Man Working

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AUGUST 19, 2002

Man Working

Here again is Claude Chabrol. "Again" is really too weak a word for
a director who began in 1958 and is now presenting his forty-eighth
film. Born in 1930, Chabrol very early made his way to Paris from
the provinces where he had been raised, found various jobs
including one in a film-company office, married, and--with the help
of an inheritance that came to his wife--made his first film, Le
Beau Serge. Quickly he became a figure in the so-called New Wave.
(Coincidence: Francois Truffaut, another such figure, also got his
start with money from his wife's family.) Many of those New Wave
directors are gone now, of course, and those still working are no
longer Young Turks, or even Old Turks. Chabrol long ago reached a
position in the French film world where, though the success of his
films was hardly irrelevant, the prime point for him and for his
producers was to keep working.In 1957 he had collaborated with Eric Rohmer on a book about
Hitchcock. Microscopes might reveal some influence of Hitchcock on
Rohmer, but in Chabrol the influence is patent. It seems possible,
however, that Chabrol was less inspired by Hitchcock than drawn to
Hitchcock in the first place because he already had such interests
within him.

Murder, sometimes sly and sometimes sanguine, sometimes almost
philosophically undertaken, runs through many of Chabrol's films.
One of them, Landru (1962), the notorious Bluebeard story, is an
unrecognized masterwork, not least because of Charles Denner's
performance. Others in the Chabrol canon range in quality from the
extraordinary This Man Must Die and Betty to the mediocre Violette
Nozire and La Femme Infidle. (Not a thriller in any sense was his
pallid Madame Bovary.) It is hardly surprising that most of his
films are no better than good and some of them are a little less
than good. What must be said of all the large number that I have
seen is that they were made by a master craftsman, a man who is
primarily interested in the making of films, wants to keep at it,
and is willing to risk imperfection rather than fret for years over
one work, la Kubrick.

This is why a middling Chabrol film like his latest, Merci Pour le
Chocolat, (Empire), seems an appropriate instance for comment on
him. Broadly speaking, directors are of two kinds: the jewelers,
like Kubrick and Robert Bresson, and the
judge-me-by-my-whole-career men, like Chabrol and Fassbinder and
Godard. (Of course the contract directors in the high Hollywood
days had small choice in the matter.) Merci is, in a sense, neither
more nor less than Chabrol's picture for 2000. It is what he did
that year.

The narrative pleasure in a Chabrol film usually grows as if we were
watching a chess game, its ploys and strategies disclosed as it
progresses. The characters are always flawed--even the good
ones--and are usually performed by people who understand film
acting as a series of confidences entrusted to the camera. The
films are always edited with tacit cleverness, always photographed
to match. Renato Berta, the Swiss cinematographer who did La
Salamandre and Le Milieu du Monde, here almost seems to be quietly
chuckling as he surprises us with unusual yet unostentatious shots,
one after another.

The screenplay was adapted by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff from an
American thriller by Charlotte Armstrong. The setting is Lausanne.
Two families are involved: that of a woman doctor and her daughter;
and that of a famous pianist, his son by his first wife, and his
second wife, who is the managing director of a chocolate factory.
Both the doctor's daughter and the pianist's son, now in their
twenties, were born in the same hospital on the same day, and the
possibility that the babies were switched at birth figures in the
story. The plot is thickened by the fact that the young woman has
piano talent and the young man has no interest in music.

Oddly enough, the complications that grow out of this teasing
uncertainty have nothing at all to do with the person who turns out
to be the main character, the wife who runs the factory. She, as we
learn, has a connection with the death of the pianist's first wife,
and as she moves about her house and her office with perfect
composure and the requisite politesse, she is contemplating further
odd action.

The motives for her behavior are never plumbed deeply, but we can
infer that she has a mental crease, that perhaps she enjoys a
secret power over people as an adjunct to her business power.
Chabrol may well have been drawn to this woman's story by her
pussycat wickedness, instead of any drooling malevolence. He is
inordinately helped by Isabelle Huppert in the role.

Huppert has been in five previous Chabrol films, generally playing
killers who were ice queens. I had begun to wonder if she would
ever actually evince any emotion instead of letting the script and
her beauty and self-confidence suffice. Huppert broke out for
another director, Michael Hanneke, in The Piano Teacher, swirling
from intellectual hauteur to primordial physicality. In this new
Chabrol film she uses velvet claws, but they are, unmistakably,
claws.

Chabrol's view of film-making life--"Here's another. If you don't
like it, there'll be another along soon"--is clearly more
appreciated in Europe than here. His new picture does not have
conventional U.S. distribution. The Film Forum in New York is
presenting its American premiere, and other dates are to follow. An
English critic once said of Chabrol: "There are few directors whose
films are more difficult to explain or evoke on paper because so
much of the overall effect turns on Chabrol's sheer hedonistic
relish for the medium." In these market-manic days, that approach
is not exactly a socko selling point. Still, we can rejoice that he
carries on, breathes his profession as his native air, makes
pictures of varying quality but persistently makes them.

In 1990, in The Hunt for Red October, Sean Connery was the commander
of a Soviet nuclear-powered submarine who was considering whether
to defect to the United States. In 2002, in K-19: The Widowmaker
(Paramount), Harrison Ford plays the commander of a Soviet
nuclear-powered submarine--in 1961--whose loyalty is staunch. No
defecting for him. He even declines American help in an emergency.
(The screenplay is based on fact.)

Ford, who has moved from sex appeal and action in his screen persona
to become a fount of integrity, does well enough. Liam Neeson, a
genuine actor, plays the second in command and keeps trying to
break his role out of the naval genre pattern (something Ford
cannot do). All the technical stuff clicks along, but the
persistent question is not the intrinsic drama but why this film
was made. The actual story of K-19, which was grim and almost
became a world catastrophe, was kept secret until the collapse of
communism in the Soviet Union. Why did movie moguls think that this
was the right moment for a tale of unflinching loyalty to the
Soviet Union? Perhaps because the theme that runs through and that
concludes the picture is duty, unquestioning duty. Perhaps the
biggies thought that, if audiences could see such devotion in mere
Communists, it would serve as a pungent lesson to us.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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