Through the Looking Glass
Fassbinder/Chabrol, Chabrol/Lang. On Claude Chabrol’s 1977 ‘Alice, ou la dernière fugue,’ 1990 ‘Dr. M,’ and Sundry Other Titles
Claude Chabrol is a bit like one of those prolific murderers who, long after being locked away or sentenced to the chair, keeps adding to their body count tally as unaccounted-for corpses turn up buried around the countryside. There is more Chabrol to dig up all the time: a 52-minute adaptation of Henry James’s late tale “The Bench of Desolation” for French television from 1974 on YouTube? Pourquoi pas?
Chabrol’s is a sprawling filmography, his career as a thriller specialist spanning fifty years, during which time his broad purview took in seemingly the whole of France—he found and filmed iniquity in nearly every nook and cranny of the Republic, the joke being that the infamous gourmand would choose his filming locations by consulting his Michelin guide, in search of new restaurants and local dishes to conquer. It is hard to take the full measure Chabrol’s his accomplishment, and not only due to its span and spread; today large swaths of his work are out-of-print on home video and rarely screened. The Turin Film Festival did mount a Chabrol retrospective in 2007, though they had to stage it over the course of two editions due to the sheer bulk his corpus. And when Chabrol died in 2010, no New York institution was willing to make so much as an attempt at a comprehensive send-off.
By virtue of his having been a starter in the Cahiers du Cinéma lineup during the gestation years of the Nouvelle Vague, co-author of a pioneering 1957 study of Alfred Hitchcock with his compatriot Éric Rohmer, and being the first of the Cahiers critics to complete a feature film, 1958’s Le Beau Serge, Chabrol has secured his niche in film history’s Pantheon, but beyond this there is no clear consensus on his standing. In a Film Comment obituary for Chabrol, admirer Andrew Sarris recalled that as early as 1961, the director “was already in the process of being eclipsed by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Alain Resnais in the estimation of both critics and audiences in France.” (He goes on to register the minority report of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who at that point at least held Chabrol above the rest.) For Jonathan Rosenbaum, registering hosannahs for Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995) in the pages of the Chicago Reader, he was “the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave today, at least in this country.”
Neglect is of course in the eye of the beholder, and to the best of my recollection Chabrol enjoyed decent stateside distribution in the last decade or so of his life, in part thanks to the reception of La Cérémonie as a “return to form. Nevertheless I believe it true that Chabrol has long been the member of that Cahiers cohort who is most commonly undervalued, excepting of course Luc Moullet, who is rarely considered at all, a fact appreciated by no-one more than Luc Moullet. At least part of this can likely be chalked up to Chabrol’s being a resolutely, even perversely minor filmmaker—the term I use in the musical sense, as in minor key, not in the sense of value. He would have liked, he often said, to have been a conductor, and one of his sons, Mattieu, grew up to compose the scores for several of his father’s films.
Instead, Chabrol, Sr. spent his life playing variations on a few favorite themes—sex, subterfuge, death, crime, fate, personality transference, and the morbid psychology of the bourgeoisie—over the course of scores of films, most of them set in the workaday (or leisure-oriented) world of the French upper middle-class. Based on an admittedly limited reading, Chabrol would seem to be the least formidable of the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers as a writer—he was also, as a filmmaker, the most hostile towards critics—but he did concisely outline his ethos as a filmmaker in his most-cited essay, “Little Themes,” published in the magazine’s October, 1959 issue, the piece a warning against the allure of self-important subject matters, which warns that “a big theme is no more valid than a little one. It is a decoy which from time-to-time becomes a booby-trap.”
By the end of his days Chabrol had become something of an eminence gris institution, part of the furniture that comes with the place, but for a long time he was able to provoke genuine antipathy, for what he served up was not the sort of thing to appeal to all palettes. He has a positive passion for both microscopically controlled performances and farcical overacting, often in the same film, and a pranksterish sense of humor that could come off as downright nasty. His films, beautiful and baleful, have something like the allure of wax confectionary: inviting to the eye, but most unpleasant on the tongue. His favorite cinematographer for years was the great Jean Rabier, who had imparted something of the same frigid loveliness to Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965)—working together, Chabrol and Rabier developed a shorthand that consisted of Chabrol’s citing the style of the American DP he wanted Rabier to evoke in a scene. And then there is the rather un-Hollywood several-arm’s-length distance of Chabrol’s style, that objectivity that introduces an uncomfortable ambivalence to proceedings and has caused quite a few to question his commitments, and to wonders as to if his films are not critiques of middle-class misanthropy, misogyny, and general human malice, but rather celebrations of the same.
This line was elucidated by Chabrol’s rival in productivity, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who sized up the competition in an essay about Chabrol which first appeared in the book Reihe Film 5: Claude Chabrol, then in a translation from German in the Autumn, 1976, issue of Sight & Sound. Beginning with a critique of what, in light of Chabrol’s subsequent work, he interprets as the “artificially imposed, constipated Christian attitude” of the conclusion of Le Beau Serge, Fassbinder proceeds to make a case for the Frenchman as an arrested development case. He writes:
“Chabrol has not become a great film-maker—even though he has made many beautiful and successful films and even a few great ones. Chabrol’s viewpoint is not that of the entomologist, as is often claimed, but that of a child who keeps a collection of insects in a glass case and observes with alternating amazement, fear, and delight the marvelous behavior patterns of his tiny creatures. According to his state of mind—it might have something to do with sleeping badly or eating a bad meal—he changes his attitude to his animals. His standpoint, in fact, varies. He doesn’t investigate. Otherwise he could, and must, discover grounds for the brutality of existence and have more to say about it. Apart from the fact that there has to be a number of creatures who are less colorful than the others, less iridescent, in fact an overwhelming majority of colorless little creatures who provide the basis for the existence of the more beautiful ones. These, however, the child disregards; he does not investigate but merely glances at them, dazzled as he is by the glittering, strange ones. This prevents him from grasping the drawbacks of his preferred creatures. The child becomes blinder and blinder, and angry and despondent about his blindness, for the curious inadequacy already gives the child an inkling that one day, with his little animals, he will make a film that will be called Nada: nothing.”
Fassbinder didn’t write criticism often, but what he did write was funny, conversational, and perspicacious—see for example his short essays about the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, ‘Imitation of Life: Six Films by Douglas Sirk,’ written in 1971. Fassbinder is as adulatory towards Sirk as he is critical of Chabrol, but that these men were among a handful of filmmakers that inspired him to sit down at a typewriter to sort out his feelings about them suggests that Chabrol occupied what was by no means an inconsiderable plot of real-estate in the Bavarian’s head. And it is worth remembering that not so long before issuing this damning verdict, Fassbinder had dedicated his 1969 Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love is Colder Than Death) to Jean-Marie Straub, Éric Rohmer, the two main characters from Damiano Damiani’s 1966 Quién sabe? (A Bullet for the General) and… Claude Chabrol.
There are other parallels and intersections, too. Five years after Nada, Chabrol’s film about a gang of domestic anarchist terrorists, Fassbinder would release his own picture about extremist hijinks, 1978’s Die Dritte Generation (The Third Generation). Fassbinder’s was inspired by the events of the German Autumn of 1977, a rash of activity by the Baader-Meinhof Group that ended with the deaths of several of the left-wing militant organization’s leaders in prison, events responded to even more directly in Fassbinder’s contribution to the 1978 omnibus film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), in which Fassbinder plays himself as reacting to the news of Andreas Baader’s death in prison—ruled a suicide, though Fassbinder believes otherwise—and appearing opposite his then-lover, Armin Meier, and his own mother, Lilo Pempeit. Could Fassbinder have been unaware that Chabrol had made his own unflattering “home movie” short-subject in “La Muette,” his episode of another omnibus film, 1965’s Paris vu par…, in which the director plays one half of a miserably married and bickering bourgeois couple alongside his then-wife and frequent leading lady, Stephane Audran? Surely not. Though Fassbinder attributes his image of Chabrol the entomologist to a line in Le Beau Serge, in which Bernadette Lafont’s character observes of Jean-Claude Brialy’s, a Parisian student returned to his rustic hometown, that “he is looking at the people in the place as if they were insects,” in “La Muette,” the couple’s adolescent child is seen to study with fascination a proudly displayed decoration in his bedroom, a case of mounted butterflies. At any rate, Audran, with her brittle porcelain smile and air of hard-fought false-front self-control, is the sort of actress Fassbinder surely would have loved to have worked with, analogous in a way to Margit Carstensen in his own repertory cast.
Fassbinder never fancied himself a critic, more of an enthusiast or, in the case of Chabrol, a wrecking ball. In an admirable piece on Fassbinder’s forays into the field, Max Nelson describes his essays as “loose sheaves of rants, reminiscences, and reckless judgments,” noting that for Fassbinder, “criticism was less an opportunity to develop lucid arguments than a way of directly registering his enthusiasms and disgusts… his judgments about other people’s films became a kind of roadmap to his taste. They gave hints and clues about what he valued as a director—what ways of imagining the world struck him as useful and true.”
The introduction to the Sight & Sound printing of the Chabrol piece notes that “Fassbinder on Chabrol perhaps reveals at least as much about the writer as it does about the subject,” and to one degree or another this is usually true when artists take a turn at playing critic—or when critics, as was for some time the case with Chabrol and his Cahiers du cinéma coeval, are imagining themselves as future artists. (Here, again, Moullet, the best of the lot, is an outlier.) The impulse is to proselytize for or against the sort of work that one believes one is making, or that one thinks ought or ought not be made. Fassbinder’s encounter with Sirk’s films initiated one of the great creative outpourings in world cinema, grounded in a conviction to resolve the dialectic between Hollywood emotionalism, as represented by Sirk’s melos, and the intellectualized “distancing” of high modernism generally, and the German episches Theater tradition specifically.
Sirk, Fassbinder gushed, “has made the tenderest films I know; they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.” That “we” is instructive. Fassbinder writes with the zeal of the convert, but he cannot count himself among the saved, and if he learned in his lifetime to love people, there is an abundance of evidence from existing biographies that suggests he had a very odd way of showing it. If we accept the premise that Fassbinder was at least in part writing about himself when writing about other filmmakers, might it be that when writing of Sirk’s tenderness, he was describing an embracing generosity of spirit that he hoped to find in himself, while when writing of Chabrol’s contempt, he was describing a blight he feared to find on his heart?
Fassbinder’s competitive feelings towards Chabrol are documented in Robert Katz’s Fassbinder biography Love is Colder Than Death. The actor Peter Chatel, after recently having starred with Fassbinder in his 1975 Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends), recalls heading to Frankfurt with his director, who was taking up an offered three-year artistic director gig at that city’s Theater am Turm (TAT). With Fassbinder’s connivance, Chatel was allowed to direct a staging of Georg Büchner’s play Leonce and Lena, but Fassbinder, who had made his debut as a stage director with the same piece, grew sullen and grousy at the dress rehearsal, swilling booze and berating Chatel, who recalled: “After a few cognacs more he suddenly blurted out, ‘You have to change what I tell you, because your production is as thinly elegant as a Chabrol film and as useless as a Peter Stein play!’ I knew, all of us knew, that Chabrol and Stein were the very directors he was most jealous of at the time and I thought, ‘Well, that’s all right for me.’”
