Thursday, June 12, 2008

Innocents With Dirty Hands

A wife's plot to kill her husband, inherit his money, and run off with her young lover goes wrong in incredibly complicated ways (and for very interesting reasons) in Claude Chabrol's Innocents With Dirty Hands. The story is appropriately convoluted, packed with twists, betrayals (and seeming betrayals), and enough reversals to fill up years of a daytime soap opera. In fact, towards the end, a few of these sudden reversals are so dramatically implausible that they seem to be ripped right from a soap plot themselves. What saves the film from being just another needlessly twisty thriller — indeed, what elevates it to the level of a truly great film — is Chabrol's wry, ironic, even bleakly comic eye, which sees in this morbid material the elements of a fantastic farce, as well as a dark commentary on issues of justice and gender.

This ironical slant should be evident from the very opening moments of the film, in which the young writer Jeff (Paolo Giusti) first encounters the lovely Julie (Romy Schneider, in a hypnotizing performance of equal parts iciness and passion). Julie is unhappily married to the much older Louis (Rod Steiger), who was once kind to her but since a heart attack a year earlier has been sinking ever deeper into alcoholism, depression, and unpredictable aggression. In the first few shots of the film, Chabrol shows a closeup of Julie's face, her icy green eyes covered by sunglasses, the sky mirrored in their reflective surfaces. The camera abruptly pulls back, disrupting this contemplative moment and revealing her naked body lounging in the sun, as an orange kite suddenly falls from the sky and lands on her exposed butt. "Do you want your kite back?" she asks Jeff when she sees him standing by, looking embarrassed, and Chabrol is clearly relishing the awkward humor of the situation. Once Jeff has gingerly retrieved his kite, Julie casually turns over, exposing her breasts as she murmers, "And is there anything else you'd like?" This playful seductiveness, coupled with the everyday absurdity of the situation — it's like something out of a teen boy's hyperbolic daydream — infuses the opening with a sultry energy that is soon channeled into much darker emotions as the story progresses.

Nevertheless, Chabrol never completely abandons this ironical tone, carrying his sense of humor and playfulness through the film even when the plot becomes much more serious. This is especially true of Chabrol's treatment of the pair of police inspectors (Pierre Santini and François Maistre) who investigate the mysterious disappearance of Louis. These detectives are introduced as they wait outside Julie's door for her to answer, and when one of them makes an offhand comment about the salt air making his underwear itch, it's hard to miss exactly how seriously Chabrol takes these officers of the law. Indeed, the law and the justice system are not favored with a great deal of respect in this film; Chabrol takes a very dim view of such institutions and their ability to fairly dispense justice. These two detectives, with their smirking inquiries, sexual insinuations, and tendency to latch onto pet theories with very little evidence, are constantly hectoring Julie, at times it seems more out of their own perverted curiosity than for any professional reasons. In one scene, Chabrol frames the two officers on either side of her blank countenance, smiling with barely controlled prurience as they question her about her husband's impotence and ask about the "sexual relations" she had with him.

These officers also have the distinction of lagging just behind the plot in figuring things out. As new revelations are made, the officers, in completely separate scenes from the main action, without actually knowing what's going on, somehow come to conclusions that gibe with what was just shown. Their logic is infallible, their evidence-gathering abilities somewhat less so, but this never stops them from seizing onto each new theory and running with it. The problem is, though the detectives appear to be correct each time they make these assumptions and deductions, the film is filled with so many twists that their theories are soon contradicted by new facts, unbeknownst to these perpetually clueless cops, but revealed to the audience. The film's process of advancing and then deflating such deductive theories mocks the conventional police procedural conventions in which the master detective simply thinks his way through the crime until he finds a solution. The solutions here are almost totally divorced from evidence or even observation, based as they are entirely on preconceptions and clichés. The cops see a pretty young wife, a missing husband, and an also-missing young neighbor, and they don't need to see any more; they're practically blinded from seeing any more by the amassed weight of stereotyping that connects the dots of the little narrative they imagine. Not that the other side of the justice system is depicted as being any better. Julie's lawyer similarly assumes her guilt and begins spewing out, unprompted, an outrageous series of lies that's he concocted for her "defense" without even consulting her.

There's also a real element of sexual politics in Chabrol's critique of the justice system. Perhaps the single thread running throughout the whole film is the rampant misogyny that is expressed, sometimes explicitly, by virtually every male character who encounters Julie. The detectives sneer to each other that Julie is a "slut," again without any evidence for the accusation, while she can hardly meet even one man, even in very official and serious capacities, who fails to remark on her great beauty. Her lawyer's first words to her are that she's a "superb woman," while her husband's financial adviser remarks, as a complete non-sequitur, that she's very pretty. Such comments carry with them all sorts of insinuations — not only of the unconsummated desire these men jealously feel for her, but of the certainty that she must have cheated on her husband and killed him. Her very beauty itself becomes an accusation, evidence of her guilt, and even the judge who hears her case can't help remarking on her looks as though they weighed against her.

It's also interesting that although Julie begins the movie as a plotter, a rather stereotypical manipulative, scheming wife, as the film progresses she becomes more and more the victim, betrayed and used even when she tries to atone for her crimes. Her greatest crime, being a woman, cannot be corrected, and some characters — like the financial adviser whose advances she spurned, and who tells her outright that he hates and distrusts women — can never forgive her for it. She started as a would-be murderess, but she winds up a prostitute for her own husband, humiliated and paid for sex. In a startling sequence of perverse sensuality, he forces her to reenact her love scenes with Jeff, taking the illicit lover's place himself, and later this dynamic is reversed yet again when, in a horrifying scene, Jeff rapes and attacks her for rejecting him. Although the film begins as a rather standard murder thriller, it soon becomes clear that Chabrol is just as interested in teasing out the dense psychological undercurrents of the characters and their relationships as he is in following the curvy road traversed by the narrative. Julie sets out to free herself from an increasingly miserable marriage, but instead she finds herself trapped anew at every turn. She is acted upon but never allowed to really act. And even when it seems that she might find some measure of contentment anyway, various masculine forces will not allow her to, claiming her femininity as their own privilege. This is a film about powerful men, outraged at the idea that this woman does not obey them or give in to their desire. It's no coincidence that a scene towards the end of the film closes with Julie, her clothes torn and her body partially exposed after a brutal rape, lies in a car surrounded by police, all of them gaping in at her, their faces seen above her, leering down. They are in the position of power, observing her defilement with detached irony.

To some extent, this critique of masculine privilege is aided, ironically, by Schneider's own beauty. Her stern, hard-edged classical beauty makes the desire of these men for her not only believable, but palpable. And Chabrol surely does not forget that his own film essentially opens with an invitation to leer at the actress' naked body, a moment of sexual exploitation that takes on new significance by the end of the film, as Chabrol systematically shows the devastating effects of such attempts at sexual control. At the end of the film, Schneider's body is again exposed, but this time the audience is placed at one remove, watching the police watch her instead of directly ogling her form. Innocents With Dirty Hands is a masterfully executed film from Chabrol, who dedicates equal effort to his thriller's complex plot mechanics and to the dense layers of satire embedded within the narrative. The result is a film that works on multiple levels, completely satisfying its generic obligations even as it interrogates the gender assumptions so often at the heart of the thriller genre.


RC said...

If nothing else, it has a fun title.

I don't know if I'm generally into ironicly toned films myself.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Did you notice that the Julie Wormser character was in fact the one and only female seen in the entire film, even in the outdoor cafe. Also there seemed to be an odd pairing and polarization of the male characters. I have seen this film many times, and have not tired of it yet. Each time I see something new. The musical score certainly helps.