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The Instant Expert's Guide to Claude Chabrol

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No one can match Cinema Paradiso when it comes to world film. Our Instant Expert series introduces the great directors in screen history and recommends titles to get newcomers started and aficionados intrigued. Our subject this time is the feted French auteur, Claude Chabrol.

In many ways, Claude Chabrol was the odd one out of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who started making their own films in the late 1950s and ushered in the New Wave that would transform film-making worldwide. Although he deserves the 'auteur' tag that is readily applied to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, Chabrol was quite prepared to embrace the mainstream and seek to connect with audiences who preferred genre to arthouse fare. He didn't always find critical or commercial favour. Indeed, he had two fallow periods that might have spelt curtains for a lesser talent.

But Chabrol lived to direct and his acute dissections of middle-class mores always possessed a disarming visual elegance. Many of his films contained murders. Yet, despite being dubbed 'the French Hitchcock', he didn't make thrillers in the Master of Suspense mould. He produced social satires that explored class psychology and the differences between the sexes.

'Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating that intelligence,' he once declared. But it was the ordinariness of people that Chabrol found particularly interesting, as well as their habit of repeating mistakes that his audience would recognise from their own experience. This curiosity with the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie aligns him with Luis Buñuel. However, as the Guardian opined in its obituary: 'Buñuel attacked the bourgeoisie from without with a machete; Chabrol attacked them from within with a dinner fork.'

A still from Le Corbeau (1943)
A still from Le Corbeau (1943)

In many ways, Chabrol's obsession with the middle-class mindset connects him most closely with Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose unfinished Inferno (2004) he would revisit towards the end of his career. Cinema Paradiso users can discover such Clouzot classics as Le Corbeau (1943) and Quai des Orfèvres (1947) and see why Chabrol might be described as 'le nouveau Clouzot'.

For all the debates, however, between highbrow critics who found his themes trite and populist reviewers who thought his style ponderous, the key to appreciating Claude Chabrol is his mischievous insight into the darker aspects of human nature. As he once stated, 'I'm a farceur. You have to avoid taking oneself too seriously.'

So Near and Yet So Pharmacy

Born in Paris on 24 June 1930, Claude Henri Jean Chabrol was the son of pharmacist Yves Chabrol and his wife, Madeleine. He grew up, however, in Sardent, a village in the Creuse region of Central France. During the Nazi Occupation, he ran a cinema in a barn, presenting German films as 'super-productions' in order to lure in customers missing American movies.

His parents, who were both involved with the French Resistance, disapproved of his passion for cinema and hoped that Claude would follow in his father and grandfather's footsteps. While studying pharmacology and literature at the Sorbonne, however, Chabrol was 'seized by the demon of cinema' and started attending screenings at the Cinémathèque Française and the Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin that reinforced his love of Alfred Hitchcock, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. Type their names into the Cinema Paradiso searchline to share Chabrol's passion.

He met such like-minded obsessives as Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who had also fallen under the spell of Cinémathèque programmer, Henri Langlois, and André Bazin, the editor of the leading screen journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. Duty called Chabrol away, when he was forced to do his mandatory military service in the Medical Corps. But he still wangled a post as a projectionist and returned from Germany with his sergeant's stripes to become a staff writer at Cahiers.

While he might not have written anything to rival Truffaut's 1954 essay, 'A Certain Tendency in French Cinema' (which denounced the script-driven mainstream style mockingly called 'cinéma du papa'), Chabrol still advocated both the 'auteur theory' that dictated that film-makers demonstrated a consistency of theme and style as the authors of their films and the mise-en-scéne technique that favoured long takes in deep focus over repeated cutting between angles to involve the viewer morally and aesthetically in the action on the screen.

