Friday, 12 June 2009


When I reviewed Claude Chabrol's Comedy Of Power back in Crime Time 52, I noted that its French title, L'Ivresse du pouvoir, translated better as 'the intoxication of power'. That intoxication remains at the core of his 'new' (released in 2006 in France) film The Girl Cut In Two. On the surface it is about a different sort of power, sexual power, but at its heart it retains Chabrol's instinctive recoiling from the upper crusts of French society; here the heroine, TV weathergirl Gabrielle Deneige (ie, Snow) is torn between the old aristocracy and the power of new sort of intellectual class, nurtured by a media they affect to despise. There was a seeming Greek chorus of powerful men who watched the action in L'Ivresse du pouvoir; they could be the men gathered in their soft chairs at Charles' private club in Lyon. As he gets older, Chabrol, like Clint Eastwood, seems to work with a kind of shorthand of his own iconography; despite its operatic overtones, The Girl Cut In Two is as much about Chabrol's movies as it is a tragedy about a spoiled innocent or a withering dissection of the haut-bourgeoise.

Gabrielle, played by Ludovine Sangier with a sort of confident passivity that invites exploitation, meets the much older novelist Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), and begins an affair with him. She is also being pursued by young Paul Gaudens, flamboyantly wastrel heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Chabrol is never kind to the haut-bourgeoisie, for good reason, but Benoit Magimel plays Paul like a French version of Freddie Conway, his thin layer of charm buttressed by money. Gabrielle, raised by her bookshop-owning mother, falls for the older father-figure, and meanwhile is elevated, by more older men who obviously fancy her, to presenting a chat-show, a lighter version of the kind of faux-intellectual discussion programmes we've already seen Charles endure. Charles uses Gabrielle; for her birthday he takes her to that exclusive sex-club, where (we are later told; there is very little prurience in Chabrol's lubricious filming) he watches her have sex with his friends. He then abandons her; his wife takes care of changing the locks on his city baisodrome. Gabrielle lapses into lethargy, from which Paul's louche Prince Charming wakes her; eventually she will agree drunkenly to marry him, much to the disgust of his inevitably snobbish mother. But the marriage, and Paul's performance, is overpowered by the shadow of Charles; Paul is obsessed with what he did to Gabrielle, and we are aware that when Paul is obsessive bad things can happen.

The film follows the outline of the story of Evelyn Nesbit, whose wealthy husband Harry Thaw famously murdered architect Sanford White at the roof theatre of Madison Square Garden in 1906. Thaw escaped with loose confinement at a mental institution only after Nesbit agreed to testify, at his second trial, to White's depravations, which included his pushing her on a red velvet swing (hence the title of the 1955 movie The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing). Nesbit, of course, was younger, an artist's model and showgirl who from the age of 14 was her mother's breadwinner; Gabrielle here is a bubbly innocent, convinced of her own ability to handle men, with a protective, not exploitive, mother. The bit of the original story Chabrol follows most closely is telling; Nesbit was promised a big pay-off for her testimony, and of course then cut-off completely, the same happens to Gabrielle, although it seems to be Paul's mother's pleading and telling her secrets of his childhood which convinces her, rather than the promise of riches made by her (third) sleazy lawyer. Why learning that Paul may have drowned his brother in their kiddie bath would make anyone more sympathetic to him is something only the French could explain.

Chabrol is best with the juicy details of the society he pillories; he is so convincing with the provinicialism of Lyon that one British reviewer described the film as being set in a 'small town' (another referred to Gabrielle throughout his review as Camille--wake up and smell the reference!). Early in the film he sets out his theme when Charles tells a TV interviewer that France is 'drifting into either decadence or puritanism' but we don't see much evidence of the latter. We gradually learn that Charles' pose as an intellectual is just that, a pose. His real name is Denis, not Saint-Denis; he writes on a computer, not in longhand as he tells people; his wisdom consists of aphorisms borrowed from other people. One reference to DeSade is all we need to put this into context; the character Chabrol's camera catches most lovingly is Charles' agent, Capucine (Mathilda May), one of the boys, as it were, but displayed at every opportunity. This raises another interesting comparison to another aging director, Woody Allen. Where Chabrol's camera quite blatantly objectifies these women, one never has the sense, as you do in Allen's work (all the way back to Manhattan) that there is an element of wish-fulfillment. Although me may be tempted to draw a parallel between Charles/Chabrol, our identification is kept firmly on Gabrielle. In fact, the more interesting women are Gabrielle's mother Marie (Marie Bunel), who plays her as well-intentioned but perhaps not dynamic enough to protect her daughter the way Paul's mother (played brilliantly by Caroline Silhol) does, and Charles' wife Dona (Valeria Cavelli), who, true to her name, is constantly referred to as a saint, but whose cheery adoration apparently includes full acceptance of everything her husband does to other women.

As if DeSade were not enough, Charles buys Gabrielle a copy of Pierre Louys' La Femme et la Patin (The Woman And the Puppet), the source material for films like The Devil Is A Woman and The Obscure Object of Desire. It's as if the world inhabited by Charles and his circle is a last gasp of a fading misogynistic society, and although the Pauls cannot replace it, Gabrielle's chance at being part of the apparent new order, via TV, disappears. The film's cylinders click into place in the carefully foreshadowed finale, as Gabrielle appears as the assistant of her magician uncle, being sawed in half, with a buzz-saw. Literally, this follows the Nesbit story; after being shafted by the Thaw family she had a career in vaudeville, but it ties Chabrol's threads together neatly.
The vaudeville world is more dead than that of Charles' circle, more old-fashioned, and, in her position in the act, Gabrielle is now totally passive, being acted upon, deconstructed and put back together for the audience. We never see them in the theatre, because they are not there; the audience is us, watching Uncle Denis do to Gabrielle what Chabrol has done. It is we who are the decadent, or the puritans, and Chabrol the magician. It is a wry comment on decades of work, and centuries of France.

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

Chabrol makes wonderful movies-my favorite being The Butcher. This was far from my favorite but still better than more other movies I see.