Behind the mask of Claude Chabrol


The career of celebrated French film director Claude Chabrol, who died in September, spanned five decades and more than 50 films. But the director of thrillers like The Butcher and The Flower of Evil leaves behind an enduring mystery about himself and the true focus of his work. Jean Douchet, an authority on French cinema and a lifelong friend of Chabrol, offers a clue to understanding both.

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Claude Chabrol, the celebrated and revered French film director who died in Paris on September 12th, aged 80, remains an enigma for many. Despite an unusually prolific directing career, making more than 50 films since 1959, he was a very private man who shunned the traditional gloss and glamour surrounding the film industry.

Jean Douchet is an authority on French cinema, himself a director, critic and university lecturer, who also runs the ciné-club, a projection and debating centre at the Paris-based Cinémathèque française. He remained a lifelong friend of Chabrol, ever since the two men first met in the mid-1950s, when they worked together as film critics on the French cinema magazine of reference, Cahiers du cinéma.

"What happened with Chabrol is what would have happened with Godard or Rohmer," Douchet told Mediapart. "We don't see each other for years but when we meet up again the conversation picks up exactly where it left off, and it's always about cinema." In this interview, recorded shortly after Chabrol's death, Douchet talks about the work and personality of one of France's greatest film-makers.

Q: The thing that stands out above all from Claude Chabrol's films is his harsh take on the French middle classes. Is that appreciation too summary?

J.D.: I would say that, for French cinema, he was the equivalent of Fassbinder in Germany, Fellini in Italy, Almodovar in Spain, or even a Hitchcock during his British-based period. He was among those who were interested by the vulgarity of their country, and who film this vulgarity with beauty and grace. Without that, vulgarity can very quickly become quite scary.

From a sociological point of view, Chabrol filmed neither monarchs nor the people. He placed his characters within a quite restricted [social] range, between the lower and upper middle classes. A little like Eric Rohmer. Yes, of course, he filmed [stories about] the French bourgeoisie. But it was more complicated than that. He filmed that feeling of helplessness people get when they cannot become what they would like to be, when they cannot reach what they aspire to be. He worked on this form of regret which, when someone become conscious of it, leads to a sort of human mediocrity.

This is evident in A double tour (1959), a magnificent film, perhaps a little too mannered, which I saw again on television just a few days ago. In this film, beauty is unreachable.

(A double tour. A husband plans to leave his wife to join his mistress, but his son opposes him. In the setting of a tormented bourgeois family, each man discovers the image of his own mediocrity, reflected in their relationships with the beautiful and generous mistress.)

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