Alfred Hitchcock was the first to admit that not all of his films were classics, but even he stopped short of the forthrightness of the French director most often compared to him.
When you make a film for almost every year of your adult life, it’s impossible to expect every one to be a masterpiece, although Chabrol himself felt even more strongly. “I must make awful crap from time to time, it is professionally inescapable, but it bothers me to do such things with material I care about,” he once confessed, adding, “I’ve done a lot of bad films, but I was always aware of it. Sometimes such a film will be very popular. I have made frightful rubbish which went down very well with critics and public alike.”
It’s fitting that this Paris-born director was his own harshest critic, since he first made his name in the film world writing for Cahiers du Cinéma alongside the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer in the late 50s. He also co-wrote a book, with Rohmer, about Hitchcock.
Chabrol is also generally acknowledged as being the driving force behind the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) that washed away conservative French film-making and ushered in a radical new style. As well as directing acclaimed films such as Le Beau Serge (1958), Les Cousins (1959) and Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Chabrol also acted as ‘technical consultant’ on Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (1959) and is credited with kick-starting the careers of Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer.
Les Bonnes Femmes is often seen as the pivotal point in Chabrol’s career. Although he himself was immensely proud of his portrait of four Parisian girls who each choose different ways of coping with life, the public hated it. “It was a disaster,” Chabrol noted. “People ripped up the seats because they disliked it so much. After that, I made three films, each less successful than the one before. Even Landru (1962), which did quite well, couldn’t make up for the failures, so I was in real difficulties.”
The way Chabrol was forced to confront these difficulties was by making, in his eyes, more and more populist fare. Like Truffaut, he left the sheltered waters of the New Wave and tried to produce films which would make money. The irony was that, while French critics castigated him for being too commercial, he still wasn’t deemed commercial enough for French (and world) audiences.
Ten years after his first feature (which had been funded by an inheritance from his first wife), Chabrol finally hit the jackpot in the late 60s with a series of movies in which murder and death loomed large. “I like films to end in death, I must have a killing somewhere,” he said as films such as Les Biches (1968), Le Boucher (1969) and Que La Bête Meure (1969) made a killing around the world (although he later discovered that the reason Les Biches did spectacularly well in Italy was because it meant ‘The Lesbians’).
In the 70s, Chabrol’s increased commercial status led to a succession of increasingly ragged international productions (Docteur Popaul with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Innocents with Dirty Hands with Rod Steiger and Romy Schneider), although he could still be guaranteed to turn an audience’s blood cold in movies based on real-life murders such as Les Noces Rouges and Violette Nozière.
This fascination with death cemented Chabrol’s reputation as the French Hitchcock, though he was always more interested in why someone was killing rather than their actual identity. And although from good bourgeois stock himself (both his father and his grandfather were successful pharmacists), Chabrol’s films have always taken great delight in picking away at the decaying corpse of the French bourgeoisie, with the director seeing himself as a provocateur who subverts from within.
The tone of Chabrol’s films may have been inconsistent, but the one thing that never changed was his constant use of certain actresses. Stéphane Audran was married to the director for over 20 years and starred in over 20 of his movies, while Chabrol said about most recent muse Isabelle Huppert: “She is the ideal actress for many of the things I want to say about women.”
Unsurprisingly, Chabrol’s output decreased over the years but he remains one of the most enigmatic figures of French cinema. Like a Gallic Woody Allen, he slipped off the filmmaking radar but kept making low-budget films for a loyal audience. And just like Allen, his latest film was invariably called “a welcome return to form” by sanctimonious critics who undoubtedly used the same epithet for his previous movie.
Chabrol knew better than most that critics aren’t to be trusted, but the director probably wouldn’t have argued with David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film assessment: “Despite ups and downs, Chabrol’s is a career that cries out for retrospectives.”
Chabrol died in 2010.