Sunday, June 28, 2009


[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Claude Chabrol's Nada is a wry, blackly comic epilogue to the May 1968 period of leftist student uprisings in France. One imagines it as a kind of sequel to Jean-Luc Godard's May '68 cine-tract La Chinoise: Godard's photogenic, slogan-spouting student revolutionaries a few years older, more cynical and worn-out, their political ambitions increasingly remote. They've watched a few more years worth of American gangster pictures and absorbed their lessons from that, picking up the lingo and the affectations, the machine guns and trenchcoats and secret plotting in smoke-filled rooms. They're in love with this image of themselves as romantic revolutionaries, a secretive sect making dramatic political statements through violence, and so naturally they plot to kidnap the American ambassador to France. Chabrol's wit is at its sharpest here, satirically savaging both the inept revolutionaries — whose plot makes no statement or impact of any kind — and the corrupt, smug, casually violent government officials investigating the kidnapping. The ghost of La Chinoise, and of May '68, lingers throughout the film, especially in Chabrol's sly habit of filling a corner of the frame with various bright red lampshades, the Maoist color of so many of the lampshades in Godard's earlier film, and also the color of the painted slogans on the walls, and also the color of blood when it's spilled in these films. Chabrol is making a parody of a leftist film, mocking these supposed revolutionaries who are simply falling into the trap of those they hate so much.

The film is deadpan and as coolly distant as any of Chabrol's works, but it's nevertheless one of his funniest films, as he cuts back and forth between the terrorists executing their plan and the police and government working behind the scenes to foil them. The letists are led by the anarchist Buenaventura Diaz (Fabio Testi), along with his old friend André Épaulard (Maurice Garrel), who has lost his fervor for leftist politics but nevertheless agrees to lend his expertise to the plot. In fact, the politics of this scheme are dubious to begin with, as the statement that the group issues after the successful kidnapping (a hilarious document that describes the scene of the crime as a brothel "where his Excellency was getting laid") admits that they are temporarily compromising their politics, just this once, in order to get a "nest egg" from the ransom. Even before the kidnapping, one of Diaz's friends, the schoolteacher Treuffais (Michel Duchaussoy), drops out, decrying terrorist methods of revolution. The remainder of the group consists of the perpetually drunken D'Arey (Lou Castel), the sarcastic, self-aware Veronique (Mariangela Melato), and Meyer (Didier Kaminka), who is only thinking about getting some money so he can take his wife on vacation.

It's obvious that the revolutionary zeal of 1968 has died down, though the old ideas and the old methods are still around; the eager young revolutionaries of Godard's late 60s films have aged but not matured. They still scrawl red-paint slogans on the walls, still spout the same jargon about capitalism and "the State," still romanticize and fetishize the idea of violent revolt. But if they are mostly just clueless and naïve, their opponents are vicious and uncompromising. They view this kidnapping as little more than an opportunity to strike a blow at their eternal enemies the leftists, to further suppress dissent and discredit their political adversaries. But first, there is infighting within the government itself, and Chabrol documents this with deadpan humor, as the minister of the interior (André Falcon), who always seems to be half-asleep, is confused by his underling's report of various intrigues and counterspying going on within the government. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, the government agencies seem more intent on spying on one another than catching the leftists — when one policeman gives a report, his boss hurries him through the account of the actual investigation, telling him to get to the part where he jailed and interrogated two members of a rival government agency.

Soon enough, though, this intergovernmental squabbling gives way to a concentrated effort to uproot the leftist kidnappers. This effort is led by the detestable Goemond (Michel Aumont), a weaselly henchman who beats up anyone he gets his hands on and doesn't hesitate to use any shady methods. One of the film's most chilling scenes is a conversation between Goemond and his superior in which much goes unsaid. Having found the hideout of the terrorists, they're talking about what happens next, whether the leftists will simply surrender or if they'll try to fight their way through, whether they could be captured alive or if they'll all be killed. They'll probably be killed, is the consensus. And what a shame it would be, they both agree, if the leftists should shoot their hostage, the American ambassador. Why, that would really turn public sentiment against leftist ideas. Nothing is said directly, and both men maintain a crisp, businesslike tone throughout this horrifying exchange, but it's obvious that implicit orders are being given, and just as obvious that they'll be denied later.

Chabrol's point becomes especially clear in the aftermath of the inevitable bloodbath, when the sole survivor of the leftists sits down with a tape recorder and admits that he was wrong, that his methods only fed into exactly what the government wanted, that he was hurting, not helping, his cause. Beneath its satirical surface, the film is a bracing condemnation of political violence, a portrait of the foolishness and uselessness of taking up arms in this haphazard manner, as though kidnapping some poor idiot from a brothel is a profound political statement of any kind.

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