Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Les Biches (1968) - Claude Chabrol




Chabrol's The Does follows the story of two women and the man who comes between them. Frédérique (Chabrol regular, Stéphane Audran) is a well-to-do Parisian who one day comes across this actractive woman drawing deer on the pavement (Jacqueline Sassard), a woman who only gives the name Why when questioned. The two quickly start up a relationship, barely days later moving into Frédérique's St Tropez home where her two acquaintances, Fernand Robèque and Jacques Riais, have alread settled into their comfortable riviera lifestyle. The relationship is complicated when firstly, Why falls in love with an attractive poker player (Paul Thomas played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who she meets at a party, then furthermore when Frédérique steals him away to Paris for a few days. The film's dramatic focus in the final reel is on Why, her jealousy, hatred, sense of betrayal and the vengeance she decides to enact.



It becomes abundantly clear aearly on in the film that Chabrol is a master of creating his characters in 3 dimensions. Everything from the clothes they wear to the rooms the inhabit tells us aout who they are, not to mention the specific maneurisms and body language key to each charcter's unique personality. The comic relief for instance, Fernand and Jacques, are effeminate, garishly dressed with a ribald sense of humour to match. When they are sent to follow Why after the party they do so in the most unsubtle manner possible, with some funny results. Converesely Why heself is a creature of ice coolness. Her clothes are neat, usually drkly coloured, her hair rarely out of place and her makeup always impeccable. There's always a sense that there's something beneath her icy curface more sinister, darker, but we never know what that is exactly as it becomes evermore masked by the chic gallic sensuality she exudes from every pore - similar in many ways to that of an Emmanuelle Béart character - only without the apparent innocence of Béart. The same goes for Frédérique, who's smartly expensive designer clothes perpetuate her higher social status than those around her, the hunting trophies on the walls of her St Tropez home reflecting her predatory nature. A young femme fatale and a sexual predator, with a rather charming middle class businessman caught in the middle.



The characters, richly drawn as they are, are not quite so simple though - nor are the relationships that bind them. Frédérique and Why get very close surprisingly quickly, almost unnaturally so after their first encounter on the streets of Paris; similarly the way Why becomes attached to Paul seems almost too quick for her persona. It is this "unnaturalness" in the development of the relationships that, i think, reveals some of what is going on below the surface. You have to wonder pourquoi is this happening quite the way it does; what is motivating these people to coalesce. At first it would seem the two women are connected on a purely lustful basis, that being liberal 1960s women they want to explore each other's bodies as much as their souls. The seduction of Why would certainlys eem to be a sexual liason, if not physically enacted then at least in the atmosphere of their early scenes. But taking Why back to her home outside of Paris suggests a maternal element in the couple, an element that becomes more exagerrated in the matriarchical structure of the living arrangements in St Tropez. Once there it is clear Frédérique rules the roost, she commands the men she plays poker with when it is time to settle up and the two men who live with her are always unashamedly subservient to her, although it's never made clear exactly why they live with her. My assumption is that they are with her for the money, and that Why is there almost for the same reason.



Why never mentions a family, so there is certainly reciprocation of the maternal element on her part, but also it has to be remembered that she was selling drawings on the streets for money. She was clearly never comfortable economically, perhaps this new relationship offers financial as well as emotional reward? Given this proposition, some of what Why says takes ona slightly different meaning: when she says she is a virgin this, at first, seems like an emotional opening, a brutal honesty to demonstrate commitment - however now this could be the start of a honeytrap; it gives Frédérique a position of sexual authority through which she can exert control over the seemingly impressionable Why, which is probably playing right into Why's hands. Why's calculating manner becomes further apparent during the poker game, during which she uses her body language and raw sensuality to make Paul seduce her. Paul, of course, will believe it was him who made the first move but suring the scene it is Why who makes a point of grabbing his attention, and focuses all of her energies on him for the whole night. This suggestion of coldness, of cynical calculation could be overlooked if it weren't for the film's climax in which Why becomes a creature of pure cold calculation, that uses her charms to get her way in a manner until then one wouldn't have thought possible (or if thought possible, then thought would have been quickly dismissed).



This writing of characters and relationships would be the film's highlight, if it weren't for Chabrol's wonderful visual style, placing his characters in scenes and filming them in such as way as to make each shot seem at once perfectly natural, and the conception of a great artist. His tracking shots give the scenes fluidity whilst reminaing impressive on thier own technical merits, whilst the us of focus both shallow and occasionally - deep - allows him to let shots linger than other more impatient dirctors would be inclined. With Jean Rabier's expert cinematography, utilising the St Tropez light to its fullest, Chabrol is able to place his engaging drama amonst a series of splendid tabeau compositions, each wonderful in their own right and moreso when they flow together so eloquently. In Le Mépris Fritz Lang says of Cinemascope, "Oh, it wasn't meant for human beings. Just for snakes... and funerals.", a sentiment echoed in Chabrol style here. He doesn't shoot either snakes or funerals, but what he does do, to maximise the use of the widescreen frame, is have his characters sleeping or reclining through an awful lot of the film. Be it on a bed, a chez longue or simply on some grass he [Chabrol] does not let an inch of visible space go to waste in producing a gripping humanist drama that works on many levels of impact.



I'm not saying The Does is Chabrol's finest work to date - some of the dialogue for instance is more than slightly clumsy, "I'm going to make unbridled love to you" cutting througha romantic scene like a knife at one stage; what i am however saying is that it's a deceptively complex, well crafted piece of cinema that undoubtedly warrants further analysis and critique. One not jst for the Chabrol completists, but for any film-viewer no matter what their tastes. 7/10

11 comments:

Emma said...

Excellent review. I've not seen this yet, but I'm a fan of Chabrol, so I'll look out for it.

Love the blog, by the way. :) I've linked you. :D

red shoes on a thuuursday said...

"les biches" is one of my favorite films.

stephane audran is magnificent.

juju said...

Yes, really excellent review.

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