In 1955, Chabrol took a break from writing for Cahiers and Arts magazine and joined the publicity department in the Paris offices of 20th Century-Fox. However, he was soon informed that he was 'the worst press officer they'd ever seen' and was replaced by Jean-Luc Godard, who turned out to be even worse. Returning to journalism, Chabrol employed the pen names Charles Eitel and Jean-Yves Goute, as well as his own. He also published a book. While interviewing Alfred Hitchcock on the Riviera set of To Catch a Thief (1955), Chabrol and Truffaut had amused him by falling into a water tank. Indeed, he later told Truffaut that he thought of them each time he saw two ice cubes in a glass of whisky. However, Chabrol made a deeper impression when he and Rohmer published the first scholarly appreciation of his work, Hitchcock (1957).

Modestly, Chabrol claimed to have only written the sections on Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946) and Stage Fright (1950). But the book changed perceptions of Hitchcock, as Kent Jones recalls in his 2005 documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut. Moreover, it provided an insight into Hitch's influence on Chabrol's own style, as they shared a sense of Catholic guilt, a dark wit and a conviction that wickedness lurks in everyday situations.

In 1956, Chabrol married Agnès Goute, whose inheritance allowed him to help finance a couple of shorts, Jacques Rivette's Le Coup du berger (1956) and Éric Rohmer's Véronique et son cancre (1958). Unlike his Cahiers colleagues, however, Chabrol never made a short or worked as an assistant to an established director. Instead, he plunged into the feature deep end and, in the process, caused the first ripples of the French New Wave.

Les Petits Nouveaux

A still from Le Beau Serge (1958)
A still from Le Beau Serge (1958)

Inspired by Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Le Beau Serge (1958), was not only Chabrol's directorial debut, but it was also the first feature made during the nouvelle vague. It cost $85,000 and was made over three months in Sardent, with a small cast and crew. The first cut ran for 155 minutes, but Chabrol was advised to reduce the docudramtic elements in order to focus on the friendship between boyhood friends, François (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gérard Blain) after the former returns home to discover that the latter has become an alcoholic following the stillbirth of his son.

Lauded for a naturalism that earned comparisons with Robert Bresson, the film won the Prix Jean Vigo and earned Chabrol the Best Director prize at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival. The British journal, Sight and Sound, felt the action was so raw that it had been 'cut out with hatchet blows'. Rather than establishing a trademark style, however, this proved to be something of a one-off for Chabrol, who sought a more refined approach to Les Cousins (1959), which he had been planning to shoot when he discovered the prohibitive price of filming in Paris.

Marking Chabrol's first collaboration with screenwriter Paul Gégauff, this was also the first of several features in which the male characters were called Paul and Charles. The returning Brialy and Blain swapped roles, as the decadent Paul shocks the provincial Charles when he comes to study with his cousin in Paris. Exposing the complacency and indolence of the bourgeoisie, the film won the Golden Bear at Berlin amidst praise for its Hitchcockian undertones.

Not everyone was impressed, however, with the notoriously contrary Bosley Crowther of the New York Times complaining that 'Chabrol is the gloomiest and most despairing of the new creative French directors. His attitude is ridden with a sense of defeat and ruin.' Yet such words would have been music to Chabrol's ears, as he had set out to convey an air of cruelty and later joked about his co-scenarist, 'Paul is very good at gingering things up...He can make a character look absolutely ridiculous and hateful in two seconds flat.'

A still from A Double Tour (1959)
A still from A Double Tour (1959)

Buoyed by consecutive successes, Chabrol undertook his first colour feature. Adapted from Stanley Ellin's pulp thriller, The Key to Nicholas Street, À Double tour (aka Léda, 1959) was another tale of newcomers sewing discord, as a bourgeois family from Aix-en-Provence falls into disarray following the arrival of a beautiful Italian artist, Léda (Antonella Lualdi), and her Hungarian confidant, Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Once again Gégauff co-scripted, but the critics took exception to the convoluted structure, Henri Decaë's jerky handheld visuals and the flamboyance of the performances. Judge for yourself, courtesy of Cinema Paradiso.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to see Les Bonnes femmes (1960), the story of Parisian shopgirls Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran and Lucile Saint-Simon that restored Chabrol to critical favour for its feminist slant, even though it proved controversial and also failed at the box office. However, he had done well enough from his first outings to form his own company, AJYM Productions, which provided funds for Philippe de Broca's The Love Game (1960), Rivette's Paris nous appartient and Rohmer's debut feature, The Sign of Leo (1962). This can be found on The Early Works, along with the first two Moral Tales, The Girl At the Monceau Bakery and Suzanne's Career (both 1963).

