An earlier version of this post was published on Shooting Down Pictures.
The following are excerpts from various resources on Claude Chabrol, director of Les Bonnes Femmes (among many, many other films) and one of the first masters of the French New Wave.
One of the stable of Cahiers du cinéma critics, Chabrol inaugurated the New Wave with Le Beau Serge (1957), Les Cousins (1958) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Like other early New Wave films, these were characterized by independent production, location shooting, new stars (Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran) and a focus on a young, disaffected generation. Chabrol soon departed from this idiom to enter on a prolific and varied career embracing comedies (Marie-Chantal contre le docteur Khâ, 1965), thrillers (A double tour / Web of Passion, 1959), war films (La Ligne de démarcation, 1966), political thrillers (Les Noces rouge / Blood Wedding, 1973, Nada, 1974), a “lesbian” drama (Les Biches / The Does, 1968), and more; his filmography runs to over forty features. If there is unity in Chabrol’s work, it can be found along two axes. The first is his work with his main star (and for a long time, wife) Stéphane Audran, especially Le Boucher (1970) and their superb “drama of adultery”: La femme infidèle / The Unfaithful Wife (1969), La Rupture / The Breakup (1970) and Juste avant la nuit / Just Before Nightfall (1971). The second is Chabrol’s dissection of the French bourgeoisie, which ranges from the incisive to the affectionate, usually in the thriller format. At the incisive end are Que la bête meure / Killer! (1969) and Violette Nozière (1978); more affectionate are Poulet au vinaigre / Cop au vin (1984), Masques (1987) and Le Cri du hibou / The Cry of the Owl (1987). With his lush adaptation of Madame Bovary (1991, with Isabelle Huppert), Chabrol made an excursion into the Heritage cinema genre, though Betty (1992) and L’Enfer (1994) signal a return to the bourgeois thrillers. Ironically, given Chabrol’s critical beginnings, there is a comfortable “quality” to his films, which is, however, far from unpleasurable.
— Ginette Vincendeau, Encylopedia of European Cinema
Along with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol’s name is famously associated with the pathbreaking criticism of Cahiers du Cinéma and the rise of the French new wave. But whilst Truffaut and Godard saw themselves as auteur and innovator, to survey Chabrol’s long career is to see a craftsman productively immersed in the conventions and compromises of mainstream filmmaking.
The director has made thrillers, spy spoofs, a war film, and over the years has adapted, amongst others, the work of Patricia Highsmith, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Ellery Queen, Henry Miller and Georges Simenon. Arguably, his critical fall from grace owed something to a classical lucidity of approach that was out of favour in the mid-1960s. Writing of Hitchcock, Chabrol had drawn attention to an “interdependence of form and subject”. But Hitchcock’s own critical stock fell at this time, while Chabrolian irony was increasingly regarded as cynicism. Another Hollywood figure with whom Chabrol has been compared is Billy Wilder, also derided for his ‘cynicism.’
If Jean-Luc Godard appeals to critics because of his extreme interest in politics and film theory, if François Truffaut appeals to the popular audience because of his humanism and sentimentality, it is Claude Chabrol—film critic, filmmaker, philosopher—whose work consistently offers the opportunity for the most balanced appeal. His partisans find especially notable the subtle tone of Chabrol’s cinema: his films are apparently cold and objective portraits of profoundly psychological situations; and yet that coldness never approaches the kind of fashionable cynicism, say, of a Stanley Kubrick, but suggests, rather, something closer to the viewpoint of a god who, with compassion but without sentiment, observes the follies of his creations.
—Charles Derry, Film Reference.com
Watch any three films by Claude Chabrol, who along with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard helped sire French New Wave cinema in the early 1960’s, and you will be struck by their timelessness. Styles in clothing, cars and hair may change from decade to decade in Mr. Chabrol’s movies. But his characters’ humanity is so acutely observed that the problems of men and women and of families, and the continual tug of war between people’s civilized and brutish impulses, seem unchanging and deeply truthful.
– Stephen Holden, The New York Times
In the best Chabrol movies, like “Le Boucher,” the thriller mechanics are almost irrelevant; what keeps you on the edge of your seat isn’t wondering whodunit, but wondering how you’re supposed to feel when you find out. Because Mr. Chabrol won’t tell you.
But this is a tricky game for a filmmaker to play with his viewers. And in the years since his glory days of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Mr. Chabrol has lost as many times as he has won. Even a method as distinctively counterintuitive as his can turn predictable. (Especially if you’re as compulsively prolific as he is). And when he isn’t in top form, his calculated opacity is alienating rather than fascinating; the sly correctness of his style can make him seem as dangerously repressed as his most poisonous bourgeois characters.
Mr. Chabrol has suffered, in a sense, from the sort of anxiety of identity that he has so often visited on the nervous middle-class people in his films. He has a reputation, a position: the world knows who he is, and what a movie with the Claude Chabrol brand should be. He isn’t always so sure.
– Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times.
If Chabrol is apparently tabloid in theme, his style has frequently been sophisticated and languorous — a slow burn examination of his characters’ lives with a rapt, patient camera. Consequently, place is of immense importance. Britanny, Massif Central, the Loire Valley, out of season St. Tropez: many a region, small town or village has been focused upon, not simply utilized. In maybe his finest film, Le Boucher, Chabrol gives an onscreen credit to the Perigaud valley villagers who give the film so much of its atmosphere. Even Chabrol’s houses are memorable and significant. The stretched, low slung and vaguely Americanized abode in La Femme Infidèle; the minor chateaus of Wedding in Blood and La Cérémonie, each isolated and aloof; the marvelous convivial country house in the early stages of Un Partie du Plaisir, and the nouveau riche home of the garage owner in The Beast Must Die all indicate characters inextricably linked to the place in which they live. A man’s home is almost literally, in Chabrol, his castle, and it is equally true that the castle is the man.
– Robert McKibbin, Images Journal
The following quotes found on the Charles Chabrol page of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
“Chabrol, whose admiration for the Hitchcock thriller style is evident in some of his own films (The Champagne Murders, This Man Must Die, Cop au Vin), is more typically concerned with exploring, in a curiously detached way, personal relationships (Les Cousins, Les Biches). His favorite target remains the urban French petite-bourgeoisie, the milieu of his youth.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“While Claude Chabrol is certainly one of the most important filmmakers to have emerged from the the French New Wave, his consistency of theme and assured, expressive style are often betrayed by poor material, resulting in a career as uneven as it is prolific…A consummate craftsman, his interest in human emotions often seems intellectually motivated, which may explain the erratic nature of his work.” – Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
IN HIS OWN WORDS:
“I like making black and white films in natural surroundings, but I much prefer shooting a color film inside a studio where the colors are easier to control.” – Claude Chabrol
“It’s often wrong to write for specific actors because one ends up using what is least interesting about them, their mannerisms and habits. I prefer not to write for specific people.” – Claude Chabrol