Though it is not without its peaks,* the cinema of nouvelle vague maestro Claude Chabrol retains a certain minor quality across its fifty years, forever favoring the divertissment of acerbically-pictured bourgeois duplicities as something other than thematic view-point. This something other might profitability be called a genre, were it not so wholly identified with Chabrol himself, in much the same way that Hitchcock's thrillers strike us as Hitchcock's first, rather than as ordinary or even extraordinary instances of a larger category. Chabrol has similarly crafted an artistic identity that is consubstantial with an immediately recognizable signature form, as if to prove the veracity of the auteur theory that he once helped author. Indeed, the formal application of what is essentially an organizing principle - namely that the films of a single director might be profitably read with and against each other - serves as the engine of the enduring "New Wave" movement, whether its Rohmer's tales/comedies/seasons, Rivette's allegories for narrative creation and mise-en-scène, or Godard's self-reflexive dissections of film form. Chabrol, almost more than a Rohmer - or even a Mondrian - works in the slightest of variations.
A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille coupée en deux) adheres to this same principle of small difference, figuring a Marquis de Sade beneath the cultivated exterior of provincial author Charles St.-Denis (François Berléand). Though surrounded by developed sensuality, whether in the graceful form of his saintly wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli) or the darker expertise of the startling Capucine (Mathilda May), St.-Denis nevertheless seeks the company of blond, weather-girl bombshell, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier). Sagnier's twenty-something is introduced by the first of a series of hard-cuts that finds the on-camera personality standing before a blank green screen. St.-Denis presence in the studio, and subsequently in a nightclub, alongside Benoît Magimel's Paul Gaudens - a stranger to both Gabrielle and the film's spectators, but not to St.-Denis - provide two near introductions before a formal meeting at a book signing the next day. Suffice it to say that St.-Denis propositions the much younger Gabrielle - and that she soon reciprocates.
In following St.-Denis to "Paradis," his urban work sanctuary featuring a presumably much-used double bed covered by black and faded jewel tone-stripped sheets, Gabrielle implicitly rebuffs the advances of the more age-appropriate (and obscenely wealthy) Paul, who is himself the perfect Hitchcockian dandy, a marginally heterosexual heir to the eponymous Lodger (1926) and to Strangers on a Train's Bruno (1951).^ Like St.-Denis, with whom he shares a mutual, albeit mostly undefined enmity, Paul is captivated by the lithe young beauty, whose attraction for the spectator - or at least for the heterosexual male viewer - seems as much conditioned by Chabrol's narrative structure and camera work as it is by Sagnier's actual physique. Certainly Sagnier provides a striking presence in her white-cinched overcoat and in a corsetted red top - shot before a flat, single-toned red backdrop. Yet, early on at least, Sagnier seems to be on screen too rarely, turning her back to the viewer or cut away from by Chabrol when it is her beauty precisely that organizes the narrative. Chabrol keeps us desiring this woman's presence, until another hard cut, following an unspecified, off-camera act undertaken by St.-Denis and Gabrielle in an upscale brothel, inspires the female lead to solemnly ask to be taken back to his flat.
This conspicuous on-screen absence serves as one of the director's principle narrative strategies in the relatively opaque A Girl Cut in Two, where the details of what is left off-camera remain immured from speculation. For all of the film's sadistic implications, Chabrol's mise-en-scène retains an exterior chastity,+ only hinting at the degradations that befall the willing Gabrielle during her sentimental education - the image of Sagnier on hands and knees in black negligee (and with peacock feathers attached to her rear), which may well be seared into the spectator's consciousness by the film's ultra-sexy poster, is perhaps the most obvious exception. Chabrol in other words balances the puritanical and that decadent that his surrogate St.-Denis proposes as the two possible states for the current French character. As the Chabrolian sub-genre dictates, the one is located behind the other.
*At the top, one must include Les Cousins (1959), Les Bonnes femmes (1960), An Unfaithful Wife (his masterpiece; 1969), Le Boucher (1970), Violette (1978), and La Ceremonie (1995). A second level of contenders might further contain Le Beau Serge (1958), Les Biches (1968), Wedding in Blood (1973), Story of Women (1988), Merci pour le chocolat (2000) and Flower of Evil (2003).
^ Richard Allen has a fine consideration of this character motif in Hitchcock's Romantic Irony (Columbia University Press, 2007)
+ Chabrol's handsomely lit and lensed visual style (by frequent Chabrol collaborator, cinematographer Eduardo Serra), notable as so much French cinema for its pale blue tones, is commonly articulated through the distinctively classical technique of shot/reverse-shot editing. Among the best examples of the cutting is Gabrielle's meeting with her television station supervisor in the latter's office. For the film's filtered look see Paul's mother at home late in the picture's runtime.
This piece is dedicated to the memory and inspiration of the late Manny Farber (1917-2008).