As is noted in Emmanuel Laurent's documentary, Two in the Wave (2010), Chabrol also served as a technical advisor on Godard's feature bow, À Bout de souffle (1960), which resulted in him becoming known as 'the godfather of the French New Wave'. However, he had company, as Agnès Varda had been hailed as 'the godmother of the nouvelle vague' for her pioneering work, La Pointe Courte (1954), which follows Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret around the southern port of Sète, as they strive to save their marriage.

A Bit of a Blip

It's safe to say that Chabrol had a rough old time in the 1960s. Part of the problem lay in the stylistic avalanche that he had helped set in motion, as the classical Hollywood narrative he so much admired was considered passé by the critics. Moreover, his brand of ironic social commentary was dismissed as cynical rather than satirical. He was not alone in struggling to acclimatise, as mentors like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder also suffered a backlash for pictures like Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969) and One, Two, Three (1961), Irma la Douce (1963) and Kiss Me Stupid (1964).

Such is Chabrol's track record during this decade that a number of his releases aren't available in his homeland, let alone in this country. We might only be 21 miles apart, but Britain and France live in different cinematic universes. The language barrier is the main issue, as we happen to share a tongue with the most powerful film industry in the world. Consequently, more Hollywood movies are available on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K in the UK than from any other country - even our own.

The dominance extends, of course, to cinemas, which is why world cinema shows in arthouses rather than multiplexes. It also means that, despite having over 10,000 titles in our unrivalled catalogue, Cinema Paradiso is sometimes hamstrung when it comes to films in foreign languages. Rest assured, we are anything but Anglo-Saxon Philistines and will always include films from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America whenever we can. But cinema has always been a business, as well as an artform, and, consequently, distributors have set greater store by market forces than critical reputations.

Hence, we can't bring you Les Godelureaux (1960), an adaptation of an Éric Olliver novel that Chabrol hated himself. Also unavailable is The Third Lover, which was filmed in Munich and reunited Chabrol with Stéphane Audran, who would become his second wife in 1964. This was better received than its predecessor and introduced Hélène as the female equivalent to all those Charles and Pauls. But thumbs were firmly pointed down for Ophélia (both 1962), a modern reworking of William Shakespeare's Hamlet that starred Alida Valli and Claude Cerval.

In 1963, Chabrol dipped into true-life crime with Landru, which was scripted by novelist Françoise Sagan and cast Michèle Morgan, Danielle Darrieux and Hildegard Knef among the victims of Charles Denner. Chabrol was in good company, as Charles Chaplin had also drawn on the fin-de-siècle murders committed by Henri Désiré Landru for Monsieur Verdoux (1947). But neither found an eager audience.

The Swinging Sixties was the golden age of the portmanteau or anthology film and Chabrol was invited to contribute to three of them. If only we could bring you 'Greed' from The Seven Deadly Sins (1962), because Chabrol has an amusing self-reflexive cameo as a pharmacist, and 'The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower' from The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964), because Jean-Pierre Cassel and Catherine Deneuve are so good as the con artists duping a German tourist. But, thanks to Paris vu par... (1964), Cinema Paradiso can present 'La Muette', a delightful vignette in which a small boy uses earplugs to block out the constant bickering of his parents (Chabrol and Audran).

One of the problems facing film-makers who prefer to make personal projects is that flops tend to limit options. This quandary confronted Chabrol in the mid-60s and he was forced to take such shamelessly commercial assignments as Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche (aka Code Name: Tiger, 1964), Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite (aka Our Agent Tiger) and Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha (aka Blue Panther, both 1965). Chabrol had no illusions about the quality of these outings. As he later remarked: 'I like to get to the absolute limit of principles...In drivel like the Tiger series I really wanted to get the full extent of the drivel. They were drivel, so OK, let's get into it up to our necks.'

