid dress at his sister's wedding.

With its psychologically murky love affair, The Bridesmaid has shades of Michael Haneke, and especially The Piano Teacher (which also starred Magimel) as it increases the tension. As Philippe, a considerate mama's boy, becomes increasingly obsessed with Senta, the film takes on the dimensions of a film noir, with the sultry femme fatale hiding in her basement room until she attacks. But while Haneke is always examining society, Chabrol in The Bridesmaid is examining individuals. Philippe is a good and reliable young man who, like all helpless chumps in film noir, has his moral compass recalibrated by the possibly insane lady in his life.

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