I came to Claude Chabrol’s 1970 drama-thriller LA RUPTURE with little advance knowledge, having seen a pretty sparse smattering of Chabrol movies, and knowing nothing of the plot beyond the words “divorce drama.” Which is quite a good approach if you want to be blown away.
I guess this means that people who haven’t seen the film shouldn’t read this. Maybe read far enough to get excited, then run out and buy it before I spoil everything.
The opening, of course, is a shocker. Like a very very compact version of THE SHINING — Stephane Audran’s husband, the disturbingly-faced Jean-Claude Drouot, even does the “crazy Kubrick stare” a decade before Jack Nicholson displayed it so memorably. The domesticity in the first couple of shots has a nervous, unstable quality, sparked into edginess by Chabrol’s zippy pans and quick cuts. Then — total violence! Drouot’s half-throttling of Audran is abrupt and startling enough, but the child-hurling incident is practically unprecedented, barring Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING. And then Audran fights back with kitchenware, bludgeoning hubby into submission with deadly Gallic efficiency.
Horror movie titles appear over the fast traveling shots that take Audran and her fractured son to the hospital, accompanied by Chabrol regular composer Pierre Jansen’s galumphing musique concrete score. The slasher calligraphy clashes with the documentary street photography in exactly the way Chabrol’s elements of naturalism and stylisation clash throughout the movie.
My Chabrol problem: I don’t like his zoom-happy camerawork in the 60s and 70s, although I like all kinds of zooms in others’ hands. I also don;t find the look of this film very pleasing, but I suspect the yellow-green pall suffusing it is down to fading film stock. Why would you want a film to look like that? Chabrol’s interior design is also mildly suspect — I know it’s 1970, and I know a lot of the action takes place in a down-at-heel hotel, but there are still pleasing aesthetic choices available… but movies like TEN DAYS’ WONDER and ALICE show that CC has more than one string to his bow, and I’m actually learning to like what he does in his more typical films.
The plot, set in violent motion before the credits have even rolled, now settles into a quasi-naturalistic tone, lulling us to expect a slightly more normal divorce drama. Drouot, we learn, is a struggling writer (shades of Jack Nicholson again) whose mind has been derailed by drugs (Chabrol seems to have odd ideas about drugs; I don’t think he’s very experienced in that department — the nature of Drouot’s addiction is quite unclear, but drug-induced psychosis is at least credible: the psychedelic trip later on is less so). He’s now back in the care of his monstrous rich parents, who wish to win custody of their battered grandson from Audran, whom they despise because she was once a stripper and now works as a barmaid.
I think the film’s class-war aspect could have been raised a bit had someone other than the unswervingly elegant Mrs Chabrol played the lead. A smart, powerful working-class woman is a rarity, so it’s a shame to see the part played by someone who seems so bourgeois. But maybe that’s part of the point — Audran’s parents-in-law misunderestimate her from the start, and thus set in train a lethal chain of events that gradually tip the film from the approximately realistic into the bizarrely melodramatic. Which is a good thing, in this case, you understand.
Michel Bouquet, as dad-in-law, makes the mistake of hiring Jean-Pierre Cassel, the son of a former business partner Bouquet has ruined, to find evidence that will make Audran look bad in court so he can take her son away. Cassel’s antipathy to his new boss is a handy red herring, for as his job gradually entails more and more dirty work, we wonder if he will at some point back off and betray his boss. In fact, the opposite happens, with Cassel preparing an outrageously nasty scheme that’s far beyond anything Bouquet would have asked him to do (although Cassel deduces, probably correctly, that his employer will be happy with any crime as long as he gets the result he’s after).
Cassel’s big scheme only starts ticking along after the film has been going for some time, and Chabrol prepares for it by undercutting his realistic locations, sound, and central performances, with wild fantasy characters, who seem to have been hammered into slots in the naturalistic storyline, bent all out of shape but still retaining their too-vivid colours. The three old ladies at Audran’s boarding house reminded me of the three spinsters in Mamoulian’s LOVE ME TONIGHT. Rather than weaving a tapestry like the Fates, they play with Tarot cards. The unemployed actor (Mario David) is a strolling tragedian hammier than any sketch-show caricature, whose every line reading threatens to blow the set walls down. Intriguingly, he gets more low-key as the story progresses, revealing authentic human qualities hidden beneath the bombast and bluster. Indeed, one of the narrative’s surprise delights is the gradual revelation of a world of goodness struggling along in what had seemed an irretrievably fallen universe. The nastiness established early on is such that nice young men like Audran’s doctor and lawyer never seemed quite trustworthy, but they turn out to be just as honest as they tried to appear.
