A founding father of French New Wave cinema, director Claude Chabrol's fascination with genre films, and the detective drama in particular, fueled a lengthy and celebrated string of thrillers, including "Les Bonnes Femmes" (1959), "Les Biches" (1968), La Femme Infidèle" (1968) and "Que la bête meure" (1969), which explored the human heart under extreme emotional duress. Chabrol began as a contributor to the celebrated film magazine Cahiers du Cinema alongside such film legends as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard before launching his directorial career in 1957. He quickly established himself as a versatile filmmaker whose innate understanding of genre tropes informed the complex triangular relationships at the center of many of his films, which frequently served as a prism through which commentary on class conflict could be obliquely addressed. Chabrol's mordant sense of humor and penchant for violent scenarios were alternately embraced and rejected by moviegoers over the course of his five-decade career, but the talent he displayed in depicting these dark deeds, as well as his status among the pantheon of French New Wave cinema, underscored his significance as one of his native country's most prolific and wickedly gifted craftsmen.
Born Claude Henri Jean Chabrol on June 24, 1930 in Sardent, a French village south of Paris, he was the son of Yves Chabrol and his wife, Madeleine Delabre. Chabrol was expected to become a pharmacist like his father and grandfather, but became obsessed with film as a boy, as well as "lowbrow" literature like thrillers and detective fiction. As a teenager, he also ran a film club in a local barn, much to the dismay of his parents, who encouraged him to stay in pharmacology at the Sorbonne. However, upon marrying heiress Agnès Goute in 1952, Chabrol largely abandoned his studies in favor of attending the many film clubs that had taken root in Paris. It was at such clubs that he met such fellow future filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, with whom he would form the foundation of the French New Wave. After completing his mandatory military service, Chabrol was invited to join Godard, Rohmer and Truffaut as staff writers for the highly influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. There, he wrote significant articles supporting the use of realism in film, as well as detailed studies of genre and detective films.
After a brief and disastrous tenure as a publicist at the French offices of 20th Century Fox, Chabrol directed his feature debut, "Le Beau Serge" (1957). Funded by an inheritance received by his wife, the film starred Jean-Claude Brialy as a young medical student who sacrificed himself to save his childhood friend (Gérard Blain) from the dissolute life he adopted after the stillbirth of his child. A stark mediation on salvation and sacrifice, it established many of the tenets of the New Wave movement, from its modest production values to its existential themes, as well as a healthy dose of the "Catholic guilt transference" Chabrol had attributed to Alfred Hitchcock in a book about the director's films he co-wrote with Rohmer that same year. "Le Beau Serge" was a critical and box office success, as well as a winner of top prizes at the Locano and Prix Jean Vigo festivals, and was soon followed by "Les Cousins" in 1958. Co-written by Paul Gégauff, who would collaborate with Chabrol on many of his significant films throughout his career, the film again starred Brialy and Blain, though in reversals of their roles from "Le Beau Serge," with Brialy as a decadent young man whose competition with his upstanding cousin (Blain) for the hand of Juliette Mayniel leads to murder. The picture cemented a recurring theme in Chabrol's subsequent films: a clash between the bourgeoisie, as represented by Blain's character, and anarchic outsider forces (Brialy) which inevitably lead to a violent and often fatal clash that frequently unfolds with bursts of dark, perverse humor.
Chabrol suffered a disappointment with his next film, "A double tour" ("Web of Passion") (1959), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, which set in motion a lengthy period of critical acclaim but poor box office returns. Audiences often struggled with the harsh outcomes of his films, including his acknowledged early masterpiece, "Les Bonnes Femmes" (1959), about a quartet of shop girls whose dreams of a better life were answered by a variety of bizarre scenarios. The film was also marked by an early appearance by actress Stéphane Audran, whom Chabrol would not only cast in numerous subsequent films, but also marry in 1962 following his divorce from Agnès Goute. Moviegoers also questioned the apparent inconsistency of Chabrol's features, which seemed to alternate between decidedly commercial efforts like "Les Godelureaux" ("Wise Guys") (1960) and the spy spoof "Le tigre se parfume à la dynamite" ("Our Agent Tiger") (1965) with more cerebral efforts like "Ophelia" (1962), an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," and "Landru" ("Bluebeard") (1963), a thriller based on the real-life crimes of French murderer Henri Landru. But keen observers noted that the unifying element was Chabrol's fascination with genre filmmaking, whose rigid story structure and themes allowed for a wide variety of interpretations.
The late 1960s saw Chabrol hit his stride with a series of high-quality thrillers centered on the familiar theme of deadly conflict within a bourgeoisie context. He returned to prominence with "Les Biches" ("The Does") (1968), with Audran, her former real-life husband, actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, and actress Jacqueline Sassard as a ménage a trois with bisexual overtones. A substantial hit, it led to the "Hélène cycle," an unofficial series of films starring Audran as an eponymous woman whose presence was the catalyst for violent, often deadly emotional upheavals. In "La Femme Infidèle" ("The Unfaithful Wife") (1968), later remade by Adrian Lyne as "Unfaithful" (2002), her affair with a writer spurred her husband (Michel Bouquet) to murder, while "Les Noces rouges" ("Wedding in Blood") (1973) paired her with Michel Piccoli as frustrated lovers who schemed to kill their respective spouses. The film was briefly banned in France due to the plot's similarity to a real-life court case. In 1971, Audran won a BAFTA for Best Actress as a faithful wife who forgave her husband for murdering his mistress in "Juste avant la nuit" ("Just Before Nightfall").
Chabrol also mined the complex relationships between killers and victims, husbands and wives, and the middle class and the working class - who were often interchangeable - in such films as "Que la bête meure" ("This Man Must Die") (1969), about a father's search for the man who killed his son in a traffic accident, and "Ten Days' Wonder" (1971), with Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins as a father and son locked in a love triangle with Welles' new wife. The latter marked the end of Chabrol's long string of successes, with such subsequent efforts as "Une partie de plasir" ("A Piece of Pleasure") (1975), with Gégauff and his real-life wife Danièle as a doomed couple whose downfall eerily presaged the writer's own death at the hands of his second wife in 1983, being received as in poor taste. He closed the decade with one of his most controversial efforts, "Violette Nozière" (1978), a dramatization of a real French crime case in which a young woman (Isabelle Huppert) murdered her parents after they discovered that she moonlighted as a prostitute. Following Chabrol's divorce from Audran in 1978, Huppert became his leading lady of choice, appearing in some of his best known later works, including "The Story of Women" (1988), which cast her as Marie-Louise Giraud, whose work as an abortionist made her the last woman to be guillotined in 1943. She also played the titular role in his 1991 adaptation of "Madame Bovary," which received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, despite critical disdain.
The couple rebounded with "La Cérémonie" (1995), a dark drama about a relationship between a maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) and a postmistress (Huppert) that spelled doom for her employer (Jacqueline Bisset). The film captured numerous significant awards, including the Cesar and Volpi Cup for Huppert and a Golden Lion nomination for Chabrol. Their collaboration would continue into the 21st century with such arthouse favorites as "Merci Pour le Chocolat" ("Thank You for the Chocolate") (2000) and "L'Ivresse du Pouvoir" ("A Comedy of Power") (2006). During this period, Chabrol worked at a prolific pace, helming numerous thrillers over a 20-year period, including the English-language efforts "The Blood of Others" (CTV/HBO, 1984), a miniseries set in World War II that starred Jodie Foster and Sam Neill. His long, celebrated career came to a close with "Bellamy" (2009), with Gerard Depardieu. The following year, Chabrol died at the age of 80 on Sept. 12, 2010 in Paris.
By Paul Gaita