Pioneer of the 'new wave' in French cinema who pilloried the bourgeoisie while sharing many of its values
Published 19/09/2010 | 05:00
Claude Chabrol, who died last Sunday aged 80, was among the filmmakers who revolutionised French cinema in the late-Fifties as part of what came to be known as the "new wave".
When Chabrol made his first film, Le Beau Serge, in 1958, he shot it in black-and-white, on location in his home town of Sardent, with the then-unknown players Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy.
The first feature film of the new wave, it was a critical and commercial success, enabling Chabrol immediately to shoot a second, Les Cousins (1959).
Chabrol used the profits from Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins to fund Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion (1959) and Philippe de Broca's Les Jeux de l'Amour (1960) and Le Farceur (1961). He also acted as "technical adviser" on Jean-Luc Godard's first feature, A Bout de Souffle (1959).
Squat, bespectacled and rotund, Chabrol was a bon vivant and something of a gourmet, losing no opportunity in his films for a feast or a banquet. Wags said that they would not recognise a Chabrol film without, at the very least, a good domestic "blowout".
Though in his work he pilloried the bourgeoisie, he was himself of this class and shared many of its values: property, wealth and domesticity. While two of his marriages failed, he retained a touching faith in the institution itself.
Born in Paris on June 24 1930, the son of a pharmacist, Claude Chabrol grew up at Sardent, 150 miles south of the capital.
Movie-mad as a boy, he ran a film club from a barn at the age of 12, developing an early taste for thrillers and detective stories. To please his father, he studied pharmacy at the Sorbonne and was expected to enter the family business.
After his military service, however, he abandoned medicine and, aged 25, landed what should have been a plum job as head of publicity for 20th Century Fox in Paris. It did not work out.
By their lights, Chabrol proved "the worst press officer they'd ever seen" and he was fired after a year, taking consolation from the fact that he was succeeded by a worse one, Jean-Luc Godard.
At this time he began to associate with film buffs at the Cinematheque Francaise in the Avenue de Messina and at the Cine-Club des Quartiers Latins. The "gang", all of whom became film-makers in their own right, included Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. They were all of a similar mind and began to write regularly for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.
Between them they developed a philosophy of cinema, arguing that no film should be judged in isolation but in the context of its director's previous work and of the conventions of its genre. Impersonal French films of the time were dismissed in favour of what they regarded as the more individual ones of Roberto Rossellini, Carl Dreyer and Fritz Lang and a whole slate of Hollywood film-makers hitherto barely taken seriously.
Head of the pantheon in their eyes was Alfred Hitchcock, and in 1957 -- with Eric Rohmer -- Chabrol published a pioneering study that for the first time analysed Hitchcock's work in the context of his Catholic upbringing. Hitchcock remained a prime influence on Chabrol.
After the initial enthusiasm, Chabrol's critical standing went sharply into reverse. Self-indulgent art-house fare such as A Double Tour (1959), Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) and Les Godelureaux (1961) was followed by palpably commercial potboilers with lip-smackingly lurid titles: The Tiger Likes Fresh Blood (1964), Marie-Chantal v Dr Kah and An Orchid for the Tiger (both 1965). Chabrol did himself no favours by seeming to relish this work. "In drivel like the Tiger series," he said, "I really wanted to get the full extent of the drivel. They were drivel so, okay, let's get into it up to our necks." Not surprisingly, questions began to be asked about him -- whether he was simply a one-string-fiddle man who had happened to be in the right place at the right time with just enough money to shake up the addled French film industry of 1958, but without the staying power and originality of Truffaut and Godard.
It was a premature judgment. In 1968 Chabrol met the producer Andre Genoves, who gave him a free hand to make the film of his choice. He picked Les Biches, an intense psychological study of a three-way struggle for sexual domination between a bisexual woman, her protegee and the handsome architect who becomes the lover of both.
Between 1967 and 1973 he produced a stream of outstanding dramas, many starring his wife Stephane Audran, in which he put the bourgeoisie under the microscope, exposing its prejudices and hypocrisies yet defending the strength of family ties. They included La Femme Infidele and Que la Bete Meure (1969), La Rupture (1970), Just Before Nightfall (1971) and Les Noces Rouges (1973).
Chabrol never recaptured the consistency of his best years but remained a prolific director, making around 60 films in all. Occasional high spots stood out from the many pedestrian works he undertook merely to keep in practice, among which was a shoddy remake of Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse called Dr M (1987).
He was under no illusions about these films and cheerfully nominated one of them, The Twist (1976), as the second-worst film ever made.
Some of his best work in later years was with the actress Isabelle Huppert, whom he first directed in Violette Noziere (1978), the story of a notorious murderess who poisoned her family.
Chabrol was also active in television, for which he made two Henry James short stories in 1973, four episodes of Histoires Insolites in 1974 and, in 1993, an ambitious documentary about occupied France, The Eye of Vichy.
With the beginning of the new century, Chabrol seemed to regain his earlier form, making a number of films which were quite well-received. They included Merci pour le Chocolat (2000), The Bridesmaid (2004) and The Comedy of Power (2006).
A Girl Cut in Two (2007) turned on a rich family's attempt to freeze out their son's widow. His last film was Bellamy (2009), with Gerard Depardieu.
Chabrol was married three times: to Agnes Goute, the actress Stephane Audran (born Colette Dacheville) and Aurore Paquiss. He had three sons.