For me, the trickiest unreal character was, not the balloon-seller (a nod to Fritz Lang’s M?) but the landlady’s handicapped daughter Emilie. Apparently a young woman, but dressed as a little girl, she’s played by Chabrol fave Katia Romanoff in a manner that seems more mime-show than observation. She wears unattractive glasses, but where you might expect thick lenses (since brain damage is often accompanied by poor vision) they have ordinary glass. Everything about her is unconvincing — she’s no particular type of “mentally handicapped person,” as Drouot is no particular type of drug addict. I was never entirely comfortable with her, but I think she probably does work in the context of the other unreal elements.
Anyhow, she’s central to Cassel’s crazy plan, which only starts unfolding after a lot of what could be flat exposition, but which is put across with weird jolting flair by Chabrol. Audran tells her lawyer of her past on a tram ride, with frequent cutaways to the trolley pole sparking on the overhead power line, and the view out the front window of oncoming street, with an eerie reflection of the driver’s hand clutching the dead man’s switch. (All tram terminology pulled out of thin air.)
“Do you like films in which someone says, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’ and then we cut to the beach?” Chabrol once asked an editor. The implication is that HE doesn’t like that — but he does it all the time here. I’ve always found it a prosaic but highly efficient way to propel action forward while maintaining clarity. Certainly Chabrol’s direct cutting (associated with nouvelle vague cinema but very common in Duvivier also) adds welcome zip to his long and winding narrative, which has to divert into side-stories about Cassell and his constantly naked girlfriend, Audran’s landlady and her alcoholic husband and daughter with learning difficulties, and the dastardly in-laws’ legal proceedings.
The plan: Cassell, having tried and failed to find evidence that will discredit Audran, and faked up a lot of general gossip against her character, suddenly takes the plunge into overt criminal depravity with a scheme which will involve fraud, kidnapping, theft, and sexual assault. His giggling slut of a girlfriend (a borderline misogynist cartoon, except Chabrol wins points for Audran’s strong character, and the grim-faced but honest landlady, and anyway, such persons do perhaps exist — American readers won’t have heard of Danielle Lloyd, and maybe in a few years none of us will have, God willing) is happy to take part in all of this, and moments where Cassell looks like he might be having second thoughts are pure red herring. In fact, he’s an expert at compartmentalizing: when he’s with Audran, his affection for her seems real, and may in fact be so. But it’s not going to stop him destroying her.
What’s so great about Audran is that she’s never dumb, she never lets the audience down by falling for something we wouldn’t fall for. In fact, given the slightest grounds for suspicion, she’s instantly alert, and she’s totally strong-willed and unwilling to compromise where she knows she shouldn’t. She’s so much smarter than we would be, I suspect only the fact that we’re given so much more information than her allows us to keep up. And this is incredibly unusual in thrillers.
Analysed coldly, Cassell’s plan is preposterous and bound to miscarry, but the film keeps us off-balance with its crazy storybook characters and blasts of realism that genuine suspense is created. Even if Cassell screws up completely, he could still get Audran killed, or someone else, or in any number of ways destroy all prospect of a happy ending.
Chabrol manages to create an edgy, uncertain happy ending, amid a flourish of psychedelic solarized imagery, flying balloons, and hokey homicide. The cartoon characters all act out of character, breaking through into a third dimension after two hours of silly caricature, and Cassell’s defeat is both satisfying and awful. The whole movie strikes me as a brilliant balancing act, one that involves crossing a high-wire not by walking or unicycling, but on a pogo-stick, wearing a suit of armour and flippers. It’s such a grotesque and peculiar display that Chabrol can even get away with the occasional misstep, since who’s to say such stumbles are not part of the act?
Suggestions are now open for more Chabrol I should be seeing! He’s made 69 films, the awful bastard, and while I might not be willing to make next year Chabrol Year on Shadowplay, I’m very keen to see more.
Questions: who does Flemish surrealist Harry Kumel play? I know what he looks like but I couldn’t spot him. Is he in the satanic porno?
What is the connection to Murnau’s SUNRISE?