Sirk, by the time that Fassbinder found him living in Lugano, Switzerland, could provide an unthreatening mentor figure ready for hoisting up on a pedestal, having retired from active feature filmmaking, whereas Chabrol remained a nuisance at-large, to be pilloried for his inhumanity. But how then to explain that, two years after issuing his condemnation, Fassbinder would make a film, Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette), more pitiless in its gaze than anything to come from chez Chabrol? Thomas Elsaesser, in his book Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, draws the connection, writing of Fassbinder’s 1976 Chinese Roulette that “the film is best described by the English title of a Fassbinder essay, ‘Insects in a Glass Case,’ devoted to the work of Claude Chabrol.” (The original German title, retained in the version found in the collection Anarchy of the Imagination, is “…Shadows, to be Sure, and No Pity.”) Christian Braad Thomsen echoes this observation in his own book on Fassbinder, noting that “at first sight Chinese Roulette might be reminiscent of one of Chabrol’s marital tragedies, but even Chabrol’s work does not possess the fantastically exact, calculated camerawork that Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus achieve here.” I confess to finding the glacéed surfaces of the film unduly forbidding, though its existence only strengthens my feeling of Fassbinder and Chabrol of having been almost complimentary in their antagonism, not entirely alien species so much as transverse images, as seen through the looking-glass.
Chabrol responded briefly and pithily to Fassbinder’s criticisms on record, in a 1977 interview with David Overby: “I shouldn’t think that anyone as busy as he is would take the time. I certainly wouldn’t… I don’t agree with what he said about me, but what he said is of no importance.” Furthermore, a scene that might be interpreted as an anticipatory rejoinder to Fassbinder appears towards the beginning of Chabrol’s 1975 Une Partie de plaisir: it’s a sunny day in the countryside, and a man, played by frequent Chabrol screenwriter Paul Gégauff, beckons to his wife, played by Danièle Gégauff, his then ex-wife, telling her, smiling: “I want to show you something.” Walking to a woodpile, he deposits a ladybug into a spider’s web, and they watch—she aghast, he stone-faced—as the spider races from hiding to advance on the beetle. “That’s horrible!” she gasps. “Be quiet! That’s life,” he responds.
A year after Fassbinder’s Chinesisches Roulette, Chabrol released a film that feels less like a repudiation of Fassbinder’s criticisms than an embrace or a doubling down, his 1977 Alice, ou la dernière fugue (Alice, or the Last Escape.) The schoolboy’s morbid fascination at “insects in a glass cage” that Fassbinder cites is given a nearly literal form in a narrative of rat-in-a-maze entrapment, though Chabrol’s preferred image in this film is that of the caged bird, significant of the plight of the movie’s heroine, who comes in for shelter one night at a mysterious country manor only to find that she cannot leave the grounds. Chabrol has often enough envisaged the bourgeoisie home as a prison, but up to this point he did so within the accepted bounds of cinematic realism, whereas here he tacks towards the terrain of Luis Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)—a film that, incidentally, counts Audran among its cast. (Chabrol returned the compliment by borrowing several Le Charme discret cast members for his 1973 Les Noces rouges, and later traded off directing episodes of the 1980 television miniseries Fantômas with Buñuel’s son, Juan Luis.) With its lost girl protagonist and melancholic fairy tale atmosphere, Alice is about as close to a Jean Rollin film as Chabrol ever made, a film that as singular in its director’s filmography as, say, Chinesisches Roulette or that same year’s Satansbraten (Satan’s Brew) are in Fassbinder’s.
Those films are among Fassbinder’s most “difficult,” poised at opposite extremes—the first frigid and pellucid, the other hot and hysterical, with an effect that’s something like taking sandpaper to the viewer’s frontal lobe. As for Alice, it’s an object that is cool to the touch in the manner of much Chabrol, but filled with oneiric images that feel at once of a piece with his body of work and unlike anything else in it. It appeared at the end of what was for Chabrol, commercially at least, a cold streak: in the previous year his Les Magiciens, released in the English-speaking world as Death Rite, had stayed on screens in Paris for only a week, and his Folies bourgeoises, also known as The Twist, had been critically savaged.
Alice didn’t fare much better than these, but it’s a fascinating, sweetly sad film that’s deserving of a small and dedicated cult. The curtain opens here on a familiar enough Chabrolian environment—a loveless union, a well-appointed home—but at the point of crisis most Chabrol films don’t arrive at until further down the line: the marriage on the verge of collapse. We are with one of those boorish bourgeoisie husbands that people Chabrol’s filmography, splayed out before the television on a downy white carpet in the living room of a well-appointed home and munching green grapes in imperious fashion. He is played by Bernard Rousselet, a youthful fortysomething, more dashing than, say, Chabrol favorite Michel Bouquet, but also much more snide. He summons his wife, Alice (Sylvia Kristal), and she emerges to hang in the doorway to the room, where she lingers and listens silently as he monologues about his pursuit of petty vendettas and his little brown-nosing successes at the office that day. He asks absently about her visit to a doctor’s office, seemingly only in anticipation of being able to patronizingly respond: “Women, always worrying about nothing.” And then his consummate self-satisfaction cracks with a single blindsiding blow, as Alice announces “I’m going now, Bernard… I’m leaving, far, far away from you.”
Alice flees by night, in a driving rain, towards an uncertain destination to which she never arrives. She loses all visibility when, seemingly spontaneously, her windshield is suddenly starred with a dense webwork of cracks. Punching a hole through the glass, she discovers the gate and driveway leading to the abovementioned manor, where she is waved in out of the elements by a butler, Colas (Jean Carmet), and greeted by the elderly owner of the house, who introduces himself as Henri Vergennes (Charles Vanel). The chary glances that pass between master and servant suggest that something strange is afoot here, but Alice is none the wiser, and so accepts her host’s hospitality—a seat before a roaring fire, a glass of Port, a fresh-cooked omelet, and a room for the evening. Her slumber, however, is fitful. She awakens in the night to gaze out onto a mist-shrouded landscape, the soundtrack filled as she does by groanings that suggest the belowdecks of an enormous ship and the persistent tick of the clock on the mantle, the same clock that lay still and silent when Colas earlier showed her the room, explaining “It’s broken, ma’am. We don’t care too much about time, here.” The following day she arises to find her hosts gone and her windshield repaired, but when she goes to take her leave, she finds the driveway that led her into the grounds last night has disappeared as well. Curiouser and curiouser!
The name “Alice” being given to the heroine of a film with fantasy elements should set off some bells—see for example Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich’s Resident Evil series, based on the video game by Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara, with its renegade “Red Queen” AI—and when that heroine has the surname “Carrol,” as Chabrol’s does, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re meant to be put in mind of the man born as Mr. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The single-“l” spelling was insisted upon by Chabrol, which we may take to connote parallelism but not absolute fidelity, one of the bits of disinformation that Chabrol is forever leading audiences astray with; as he later told an interviewer, “The Lewish Carroll business is neither a path nor a key to anything in the film. That is the joke.”
But if he’s joking in his film, can we be certain that Chabrol is being forthright here? At any rate, that clock on the mantle, looming large at the end of an ominously approaching tracking shot, recalls Carroll’s fascination with clocks and the peculiar workings of time in Wonderland—Alice’s pursuit of the harried white rabbit with his pocket watch, fretting about his running late, or the perpetual teatime of the Mad Hatter, whose own timepiece has frozen at six o’clock, rendering time as we know it meaningless. This is also in keeping with Chabrol’s interest in time in all of its ineluctability and seeming elasticity, for example his conviction that time moves differently in the quiet country manses of the rich in which so many of his films take place. In his 1971 La Décade prodigieuse, for example, Orson Welles’s aristocratic master-of-the-house Theo Van Horn has decided that he would like to bask forever in his sweet youthful memory of the autumn of 1925, and so decrees that his wife, son, and servants dress in the styles of the period. In Une Partie de plaisir, the couple’s daughter is forever counting away the seconds, and as the film ends with her father behind bars, he gives her the countdown to his release: “You’ll have to count to six hundred million.” For princes and prisoners alike the clock may seem to crawl, but the sands in the hourglass drain all the same for both.
So perhaps Carroll is one of the patron saints of Alice after all. The other is a figure who could not be any further from Carroll in temperament, but who was, like Carroll, drawn to the image of the clockface—in his work a sinister signal counting down to doomsday, part of what exegetist Tom Gunning referred to as his “Destiny-machine.” Following the crawl of Alice’s opening titles, there is a dedication, “A la mémoire de Fritz Lang.” Time had run out for the German director, who Chabrol had met and feted in his Cahiers days, and had hoped to help make a final film. Lang died in Beverly Hills, California in August of 1976, while Alice was shooting. He had been the great horologist of cinema: From the hourglass in Der müde Tod: ein deutsches volkslied in 6 versen (Weary Death: A German Folk Story in Six Verses, 1921) to the steam whistle that calls the changing shifts in Metropolis (1927) to Chris Cross’s gold watch in Scarlet Street (1945), in Lang’s films the clock is always running.
Not without reason Chabrol has often been counted as a Hitchcock acolyte—scenes of Alice driving through a downpour quite overtly evoke Psycho (1960)—but Lang is as important, if not more important, a point of reference: the rainy night flight says Marion Crane, but the disembodied head of Alice’s husband superimposed on the window is right out of Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933), a film that Chabrol first saw at the ciné-club he operated with friends as a young man, later citing the experience as formative in his choice of vocation. Said Chabrol, in a 1979 interview with Dan Yakir in Film Quarterly: “I’m much closer to Lang than to Hitchcock. Hitchcock tries to convey a story subjectively—everything is based on the subjectivity of the character, while Lang seeks the opposite, to objectify all the time. I try to objectify too. It’s characteristic of Hitchcock—even the titles of his films always bear on his personal psychology: Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Psycho… They all have to do with personal, individual things. In Lang, it’s Human Desire—it’s never individual.” From Lang’s camera moves, unequalled in their almost inhuman precision and certitude, it is not so far a leap to the meticulous panning shots that Chabrol so adores. The influence of Lang on Alice, said Chabrol, was one of renunciation. “I refused to do all the things that Lang had refused to do,” he said. “Lang rejected false effects; I won’t have them either.”
Furthermore, Chabrol, like Lang, whose exteriors rarely give the impression of being “wide open,” has an affinity for closed, often claustrophobic worlds. (This extends as well to the master cartographer Paul W.S. Anderson, who continues the Lang project via very different means.) As the critic Adrian Martin has noted, Chabrol, in his cinema of stuffy reception rooms, evening Scrabble games, and festering family dinners, was an outlier among his Cahiers compatriots. Martin writes: “The Nouvelle Vague is famous for going out into the streets, the bistros, the galleries and the métros. Not so, usually, for Chabrol. He was a Chamber Director, an artist of interiors.”
The impact of Lang on Chabrol was not less than that of Sirk on Fassbinder, and the rapport spanned the whole of Chabrol’s filmmaking career. In 1982 Chabrol contributed the inaugural episode of the French television series Ciné Parade, which asked filmmakers to “Tell your favorite film in under thirteen minutes.” The result, M le Maudit, is a condensation of Lang’s M (1931), featuring Maurice Rich in the Peter Lorre role. Eight years later Chabrol returned to Lang country in his 1990 Dr. M, in this case quite literally, filming in the director’s old stomping grounds of Berlin. As the title suggests, the film draws heavily on Lang’s three Dr. Mabuse films—Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922), Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, and Die 1,000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960)—revolving around the master criminal character created by Norbert Jacques, and the deathless, viral legacy of that character. Mabuse is, among other things, a genius of controlling the clock—Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler begins with the daring and brilliant theft of a commercial contract made possible only through a concert of synchronized activity by underlings and by Mabuse’s precise mastery of train timetables. (Well before Hitler’s putsch and the famous punctuality of fascism that came with it, it seems the German rail system could be counted on to run on time.)
