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August 17, 2007

Turning the Other Chabrol

Claude Chabrol's MoMA retrospective offers broader look at the "French Hitchcock"

Other-worldly: A scene from An Orchid For the Tiger, one of the selections of MoMA's new series The Other Claude Chabrol (Photo: Progefi)

Two bits of received wisdom about director Claude Chabrol: He's the French Hitchcock, and his films are critiques of his nation's bourgeoisie. While the latter contains a sizable grain of truth, Chabrol’s complete filmography suggests a range beyond the distanced, observational thrillers for which he's best known. Launching today and continuing through Aug. 27, MoMA's The Other Claude Chabrol showcases both the pulpy (Fritz Lang remake Dr. M, '60s spy films Code Name: Tiger and An Orchard for the Tiger) and the literary (adaptations of Guy de Maupassant, Henry James and Julio Cortazar) sides of his work.

The sheer size and admitted unevenness of Chabrol’s oeuvre has occasionally made him vulnerable to facile snap judgments. A quick trip to Google shows the host of Web sites, including Turner Classic Movies and USA Today, who have called him "the French Hitchcock," although most of his work lacks such Hitchcockian themes as voyeurism and faith-driven guilt. "If there's derision at times for his work," said Leigh Goldstein, who programmed the MoMA series with film curator Jytte Jensen, "the problem is that he's had an astoundingly prolific career. He's had a tremendous output. When someone makes film after film after film, it's hard to view them as singular entities. He almost makes filmmaking look too easy." Chabrol's TV programs remain obscure even in France; even when Cahiers du Cinéma produced a special issue celebrating his 50th film, they went largely unmentioned.

To begin with the neglected, Code Name: Tiger and An Orchard for the Tiger were widely disdained upon their original release, but some critics have suggested that they now look like precursors of the self-conscious genre-bending of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Goldstein suggested that "they were unjustly dismissed as mere genre films -- work he made for hire. Looking at them today, they're very well made, stylish and polished. They're campy and fun. One of the great joys of this series is the chance to shine a light on parts of his career which have been pushed aside."

That may be so, but even in the spotlight, Dr. M still doesn't look like much more than an interesting failure. The film, made in 1990 in a version of Berlin where everyone speaks English, revolves around an epidemic of suicides; a cop (William Berger) becomes convinced that the suicides are somehow related to the image of model Sonja Vogler (Jennifer Beals) and media/travel mogul Dr. Marsfeldt (Alan Bates). Its only genuine scares come from the omnipresent billboards from which Sonja intones thinly veiled come-ons to self-destruction in the guise of travel ads. Goldstein praised the robotic nature of Beals' work, but working in English seemed to rob Chabrol of his confidence and ability to direct actors gracefully; the performances here are either hammy or awkward.

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As often happens with sci-fi, Dr. M is somewhat dated, mired in angst about the Berlin Wall that's lost much of its relevance (the Wall fell almost as soon as the film was completed). But Dr. M is also prescient -- perhaps owing more to the lingering effects of Lang's influence than its own virtues -- in evoking our media-saturated world and selecting themes and images that would later reappear in Japanese horror films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse and Sion Sono's Suicide Club.

Made in 1998, The Color of Lies represents Chabrol's artier impulses. Its lurid subject matter -- two murders, rape, pedophilia and the more genteel crime of art theft -- is offset by the director's low-key approach to one of his favorite themes: seething passions hidden behind a façade of respectable middle-class life. Chabrol splits audience affections between two protagonists: a young female police chief (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and a painter (Jacques Gamblin), who becomes the lead suspect in the murder of one of his students. The plot may be familiar, but the film defies genre expectations by presenting a cast of characters who are all emotionally numb and seem to be sleepwalking through life, with only the occasional act of sex or violence to wake them up. The Color Of Lies moves slowly through the foggy Breton seaside -- at times, so slowly that nothing much seems to be at stake -- but it closes on a truly startling note.

While a few of the films from The Other Claude Chabrol have been released on American VHS or DVD (only Dr. M -- under the title Club Extinction -- Masks and The Color of Lies), none have had a U.S. theatrical release, and many have never played here in any form. Asked to select a favorite film from The Other Claude Chabrol, Goldstein chose The Necklace, a short made for the TV series Chez Maupassant. She described it as "the one that blew me away. It has a twist that just kills you. The performances by his son Thomas and Cecile de France are amazing." Chabrol's three episodes for the TV series Les histoires insolites seem particularly promising; the first two come from his prolific period of major films from the early '70s.

A pioneering member of the French New Wave, Chabrol is something of a one-man New Wave himself, and this series offers many opportunities to follow the hidden byways of his work. His best thrillers, like Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Boucher and La Rupture, cast a critical gaze on French society; The Other Claude Chabrol both deepens that gaze and indicates the amount of sheer pleasure Chabrol has always taken in filmmaking.

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