No wonder the showbiz bible, Variety, ran the headline, 'Vital To Keep Making Pictures, and What Sort Not Relevant; Chabrol No "Doctrinaire" Type.' It wasn't all desperation, however, as Chabrol also directed a lauded stage production of Macbeth at the Théâtre Récamier in 1964. His French Resistance picture, Line of Demarcation (1966), also had its adherents, as it used Vichy-acquiescing soldier Maurice Ronet's bid to rescue Maquis agent wife Jean Seberg to question President Charles de Gaulle's romanticised myth that the entire nation had resisted the Nazi Occupation.

The film might have lacked moral complexity, but it sought to break taboos. By contrast, the murder mystery, Le Scandale (aka The Champagne Murders), and the spy thriller, La Route de Corinthe (aka Who's Got the Black Box?, both 1967), were potboilers that respectively showcased the Hollywood stars, Anthony Perkins and Jean Seberg, alongside Maurice Ronet. In fact, they are both highly watchable and superior to the majority of the co-productions made around this time that earned the unflattering nickname, 'Europuddings'. But Chabrol was capable of so much better, as he was about to prove.

The Golden Era

In 1968, Chabrol met Moroccan-born producer André Génovès and embarked upon a series of coolly detached thrillers about bourgeois peccadilloes that restored his reputation. Key to the success of these pictures was a creative consistency that came from writer Paul Gégauff, set designer Guy Littaye, cinematographer Jean Rabier, sound technician Guy Chichignoud, composer Pierre Jansen and editor Jacques Gaillard, as well as from such recurring actors as Stéphane Audran, Michel Bouquet and Jean Yanne, as Chabrol achieved a thematic and stylistic unity that utilised studied pan and tracking shots, along with the occasional abrupt zoom, to convey the angst and ambiguity that permeated his scenarios.

A still from Les Biches (1968)
A still from Les Biches (1968)

Loosely based on the Patricia Highsmith classic that would also inspire Réné Clément's Purple Noon (1960) and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Les Biches (1968) prompted Chabrol to label it 'the first film which I made exactly as I wished'. It opens in Paris, as the refined Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) seduces a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). During a trip to St Tropez, however, the idyll comes under threat as architect Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) joins the ménage. Playing opposite her first husband, Audran won the Best Actress prize at Berlin for her performance, as her second husband explored lust, class, identity and deception with an assurance that made the action all the more sensual and sophisticated.

Encouraged by returning to critical and commercial favour, Chabrol instigated the 'Hélène Cycle' with La Femme infidèle (aka The Unfaithful Wife, 1969), a study of the importance of domestic rituals to the appearance of family contentment that sees neglectful Parisian husband, Charles Desvallées (Michel Bouquet) discover that his glamorous wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), is having an affair with writer Victor Pégala (Maurice Ronet) in Neuilly-sur-Seine. In 2002, Adrian Lyne reworked the scenario with Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful.

A still from This Man Must Die (1969)
A still from This Man Must Die (1969)

This Hitchcockian masterclass was followed by Que la bête meure (aka This Man Must Die, 1969), an adaptation of a 1938 thriller by Nicholas Blake, which was the pseudonym used by Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of three-time Oscar winner Daniel). Michel Duchaussoy stars as Charles Thénier, a widower who flirts with actress Hélène Lanson (Caroline Cellier) in order to gain access to her dictatorial brother-in-law, Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne), who killed his nine year-old son in a hit-and-run accident.

Yanne returned alongside Stéphane Audran, as Chabrol began the new decade with Le Boucher (aka The Butcher, 1970), a tale of passion, repression and guilt that Chabrol wrote himself. The action takes place in the

Périgord village of Trémolat during a search for a serial killer and follows the relationship that develops after school principal Hélène Daville meets soldier-turned-butcher Paul Thomas at a wedding. With its disconcertingly iconic picnic sequence at the Grottes de Cougnac, this moiling melodrama was proclaimed 'the best French film since the Liberation' by Le Figaro.