In Dr. M, a Mabuse-like mastermind has, through mysterious means, engineered a program of widespread terror: a rash of suicides with enormous collateral damage. The film takes place in a Berlin that is still divided at the turn-of-the-millennium—the film was released in May of 1990, the Berlin Wall demolished in November of the previous year, so this decision on the part of Chabrol and co-screenwriter Sollace Mitchell seems less a matter of myopia than an unusual insight, an understanding that in a post-USSR world the differences between “communist” and “capitalist” societies might become so small as to be practically indistinguishable. Chabrol was far from apolitical, though Fassbinder seems to have considered him insufficiently engagée—Chabrol would later refer to his 1995 La Cérémonie, concerning the butchery of a bourgeoisie family by their disgruntled domestic and an accomplice, as “the last Marxist film,” a statement bound to rankle the serious-minded because it’s not easy to determine if Chabrol’s joking or not when he says it, and exactly what he means by that if he isn’t.
Dr. M is a far more overt Lang homage than Alice ever attempts to be. The production design, by Dante Ferretti and Wolfgang Hundhammer, directly evokes the spare deco designs of Lang’s Mabuse films: a gambling den right out of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, the bank of monitors in which the villain watches his plans unfold from Die 1,000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse. But Chabrol’s aim is not to mimic Lang’s style—an impossible task, as Chabrol readily acknowledged. In a filmed interview, Chabrol describes his “Langian” approach to the film he made immediately after Alice, 1978’s Montreal-shot Les liens de sang (1978), and his assistant’s response to the footage: “It’s funny. But what bothers me is this feeling I get that nothing exists outside the frame.” This is not a bad description of Lang, whose “sound-stage world” David Thomson described as “a necessary distillation of realism, a sort of concrete martial law imposed upon troubled constitutions,” but it’s not the thing for Chabrol, who concludes that any attempt to trace along the lines of the Master must ultimately fail. “Lang is Lang,” he concludes, “and I’m just me!”
Chabrol isn’t aping Lang in Dr. M, but endeavoring to make a film that belongs to its moment in the manner that Lang’s Mabuse films were of theirs: Der Spieler is a film of the industrial age, its precise and punctilious villain operating through a mastery of the schedules and standardizations that had come to govern everyday life; Das Testament is a film of early National Socialism, the ascendance to power of political gangsterism; Die 1,000 Augen is a film of the emergent postwar surveillance society, in which the Destiny-machine has gained a new set of toys, and the CCTV technology first innovated by the Nazis will be used to keep tabs on citizens of democracies and dictatorships alike.
Made while the celebration that followed the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was still in the air, the disconcertingly dour Dr. M anticipates an anesthetized, white-collar New Europe in which the drama of East vs. West has become an afterthought, where mass murder is engineered by a media mogul in order to sell package holidays. The Mabuse-like architect of anarchy here is Alan Bates’s Dr. Marsfeldt, an almost Berlusconi-esque figure who inspires men and women to commit acts of carnage in the city by implanting subliminal suggestions in them at the Club Med-like resort chain that he owns. The Theratos resorts are advertised around the city by talking jumbotron billboards featuring the becalmed visage of one Sonja Vogler (Jennifer Beals), who in a soothing, even tone extends an invitation to the weary wage-slave: “So much to do, to do. Where can you find the time? Theratos. The time of your life. Take your time. Theratos. Time to unwind, relax, renew. Drift off. Let yourself go. Leave it all behind. Theratos. Escape. Escape to a better life. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go.”
To escape the incessant pressure of living on the clock, men and women are driven to Theratos, there to be turned into ticking time bombs, like lambs to the slaughter. The returned vacationers are triggered to suicide through broadcasts on Marsfeldt’s television station, a plot discovered when Vogler teams with Jan Niklas’s Lt. Claus Hartman to investigate the city’s outbreak of inexplicable, cataclysmic “deaths of despair.” Vogler and Hartman go undercover at a Theratos resort in what appears to be North Africa, where a chipper guide asks them to surrender their watches, explaining “At Theratos nothing keeps the time. ‘Cause there is none.” (Shades of Colas’s “We don’t care too much about time here” in Alice.) The air of ambient chaos created by the rash of self-slaughter drives Berliners to go on holiday to “get away from it all”—and subsequently be indoctrinated as the next batch of killers—but also serves a palliative purpose for the ailing Marsfeldt, whose arhythmic heart beats easy when he can bear witness to spectacles of butchery and bedlam. (The idea would seem to come from an unfinished Lang project that Chabrol refers to in an interview, about “a villain with an artificial heart.”) Marsfeldt is also making a mint from Theratos, but any fiduciary motive is a distant secondary concern to his hardwired need to sow and reap destruction; the film climaxes with a chat show broadcast meant to unleash a Jonestown-level epidemic of mass death, prevented only when Vogler breaks into the studio and interrupts the regularly scheduled programming, directly petitioning the home audience: “It is time to come home. There is no escape, only life. No more vacations. No more escape. No more death. No more extinction.”
Neither upon its release nor today has Dr. M commanded anything like a cult, a fact which is not impossible to believe—performances are uniformly eccentric; character verges on caricature; Beals and Niklas broadly perform stereotyped meekness and machismo, respectively; and there is nothing here resembling a “rooting interest” in the pitch meeting sense of the word. (Not that this was a value Lang ever much concerned himself with.) And yet in this film, more than a decade before Michel Houllebecq’s Platform, Chabrol has intuited and expressed something about the intertwined relationship of the death drive and numbing security and leisure culture escapism and foreseen a future in which only the spectacle of onscreen bloodletting can sustain a viewership whose life force has ebbed to a dull mutter. The proximity of the word “Theratos” and “Thanatos,” Greek God of death is an allusion that a reasonably bright middle-schooler old could catch, one of the many citations from myth and antiquity that pepper Chabrol’s work—we get for instance appearances from Zeus and Eden in La Decade prodigeuse, Phaedra in both La Rupture (1971) and Folies bourgeoises.
Time and death, Chronos and Thanatos, the presiding deities of Dr. M, are also at the center of Alice, a film that departs from anything resembling realism for good and all at the moment that the pendulum of that clock in Alice’s room begins to swing again. Driving the grounds of the estate, Alice finds no exit. Huis clos! Abandoning her car and taking suitcase in hand, she sets off into the surrounding woods on foot, and finds herself hemmed in by a seemingly endless stone wall with no gate. A young man clad in white, serene and supercilious, emerges from the underbrush, and begins to explain to Alice the rules of the game. “You can get in here but you can’t get out,” he tells her, smiling. “Make of it what you will.” She announces her intention to climb the wall. He assures her “That will be a wasted effort.” Using her suitcase as a stepstool, struggling in front of this bemused audience, she chins up to the top of the wall but, seeing only more wilderness beyond, her resolve slackens. Her observer chuckles, reassures her of the futility of her struggle: “There’s no other side, Alice.”
Alice’s attempts to make a second escape, following her departure from a domestic purgatory, occupy the remainder of the film. Wandering the manor and its grounds, she receives various visitors. There is a man (François Perrot)—debonair, gray at the temples, with a smooth, proprietary air—who interrupts her while she sits reading one evening, praising her for her poise (“Most of those who found themselves in your situation weren’t so well-behaved”), and explaining that this game of entrapment is one played for the amusement of himself and a mysterious onlooking “we.” On waking the following day, Alice encounters a boy (Thomas Chabrol). Seated on the lawn of the home, he converses with her airily while releasing birds from a cage at his side, proclaiming “Birds are stupid. They don’t realize the moment when the door opens and they could get out,” and referring to the pleasure taken in her struggles by an onlooking “they”—presumably the same spectators as the older man’s “we.” A deceptive “escape” by car takes Alice to a country gas station and a roadside restaurant that’s hosting a particularly raucous, bibulous wake peopled by rural grotesques, but her flight finally only leads her back to the house, where Colas and Vergennes await, again. Before the roaring fireplace, Vergennes proffers an extraordinary explanation of her predicament: “This house, this estate, my own self and Colas are just representations drawn out for you… We’re apparitions… This point is the spot where souls rise up from Hell to take on human forms.” The threshold, he explains, is the small door in the room that Alice had earlier tried, without success, to open. Shades of Wonderland, again, but with an infernal twist: the door opens into Hell, another place where time has no meaning.
All of this is, as Gérard Legrand notes in an enthusiastic review of the film in the March, 1977 issue of Positif—it’s from here that I borrow the minor-key wordplay—the stuff of the “fantastic.” Legrand connects Alice to a larger re-emergence of fantasy in French cinema of the period, citing also the examples of Jacques Rivette’s Duelle, André Téchiné’s Barocco, and the Argentine-born Eduardo de Gregario’s Serail, all released in 1976. (To these titles one might add Louis Malle’s 1975 Black Moon, another outlier movie unlike anything else in its maker’s filmography, and of course the films of Rollin, possibly too déclassé to merit mention in Positif’s pages.) But while Alice’s narrative is close to fable or fairy tale, Chabrol’s stylistic approach is generally matter-of-fact. Legrand cites Cocteau’s Orphée (1950) as a point of reference, but there is little in the manner Cocteau’s trick shot enchantments here, like the Le sang d'un poète (1930) corridor wall crawl or Josette Day’s drift along the hallway of billowing drapery in La Belle et la Bête (1946). The one exception is a sequence in which the film image itself appears to be affected by a kind of liquescent distortion, this preceding the arrival of a punishing wind that bears Alice to the floor. (The effect was achieved in-camera with mirrors, so to follow Lang in employing no “false effects.”)
Working with Rabier, Chabrol arranges some striking frames—for example an overhead shot of Alice on the great staircase of the manor, peering through the twisted, withered branches that decorate the stairwell. But a considerable part of the almost hypnotic spell that the film casts originates in the very banality with which it presents the fantastic, rendering the familiar as uncanny. This is a movie of lulls, of becalmed passages dedicated to intently recording quotidian actions: Alice preparing her morning coffee in pour-over coffee maker before buttering a baguette, or gingerly dropping two cutlets into a frying pan. Chabrol being the gastronome that he was, food is always given a particular place of importance in his films, as when, presenting Alice with her omelet, Vergennes boasts of its “traditional” preparation, with “whites and egg yolks separate.”
Might we take Alice’s epicurean host as a stand-in for Sylvia Cristal’s haute cuisine-loving director? Certainly there is much to support Legrand’s assertion that “Alice is finally a film ‘about’ cinema.” Poked, leg-pulled, and prodded by invisible overseers, Alice is in much the same position as Cristal, the actress—a woman, often alone before the camera, performing for her director, and for the gaze of crew and a future audience. Her vulnerability, and not only to her tormenters’ “little jokes,” is greatly emphasized; disrobed and drawing a warm bath, she is addressed by the voice of an unseen man, its source uncertain: “Don’t try to get out. Don’t try to understand, not yet.” As the speaker continues, Chabrol cuts to a long shot in which Cristal is seen fully nude, back to the bedroom wall, recovering from the shock to cover her breasts and pubic hair in mortification, for implicit in the invisible speaker’s interruption, and emphasized by a slow zoom out that renders Cristal small, alone, and vulnerable, is another message: We are always watching.
Like Dr. M, Alice is a film fraught with fear of surveillance. Both movies feature malicious all-seeing puppeteer figures manipulating men and women—or, in the case of Alice, one woman—from afar. And these films are both, also, films about the strange relationship between the individual and their image, and the photographic image’s ability to abduct its subject, and why it is that we speak of “capturing” people on celluloid. Vergennes’ explanation to Alice of the curious, liminal nature of he and his phantom friends—“We are representations, but we also have our own existence”—is in essence a description of the paradox of the film actor: in appearing before the camera, one’s image is cloven off from one’s self, takes on an independent existence, an existence that the individual can no longer control. In Dr. M, Sonja, beginning to suspect that her omnipresent image is playing some role in the suicide epidemic sweeping Berlin, breaks down in hysterics before Marsfeldt, demanding: “I want my face back. I don’t want to be on the video boards anymore, I don’t want to be in magazines or on TV, I want it back.”
