Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Girl Cut In Two

Claude Chabrol's latest film, A Girl Cut In Two, is two hours spent with some of the most smug, obnoxious, hypocritical people you'd never want to meet — and who, despite the time spent with them in their upper-class milieu, you never really do get to meet in any meaningful way. Chabrol, always a detached director, seems here less interested than ever in character psychology or the exploration of motivations, and more interested in surfaces, appearances, and language. One of the main characters, Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), is a writer who is obsessed with quotation, who likes to end conversations by using someone else's words; an odd tic for someone who produces his own original words for a living, but a very appropriate indication of the kind of distance that Chabrol is striving for here. The film continually raises questions about its characters and then refuses to answer them, discreetly looking away at pivotal moments, either directly (a cut to black prematurely cuts off the film's shocking climax) or indirectly (key conversations drift along on the soundtrack while Chabrol's camera wanders off elsewhere to shoot walls or flowers).

The girl of the title is the TV weather girl Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), a charming, naïve young woman who soon attracts the attention of two rival men who already have a somewhat mysterious antipathy towards each other: the writer Saint-Denis, a local celebrity of sorts, and the spoiled, arrogant Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the heir to a fortune earned by his father and squandered in idleness ever since. The story is somewhat typical, as Gaudens becomes infatuated with Gabrielle, who leads him on but always stops short of returning his affections, instead throwing herself wholeheartedly at the much older Saint-Denis, a compulsive womanizer who seems mainly to be using her, enjoying her youth and her capacity for sexual molding. "I'll teach you," he says, and teach her he does, indoctrinating her into a sexually subservient role in which she'll do anything for him, from dressing up with a tail of peacock feathers to spending a night at a shady swingers' club where he passes her around amongst his friends. The material is sordid, but Chabrol's camera is discreet almost to a fault, suggesting a great deal without ever showing a thing. The film is inscribed with a curiously bourgeois outlook, in which whispers and rumors convey the plot more so than what is actually seen. In this upper-class country town, the sordidness of the inhabitants' lifestyle is papered over with a tastefulness that doesn't stop some of the more juicy rumors from being circulated in private: the incident involving Gaudens, some friends, and the kidnapping of a group of underage girls; the goings-on at a private little club where the upstairs room, never shown, seems to hide all kinds of debauchery; the suggestions of homosexual encounters in the pasts of both Gaudens and Saint-Denis. The connection between these two men, the source of their mutual hatred for one another, could lie in any of these distasteful little stories, which provide so little outrage from anyone. When Saint-Denis tells his puppy-dog-faithful wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli) about the rumors regarding Gaudens and the young girls, and the way his family connections got the whole incident covered up, all she can muster to say is, "I never judge anyone." This lack of judgment, this utter black hole of morality, sucks all of these people into its orbit; they won't judge, because they're all just as guilty.

Chabrol's bourgeois satire may be slightly passé to the extent that he's satirizing this amoral outlook — so the rich are despicable, you say? — but the film is more interesting and complicated in its consideration of chauvinism and the role of women. Chabrol has often been indicted for the misogyny of his male characters, and it's easy to imagine the same mistaken interpretations cropping up here. In fact, the film is a somewhat devastating critique of the limited options open to women in a society that continues to view them first and foremost as sex objects. The lovely Gabrielle experiences this subtle restriction firsthand, as no man she meets can fail to tell her how beautiful she is. Underpinning her every interaction with her boss or her male coworkers at the TV station is an unspoken sexual bargaining, communicated in looks and too-long touches, a sense that these men are constantly feeling her out, trying to leverage their influence on her career into sexual favors. As is characteristic of these people, they're too discreet to come right out and say it, but it's obvious anyway, apparent in everything they do and say. Gabrielle is surrounded by men who want her, which makes it hard to see why she might see something different in Saint-Denis, who she falls for almost on sight. Chabrol never explains this relationship, but he does convey its intensity: the only sexy moment in this nearly passionless film is a tight closeup of the couple sharing a playful, teasing series of kisses.

Despite this passion, what Gabrielle never seems to realize is that Saint-Denis is just another version of her slightly grabby boss, admittedly somewhat more suave and self-possessed but no less sexually manipulative or exploitative. And yet she runs to this man with giddy love, cheerfully lets him demean her, collapses into a zombie-like isolation and depression when he leaves her. Gabrielle is a bit of a naif, but she's also the only character in the film who lets a genuine sense of her feelings shine through, while everyone else is hiding in plain sight. At one point, when Gabrielle and Saint-Denis are at the height of their very public affair, she somewhat regretfully says that this is all having a great effect on Saint-Denis' wife Dona, who mopes around and cries all the time now. But when Dona appears in the next scene, she's in good cheer, teasing her husband and bantering with him and the couple's good friend Capucine (Mathilda May), a sexually voracious older woman who's frequently at the same sex club as Saint-Denis. Only Gabrielle seems to be really affected by things, although Paul, who's forthrightly childish in his spoiled insistence on getting his own way, seems to have the same capacity for emotional expression. The difference is that he's continually being pulled up short by an ambiguous friend, valet, or bodyguard who's always hanging around nearby, ready to stop Paul from going too far — which he accomplishes with a simple gesture, placing a hand gently on his shoulder, that is strangely imbued with a homoerotic subtext and emphasized by the way that Chabrol films these moments, the hand always emerging from offscreen with a jarring detachment from whatever's going on in the scene.

