Nowadays you never know what you are going to get from Claude Chabrol. But there was a short spell in the late 60s and early 70s when you knew exactly. From 1968’s Les Biches to 1971’s Juste Avant La Nuit, he made half a dozen psychological thrillers that have never been equalled, at least by a European director in Europe.
Even Hitchcock, who has often been named as Chabrol’s inspiration, would be hard pressed to beat the cool certainty of Chabrol’s technique and the emotional heat he generated while examining the underbelly of the always well-fed French bourgeoisie.
Most of these films starred the fine-boned and striking Stephane Audran, who was then his wife, and all were shot by the great Jean Rabier. The trio perfectly complemented each other; together they produced some of the most civilised depictions of highly uncivilised behaviour ever to reach the screen.
My favourite is one of the simplest – La Femme Infidele, in which Chabrol displays an irrestistible logic and an ironic humour that never gets in the way of the horrific implications of the story. Michel Bouquet is the husband who suspects his wife of having a lover, gradually discovers that he is right, and – not entirely on purpose – kills the man (Maurice Ronet). He then has to get rid of the body without telling his wife (Audran). But she discovers, and so eventually do the police.
Instead of giving him away, the femme infidele, realising how much he loves her, keeps mum. They are, after all, both culpable. Finally, however, the evidence against him is too great and he has to give himself up. He leaves her with the words “I love you madly” and we believe she loves him too. This is a very emotional film, but the way Chabrol depicts that emotion is cumulative rather than baldly stated. The control is absolute throughout, and makes the finale all the more moving.
One of the best sequences, which manages to be very funny as well as heart-stopping, is when the husband decides to introduce himself to the lover. At first he is polite and matter-of-fact. But as the unsuspecting boyfriend expounds on the extraordinary nature of the woman with whom he is infatuated, nerves snap and the murder results. We see that the husband never really knew his wife, and that’s where his anger comes from.
Another amazing section of the film concerns this urbane man’s efforts to cover up all traces of his crime – cleaning the flat, dragging the body to his car in a weighted sack and finally heaving it into a nearby lake. This has been done so often before and since in film, but seldom with a greater sense of what such an awful process must be like.
But, all the way through, what could have been just another thriller becomes much more than that. It is also a passionate love story, with its share of intense irony and a pervading sense of the quirkiness of fate.
Perhaps the most famous of Chabrol’s six golden thrillers is Le Boucher (the Butcher), in which a psychotic village butcher is driven to murder by his unrequited passion for the local schoolteacher (Audran again). This may be an even better film than La Femme Infidele. But then, this was a period when Chabrol seemed to be at the height of his powers.
Hitchcock, whom Chabrol greatly admired, was a considerable influence on his best work, particularly as Chabrol examines the nature of guilt and more often than not decides that the victim is as culpable as the so-called criminal.
But Chabrol was a different kind of stylist, equally cynical but basically more of a humourist – and thus more humane. I once had lunch with him in Paris, which was an amusing affair at which murder was nearly committed when the time came to pay the bill. “Oh, and by the way,’ he said, as the talk turned to a studious British critic who always praised his work in very intellectual terms, “Give my regards to -. He invents my films so beautifully.”