Fassbinder’s statement about Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes (1960)—“the only Chabrol film which deals almost entirely with real people and not shadows”—is illuminating in a way that I don’t think its author necessarily intended, particularly of Alice and Dr. M. For Chabrol is, rather expressly, interested in shadows, images, reflections, and particularly in the curious composite of real and not real that is the human image once photographed: “We are representations, but we also have our own existence.” The relation of the counterfeit to the real is perhaps his most abiding interest, the great bourgeoisie pastime of keeping up appearances one of his most cherished subjects. There’s a magnificently queasy sequence in Une Partie de plaisir in which Gégauff takes his daughter on a trip to the zoo—a foreshadowing of his eventual prison sentence, and another Chabrol image of isolated “specimens” arranged for display. As they turn a corner in a little kiddie ride boat that takes them along a miniature canal, they encounter a sign that reads “Attention… VOUS ALLEZ ÊTRE PHOTOGRAPHIE” (“Attention…. YOU ARE BEING PHOTOGRAPHED”), he pauses for a moment from his attempt to recruit his daughter into an emotionally manipulative ploy to win back his estranged ex-wife to instruct “Look straight ahead! Look happy!” Of such phoney facades, Chabrol is reminding us constantly, is a society constructed, and stripping them away is the at the heart of his every film—if the title of one Chabrol film could stand for the whole, it might be 1987’s Masques.
In both Masques and Que la bête meure (1969), authors investigating the deaths of loved ones sidle up close to their killers by hiding behind their nom-de-plumes, but in due time pretexts must fall away. Key to this process of stripping away in Chabrol’s films is confession: Or look for example at Bouquet’s conscience-gnawed killers in La Femme infidèle (1969) or Juste avant la nuit (1971). Chabrol would explain: “I believe in the revelation of guilt. There is a certain amount of guilt in every individual—it’s the real original Sin—and I noticed that guilt is always transferred from the most guilty to the least guilty. It’s never the other way around. So, in a way, the act of the guilty releases him from his culpability: it’s enough to commit the act to be able to transmit it to somebody else.” Also integral to the process, as often as not, is a confrontation with death. As Legrand notes in his Alice review, “Minds as different as Norman Mailer and P.P. Pasolini have seen and commented on this strange kinship of cinema and death.” He may have had in mind something like Pasolini’s statement, in 1969, about the relationship “between editing and death,” followed by the observation that “we will know what our lives were only when we’re dead.” Chabrol’s characters, you might say, often only discover what their lives are once they have killed. All of which is to say that is true, as Fassbinder says, that “real people” only emerge fitfully in Chabrol’s films, but this is only because their false fronts take so long to tear down, their guilt so long to unload. You might think that the man who concluded Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972) with The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” would be more hip to this fact.
Chabrol is less interested in concealing information from an audience than he is in observing how people conceal it from themselves, and from the people around them. Because he worked in a commercial genre, the suspense-thriller, it is sometimes overlooked how radically Chabrol departed from that genre’s usual rules. In point of fact, Chabrol often showed a contrarian tendency to eschew the sort of narrative sleights that are generally the thriller’s stock-in-trade. In Dr. M the figure of the mysterious mastermind is given a build-up, filmed to show only his hands and thus conceal his identity from the viewer, but the big unveiling only reveals that he has all along been the most obvious candidate and the only real suspect that the movie has ever seriously put forward. This hidden-in-plain-sight dispensing with “whodunnit” deceptions is a familiar Chabrol move; in both 1970’s Le Boucher and 2000 Merci pour le Chocolat, only one plausible possibility for culpability is advanced, and sure enough the prime suspects prove just as guilty as they seem. An avid reader of mysteries, Chabrol learned very well the lesson of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”
Alice, however, concludes with a bona fide twist. Our heroine, told by Vergennes that the only route to return to her reality and “the end of this torment” lies through that little door and into the maw of Hell, crosses the threshold and begins her descent. This little door recalls Carroll, again, but also Lang, particularly the forbidden passage of his 1947 Bluebeard retelling Secret Beyond the Door—a Bluebeard tale, as was Chabrol’s 1963 Landru. Where Dr. M refers quite explicitly to the Mabuse films, Alice connects to the fairy tale Lang, evident in that film and such diverse titles as Der müde Tod, House by the River (1950), and Moonfleet (1955).
After Alice disappears into the stygian darkness beyond the door, descending as the heroine of Der müde Tod ascends into the domain of Death, Chabrol returns to the image of the shattered windshield, shortly thereafter to be placed in a new context. A wider shot reveals the car has been totaled, its hood accordioned against a tree. Tracking around the car, the camera picks up the body of Alice dangling upside down from the open driver’s side door, bloodied and unquestionably lifeless. Again a comparison with Psycho is begged, in this case by the positioning of Alice’s corpse, which suggests that of Janet Leigh slumped half out of the bathtub and onto the floor of the Bates Motel bathroom. Here, though, the body does not remain the lone focal point of the shot. The camera continues on its course, pulling back behind the car until Alice’s corpse is no longer visible, the frame now taking in the bend of the road ahead, on which a bicyclist can be seen in the distance. He pulls up alongside the crashed vehicle, but if he has a violent response to what he sees, it doesn’t register, and after a moment he proceeds ahead on his route with no great haste or hurry.
That Alice is dead, at least on one plane of existence, should not come entirely as a surprise; the night before her “escape” we get a slow track towards a dead bird on the mantlepiece, this followed by a cut to a distraught Kristel peering through the brass bars of her bed, looking very much the caged canary—all a moment before she is visited by a doctor and nurse who subdue her and administer her a sedative, the classic “solution” to calm the nerves of a disobedient housewife like Alice. Doctor and nurse are played by Fernand Ledoux and Catherine Drusy, who appear in different roles in the roadside restaurant where Alice stops; Dussollier, too, returns in a double-role as a gas station attendant. Such doublings abound in this bifurcated, mirror-image film, which marries Carroll’s warped reflections with the broke-back Psycho. You have two approaches to the manor by car, two broken windshields, two omelets, two Red Queen red dresses (on Alice and on Drusy as the restaurant waitress)… And then there is the double-meaning of the “fugue” of the title—the word means “escape,” but might also refer to a type of musical composition based on the establishment and repetition of a recurring theme. With far less clunky exposition and a budget a fraction of the men’s haberdashery bill on Tenet (2020), Chabrol has made an infinitely richer and more alluring palindrome film.
More “mood piece” than thriller, Alice might be compared to Marguerite Duras’s narcotic, lugubrious India Song (1975), another film in which the trappings of wealth and comfort are invested with an almost opiate quality, luring those who surrounded by them into a deathlike slumber. The form of Alice—an extended reverie that appears finally to be revealed as a rush of images occurring in the mind’s eye of a woman killed in a car accident—suggests another possible, if slightly improbable, influence: Herk Harvey’s 1962 Carnival of Souls. I am not aware if Harvey’s film, a haunted, shoestring-budget independent effort shot in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, ever opened in Paris, or if Chabrol might otherwise have seen it. Certainly there are other potential models for his Alice, such as Ambrose Bierce’s edge-of-death-hallucination short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which was well enough known in France to inspire a short film adaptation by Robert Enrico, La rivière du hibou (1962), broadcast two years after its completion as an episode of The Twilight Zone. If Chabrol was taking notes from Harvey or Bierce or anyone else, it’s doubtful he would have taken pains to conceal his sources; Legrand begins his review discussing the exhaustive extensiveness of the press materials prepared by Chabrol, which include “three summaries in three different tones, a corrected interview, and a “little lexicon”—everything but a decoder ring, from the sound of things.
It is presumably from these notes that Legrand draws Chabrol’s description of Alice’s structure: “La coquille d’escargot revenant en son propre centre.” (“The snail shell returning to its own center.”) It sounds a bit like circling the drain—Psycho, again!—though Alice’s chosen reading before she’s interrupted by Perrot’s character, a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 story collection Ficciones, gives us another image, that of the labyrinth, while Chabrol’s snail shell is not so terribly far removed from Borges’ comment in his writing on Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941): “There’s nothing more terrifying than a labyrinth without a center.” (Borges, Chabrol teases in discussing the films, is “much more important” than Carroll.)
The “reveal” of Alice’s dead body would seem to resolve the mystery at the center of Alice—it was all a dream, just as in Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944), though here we have apparently been inside the mind of a dying woman, not that of an undersexed middle-age professorial nebbish—but as in Lang’s film, the explanation doesn’t suffice to quell the disturbances of that dream, and that last image muddies the waters still further. Chabrol, particularly in his collaborations with Rabier, had a positive genius for composing magisterial and mysterious closing shots, often involving a similar gesture of withdrawal, the most famous of these perhaps the simultaneous backward track/zoom-in which concludes La Femme infidèle. In Alice, they teasingly dangle the promise of resolution almost within reach, only to pull it out of our grasp. We have seen Alice’s body, and of course seeing is believing, but how then to explain the non-reaction of the bicyclist, who gives no indication of having seen what we have seen?
We might take his indifference as symbolic of the indifference of patriarchal society to female suffering, and certainly that one a part of what Chabrol is on about, in this film as in so many others he made—or perhaps we should imagine that the game is beginning again, back to square one. Legrand comments on the film’s seemingly willful, open-ended incompletion, and cites Chabrol’s use of Mozart’s piano concerto no. 24 (K 491), quoting Jean Massin’s observation that the concerto expresses “the trials and fights that man must face in order to master this life and give it meaning.” The first two movements are heard, but the third and final, Legrand notes, never is. Just as pertinent, when Mozart is heard on a record in the parlor of the great house, it stutters and skips—the same second of song playing over and over and over again.
In trying to make sense of the final shot and the blasé bicyclist, we should remember that we have been watching a film that proves time and again that appearances can be deceiving, and usually are. At the roadside restaurant, an old man (Ledoux) who has thrown himself into the drunken debauch has an attack of some kind; as the party continues around him, he is laid out, asphyxiated, on two wooden tables, a bunch of funerary flowers laid on his chest, he now looking very much the corpse—but when he turns his head into a close-up and fixes his gaze on Alice, all signs of distress are gone, and he even has the presence of mind to shoot her a suggestive leer. Earlier, when Alice seemingly has escaped the premises of the manor, she finds a small blonde child with a blonde toy doll watching her as she freshens up at the gas station washroom. Emerging, she asks the station attendant about the “little girl,” to which he replies “It’s not a girl, it’s a boy… His slut of a mother managed to pop out a boy who looks like a girl. And when she realized, you know what she did to me? She took off, the bitch.”
Does he regret the loss of a wife, or that she had the temerity to usurp the traditionally male imperative of walking away?—Alice’s transgression, as well. A sense of anxiety over gender pervades the film, so that even Vergennes’ follow-up to his seemingly innocuous comment about cooking omelets with whites and egg yolks separate—“Why would two different substances require the same cooking time?”—comes to seem like a comment on the unbridgeable gulf between men and women. Chabrol made a few films overtly concerned with homosexual relationships, most famously Les Biches (1968), but from Les Beau Serge onward, homosexual subtext is a constant. Alice is not exception; after the run-in with misgendered child at the gas station we encounter a pair of gay men dancing at the restaurant, and the only other woman to appear in the manor, the nurse who holds Alice down while she’s tranquilized, nuzzles her patient rather more intimately than professional protocol usually allows.