A still from The Breach (1970)
A still from The Breach (1970)

With Pierre Jansen's unsettling score emphasising the sparsity of the dialogue, this tense mood piece was followed by La Rupture (aka The Breach, 1970), which was based on Charlotte Armstrong's novel, The Balloon Man. After Charles Régnier (Jean-Claude Drouot) returns home after his wife, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), attacks him for hospitalising their son, his disapproving parents hire Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to ruin her reputation so that they can gain custody of their grandchild. Michel Bouquet excels as the calculating father-in-law, as Chabrol excoriates the privileged classes for playing games with the lives of those they consider beneath them.

Famously using the word 'juste' in 17 different ways in his closing speech, Bouquet is on equally fine form in Juste avant la nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971). This reworking of The Thin Line by Edward Atiyah sees family man Charles Masson racked with guilt after he accidentally kills his mistress during a kinky sex game. Yet he still feels compelled to confess to the mother of his two children, Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and the husband of his victim, François Tellier (François Perier), the renowned architect who had designed their adjoining luxury houses in Versailles.

Audran won a BAFTA for her performance in this scathing satire on bourgeois morality, which typified Chabrol's ability to intellectualise middlebrow material. He laced the dialogue with insights into the psychological state of his characters, but there were also clues in the décor, which was surveyed with a stealthily prying camera, as Chabrol accumulated damning details. His ability to capture his times led to comparisons with his favourite author, Honoré de Balzac.

But Chabrol was very much a man of the cinema. Critic James Monaco dubbed him 'the craftsman par excellence of the New Wave' whose 'variations upon a theme give us an understanding of the explicitness and precision of the language of the film that we don't get from the more varied experiments in genre of Truffaut or Godard.' In admiring the way in which content and style were inextricably linked, John Russell Taylor noted that 'some of his films become almost private jokes, made to amuse himself'. For much of the next two decades, however, audiences didn't always get the gag.

A Bit of a Blip, Part Deux

Chabrol didn't always pull out a plum when he dipped into the pulp pile. Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder provided the basis for La Décade prodigieuse, his first excursion into English that teamed Michel Piccoli with Anthony Perkins and Orson Welles. However, Chabrol, who was something of a gourmet, was more interested in sampling the cooking of Alsace than in learning whether Charles (Perkins) will pay for having an affair with Hélène (Marlene Jobert), the wife of his adoptive father, Theo (Welles).

Fears that Chabrol might be heading into another dip were assuaged when Dr Popaul (aka Scoundrel in White, 1972) became a surprise hit, in spite of some hostile reviews. Adapted from Hubert Monteilhet's Murder At Leisure, the tale follows Dr Paul Simay (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as he falls foul of wife Christine (Mia Farrow) by having an affair with her sister, Martine (Laura Antonelli).

A still from Wedding in Blood (1973)
A still from Wedding in Blood (1973)

While these two misfires are not available on disc, Cinema Paradiso users can snap up Les Noces rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973), a fact-based saga in which the deputy mayor of Valençay, Pierre Maury (Michel Piccoli) is blackmailed into backing a crooked land deal when mayor Paul Delamare (Claude Piéplu) discovers that Pierre is having an affair with his wife, Lucienne (Stéphane Audran). Such was the anti-Gaullist slant of the picture that it was banned during the year's elections, in case it swayed voters.

Having debuted on the small screen with a couple of Henry James stories, Chabrol sidestepped the bourgeoisie to focus on the contemporary political scene in Nada (1974). Drawing on a noirish novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette, the plot centres on the police search led by the ruthless Goemond (Michel Aumont) after the American ambassador is kidnapped from an upmarket brothel by an anarchist group led by Diaz (Fabio Testi). Balanced and gripping, this is one of Chabrol's most underrated works. But it was followed by a series of indifferent items that the director himself conceded fell some way below his best.

