Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid is a somewhat typical film for Claude Chabrol, a chilly, unsettling, at times darkly humorous movie that's nominally a thriller but doesn't put much emphasis at all on plot or mystery or even suspense. Philippe (Benoît Magimel) is a serious young man who falls in love with Senta (Laura Smet), a bridesmaid at his sister's wedding, a cousin of the groom. Senta, unfortunately, turns out to be utterly crazy, a lunatic femme fatale who says that the couple are fated to be together, and whose declarations of love are from the very beginning tinged with more than a hint of obsession. Philippe, who must be somewhat crazy himself, just can't stay away, even when she demands that he kill for her, and he keeps convincing himself that her crazier moments are playful performances — she's an actress, she says, who's had roles with Woody Allen and John Malkovich — rather than genuine expressions of the deeper malaise lurking behind her placid face.

Smet gives a fine, subtly creepy performance here, projecting a mild, blank exterior with an occasional slyly upturned smile, her very tranquility what makes her so unnerving. Magimel is playing a role very similar to his part in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher: a handsome, ambitious, slightly smug young man who gets way over his head in a relationship with stakes he doesn't fully understand. Not that Philippe is entirely normal, and there's an aura of sexual dysfunction throughout the film that feeds into the passionate affair between Philippe and Senta.

There's some awkward sexual tension between Philippe and his mother, Christine (Aurore Clément), in the opening scenes, some ambiguity in their relationship which is then transmuted into the stone carving of a woman's head that the family has dubbed Flora. Christine's boyfriend says that the statue looks like her, and when Philippe first sees Senta, he says that she looks like Flora, whereupon the camera pans over to the now-empty pedestal where the head had once sat, since they'd given it as a gift to Christine's boyfriend. Philippe steals it back and keeps it illicitly in his room, taking it out to admire when no one is around, as though it's a pornographic secret that he can only appreciate in private. This stone head is a locus of complex, unstated feelings, a surrogate for Senta with her blank, unreadable expressions, and Philippe frequently sleeps with the stone head curled up in his arms as though he's embracing a lover with an invisible body. At one point, he even holds the head tenderly and kisses Flora on the lips, kissing both his mom and his lover through this unfeeling stone, an uncomplicated stand-in for the flesh-and-blood women in his life.

Chabrol was, of course, always a big admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose thrillers provided something of a structuring principle for Chabrol's entire career, a central influence that he was continually mining and circling around. This is especially true here, and The Bridesmaid is built around a warped version of the murder-exchange deal from Strangers on a Train, with Senta asking Philippe to commit a murder for him, and she'll do the same for him, as a way of proving their love for one another. Chabrol doesn't delve into the suspense of the situation, since it's obvious from almost the moment she's introduced that Senta is disturbed, so the only real questions in the film arise from various misunderstandings and coincidences, with the "wrong" men being murdered. Chabrol then ends the film with a not-so-shocking but still satisfying revelation, unveiling a dessicated corpse with all the flair of Hitchcock's shot of Norman Bates' mother in Psycho — though of course Chabrol, never terribly interested in pat psychology or definitive explanations, ends the film there rather than dealing with the psychoanalytical aftermath.

There's some chilling material here, hinted at by the opening scenes in which Philippe and his family watch a TV report about a missing girl, which Chabrol uses as an opportunity to mock the exploitative, grisly sensationalism of TV news reports of violence, projecting these spectacles of suffering into meticulously decorated suburban living rooms. But the film is also darkly funny, with a subtle undercurrent of humor that tweaks the thriller and murder mystery conventions of the story; this is best seen in the moment when a police detective, tailing Philippe through a park, walks across the frame and steps in a big pile of dog shit, wiping his heel on the ground as he continues to follow his target. It's this kind of deadpan humor that cleverly shows Chabrol's slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective on this otherwise serious psychosexual thriller.

There's also a rich vein of sexual humor, since it's sex that blinds Philippe to the danger of his lover; he's having so much fun in bed that he manages to overlook the girl's obsession with murder and her strange, contradictory stories about a globe-trotting past of acting and prostitution. At one point, Philippe is talking on the phone about his home decoration job, discussing "pipework" with an elderly woman while Senta puts her hand between his legs and lowers herself to her knees in front of him. Everything becomes sexual, charged with eroticism, with passion in the bedroom tangled up with the violent passions broadcast over the TV and published in newspapers.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

I see Chabrol is up to his usual tricks here in a film I have not seen to this point, but hope to take in some time in the near future. I have seen most of this New Wave giant's work, and his trademark is that deadpan humor that underlines the chilling context. What with the sexual tensions and humor, THE BRIDESMAIDS is surely a must-see by French film fans. Your paragraph comparing the master with Hitchcock, complete with specific examples is superlative as is this entire piece Ed! I have missed this site recently, but plan to keep close watch again. The excellence hasn't diminished an iota.