The language employed by Alice’s captors is slippery, elusive, full of evasions and declarations made, then immediately doubled back on. “It’s impossible to escape fate” Vergennes tells Alice in their final meeting, before swiftly contradicting himself, and describing to her a manner of egress. The man in white (The White King?) jeers Alice down from her attempt to climb over the wall, but later Colas confides to her: “When you tried to get over the wall, you could have made it. You should have trusted your instinct, followed through with your decision.” But is this the truth, or still another dispiriting fiction? The parting of Alice and Colas is caught in a split diopter shot, Alice ascending the main stairs for bed, Colas facing the camera in the foreground, and as he tells her “Bonne nuit, Alice,” he drags out the “c” in her name with a sinister sibilant hiss, so that one is reminded of the dissembling serpent in the Garden of Eden; and Eve, the first woman in history to be gaslit; and of Belial, the devil of the Hebrew Bible, personified as the Lord of Lies.
A riddle, written by Carroll in one of his diaries, summarizes the problem that Chabrol’s Alice poses: “The Dodo says that the Hatter tells lies. The Hatter says the March Hare tells lies. The March Hare says that both the Dodo and the Hatter tell lies. Who is telling the truth?” Chabrol lays out a cinematic riddle in Alice, but he declines to provide a back-of-the-book solution. Maybe it could be dug out somewhere in that Chabrol-penned notes for the film that Legrand mentions, but it is hard to imagine that a filmmaker so enamored of playing games could be counted on to suddenly come clean in the press packet. Speaking of the final shot, Chabrol offers only further obfuscation: “It doesn’t explain a thing, of course.”
The woman in flight from an insupportable domestic situation, or crumbing under the pressure of one, was a favorite figure for Chabrol: Audran lighting out away from her psychotic failson husband at the opening of La Rupture, or the bedraggled eponymous heroine of his 1992 Betty, in retreat from another of those sepulchral homes of the rich. The same holds true for Fassbinder: think of the heroines of Martha (1974) and Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear, 1975), both played by Margit Carstensen, who had also starred in his Nora Helmer, a 1973 adaptation for Saarland TV of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House, perhaps the quintessential work of female exodus from hearth and home, which ends with its strong-willed protagonist, Helmer, awakened to the injustice of the life of a self-sacrificing homemaker, abandoning her family to strike out on her own. In Ibsen’s version, anyways: said Fassbinder of his own production: “We haven’t changed anything, just cut quite a bit. In our version, for example, Nora doesn’t go away at the end. She stays, since in ten thousand families there’s the same blowout between Nora and Helmer, and usually the woman doesn’t leave, even when she probably should. In fact she has no other options, and so people always find some way to accommodate themselves, which in the end is even more horrible.” Other solutions do occasionally propose themselves: in Bremer Freiheit (Bremen Freedom), Fassbinder’s 1972 adaptation of his own 19th century period piece originally written for the stage, the put-upon hausfrau—Carstensen still again!—escapes a hellish home life by systematically poisoning off the malicious men in her life. (The parallels with Chabrol’s later Merci pour le Chocolat, with Isabelle Huppert as a female poisoner, are irresistible.)
Fassbinder’s statement about Helmer may have been true of Ibsen’s Denmark in the late 20th century, but by the 1970s women in the industrialized world could leave, and many of them were doing so. With the release of Alice we are not so far from a brace of francophone films which in various ways addressed themselves to the upheaval of the sexual revolution and women’s movement, among these Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Luc Moullet’s Anatomie d’un rapport (1976), works which fairly vibrate with an air of free-floating enmity between men and women, as well as a new incertitude regarding gender roles. Chabrol’s Une Partie de plaisir makes a fitting companion for the above, beginning with a married bourgeoisie couple deciding to open up their marriage, and following the repercussions of that decision.
Une Partie de plaisir is no advertisement for the emancipatory power of “free love”—in fact it expresses Chabrol’s blinking skepticism at the new day dawning, that “cynicism” that offended Fassbinder, among many others. At a party hosted by his wife filled with New Age, star-gazer types, Gégauff’s character drunkenly unloads on the assembly with a sneer: “Freedom is a common ground that annoys the hell out of me… Desiring a thing always leads to its opposite. In establishing freedom, the French Revolution brought about another passport!” It should be noted that Gégauff’s tyrannical character is not by any standard definition the hero of the piece, and that no character’s dialogue is necessarily to be taken as the discourse of the film in which it appears, but this is close enough to a central Chabrolian theme not to be taken lightly. Chabrol’s characters, enclosed by smothering social constraints, yearn to be free of their chafing bonds, but when the leash finally snaps, they surge forward with deadly velocity and no sense of how to use their hard-won emancipation. They express ultimate liberty, as de Sade proposed to, through unrestrained cruelty; having done so, suicide, the jailhouse, or the guillotine beckon. Said Chabrol of his preoccupation with cracking façades: “The façade is interesting because it’s the social fabric and the cracking is interesting because it’s the truth. Maybe it’s my pessimistic side, but I can’t imagine one without the other.” (Andrew Dickos strikes a similar note in his book Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir, describing the “impossible division between freedom and entrapment as it reminds us that one cannot truly be defined without the other and that each is the incomplete part of the existential equation befitting the noir world.”) Thinking of “freedom” in Chabrol, the title of another Buñuel film, released in 1974, springs to mind: Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty).
Alice may be counted a deeply pessimistic film. There is nothing like the all-American “second chance” extended to the heroine of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) in the offering for this Alice, whose flight from domestic drudgery and her husband’s scornful superiority leads her out of the frying pan and into the fire. There is little in the film, too, that might impart much hope for the possibility of a truce or treaty to end the war of the sexes. The men are loathsome, smug, glib, and nasty, or some combination of the above, while Kristel’s performance is hardly what one might call inviting or sympathetic, is rather that of a woman made weary and wary by deceit and disappointment. (Alice was a rare venture into the relatively respectable mainstream film for the Dutch actress, best known as the eponymous character in seven softcore Emmanuelle films, the first of which appeared in 1974—these, too, were a sign of the changing times.)
Dr. M, by contrast, seems almost hopeful, offering up Eros against Thanatos—or against Theratos, rather—as when Sonja and the Lieutenant’s lovemaking is intercut with Dr. Marsfeldt’s soothing his heart by watching a multi-channel atrocity exhibition. But even here, once Sonja’s life-affirming on-air mantra forestalls Marsfeldt’s planned extinction-level event, Chabrol cannot resist inserting a note of uncertainty. Confronted by Sonja, Marsfeldt defends his invitation to mass-suicide as an act of mercy, the euthanasia of an exhausted humanity: “Every morning in our beds we say to ourselves ‘I’ll get up, I’ll go on!’ When our most fervent wish… our most fervent wish is… not to.” (Chabrol’s films, by the way, give a detailed accounting of the ritual of the commute, of rush-hour trains and Paris traffic, and those daily annoyances which might seem to lend credence to Marsfeldt’s case.) Marsfeldt is defeated, but Chabrol gives him the last word, a voiceover monologue direct to camera which begins: “Neither culprit nor victim, the quick or the dead, neither time nor eternity… I am the Wall.” The Wall has fallen, long live the Wall! The concept of a unilateral victory for the Free World—or, indeed, the concept of a Free World—was simply not in Chabrol’s vocabulary.
Whenever Lang is mentioned it’s a safe bet that the word “fate” is usually coming along not long after, but though there is some broad agreement that Lang was interested in the operations of the Destiny-machine, there is some room for debate as to the nature of his convictions on the impregnable totality of its control. One view would have it that all you need to know about free will in Lang’s universe of automatons, compulsive murderers programmed to kill by a twisted Deity, and mesmerist arch-fiends can be found in the images of railroad tracks in Human Desire (1954), those fixed lines speeding us towards an inevitable destination. Chabrol, by virtue of his debt to Lang. has often been accounted for as a pure fatalist in the Lang mold—see another image of commute by rail, the much-discussed sequence shot inside a Brussels trolley car in La Rupture, in which the reflection of driver’s hand on the dead man’s switch is reflected onto the windshield, suggesting the hand of an unseen puppetmaster pulling the strings.
But if even Lang’s monumental fatalism leaves some space in which to imagine the possibility of raging against the Destiny-machine, Chabrol’s cinema allows still more wiggle room when it comes to questions of chance and causation, determinism and free will. Both Chabrol and Gégauff had been close to Rohmer—Chabrol produced his first feature, 1959’s Le signe de Lion, and Gégauff wrote it—and it seems possible that, at one point at least, they would have entertained a view of free will not entirely alien from Rohmer’s own, particularly Catholic perspective on the matter. (At one point, I say; Chabrol called Le Beau Serge his “farewell to Catholicism,” which could be another way of saying his farewell to hope.) The struggle with Marsfeldt in Dr. M might then take on the character of Chabrol’s struggle with Lang, for who wants to surrender to a master who offers so little in the way of happy expectation? A train, anyways, can at least break from its chartered course and jump its tracks, which raises another interesting proposition regarding Alice: If there really was a car crash, if Alice really did die, might it not have been by choice?
Though he doesn’t mention Lang, one of Fassbinder’s criticisms of Chabrol is of the Frenchman’s perceived tendency to chalk things up to the vagaries of fate rather than the clearly articulated cause-and-effect operation of concrete social forces. Addressing himself the climax of Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959) Fassbinder writes, accompanied by an almost audible eyeroll: “Why does Paul shoot his cousin, Charles? Well, that’s fate.” As for Le Boucher (1970), the only film besides Les Bonnes femmes to earn Fassbinder’s stamp of approval, it does so by virtue of the fact that Chabrol for once here “doesn’t pummel the audience into accepting senseless proceedings as inevitable.”
I know of no remarks by Fassbinder on the subject of Lang, but to understand what he’s on about when he sniffs at “fate,” a look at a film that owes a significant debt to M which Fassbinder produced, acted in, may have had a hand in directing, and certainly greatly influenced, Fassbinder actor Ulli Lommel’s 1973 Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (The Tenderness of Wolves), may be helpful. The film, starring and written by Fassbinder regular Kurt Raab, is based on the career of serial killer Fritz Haarmann, the Vampire of Hanover, who between 1918 and 1924 used his protected status as a police informant to capture and kill young men with impunity, many of his victims snared via phony citizen’s arrests. Wölfe proceeds as, among other things, a systemic breakdown of the factors that made Haarmann’s crimes possible: a society trained in unquestioning deference to the trappings of authority, a police force rendered ineffective thanks to the allegiances it has made with the underworld, and a postwar economic collapse that has has cast young men out onto the street without a social safety net. Lang’s film cannot be said to be lacking in systemic analysis of this sort, but it’s at the point where Wölfe ends—Haarman’s capture—that Lang really starts to turn the screws, as Peter Lorre’s killer begs his kangaroo court for sympathy, yowling “I can’t help what I do!” The recurring question for Lang is this: To what degree can any of us?
The subject of the operations of fate or the inevitable in Chabrol’s universe is perhaps most directly addressed in a film of his released not long before Alice, Les Magiciens. Les Magiciens takes place on the Tunisian island of Djerba, largely on the grounds of a luxe resort hotel where the movie’s five principles have arrived with various motives. Chabrol’s earlier Dr. Popaul (1972) had also contained scenes shot in Tunisia, and not only because the director had a taste for tajine—from these films to Dr. M, his scorn for the bourgeoisie vacation “getaway” is quite consistent.
