Monday, April 9, 2012
Les bonnes femmes
Les Bonnes Femmes was Claude Chabrol's fourth feature, but in many ways it feels like his true debut, the first of his films in which his style is fully developed. Here, Chabrol largely forgoes the melodramatic and narrative elements of his first two films, as well as the brief detour into lurid Hitchcockian bombast that was À double tour. After that bigger-budget production, he returned to the street-level realism of his first two features, adopting an even rougher and looser style than even those films, while also sharpening his razor-sharp, unpredictable wit. The film follows a group of four young women who all work as salesgirls in an appliance store that never seems to get any customers. They stand around all day, bored and chatting, fending off the lecherous advances of their elderly boss, gossiping and talking about love. The four women are very different. Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is a wild party girl who loves to drink and laugh; she's dating a soldier but won't pass up dalliances with other men whenever he's not around. Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is happily engaged, though her fiancé Henri (Sacha Briquet) is something of a snob who obviously thinks she's uneducated and is afraid of what his cultured parents will think of her. Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is the romantic of the group, a serious young woman who is breathlessly waiting for a true love to come along and sweep her off her feet. Ginette (Stéphane Audran) is more mysterious and independent; she's the only one of the group who doesn't define herself in terms of men, instead sneaking off every night to sing in a variety show, simply because she loves to perform. Out of all the women, she's the only one who's doing something for herself, not seeming to think about men or romance, only doing what she wants to do because she enjoys it — even though she's also strangely embarrassed of her late-night theatrics.
Through his observation of the other three women, Chabrol is exploring the nature of relationships between men and women, and the portrait he paints is not a pretty one. The film is often pitched as a comedy, sometimes even a broadly hilarious one, but percolating underneath its surface humor are some very bitter, cynical conclusions about the nature of romantic love. There are three different templates for love on display here. The most traditional is the relationship between Rita and Henri. They love each other, and she seems happy — she sighs just thinking that he loves her — but the scene where he takes her to meet his parents over lunch reveals the cracks in their seemingly perfect romance. Before his parents show up, he barrages Rita with a series of admonitions and warnings, telling her what she should and shouldn't say, what she should order, and trying to hurriedly catch her up on some details about Michelangelo so she'll appear to know something about art. He's condescending towards her, and in the process reveals some of the uglier undercurrents of this relationship.
A different template for male behavior is provided by the duo of boisterous ladies' man Marcel (Jean-Louis Maury) and his older, out-of-shape friend Albert (Albert Dinan). These two pick up Jane and Jacqueline at the beginning of the film, loudly and laughingly hitting on the girls until finally the more flirtatious Jane gives in and agrees to go out with them that night. They take the girls out for dinner and to a strip club, then, after Jacqueline breaks away from them, they both bring Jane back to Albert's apartment. They're boorish and loutish, putting their hands all over her, clumsily trying to get her to agree to a ménage à trois before she finally just goes off with Marcel alone. Later, the girls run into Marcel and Albert again, at a swimming pool, but this time, they've already gotten what they want from these particular girls, so they just act like even more overt assholes, dunking the girls underwater and chasing them around the pool. Chabrol is obviously dealing with male archetypes here, and while Henri represents the spoiled mama's boy who seems nice enough except for his condescension and pretensions, Marcel and Albert are the perpetually single jerks who are only interested in women for sex, for a night of fun and no more.
Jacqueline stays away from men like this, even politely rejecting the advances of the boyish young guy who sweetly asks her out at her job. She's possessed by the romantic notion of true love, and she thinks she's found it in the form of a mysterious man with a motorcycle, André (Mario David), who's been following her around constantly, stalking her while she's out with friends or at work, but never approaching her directly. She builds up this mystery man into her ideal, and believes that she's in love with him even though she's never met him. When she finally does meet him and begins dating him at the end of the film, Chabrol presents their relationship as exactly the kind of idyllic love that she had imagined it to be, briefly allowing the film to get swept up in Jacqueline's romantic reveries. And then, chillingly, a love scene in a deserted forest area seamlessly transitions into a murder, as André strangles his new lover to death and leaves her limp body in the dirt. Chabrol shoots the scene in such a way that it's ambiguous where lovemaking ends and murder begins: a wide shot shows the two lovers lowering themselves to the ground, André climbing on top of Jacqueline, and then Chabrol cuts to a closer perspective that partially obscures the view of what's going on, as André begins strangling her. One doesn't even notice the moment at which her moans of passion become anguished bird calls of terror and pain.
This turn of events is foreshadowed by the scene where a middle-aged co-worker shows Jacqueline a grisly souvenir, a handkerchief soaked in the blood of a man who'd been publicly executed for killing women. She'd romanticized this man, this killer, referring to him as "so pale and handsome" that all the girls who saw his death were swooning and overwhelmed. Jacqueline looks at the handkerchief with wide eyes and quietly listens to this story, and it's hard to know what she's thinking. This woman may be older than the young women in the film, but it seems that she has not learned any lessons by growing older, she has not rid herself of the naïve romanticism that leads these women to allow themselves to be won over, repeatedly, by cruel, brutish men who don't respect them.
The twist, in the film's final minutes, may seem abrupt, but it's all part of Chabrol's deliberate rejection and subversion of the conventions of romanticism, particularly the kind of goopy Hollywood romanticism offered up by the movies. Chabrol opts instead for gritty, near-documentary realism in many scenes, and the sudden intrusion of narrative at the end of the film only serves to shatter these women's remaining illusions about love and men. Chabrol is rejecting the narrative of romantic love in the most jarring way possible, briefly hinting that everything's going to work out wonderfully for this couple, before abrasively tearing apart the Hollywood happy ending. The formation of the couple, the goal and raison d'etre of so much romantic cinema, is here tragic and deadly rather than cheery. This should have been the obvious destination, though: not only does Chabrol offer several visual clues in which André looks sinister and unsettling even before his true nature is revealed, but the film is scored to a driving thriller soundtrack that seems incongruously creepy and foreboding for much of the movie, until the ending makes sense of it.
Chabrol then drives the point home with a brilliant coda in which a new, anonymous young woman, shy and reserved like Jacqueline was, sits at a table in a club until a man (whose face is never shown) comes up to her and asks her to dance. As they dance, the woman staring pointedly into the camera, while romantic music plays and a disco ball glistens overhead, but the previous scene with André and Jacqueline makes the scene foreboding and sinister. What kind of man is this? What fate awaits this trusting young woman who just wants to find love? Will she be killed — or will she just get her heart broken?