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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Chabrol dans une maison de passe-passe

by Muriel Steinmetz

Chabrol’s Tale of Lyonnaise Morality - A Film Review

Translated Saturday 18 August 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Cinema. La Fille coupée en deux - Claude Chabrol’s new film, 115 minutes. In this film, (‘The Girl Cut in Two’), Claude Chabrol, the great Balzacian moralist, proves once again that the class struggle affects all those involved.

The film is a variation on the theme of corrupted innocence. Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier) is a weather presenter on a regional television channel in Lyon. Beautiful, young, naïve, passionate, men are attracted to her natural radiance. Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), a fashionable novelist and confirmed libertine, comes to the studios to present his latest book on the television. Gabrielle catches his eye. He seduces her. He’s merely enjoying himself, while she falls in love. At the same time, Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), young heir to a rich family of industrialists, tries to woo her. First of all surprised, then touched, by the strange and ardent advances of this eccentric young man who drives around in a convertible and bites his nails, she agrees to have dinner with him. Seduced and then abandoned by the writer, Gabrielle Deneige marries Paul on the rebound. But Paul’s schizophrenia is suddenly and dramatically revealed, at a charity gala hosted by his mother (Caroline Silhol) when he kills his rival…

La Fille coupée en deux takes its inspiration, as is often the case in the films of Claude Chabrol, from a real life event: the murder in 1906 of Stanford White, the architect of Madison Square Garden, who was killed by the husband of his mistress, a music-hall artist he’d had his eye on. Richard Fleischer directed a faithful adaptation of the real life event in his film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955). Claude Chabrol, assisted by his own daughter, Cécile Maistre, transposes the events to present-day France. Chabrol explains: “It is easier to imagine something like this happening today rather than at the time when the murder actually took place, it is therefore easier to transpose the events to the present day.” Chabrol, a fierce critic of the French bourgeoisie, à la Balzac, himself the son of a pharmacist from la Creuse, sets his film in Lyon and the surrounding region, both renowned for their good food.

Class relations dominate the film. On the one hand, we have the Gaudens, representatives of the perennially wealthy class, and on the other, we have the powers of the day, who possess temporary power and status; those who work in television and publishing. Gabrielle, of lower middle-class roots and whose mother (Marie Bunel) is a bookseller, finds herself divided and torn between the two social groups.

Cleverly scattered clues

The opening credits of the film appear against a blood-red coloured background, accompanied by the lyrical notes of Puccini playing on a car radio. A woman in a car, whose first name is Capucine (Mathilda May, half-angel, half-demon) is making her way to the house of the writer and his wife. Is Capucine a former mistress or the new mistress of the ageing Don Juan? As soon as we enter the house, we sense that the luxurious villa reeks of debauchery, revealed in subtle ways, as we discover a glass house which is supposed to face and reflect the outside world but which turns out to be full of painted nudes, painted from behind, who appear to back away from the candlesticks placed deliberately by their side. In short, the décor constitutes a catalogue of sexual positions.

Chabrol clearly avoids making moral judgements. As is his usual approach, Chabrol acts as an entomologist, pinpointing his characters’ behaviour with the aid of allegorical clues, cleverly scattered throughout the film, a film which is above all a study of good and evil. But let’s not dwell too much on the names of the characters: Gabrielle, the angel of Annunciation in the feminine, Marie the mother, not to mention Charles whose only saintly feature is his name.

As for the world of television, on the fringes of which Gabrielle finds herself, we see behind the scenes of this world, which is haunted by very cathodic puppets.

Chabrol plays with our imagination just as an old cat plays with a ball of wool. He films his characters in profile at points when they are trying to hide what they know. The perverted acts that Charles forces Gabrielle to perform are never shown. Chabrol always suggests, but never reveals. So nothing is revealed of the pleasure parties in an exclusive club frequented by the most prominent figures in the capital of the Gauls, whose discretion is legendary. In less artistic hands, La Fille coupée en deux could have become a pornographic film. With Chabrol, the pornography is all in the mind. Fortunately, in this poetic and moral tale of salvation, the film ends with Gabrielle paradoxically regaining her integrity, literally being cut up with a saw during a session of magic orchestrated by her uncle. Shedding more light on this luminous fable about falling from grace and then finding redemption, like indeed many of Hitchcock’s films, Claude Chabrol himself comments: “salvation in such a fake world can only happen with the aid of even more special effects”.

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