This detachment extends, in various ways, throughout the film, which is alternately intriguing and infuriating in its refusal to delve very far into these mostly unlikeable characters. The flat tone occasionally gives way to touches of wry, dark comedy — especially from the fey, needy Paul and his precisely caricatured upper-crust family — but for the most part Chabrol keeps the proceedings dry, even arid. One gets the sense that he directed the entire picture with one eyebrow strenuously raised, and no other expression on his face. Which is why the final sequence, in contrast, is so deeply moving, and so puzzling in relation to the rest of the film. As Chabrol unexpectedly literalizes and visualizes his title — that perfect metaphor for a girl not only torn between two men but torn apart by a societal framework with no respect for her — he lingers on a gorgeous, affecting, poignant closeup of Gabrielle, struggling to appear as detached and unconcerned as everyone else in the film, but still unable to keep a single tear from running down her face. It's an extraordinary moment, one that drives home just what a good choice Sagnier was for this part: capable of girlish glee and darker, more subtly shaded emotions alike, she possesses the film's only real beating heart, and she keeps it alive pretty much singlehandedly.


James Hansen said...

"Chabrol has often been indicted for the misogyny of his male characters, and it's easy to imagine the same mistaken interpretations cropping up here. In fact, the film is a somewhat devastating critique of the limited options open to women in a society that continues to view them first and foremost as sex objects."

I understand what you are saying here, especially as Sagnier's character remains an object right down to the ending where she is the object on display in a magic show, but I don't think the script or direction ever take the leap into becoming a critique of this system. If anything, while showing some sympathy, I think Chabrol shows himself to be a part of it by allowing the males completely off the hook. Even in the end result for Saint Denis (don't want to spoil), it only occurs because of the other male. The female has so little to do with the equation and the film seems so uninterested in her side of things that I can't find much of a case of critique. I think there is certainly material that can support it (even what I just said, more or less, supports the idea you present) but the film never goes there beyond its pretty thin surface.

Don't know if you saw my review on Out 1, but we have quite different views on the ending. It just seemed so overstated and obvious in a film that had consistently been frustratingly understated. The metaphor certainly works, but I think it is implicit in what comes before. Plus the addition of the uncle character is very sloppy and tacked on. I appreciate what the film tries to do at the end, but its success is another thing.

Ed Howard said...

James: Before seeing the movie, I browsed your review enough to get a sense that you didn't like it much, and I've now it read it in full. I don't necessarily disagree with a lot of what you say (other than the ending, obviously). The film charts this odd middle ground between critiquing the bourgeois outlook of its characters and embodying that same outlook, especially in regards to the way Chabrol keeps frustratingly cutting away whenever the more outre subject matter starts to come up. To some extent, this maddening discretion does wind up emphasizing the sexuality churning below the surface, but I grant that it's also fairly problematic. I think I made clear that the film is only intermittently successful, and that to some extent the bad and the good are two sides of the same coin here.

You criticize the film for its depiction of Gabrielle as not learning her lesson, but I don't think that's entirely fair. She's been exploited and manipulated, but to her credit she rejects Saint-Denis when he tries to get her to call off the wedding to Paul, and I think Chabrol actually has great affection for her openness and sincerity and positivity, even as he mourns her bad decisions and the constricting conditions that encourage those decisions. He allows her to keep her dignity and humanity even through the worst humiliations, something that can't be said of any of the film's other characters. This may be another reason why the film doesn't show more of the S&M -- Chabrol doesn't want to engage in too much sexual ogling of this woman who is being put through so much already.

For me, the ending works beautifully, and increased my appreciation for the film tremendously, when there were various points before that where I was becoming frustrated and/or annoyed. The last scene, despite the somewhat haphazard plotting leading up to it, is beautiful in itself, and it really crystallizes the film's impact. If there are moments earlier in the film where it's possible to wonder what the point of all this is, that scene dispels any doubt: it's an obvious criticism of the way Gabrielle has been treated as an object, displayed and manipulated, acted upon rather than being allowed to act herself. It's also one of the film's most emotional scenes: that closeup of the crying Gabrielle, turning her head from the audience in embarrassment (only to encounter another audience in the movie theater), followed by the fake smile she displays, is just devastating.