Thursday, April 26, 2012

La femme infidèle

It is already apparent from the first few moments of Claude Chabrol's La femme infidèle that this film will be concerned with domesticity and the illusion of the happy home. The film opens at the lavish country estate of the Desvallées family, Charles (Michel Bouquet), his wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran), and their son Michel (Stéphane di Napoli). They're enjoying an idyllic, relaxing day at home, sitting on the sunny lawn, enjoying one another's company. They come together around a table in an almost parodic, self-conscious tableau of domestic tranquility and shared love, and then Chabrol blurs the image, erasing this happy family into an indistinct smear as the credits roll and the suggestive title appears, announcing right up front that this seeming peace and perfection is all a lie.

Chabrol is, in his usual stoical, subtle way, examining the fault lines and secrets of this ideal family. Even if the title didn't telegraph much of the film's plot up front, it would be obvious early on that something is amiss here: the family seems somehow too happy, everything too smooth and frictionless, their smiles too sweet and their chatter too banal. A bedroom scene reveals the sexless detachment between the couple, a disjunction between the smoldering sensuality of Hélène and the staid, lazy comfort of Charles, who seems to be taking his wife for granted, slipping easily into middle-aged boredom. As he himself admits, he's set in his ways, unwilling to change, not interested in exercising to get rid of his middle-aged paunch, a sign of his complacency. Chabrol pans from Charles lying in bed in pajamas, the covers pulled up over him, across the room to Hélène, framed by a doorway, doing her nails in a very short nightie, her long legs curled up and extended sensually, a very provocative and sexy image. Back across the room, Charles gets out of bed and turns on a record of pleasant classical music, then gets back under the covers. When Hélène joins him, she doesn't get under the sheets but stretches her body out on the bed, in a pose that all too obviously offers sex, though Charles, tightly repressed beneath the covers, barely seems interested. In this rigorously composed sequence, Chabrol has laid out, through body language and his clinically precise camera movements, the essential dysfunction of this marriage, which is superficially happy, all smiles and sunny days, but totally devoid of passion.

It's no surprise, then, that Hélène is spending many of her days in Paris with a lover, Victor (Maurice Ronet). While it's always sunny and edenic at her home with Charles, she goes to see her lover in the rainy city, walking through a downpour, then reclining in a postcoital bed with an unreadable expression on her face. The film's title would suggest that this is going to be a study of an adulterous woman, but Chabrol doesn't explore Hélène's reasons for her affair, doesn't delve into what she feels for this man she visits during the week. There's obviously passion between them, in a way that there just isn't with Charles, and that's it. More than her adultery and her psychology, the film is about the nature of marriage and the nuclear family, the nature of happiness, even. Because a pivotal event over halfway through the film disrupts the family's happiness and reveals just how illusory their contentment and stability are; on the surface, nothing happens, but the familial interplay has been unbalanced, its illusion of perfection fading away into affectless going-through-the-motions and awkwardness.

Chabrol makes this discomfort felt especially in a strange evening where tensions arise over Michel's jigsaw puzzle, which is missing a piece. The boy's constant complaining about the puzzle irritates his parents, and they all begin sniping at each other, letting all their long-suppressed feelings come to the surface. In one telling moment, the boy accuses his father of hiding the puzzle piece, which is a nonsensical accusation that points to something else entirely: Charles has not hidden the puzzle piece, but he has hidden something else, a body, and in doing so he's also undone the secret foundation that this happy home had been built upon. The missing puzzle piece is both a corpse and the family's very happiness.

Interestingly, the way the family falls apart like this after Hélène's affair ends suggests that what was holding this family together all along was the wife and mother's ability to find pleasure outside the home; without Victor, she just lounges around the house, her face blank, not even bothering to get dressed. Everyone else has a reason to go out — Michel to school and Charles to work — but she had only her affair, because otherwise she's just a housewife in a sumptuous bourgeois house where all the work is done by maids and servants, her very comfort and her security leading to her boredom and disaffection.

The film's ending is perhaps its most interesting part, so rich in subtext that it elevates the film to a whole other level. Hélène finally discovers a shocking truth about her husband, but rather than confront him or get angry with him, she burns the evidence of what he did, and then walks towards him in a remarkable shot, Chabrol's camera tracking with her, observing the strange, secret smile that keeps threatening to flicker across her lips, her love for her husband reignited in the most surprising way. The film's final shot is even better, and even more mysterious: what might be a point-of-view shot from Charles' perspective of his wife and son, until the camera begins gliding and tracking to the side, nudging in closer towards the mother and son standing together in their garden, the camera gradually passing behind some bushes so that the family is obscured by the branches, glimpsed through the latticework of foliage. The shot's meaning is ambiguous and complex, loaded with emotional intensity and narrative suggestion, making it a perfect ending to a very thought-provoking film.


DavidEhrenstein said...

This was Chabrol's "comeback" film after to ultra-commercial Tigre series. Yet for me it's just as commercial -- with the wry twist Chabrol supplied to everything.
Clearly Stephane Audran's unfaithful wife gets a specifically sexual thrill from the discovery that her thought-to-be-bland husband has "killed for love.' Tos was written about it at the time but for me it's a warm-up for later Chabrol films where "la famille" is revealed to be a trap.

Sam Juliano said...

Any short list of Chabrol's most influential and revered films must surely include this fascinating thriller, a film that spawned Adrien Lyne's 2002 re-make UNFAITHFUL (a film that won Diane Lane the New York Film Critics Circle Award over the actress and performance that had won everything else that year and rightly so: Julianne Moore in FAR FROM HEAVEN) which pales next to Chabrol's film.

mark s. said...

Amazing how many times this Hitch acolyte surpasses his master, esp. here and in films like 'Le Boucher', which I saw for the first time recently. And Audran is the greatest blonde who never worked in a Hitchcock film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Actually Chabrol has more in common with Frtiz Lang than hitchcock. Explicitly so in Que La Bete Meure, Doctor M. and Marie-Chantal Contre le Dr. Kha

Ed Howard said...

Admittedly I haven't seen the "commercial" films, but to me this film feels very much of a piece with Chabrol's subsequent 70s cycle - though your point about the more cynical treatment of the bourgeois family in later films is right on target, David.

Sam, this definitely belongs in a Chabrol top 10 or so. I've seen Unfaithful and it's not even close to the same level.

Mark, Chabrol certainly takes his Hitchcock influence - and, as David suggests, his Lang influence - to some unexpected places, going way beyond the homage he was sometimes accused of in his early years.

esco 20 said...

To me La Femme Infidele is visual poetry, the first of Chabrol's masterpieces during his golden age of the late 60's and 70's. A visual control and discipline creating an expressive richness of content in ravishing color.
Loved your discussion of the opening sequences of the movie. A fine essay.