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The Washington Post (14/Sep/2010) - Filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who helped launch French new wave, dies at 80




Filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who helped launch French new wave, dies at 80

Claude Chabrol, a critic and filmmaker who helped launch the influential French new wave movement in the late 1950s and whose Hitchcock-inspired thrillers such as "Le Boucher" ("The Butcher") explored the darkness lurking below the surface of middle-class life, died Sept. 12 in Paris.

He was 80. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Chabrol made more than 55 feature films, including his most recent, "Bellamy," a 2009 murder mystery starring Gérard Depardieu. His initial acclaim came a half-century earlier, when he helped revolutionize the production and visual presentation of French filmmaking.

Like peers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, Mr. Chabrol began his career as a writer for the Paris-based film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. As they each ventured into filmmaking -- notably Godard with "Breathless" (1960) and Truffaut with "The 400 Blows" (1959) -- they challenged and paid homage to Hollywood moviemaking conventions. They were collectively known as the French new wave.

Mr. Chabrol helped lead the charge with "Le Beau Serge" ("Handsome Serge," 1958), about a young, tubercular Parisian (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) who returns to his provincial home town and becomes obsessed with saving a self-destructive friend (Gérard Blain).

Funded by family inheritance and produced on the cheap, the movie won critical acclaim and was a box-office success. More important, it showed how to make movies outside the established and insular world of French movie production.

Mr. Chabrol followed with "Les Cousins" (1959), another well-received film about a pair of contrasting characters -- a country boy (Blain) and his cousin, an urbane sophisticate (Brialy) whose life he eventually destroys.

Pauline Kael called "Les Cousins" "one of the major New Wave films," but Mr. Chabrol was less overtly political and experimental than his new wave counterparts. He was, if anything, greatly indebted to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he had interviewed in the mid-1950s. He then collaborated with Rohmer in 1957 on a groundbreaking, book-length examination of Hitchcock at a time when few critics saw the British-born director as a major artist.

In his own movies, Mr. Chabrol combined the art of suspense with social commentary, sardonically highlighting the passion, desperation and violence beneath the placid facade of bourgeois life.

There was his moody and brilliant "Les Bonnes Femmes" ("The Good Time Girls," 1960), about four Parisian shopgirls whose self-deceptive fantasies about love lead to tragedy. One of the stars was Stéphane Audran, who became his second wife. She appeared in many of his movies over the next several years, notably in "Les Biches" ("The Does," 1968) as a lesbian whose relationship with another woman (Jacqueline Sassard) is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a male architect (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant).

In 1970, Mr. Chabrol made perhaps his most widely respected movie, "Le Boucher," about a small-town schoolteacher (Audran) who falls in love with a butcher (Jean Yanne) who has returned from the Algerian war. As their relationship deepens, she begins to suspect that he is responsible for a rash of unsolved murders in the town.

"If one sentence or phrase could sum up Chabrol's view of the middle class world, it's that the world is all full of rules, correctness and etiquette . . . and just below the surface there is horror and chaos," said film scholar David Sterritt, who has written extensively on the new wave. "He was making movies that were marvelously entertaining and still had that edge, that twist -- 'I'm making you smile, you in the audience, but at the same time I'm skewering exactly the kind of life that you and I lead as proper middle-class people.' "

Claude Chabrol was born in Paris on June 24, 1930, and grew up in German-occupied France during World War II. The war forced him to move with his family from Paris to Sardent, a village in central France, which later became the setting for his first movie.

In Sardent, Mr. Chabrol and his friends refashioned a barn as a homemade movie theater, where they showed whatever films they could come by. He had been interested in making movies from an early age -- his uncle owned a chain of theaters in France -- but Mr. Chabrol's parents disapproved of his ambitions.

"My mother explained that the cinema was full of homosexuals," he told the London Guardian. "As far as I was concerned either I was a homosexual or I wasn't, so making films would change nothing."

To placate his parents, he began studying medicine and law at the Sorbonne. But at 22, he contracted chicken pox and moved to Switzerland to convalesce. There, he met and married his first wife, Agnès Goute, whose family money allowed Mr. Chabrol to explore filmmaking without having to worry about a steady paycheck.

The couple had two sons before divorcing. Mr. Chabrol had a third son with Audran, whom he married in 1964 and later divorced. He was married a third time, to Aurore Pajot, who had worked on his scripts since the 1960s. She survives.

Mr. Chabrol was known for being more willing than other new wave directors to take on commercial projects, including campy spy films such as "The Tiger Likes Fresh Meat" (1964) and international thrillers such as "The Champagne Murders" (1967), which starred Anthony Perkins.

His other critical failures, often technically sophisticated but emotionally plodding and slow, included the murder mystery "Ten Days Wonder" (1971), which featured Perkins and Orson Welles, and a screen version of the Gustave Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary" (1991) starring Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert had earlier starred in Mr. Chabrol's "Violette Nozière," a 1978 film based on the true story of a teenager (Huppert) who secretly works as a prostitute and then kills her parents before they learn the truth. Huppert, whose work in that movie earned her a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, went on to incarnate many of Mr. Chabrol's icy heroines in films such as "La Cérémonie" (1995) and "Merci Pour Le Chocolat" (2000).

In 2003, he received the European Film Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Chabrol was less inclined to promote his legacy.

"Look," he drolly told a British reporter some years earlier, "I've managed to make one good film in every three, which isn't too bad, I suppose."