The primary fascination with Une Partie de plaisir (aka A Piece of Pleasure, 1974) lies in the fact that it anticipated actuality, as Paul Gégauff (who plays a writer experiencing marital difficulties opposite ex-wife Danièle) was stabbed to death by his second spouse in 1983. Despite the presence of Franco Nero and Stefania Sandrelli, Les Magiciens (aka Death Rite, 1976) has also slipped off the critical radar, as no one bought a story about playboy Jean Rochefort enlisting a married couple to ensure that magician Gert Fröbe's murder prediction comes to pass.

Rochefort also features in Les Innocents aux mains sales (aka Innocents With Dirty Hands, 1975), a reworking of Richard Neely's The Damned Innocents that sees Chabrol in an impishly Hitchcockian mood. Just as you think you've got a handle on the triangle involving alcoholic film producer Louis Wormser (Rod Steiger), wife Julie (Romy Schneider) and her lover Jeff Marle (Paolo Giusti), Chabrol's script tosses in another twist and then another. This remains a poignant reminder, 40 years after her death on 29 May 1982, of what a remarkable actress Romy Schneider was.

Having broken his ties with André Génovès, Chabrol found himself somewhat adrift. He disowned Folies bourgeoises (aka The Twist, 1976), an adaptation of Lucie Faure's Le Malheur fou that can't quite make up its mind whether the bed hopping involving poet Bruce Dern, wife Stéphane Audran, editor Jean-Pierre Cassel and researcher Ann-Margret is to be played for laughs or shock value. Another puzzle came in the form of Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (aka Alice, or The Last Escapade, 1976), a loose reimagining of Alice in Wonderland through the eyes of Fritz Lang and Jean Cocteau that sees Alice Carroll (Sylvia Kristel) flee a failing marriage and become trapped in a remote manor owned by the elderly Henri Vergennes (Charles Vanel).

A still from Blood Relatives (1978)
A still from Blood Relatives (1978)

A tax break took Chabrol to Montreal to make Les Liens de sang (aka Blood Relatives, 1977), which was adapted from one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct thrillers. Donald Sutherland plays Detective Inspector Steve Carella, who has to decide whether teenager Patricia Lowery (Aude Landry) or her brother Andrew (Laurent Malet) is telling the truth about their murdered cousin, Muriel (Lisa Langlois). Akira Kurosawa, whose charged drama, High and Low (1963), had been based on King's Ransom, reckoned that Chabrol had produced the best-ever screen adaptation of a McBain book.

On returning to France, however, Chabrol took two detours into the past for Violette Nozière (1978), a true-life murder case set in 1933, and Le Cheval d'orgeuil (aka The Horse of Pride, 1980), an ethnographic account of peasant life in fin-de-siècle Brittany that was based on the autobiography of actor-poet Pêr-Jakez Helias.

The prolific Belgian, Georges Simenon provided the source for Les Fantômes du chapelier (aka The Hatter's Ghosts, 1981), in which Armenian tailor Charles Aznavour is alone in suspecting that respectable hatter neighbour Michel Serrault is a serial killer. This forensic study of small-town provincialism was followed by Le Sang des autres (aka The Blood of Others, 1983), which was originally made for television from a Simone de Beauvoir novel before being edited down for cinematic release. Jodie Foster and Michael Ontkean star as the married couple who take different approaches to the realities of the Nazi Occupation of France.

A still from Cop Au Vin (1985)
A still from Cop Au Vin (1985)

Cinema Paradiso members will be relieved to hear that Chabrol's next two releases are available to rent on high-quality DVD and Blu-ray. Madame Cuno (Stéphane Audran) and her son, Louis (Lucas Belvaux), have been resisting threats to drive them out of their well-appointed house in a provincial town. But when one of their persecutors perishes, no-nonsense detective Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) comes to investigate in Poulet au vinaigre (aka Cop au vin, 1984). Such was the public response that new regular producer Marin Karmitz persuaded Chabrol to make his sole sequel, Inspecteur Lavardin (1986), which takes the flic to a quiet coastal community, where he discovers that the widow of a murdered Catholic writer is his old flame, Hélène (Bernadette Lafont).