Sadry and Sylvia (Franco Nero and Stefania Sandrelli) are an upwardly mobile Arab architect and his to-the-manor-born wife, there so that Sadry can look in on his ailing mother; the snobby Sylvia balks at visiting the humble clay dwelling where her husband was raised, so when Sadry happens to meet a former flame, Martine (Gila von Weitershausen), he takes her along to play the role of his spouse, and the affair reignites. Also on the scene is Vestar, a nightclub magician and self-proclaimed parapsychologist, significantly played by Gert Fröbe, who sixteen years earlier had been seen as the hero of Lang’s Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse. (Always looking to pull the wool over his viewers’ eyes, Chabrol had a weakness for prestidigitators; his penultimate film, 2007’s La Fille coupée en deux [A Girl Cut in Two], takes its title from the classic illusion that Vestar is seen performing on stage here.) Vestar has a vision of Sylvia’s murder which he communicates to another vacationer, Edouard (Jean Rochefort), a blithe bon vivant arrived from Switzerland who is unashamed to identify himself as a member of “the idle rich.”
Edouard does not stay idle for long. His imagination fired by Vestar’s prediction, this gentleman Iago sets to work on Sylvia, Martine, and Sadry’s Othello, planting the seeds of suspicion that will hasten Vestar’s violent vision to fulfillment—he is one of Chabrol’s backstage instigators, like Welles in La Décade prodigieuse or the demonic practical jokers of Alice, with an abundance of means and leisure time to devote to making mischief. Edouard’s stage-managing machinations very nearly consummate Vestar’s prediction—a confrontation between Sylvia, Martine, and Sadry is engineered, in the course of which Sadry begins to strangle Sylvia in a rage—but as Les Magiciens nears its close, a close-up shows Sylvia, having survived the assault, blinkingly opening her eyes. Edouard may have arranged everything to order, but the universe has made other plans. The film ends with an on-screen quotation from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, spoken by Cassius: “Men at some time are masters of their fates; The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” It’s a classic Chabrol double bind: Edouard is not the master of his fate, for his plan has failed, but his plan has failed because there are factors in life—human resilience, for example—that even the craftiest schemer cannot predict. This can’t entirely be counted as a happy ending, however, as meanwhile Sadry has carried on his rampage and choked poor Vestar, an old rumpot faker who never did anyone any harm, to death.
Now, Fassbinder was a mortar-and-pestle filmmaker who routinely showed his characters being ground into dust by forces beyond control, so he can’t have objected too strenuously to Chabrol’s displaying this same tendency. That Fassbinder would bridle at the ridiculed anarchist terrorists of Nada is unsurprising, but some of his other objections to Chabrol are difficult to square with Fassbinder’s own work; if you were to tell me, for example, that his description of Chabrol’s Landru, and of its director’s “delight in loathsomeness, which he indulges to a point of a delight in mania,” was said in reference to Fassbinder’s own Satansbraten, I would believe you in a second. But while both Fassbinder and Chabrol are enormously interested in detailing the horrors of domesticity, Fassbinder espies a slyly reactionary side to Chabrol. “He advocates marriage,” writes Fassbinder, “And marriage is first and foremost an establishment institution. Chabrol is opposed to the hypocrisy in marriage, opposed to the claims of ownership instead of being against marriage in itself.” (Petra’s reconciliation with her pious mother at the end of Die bitteren Tränen in their agreement on the need to “love without making demands” suggests that he never said farewell to faith, or at least a sentimental Christianity, so thoroughly as Chabrol had after Le Beau Serge.)
Fassbinder goes on to write that “The disorders that arise for Chabrol are irrational, not inevitable deviations as they must be in such a system of society.” In other words, Fassbinder claims that Chabrol treats domestic discord as a bug when, per Fassbinder, it should be treated as a feature. (In interviews, Chabrol concedes this point—his stated target is not the family, but the bourgeoisie family.) In Chabrol’s burlesquing of the bourgeoisie, Fassbinder detects a creeping fondness, even defensiveness; addressing the streak of films that Chabrol began with the critical and popular success of his 1968 Les Biches, he writes “One could say, as a generalization, that from now one Chabrol aims to knock bourgeois values. The question is: is he knocking them in order to overcome them or to maintain them? I think the latter is more likely.” Robin Wood struck a similar line on Chabrol, writing that “The savage derider of the bourgeoisie has become its elegiac poet.”
This typifying of Chabrol as a revanchist is a little unfair—Les Noces rouges, after all, is concerned with the question of the moral necessity of murdering a Gaullist minister—but it needs be said that he asked for it. That Chabrol was firmly entrenched in the class that he lampooned was very much part of the joke as early as the Paris vu par… episode in which he and Audran perform marital strife and the full complement of the loathsome habits of the sheltered and egotistical upper middle-class: the father who pinches and pursues “the help,” the mother too caught up in her hypochondriac self-obsession to take note of her child.
In fact, Chabrol and Fassbinder didn’t come from radically different class backgrounds. Fassbinder was raised by a single mother in Munich after his parents’ divorce when he was six—his father, a doctor, took off for Cologne—but Liselotte Pempeit was a woman of great erudition, a translator renowned for tackling the early works of Truman Capote, and it can’t be imagined his childhood was one of terrible deprivation. Chabrol was the son of a pharmacist working in in Sardent, France—the scene of film à clef Le Beau Serge—and had been expected to go into the family business. A pharmacist in sleepy Sardent: it’s the kind of occupation with its well-worn ruts that one of Chabrol’s great favorites, the writer Georges Simenon, might have give to one of the protagonists of his romans dur, or “tough” novels, works full of shuffling, dutiful, respectable men who one day have their routines disturbed by a fit of passion, and as often as not wind up with blood on their hands.
Chabrol accepted and even relished his bourgeoisie birthright, while Fassbinder put as much distance from his as possible, playing the part of the peasant and the hooligan. As for Chabrol’s politics, they can sometimes be a tad confusing to parse, like his maddeningly objective films. As a young man he was an intimate of Jean-Marie Le Pen, future founder of Le Front national, and in an a 1962 interview called the crypto-fascist student played by Jean-Claude Brialy in Les Cousins “a character along the lines of… Le Pen,” his old friend already then being a rising star of right-wing populism. He was closer still to Gégauff, an ill-reputed character who had dressed as a Nazi officer at a “Bal du Scandale” in 1945, of whom Chabrol said: “He loves to pass for a fascist. When I want to have a portrait of a fascist, I call Gégauff.” He also got in good with the Socialist government of François Mitterrand—Roger Hanin, with whom Chabrol wrote two cloak-and-dagger comedies at an identifiable professional nadir in the mid-‘60s, was Mitterand’s brother-in-law. In interviews he consistently identified with left positions, on-record in 1970 stating that his politics were closer to those of the left-wing Positif than, implicitly, those of Cahiers in the ‘50s, and in the same year telling Roger Ebert “I am a Communist, certainly, but that doesn't mean I have to make films about the wheat harvest.” (I don’t discount the possibility that Chabrol was dropping “the C-word” to make an American journalist blush .)
So no wheat harvests in Chabrol, and not a great many portraits of the working-class in their native environs, either—at least not after Le Beau Serge and Les Bonnes femmes, a film which follows the misadventures and misfortunes of four bachelorette Parisian shop girls, which Fassbinder praised as an instance of Chabrol displaying unusual tenderness for his subjects, while bemoaning that its box-office failure might have put its director off of future work along similar lines. Wrote Fassbinder: “Here, he enters with his characters into the most hateful and repugnant situations but he stays with them; the child has put his hand inside the glass case. Naturally he gets bitten. Thereafter, he won’t be so quick to put his hand inside to deliver his creatures.” He further lauds Les Bonnes Femmes as “a revolutionary film [that] provokes genuine anger against a system that leaves people so demoralized.”
Fassbinder, at least in 1974, believed vehemently in the necessity of perpetual revolution to remake everyday life, and the task of art in ushering along that revolution. But every revolutionary is someone else’s reactionary, and any real artist perchance must fail to meet the True Believer’s measure as a propagandist, and however pure Fassbinder’s fervor, in the course of his short life he managed to piss off just about everyone, potential ideological opponent or ally alike. Faustrecht der Freiheit upset gay liberationists and the luxe Communists of Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel (1975) flagged Fassbinder as politically suspect, though in fact pro- or anti- positions are beyond the point for, as Elsaesser has written, it’s “the duplicity of all motivation and the gaps between intention and its consequences that make up the politics of Fassbinder’s films.” Not to insist too stridently, but these are also distinctly Chabrolian concerns. So in putting a point on what it was about Chabrol that so chafed Fassbinder’s hide, we return again to the matter of distance, which is something more than shot selection or proximity. Fassbinder operated from an “objective” remove not less often than Chabrol, but with Chabrol there was always the sense of that glass partition, slid back only rarely.
The script for Les Bonnes Femmes is credited to Chabrol and Gégauff, one of the most important collaborators of Chabrol’s career alongside Rabier, Audran, and, beginning with 1978’s Violette Nozière, Isabelle Huppert. (Chabrol maintained a repertory stable of sorts: Pierre Jansen and later son Mattieu as composers; Jacques Gaillard as editor, Guy Littaye as art director, and Guy Chichignoud doing sound.) Gégauff’s fingerprints are all over Chabrol’s films; he worked on Les Magiciens, and on an earlier Shakespeare-inspired work, 1963’s Ophélia—the appeal to Chabrol of Hamlet, a story about the entangled affairs of isolated royals and “but mad north-northwest” gamesmanship, should be obvious—and on Les Biches and La Décade prodigieuse and Dr. Popaul and Que la bête meure, in which his name is prankishly included in a list of nouveau roman authors, and on several other Chabrol films besides. He not only wrote but starred in Une partie de Plaisir, appearing opposite the ex-wife who he’d met on the set of Chabrol’s 1961 La Godelureaux, and their young daughter, Clemence Gégauff.
Described by Les Bonnes femmes star Lafont as “the Brian Jones of the Nouvelle Vague” for his unheralded but essential contributions to the French cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, Gégauff might just as easily be considered the Dennis Wilson to Chabrol’s Brian—much as Dennis was the Beach Boy who actually did the surfing and hot-rodding, the things that Chabrol made movies about were the stuff of Gégauff’s life. He was born rich in 1922 Alsace, the scene of La Décade prodigieuse. In 1951 he published his first novel, Les Mauvais rire, and around the same time backed into a relationship with the Les Cahiers cinephiles by way of his friendship with Rohmer, whose now-lost 1950 short Journal d'un scélérat he wrote and starred in, for Rohmer liked his debauched good looks and air of arrogant libertinage. (He would be the inspiration for a number of Rohmer’s cultivated cads, including the Féodor Atkine character in 1983’s Pauline à la plage.) A self-defined “luxury anarchist” and a notorious arrogant prick, Gégauff talked copious shit on the Nouvelle Vague cineastes in the press, much of it relating to their being less confident and successful with women than he was. He did take a shine to Chabrol, the homeliest of the lot, their professional relationship beginning when Gégauff contributed dialogue to Les Cousins—the gestapo-fetishizing Brialy character is yet another “Gégauff type.” Gégauff and Chabrol were thick as thieves, for a time co-habiting in the latter’s apartment in Neuilly, and once Chabrol had ridden out the lean mid-‘60s by making those for-hire spy spoofs—Gégauff called his friend “le dormeur,” the sleeper, presumably because his career idled while his contemporaries had leapt ahead—they went on a tear. Chabrol mostly handled structure, while Gégauff dialogues, specializing in poisonous chatter. “He can make a character completely ridiculous and hateful in two seconds,” said Chabrol.
