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Culture Desk

A real flair for the dramatic

Director Claude Chabrol received a lifetime achievement award in Berlin last year. Director Claude Chabrol received a lifetime achievement award in Berlin last year. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 18, 2010

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Not that he was ever compared unfavorably with his Nouvelle Vague brethren, but the late Claude Chabrol was considered the steadiest, least flashy of the bunch, with the faint whiff of patronization that implies. Where Godard was off manning the barricades of art, politics, and cinema, and Truffaut was reliving his youth and obsessing about women, and Rohmer was dissecting emotion in great arias of chatter, and the mysterious Rivette was fashioning marathon exercises in paranoia and the creative process, Chabrol was — well, he was making dramatic thrillers. Where’s the ambition in that?

In the craft, bien sur, and in the slow accretion of damning social portraiture that stretches from his first film, 1958’s “Le Beau Serge,’’ pretty much to the end (2007’s penultimate “A Girl Cut in Two’’). On the surface, Chabrol’s visual style was polite, discreet, and occasionally glacial, but if you looked closer you saw that every camera move was a scalpel wielded by a master surgeon who could fillet bourgeois pretension and reveal the beast within the civilized man. Chabrol wasn’t a moralist or a cynic — instead, he was torn between cool amusement and muted horror at the ways in which the human animal mistreats his own kind. If he had a kindred filmmaking spirit, it was probably Luis Bunuel, but whereas the great Spaniard eviscerated his targets with love and surrealism, Chabrol hung back and let his chic, murderous characters hang themselves.

The Criterion website’s blog just posted a nifty top 10 list of Chabrol films that includes anything but the usual suspects: There are murder mysteries, spy thrillers, black farces about men who murder their sister-in-laws’ boyfriends, a pristine period piece about Violette Noziere, the French teenager who poisoned her parents in the 1930s, a requiem for an abortionist executed by the Nazis, and a psycho-sexual political comedy.

There’s the auteur theory for you. Chabrol and his rabble-rousing buddies at Cahiers du Cinema established and promulgated it in the 1950s — young upstarts daring to suggest that commercial Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Robert Siodmak were artists of the first rank, not the genre hacks that cineastes and snobs dismissed them as. Chabrol and Rohmer wrote one of the first serious appreciations of Hitchcock, and Chabrol was first out of the gate with his own movie, proof the movie brats could put their camera where their theory was. While Godard and Truffaut and the others penetrated rarified levels of personal filmmaking, doughty Claude plowed the path of the working filmmaker, taking work-for-hire jobs in fallow periods and trying his hand at anything that came along.

Yet the movies are of a piece, especially the run of brilliant, tough late ’60s and early ’70s work that forms an almost fugal variation on the theme of middle-class complacency stressed until it erupts into violence. The smug bourgeois hero is always called Charles, the anarchic fly in the ointment is always named Paul, and the elegant, unsettled woman is always Helene and always played by the director’s wife, Stephane Audran. “Les Biches’’ (1968), “La Femme Infidele’’ (1969), “This Man Must Die’’ (1969), “La Boucher’’ (1970), “La Rupture’’ (1970), and “Just Before Nightfall’’ (1971) are not just essential classics of the French New Wave but a supremely confident series in which each film is a facet of a greater inquiry into control and chaos, propriety and sex, keeping it together and letting it all go gloriously, bloodily kablooey.

Jean Renoir once said that every great director makes the same film over and over, and I can think of those for whom that’s true: Hitchcock, Ozu, Sam Fuller, Renoir himself — and Chabrol, if you subtract the movies he made to pay the rent and all the other wayward projects a working filmmaker must contend with. Chabrol was a working filmmaker like his Hollywood heroes, yet within his enlightened journeyman’s journey he carved exactly the path he wanted.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start with “Le Boucher,’’ the tender yet scarifying love story between a repressed schoolteacher and the sensitive town butcher who may or may not be a serial killer.

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