Also available at the click of your mouse is Masques, which saw Chabrol forge a new writing partnership with Odile Barski on a pitiless satire on televisual celebrity that sees ghost writer Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) inveigle himself into the household of TV personality Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret) in order to discover the fate of his sister, who had befriended his subject's goddaughter, Catherine (Anne Brochet).

Sadly, the year's other release, Le Cri du hibou (aka The Cry of the Owl, both 1987), is not available, even though the story of Christophe Malavoy's dangerous obsession with Mathilde May is taken from a Patricia Highsmith novel. Also missing are Jours tranquilles à Clichy, a revisitation of the erotic Henry Miller novel that had been adapted by Dane Jens Jørgen Thorsen as Quiet Days in Clichy (1970), and Docteur M (both 1990), a little-loved homage to Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), which reworks the Norbert Jacques potboiler with Alan Bates as the manipulative criminal mastermind, Dr Marsfeldt.

A Law Unto Himself

After 16 years of marriage, Chabrol and Audran divorced in 1980. She would go on to international acclaim in the title role of Gabriel Axel's Oscar-winning Karen Blixen adaptation, Babette's Feast (1987). Yet they would continue to work together, racking up 23 features in total, including Violette Nozière (1978), a provocative recreation of a 1930s murder case (with Audran among the victims) that marked the first of Chabrol's seven collaborations with Isabelle Huppert, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

She played a variation on another contentious historical character in Une Affaire des femmes (aka Story of Women, 1988), a film à clef about Marie-Louise Girard, who was one of the last women to be guillotined in France after she was found guilty of performing over 20 abortions in wartime Vichy. This time, Huppert won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and reunited with Chabrol as the adulterous anti-heroine in his adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1991). Despite some critics complaining of miscasting, Huppert was named Best Actress at the Moscow Film Festival, while the costumes earned an Oscar nomination and the film itself was listed among the best foreign titles at the Golden Globes.

The following year, Chabrol returned to Georges Simenon for Betty (1992), in which Marie Trintignant plays Betty Etamble, the alcoholic divorcée who comes to resent the happiness of the woman who had offered her shelter, Laure (Stéphane Audran), after she had been disowned by her family. One of Chabrol's bleakest, but most absorbing dramas, this deserves to be much better known. So does L'Œil de Vichy (aka The Eye of Vichy, 1993), a documentary that uses contemporary newsreels and propaganda films to lay bare the bitter reality of life in war-torn France.

Henri-Georges Clouzot had spent the Occupation working for the Nazi-controlled production company, Continental Films - a period recalled by Bertrand Tavernier in Laissez-passer (aka Safe Conduct, 2002). Initially, he had been banned from film-making because of his co-operation. But he returned to make some of his most significant pictures, including The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). However, as Serge Bromberg reveals in Inferno (2009), Clouzot was unable to finish his 1964 thriller, L'Enfer, with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani.

In 1993, Chabrol revisited the screenplay to make L'Enfer, which chronicles the descent into pathological jealousy of paranoid hotelier Paul Prieur (François Cluzet) after he suspects wife Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) of having an affair. With a score by son Mathieu Chabrol, this is a dark fantasy that makes up in mischievous Hitchcockian fantasy what it lacks in psychological depth.

Critics were divided about whether this represented a return to form. But they were unanimous in their praise of La Cérémonie (1995), which Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff adapted from the 1977 Ruth Rendell bestseller, A Judgement in Stone, which was based on the story of 1930s domestics, Christine and Léa Papin, whose shocking crime had inspired the Jean Genet play, The Maids, which had been filmed in 1974 by Christopher Miles, with Glenda Jackson and Susannah York in the leads.

Chabrol declared it to be 'the last Marxist film', as Breton housemaid Sophie Bonhomme (Sandrine Bonnaire) allies with local postmistress Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert) to challenge the complacent authority of bourgeois couple, Georges and Catherine Lelièvre (Jean-Pierre Cassel and Jacqueline Bisset). Having shared the Best Actress prize at Venice with Bonnaire, Huppert won a César for her work, while her co-stars and Chabrol were also nominated.