Les Magiciens and Une Partie de plaisir are very nearly the last Chabrol-Gégauff collaborations—there only remained, in 1981, a 55-minute contribution to the television series Histoires extraordinaires, an adaptation of Poe’s 1845 story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” Gégauff by this time was considerably well along on an alcoholic downhill slide that had begun, or had at least been hasted along significantly, by the dissolution of his marriage with Danièle. Some of the known events of that breakup and its aftermath are mirrored by events in the conjugal drama of Une partie de Plaisir: Danièle had prompted the split; Gégauff had re-married, in haste and spite, to a Scotswoman; then, stricken with remorse, he endeavored in vain to win Danièle back, an attempt that failed in life, as it does in the film, which was apparently devised as part of the attempt. (Says Chabrol: “When we started shooting, Danièle was very afraid of what Paul might do, and Paul had only one idea—to get her back. In the end, they hadn’t changed at all: she still didn’t want to live with him.”) From here on, however, Une Partie de plaisir makes a significant departure from the facts. Unexpectedly contacted by his ex- with news of her aunt’s death, the Gégauff character accompanies her on a visit to the cemetery where, following her rejection of still another offer of reconciliation, he cuffs her to the ground and, in nauseous, unsparing detail, begins to kick her face into a pulp.
In fact, Danièle outlived her ex-husband by almost a quarter of a century. Gégauff, a lush and pariah at the start of the ‘80s, nevertheless remained a capable seducer, and had hooked himself a new young wife, Patricia “Coco” Ducados, an actress of a French Reunionese and Norweigian extraction who had small roles in Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) and the abovementioned Histoires extraordinaires episode. It was an inebriate and volatile relationship, and it came to an end in an almost ridiculously Chabrolian scene. On Christmas Eve, 1983, in Gjøvik, Norway, Coco stabbed Gégauff three times, fatally, following an argument. His apocryphal last words, fit for a headstone, were: “Tue-moi si tu veux, mais arrête de m'emmerder.” (“Kill me if you want, but stop pissing me off.”) A cutting observation comes from Jérôme Leroy, on the occasion of the publication of a collection of Gégauff stories in 2009: “He clearly wasn’t equipped to get through the ‘80s, which is to his credit.”
Did Gégauff foresee his death, or precipitate it, or does the truth lie somewhere in-between? Is it accountable to “fate” when a man who has spent much of his professional life depicting the violent implosions of relationships dies in a scene that is like something out of one of his screenplays, or is it a matter of self-fulfilling prophecy? This is precisely the sort of material with which so many Chabrol films are concerned, and I suspect that the impression made by Gégauff on Chabrol is enormous—Jean-Baptiste Morain’s description of the milieu of Rébus, Gégauff’s third novel, published in 1957, is at any rate quite familiar: “a small circle of friends who seem to operate under nebulous codes and thrive in misogyny, nihilism, and cynicism.” So, too, does one get a whiff of the coldness that many have chided Chabrol for in Gégauff’s proclamation that “Le cinéma doit être un glacial reflet de la vie.” (“The cinema must be an icy reflection of life.”)
Gégauff’s unpremeditated, shocking assault on his wife in Une Partie de plaisir is one of several such abrupt outbursts in Chabrol. Fassbinder, too, was drawn to breaking points—the moments when people suddenly snap and come undone, these moments often accompanied by an irreparable act. For Fassbinder, these rash moments are preceded by a long gathering of tension, as we see the character pushed and pushed until they have no choice but to lash out, collapse under a burden that has become insupportable, or some combination of the two. In Bremer Freihat, based on the actual case of Gesche Gottfried, who murdered fifteen people between 1813 and 1827 by dosing them with rat poison, the torment of Gottfried’s married life is made immediately plain, temporarily abated by her husband’s death, though with each tyrannical figure that she eliminates another appears to take their place, the patriarchy here depicted as a hydra-headed enemy. In Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, 1970), which Fassbinder co-directed with Michael Fengler, we watch a married, middle-class architectural draftsman played by Raab trudge through a succession of life’s little daily indignities, henpecked by his mother and wife, made a figure of fun by some girls behind the counter at a record store who could be distant relations of the shop girls in Les Bonnes femmes, silently suffering through existence until one night he picks up a hefty candlestick and dashes out the brains of his wife, a visiting neighbor, and his sleeping son.
The title of Fassbinder and Fengler’s film poses a question, and then endeavors to answer it. For Fassbinder, there is no such thing as the Gidean acte gratuit—these outbursts are the result of identifiable social pressures, and if they seem monstrous, it is because the society that they are a logical outcome of is monstrous. Chabrol, Fassbinder wrote, gave “no indication that the needs people consider their very own are actually only the needs they’re told to have… the disorder that occurs is irrational, not inevitable, as is actually the case in this society.” Fassbinder, however, was very often dealing with characters on the lower and more precarious rungs of the social hierarchy, whereas Chabrol’s people, at least overwhelmingly after Les Bonnes femmes, belong to a segment of society that is insulated from immediate material concerns and financial pressures. Gesche Gottfried, Fassbinder would have us believe, does what she does because she has been placed in an impossible position; the case of Isabelle Huppert in Merci pour le Chocolat, the heiress to a chocolate fortune and owner of a lovely estate in Lausanne, is rather less clear-cut. A key image comes from La Femme infidèle: the puzzle with the missing piece. Or a labyrinth without a center.
Fassbinder isn’t necessarily wrong about Chabrol’s distance, but this distance is to be accounted for by a difference of sensibility rather than an artistic shortcoming on the part of Chabrol. Fassbinder believed that nothing human was alien to him, and that there was no strata of human experience that couldn’t be grasped; Chabrol believed that there was always some essential bit of information that remained remote, out of reach. There is always a missing piece in Chabrol—that element of the irrational that Fassbinder disdains. The camel’s back breaks, but the straw that did it is nowhere to be found. Here the model of Simenon is vital; though neither is a surrealist per se, both Simenon and Chabrol, had a healthy respect for the irrational. Simenon counted Federico Fellini as a close compatriot; Chabrol, in describing Alice’s “game of mirrors” and the lie of cinematic “realism,” would cite another famous Belgian, René Magritte. Anita Brookner, in her introduction to Simenon’s Red Lights, describes the formula for the Belgian writer’s romans dur: “A life will go wrong, usually because of an element in the protagonist’s make-up which impels him to self-destruct, to willfully seek disgrace, exclusion, ruin in his search for a fulfillment and a fatal freedom which take on an aura of destiny.” An internal flaw in the design, then, like the sheet auto glass that rolls off the factory floor with a defect, and suddenly shatters out of nowhere.
Chabrol made two films based on Simenon works, 1982’s Les fantômes du chapelier and 1992’s Betty, and one, his last feature, 2009’s Inspector Bellamy, which was heavily inspired by Simenon’s character of Jules Maigret. Betty is also noteworthy as a final reunion with Audran, from whom Chabrol had divorced in 1980, and as a breakout role for Marie Trintignant, daughter of Audran’s first husband, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and then a rising star. Trintignant plays the title role, a damaged dipsomaniac on a bender who comes under the care of Audran’s character, a well-off widow living in the hotel attached to the Petit Trianon. In time, Betty’s backstory trickles in by way of flashback and her own recounting: though first discovered in the designer uniform of the haute bourgeoisie, she is a daughter of the working-class come up in the world through an inter-class marriage to the son of a wealthy military family.
Betty has, it’s revealed, been cast out of their plush Parisian palace after failing to foreswear her surreptitious drinking and a habit for affairs and established before her wedding, and in his achronological shuttling through Betty’s memories—the structure is reminiscent of Violette Nozière—Chabrol is able to explore some of his favorite questions regarding nature vs. nurture: is Betty’s bedding down with a truck driver-type mec in his sordid flat a reversion to the demands of her lowborn blood, or is her nymphomania a reaction to the self-image dinned into her by the mother who made her write “I’m a dirty little girl” fifty times in a composition book after dropping a pitcher of milk? A dermatologist-in-training who she sleeps with during her university days, who might very well be a bespectacled stand-in for pharmacology student Chabrol, thinks he has all of the answers: “In your tiny little head you really want to be a heroine. You have an idea of what you want to be, should be, so you fall even deeper. It’s classic!” To which she responds: “Shut up! What do you think I am, a guinea pig?” It’s a plays like an inside joke, a puncturing of Chabrol’s pretenses as a entomologist, with the specimen under glass talking back.
Betty’s husband tries to fetch her home, but is turned down flat: this leopard knows she won’t change her spots, and the chasm between them is too great. Morganatic marriages do not tend finally to fare well in Chabrol’s films—though here it might be noted that it was an advantageous first marriage, and an inheritance that came from it, that helped him to finance Le Beau Serge. In La Rupture, Audran’s character only barely saves her son from the violent outburst by her unbalanced husband, then must withstand a persecutorial campaign against her engineered by his wealthy family. In Les Magiciens, when Sylvia and Sadry have their near-fatal bust-up, she taunts him to the point of violence with the memory of his childhood deprivation: “The dirty floors, a mud hut… bedbugs and filth… the smell of manure… and the oil has gone rancid…” In Une Partie de plaisir, Gégauff’s character, paying court to his future wife, explains the failure of his marriage to the last: “We weren’t from the same social class… we weren’t speaking the same language.” The year prior to Betty, Chabrol had made a film out of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s Emma being another girl with dreams of being a heroine, her union one of literature’s most famous cases of “marrying up” gone awry. The omelet in Alice again seems relevant: “Why would two different substances require the same cooking time?”
In this skepticism towards inter-class unions, too, Fassbinder is more alike than Chabrol than not—think of Faustrecht der Freiheit, in which the working-class carnie, Fox, played by Fassbinder himself, is slowly fleeced of his new lottery winnings by the family of his new upper middle-class lover, played by Chatel. Fassbinder suggests a literary model besides Simenon for Chabrol, seeing in his output the failed attempt of “an embryo cynic” to play at “twentieth-century Balzac”—the reference is to the author’s interlinked cycle of novels, La Comédie humaine, a sort of panorama of French national life from 1829 to 1848. The same comparison was drawn by Raymond Durgnat in his monograph Nouvelle Vague: The First Decade and, indeed, by Chabrol himself, who has Audran’s schoolteacher in Le Boucher lecture on Balzac: “A 19th century romantic who tried constituting his work to paint a picture of the society of his day.” (In a 1970 interview Chabrol dismisses this as a sop thrown to critics: “I stuck Balzac there and they threw themselves on it like poverty upon the world.”)
Another point of comparison for Chabrol’s project might be the twenty novels of Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, written very much under the influence of Balzac between 1871 and 1893, the dramatis personae of the series two tangled branches of a French family of the Second Empire period. Zola, too, pops up in Chabrol’s cinema; in Folies bourgeoises, Bruce Dern’s expat American author is in the running for a “Zola Award,” the film’s version of the Prix Goncourt. When he doesn’t win, he disparagingly “quotes” Zola, yowling “The wealth of a woman is between legs,” although his wife, played by Audran, insists “Balzac said it.” Another piece of Chabrol misdirection: neither wrote that exact phrase, though they wrote plenty of variations on the theme.
Balzac, Zola, Chabrol, and Fassbinder are all, in their individual ways, interested in sex and social climbing. They also share a concern with issues pertaining to heredity—the degree to which parentage and station of birth determine the person that one might become, which is one way of describing predestination. In Zola, primogeniture proves difficult to outpace. Certain degenerative strains are traced from generation to generation, as from 1875’s La Fortune des Rougon to 1877’s L’Assommoir to 1880’s Nana, an inheritance of alcoholism, madness, and sexual intemperance is handed along like a baton from parent to child, leaving little room to hope for Nana’s offspring.
