Jean-Luc Godard once described cinema as the art of guys taking pictures of girls, and, indeed, close-ups of incandescent young actresses remain as much a staple of the French New Wave as skittery handheld cameras and jazzy jump cuts. Think of Jean Seberg’s fresh-faced perfidy at the end of À Bout de Souffle, or Anna Karina filmed as luminously as Lillian Gish in Bande à Part. When François Truffaut uses freeze-frames to still Jeanne Moreau’s mercurial frenzies in Jules et Jim, however, is he giving us snapshots of a divine muse too quick for the audience’s naked eye, or is he reducing the character from complicated woman to unknowable statuary? In other words, when does adulation edge into flattening objectification, or worse? Leave it to Claude Chabrol, the movement’s sardonic, grinning gargoyle, to make that question one of the motifs in Les Bonnes Femmes, a 1960 feature that’s as remarkable as his acclaimed peaks of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Les Biches, La Femme Infidele, Le Boucher).
Unfolding over the course of a few days, the film explores the lives of four young Parisian women: Raucous Jane (Bernadette Lafont), shy Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano), aspiring singer Ginette (Stéphane Audran), and marriage-fixated Rita (Lucille Saint-Simon). Their existence seems limited to dance halls and one-night stands, but, as they wait out the uneventful hours at the electric appliance store where they work, dreams and aspirations come to the fore. When the girls discuss their yearning for romance and wonder if men expect the same from women, Ginette can only sigh: “Let’s not talk about them.” You can’t blame her—from their lecherous boss to the boors who hit on Jane and Jacqueline in the opening sequence to Rita’s condescending clod of a fiancée, the male characters here do their gender no favors. (Chabrol at one point hilariously literalizes their piggish nature by having one of the suitors squint at the camera through a porcine mask.)
Next to them, André (Mario David), the handsome motorcyclist who keeps materializing enigmatically wherever the protagonists go, is just the kind of dark, mysterious stranger a daydreamer like Jacqueline would pine for. Unfortunately for her, he’s also one of the filmmaker’s avatars of free-floating evil, a helpless brother of the Berlioz-conducting heir in À Double Tour and the slobby ogre in This Man Must Die. (As with Eric Rohmer, Chabrol’s Catholicism bleeds into his early features: Jacqueline may not notice the “666” on the motorcycle’s license plate, but a Jesuit schoolboy named Balthazar passing by the scene of the crime surely does.)
Where such later Chabrol classics as Les Biches and La Femme Infidele take their structure from the triangular relationships of their bourgeois characters, the working-class Les Bonnes Femmes abounds in circles. They are in the feeling of blinkered habit that hangs over workplace and nightclub alike, in the circular movements of the camera, and in the shots of record players and mirrored disco globes that suggest planets going about their orbits regardless of the fates of the characters. And, as befits the so-called “French Hitchcock,” the voyeuristic propensities of both director and audience are foregrounded. The cabaret stage where “the anatomically daring” Dolly Bell strips is rhymed with the dance hall stage where Ginette sings while hidden behind a black wig and Italian accent (physical versus emotional exposure), and a trip to the zoo is a veritable minefield of gaze motifs (who’s spying into whose cage?). Chabrol’s pictures often feel like aquariums, with characters peeping at each other and viewers peeping at them all and, as in Femmes’ unsettling closing scene, characters peeping back at the viewer. This stinger is one of the many deliberate breaks in the film’s realistic surface, which also include the giggling jokesters who seem to have parachuted in from a Frank Tashlin comedy or the old shop boss who makes sweeping, Emil Jannings-like gestures and even briefly breaks into operatic arias. Chabrol had already experimented with neo-realism (Le Beau Serge) and fragrant stylization (À Double Tour), but it was here, his fourth film, that he would find the balance of opposite stylistic poles that would continue for the rest of his career.
“To the eternal feminine,” somebody toasts early on. Les Bonnes Femmes is indeed an ode to women, but one delivered in a far harsher and more trenchant timbre than most of its New Wave contemporaries. Take its attitude towards Jane, for instance. As played by the irrepressible Lafont, she’s the coarsest of the quartet, an unruly party-girl who can juggle a couple of louts at night and then just slap on some perfume before heading off to work in the morning. Yet Chabrol never judges her—rather than condemning her promiscuity, he marvels at how her rougher instincts have helped her navigate a callous world (so pitiless throughout most of the film, his scrutiny turns breathtakingly delicate as Jane almost furtively gives a glimpse into the fear behind the boisterous clowning). It’s Jacqueline, however, who embodies the film’s thorny view of female yearning. The most sensitive of the girls, she’s also the one most starving for adventure. That said adventure arrives in the form of a maniac is appropriate, for the character’s dreamy side is bound to an unconscious morbidity that’s every bit as passionate. When the shop’s elderly cashier woman reveals to Jacqueline that the “souvenir” she’s been keeping secret has to do with a serial killer she was once in love with, the moment is meant not as disturbing but as a privileged bond forged between the movie’s two most romantic characters. Like Quentin Tarantino’s strikingly similar Death Proof, Les Bonnes Femmes is a film that wouldn’t dream of presenting itself as feminist but that, in its refusal to tidy up the violence and salvation of its heroines’ desires, remains feminist to its very core.