A still from The Swindle (1997)
A still from The Swindle (1997)

Such was the film's success that Chabrol and Huppert joined forces again on Rien ne va plus (aka The Swindle, 1997), a playful study of con trickery, in which small-timers Victor (Michel Serrault) and Betty (Huppert) target Maurice (François Cluzet), a bag carrier for a gang of money launderers. For the most part, the action is wryly enjoyable, as Chabrol pokes fun at criminality, film conventions and national stereotypes. But he also has a stiletto up his sleeve for a moment of shocking cruelty.

The spirit of Simenon coursed through Au Coeur du mensonge (aka The Colour of Lies, 1998), which joins detective Frédérique Lesage (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) in the Breton village where art teacher René Sterne (Jacques Gamblin) is the chief suspect in the rape and murder of a young pupil, even though his wife, Vivianne (Sandrine Bonnaire), the popular local nurse, is convinced of his innocence.

Having ended the century on a high, Chabrol began the millennium with the deliciously dark Merci pour le chocolat (aka Nightcap, 2000), an adaptation of Charlotte Armstrong's The Chocolate Cobweb that echoes Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), as piano student Jeanne Poilet (Anna Mouglalis) becomes convinced that her teacher, André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) - who may well also be her father - is having his bedtime drink poisoned by Marie-Claire Muller (Isabelle Huppert), the first wife André had remarried after her successor was killed in a car crash. With its Swiss setting and rich, smooth sense of lethal irony, this simmering saga was the deserved winner of the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc.

Another seemingly perfect bourgeois family comes under closer scrutiny in La Fleur du mal (aka The Flower of Evil, 2003). But, while Anne Chardin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye) is about to run for mayor in a community outside

Bordeaux, it soon becomes clear that everyone from her elderly aunt (Suzanne Flon) and her daughter (Mélanie Doutey) to her stepson (Benoît Magimel) and pharmacist husband (Bernard Le Coq) has a skeleton in their closets.

Having revelled in collaboration, patricide and incest, Chabrol returned to Ruth Rendell to divulge some more guilty secrets in Le Demoiselle d'honneur (aka The Bridesmaid, 2004). The macabre action commences at a family wedding, where salesman Philippe Tardieu (Benoît Magimel) falls under the spell of Senta Bellange (Laura Smet), who demands that he proves his love by killing a stranger.

The misdemeanours of a leading French oil company provided the inspiration for L'Ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power, 2006), which united Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert for the last time. She is in imperious form as Jeanne Charmant-Killman, a magistrate who so relishes bringing down the head of a corrupt company that she neglects the health of her depressive husband. However, this droll treatise on the intoxicating nature of power and its abuse was accused by some of lacking satirical finesse.

The critics were also divided over La Fille coupée en deux (aka The Girl Cut in Two, 2007), which saw the final return of two familiar Chabrolian first names, as novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Borléand) and pharmaceutical scion Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel) set their sights on TV weathergirl Camille Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier). Targeting celebrity, as well as favourite themes like bourgeois snobbery and perversity, this is the last Chabrol outing rentable from Cinema Paradiso, as Bellamy (2009) isn't currently available.

This is a shame, as Gérard Depardieu is splendidly cast as Inspector Paul Bellamy, a Parisian flic who can't resist following the clues while on holiday in Nimes with his long-suffering wife. Chabrol had been intrigued by the thought of how Georges Simenon's most famous creation, Jules Maigret, might have approached a vacation. He ended the picture with a line from W.H. Auden's poem, 'At Last the Secret Is Out': 'There is always another story, there is always more than meets the eye.'

Sadly, however, there wasn't another story, as Chabrol died of leukaemia at the age of 80 on 12 September 2010. He was buried in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Twelve years on, no one has come close to taking his place as the bourgeoisie's bête noire.

A still from The Girl Cut in Two (2008)
A still from The Girl Cut in Two (2008)
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