In Zola’s 1885 L'Œuvre, set generally in the Parisian art world and particularly in the milieu of transplants from provincial “Plassans” who have come to take on the capital, Zola describes Mahoudeau, a sculptor who is the son of a Plassans stonemason, writing: “He was unconscious of his real vein of talent, and despised gracefulness, though it ever invincibly sprung from his big, coarse fingers—the fingers of an untaught working-man—like a flower that obstinately sprouts from the hard soil where the wind has flung its seed.” This suggests that style, too, is something inborn, not chosen, and that the best one can hope for is to find that real vein of talent, and submit to its demands. And this is perhaps part of what Chabrol meant when he said “Lang is Lang and I’m just me!”
In addition to being a novelist, Zola was a critic, an early champion of the Impressionists. He was an intimate of Paul Cézanne’s, the two having grown up together in Aix-en-Provence, the model for L'Œuvre’s Plassans, and the book is often pointed to as having opened up a rift between these bosom friends since boyhood. The central character of L'Œuvre, the painter Claude Lantier, is generally taken as a thinly-veiled portrait of Cézanne, with a dash of Manet added for color: Lantier is volatile, improvident, constantly strapped for cash, prone to long fits of brooding between bursts of inspiration. Lantier’s friend, the journalist and writer Sandoz, is Zola’s self-portrait, found plotting an ambitious cycle of books to be titled ‘Origins of the Universe’ which sound suspiciously near in scope and ambition to Les Rougon-Macquart. Both men are seen as capable of greatness, yes, but the novel may be read as Zola’s endorsement of his own methodology for achieving and sustaining it as superior to that of Cézanne/Lantier. Sandoz is the perfect bourgeois, living an orderly married life of quiet assiduity, the epitome of Flaubert’s edict to “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
This Goofus and Gallant synopsis makes L'Œuvre sound significantly less interesting than it is—it offers perhaps the essential literary portrait of late 19th century bohemia—but it can’t be said that the novel is without a moralizing element. Lantier, driven mad by years of deprivation and the death of his own son, suicides before his thirtieth birthday; steady, diligent, prudent, nose-to-the-grindstone Sandoz is among the few to attend his friend’s funeral. Presumably, he goes straight home and gets in his ten pages a day afterwards. It is tempting, if a little over-simplifying, to suggest a parallel between Lantier/Sandoz and Fassbinder/Chabrol—Fassbinder, dead of barbiturates and cocaine at thirty-eight, and Chabrol, who lived to the ripe old age of eighty, savoring meals of la pitade en vessie, foie gras, and les cailles rôties sur un gratin dauphinois, and recounting the time he watched Welles demolish two racks of beef rib at Beau Site in Ottrot.
This was not quite the case of one man being sprinter and the other a runner, though, or of one waiting on inspiration while the other plowed on ahead. If Chabrol didn’t quite match Fassbinder’s overall output in the 1970s, we should remember that Chabrol’s shoots generally ran a bit longer, and it would be reasonable to say that both men were very, very busy—though it is Fassbinder’s pace of production that one tends to see described as “frantic,” never the more tranquil, phlegmatic Chabrol’s. To some degree this might be a matter of a public persona impressing itself onto the work, for Fassbinder radiated an air of untidy urgency. At the beginning of his Deutschland im Herbt segment, he looks like death warmed over: fingers stained with nicotine; eyes red and rimmed; pale, flabby belly hanging over his belt. He chain smokes throughout, and he handles his cigarettes in a manner unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever seen, compulsively repositioning them between his fingers with every emphatic, lip-smacking drag. The segment is as willfully unattractive a self-representation as any in cinema, with Fassbinder the “good leftist” browbeating both his bourgeoise mother and his working-class lover for their failure to not only think about events as he does, but to feel them as he does, so that everything becomes less about the recent deaths in Stammheim and an ongoing hijacking in Mogadishu than about his tyrannical need to force everyone around him to prioritize his performance of emotion. It is a magnificent but exhausting production, which I might say of Fassbinder’s career overall.
Regardless the circumstances of his birth, Fassbinder was sentimentally working-class, and he lived and toiled with a recklessness and imprudence that wore him down, burning through his considerable resources of energy. Chabrol, the good bourgeois, knew that you live off your earnings, but you don’t touch the principle. He may have identified at a Communist, but I can’t see in him a revolutionary with an eye to upsetting the apple cart entirely—if you have acquired a taste for seafood on the terrace at L’Ocean, you are not likely to wish for any disturbance that might interfere with the timely arrival of the catch of the day. Any early sans-culottes impulses in Chabrol were almost certainly gone by the time he made his “last Marxist movie,” La Cérémonie, in which a domestic (Sandrine Bonnaire) working in the bourgeoisie home of one Lelièvre famile in Brittany falls under the influence of a local postmistress (Huppert), bitterly jealous of the Lelièvre’s privilege and comfort, who instills her hatred in the younger maid, until one night the maid and the postmistress sneak up on the oblivious Lelièvres, a well-meaning if occasionally haughtily oblivious bunch, and slaughter them with shotguns. We at times enjoy an extraordinary amount of intimacy with Bonnaire’s character, but this is counterbalanced by Chabrol’s accustomed return to objective distance, a vantage which allows us to see both the innocence of the Lelièvres—these aren’t the Romanoffs, after all—and the clearly comprehensible rationale of the rankling resentment that their social inferiors develop towards them, as the progress towards the executions takes on a grim, inexorable quality. “Class warfare” in the abstract may be delicious, but in action it is terribly ugly. This is, I suppose, what’s meant when they say if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.
Rosenbaum, who revered La Cérémonie, had once written of Chabrol that “I think it’s fair to say that his sensibility is closer to that of M. Homais in Madame Bovary”—the pharmacist who thrives when Charles Bovary’s practice founders—“than it is to Flaubert.” I’m not sure he’s entirely incorrect, at least in the sense that Chabrol is a shrewd and steady survivor. There are more moving moments in Chabrol’s films than I can begin to enumerate, but there is little of the intense self-identification of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” or of Fassbinder’s films after the model of Sirk. But then I don’t see any reason to choose between these larger-than-life, Promethean figures, and the unassuming corner chemist in chunky specs with a wattle like a seal, dealing quietly in his business of little themes.
There were more films after La Cérémonie, more malevolent manors stuffed with flowers, to recall a quote from Sirk: “People ask me why there are so many flowers in my films. Because these homes are tombs, mausoleums filled with the corpses of plants. The flowers have been sheared and are dead, and they fill the homes with a funeral air.” 2002’s black bouquet La fleur du mal was possibly Chabrol’s most Rougon-Macquart inspired film—the title taken from Baudelaire is a typically Chabrolian bait and switch—exploring three generations of tangled intermarriages and buried secrets in an old money Bordeaux family. (If incest keeps popping up in Chabrol, from La Décade prodigieuse to Les Liens du sang to this film, it’s because Chabrol’s modest proposal is that incest is the logical endpoint of a world as socially stratified as our own—with inter-class marriage impossible, you may as well stick with your people.) The year after its release, Trintignant died at age forty-one of a cerebral edema after being severely beaten in a hotel in Vilnius, Lithuania by her boyfriend Bertrand Cantat, frontman of the rock group Noir Désir. If we want to understand such an event, a healthy respect for the irrational may be in order.
If Fassbinder saw Alice, released in France in January of 1977, I can find no trace of his having expressed an opinion on it. It’s a matter of record however that in February he was on the jury of the Berlin International Film Festival, where he campaigned long and hard to award a Special Jury Prize to Le Diable probablement, the latest work by an artist Chabrol claimed to “detest,” Robert Bresson. It’s a film, like many of Bresson’s, that addresses the idea of escape—the prison is a dungeon-like Paris; the inmate is Antoine Monnier, playing a young man disillusioned with the church, politics, romance, psychology, and life itself; and the eventual means of liberation, as again in many of Bresson’s films, is suicide. In praising Le Diable probablement, Fassbinder stated “In the future—and this world will probably last for another few thousand years—this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough.” It is a film made in the spirit of total rejection, and the attraction this sweeping abnegation would hold for Fassbinder is obvious, and indeed Chabrol’s case-studies were never so scorched earth, never went as far.
It is hard to imagine whatever jealousy Fassbinder may have felt towards Chabrol lasted much beyond the mid-’70s, as Fassbinder’s fame would around this time far outstrip that of his French rival. The following year, both made ventures into English-language filmmaking—Chabrol’s Les liens de sang, his fifth film in English, and Fassbinder’s Despair, his first, adapting Vladimir Nabokov. I count it as Fassbinder’s worst film, in part because he insists on reducing the multichromatic insanity of Nabokov’s novel into a rather black-and-white story of burnout and breakdown, describing the plot thusly: “When Hermann, the manufacturer, realizes that he can’t expect anything more from life, he throws himself into the arms of madness…” The particular form that Hermann’s madness takes is this: he plots to murder a man who he perceives—without any real grounds, as it happens—to be his exact double.
If I squint very hard, Chabrol and Fassbinder can seem for a split second as alike as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, but no two artists really are—not Chabrol and Lang, not Fassbinder and Sirk, not Carroll and Chabrol, certainly not Chabrol and Fassbinder, and Fassbinder and Nabokov perhaps least of all. But it’s through their processes of adoption and adaption and reaction, of taste and distaste—and enmities can be as important as affinities—that artists get some idea of themselves, and we can get some measure of them.
Chabrol and Fassbinder, beyond the mere fact of their prolificity, were likewise united in a conviction that it was possible to make an audience-accessible “art” cinema, both turning out films in popular genres—in Chabrol’s case, the thriller; in Fassbinder’s, the melodrama and the costume drama, these alongside several uncategorizable undertakings. Both thought that rank-and-file audiences deserved better than the dross they got, though Chabrol, in his gelid rage, was often perceived as blaming the consumers rather than their suppliers, as was the case in the blistering responses to the depiction of the silly shop girls in the film that Fassbinder so admired, Les Bonnes femmes, which Chabrol in 1963 was still defending in incendiary terms: “People have said that I don’t like the people I was showing, because they believe you have to ennoble them to like them. That’s not true. Quite the opposite: only the types who don’t like their fellows have to ennoble them.”
The point is made quite forcefully in Masques, an extended standoff of rictus-grinning faux-friendly jollity in which Robin Renucci’s undercover author, posing as a biographer, conspires to discover the awful truth about Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret), the host of a popular dating game show for lovelorn senior citizens, a man born to modest means who risen to fabulous wealth by doting with exaggerated affection on his doddering contestants. Condescendingly explaining his intimate connection to the little people, Legagneur tells his interlocutor: “I like people no matter who they are.” For Chabrol, there could be no brighter red flag.
Masques ends with a confessional monologue from Legagneur, who, in a scene of a populist panderer’s undoing to recall Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), is surrounded by closing-in cops while hosting his program live. Like Dr. M, the film is a snarling damnation of commercial masscult and broadcast bromides, concluding with a cornered mogul defiantly confronting the audience. “Why do we always do the opposite of what we want?” asks a defeated Legagneur of the camera. “Maybe life forced you?” replies one of the little old men on his show. “Life never forces anyone to do shit!” responds Legagneur, for what self-made man can admit that it was fate pulling the bootstraps? The question—“Why do we always do the opposite of what we want?”—is one that Fassbinder asked as well. Unalike as they were in their answers, or at least the tenor of them, Chabrol and Fassbinder were often asking the same questions, questions not far from those that suddenly arise among passengers on a Paris bus in Bresson’s film: “Who is it that is making a mockery of humanity?” “Who’s leading us by the nose?” Is it Fate? Bad genes? Dr. Mabuse? Bourgeoisie propriety? The pressure cooker of an inhuman society? Or is it… the Devil, Probably?
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