Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two (2008)

Claude Chabrol's languidly paced, fascinatingly crafted A Girl Cut in Two is most distinguished by its indistinguishable reflexivity of the director. The French New Wave figure has so often targeted the bourgeoisie that sometimes the sum total of his work can leave the impression of a boxer hammering away at a defenseless punching bag. An admittedly unfair, though not wholly illegitimate depiction, to be sure, but sometimes the very familiarity of a man's work betrays the limits of his evident interests and fetishized manias. That is where variety of tone comes in. Auteurs sustain themselves in no small part by continuing to build the scaffolding of their macro picture, which all too often becomes reduced to a single all-encompassing phrase by critics that frequently allows people to classify the filmmakers and their work* (often all too lazily by some unimaginative individuals) while altering the foreground and setting sufficiently so that their work remains vital and arrestingly provocative. (*Like any artist, philosopher or historical figure—one can have mixed feelings about the Athenian leader Pericles, and disagreements with Kant and Kierkegaard's laborious distinctions between morality and human naturalness don't inspire disregard for their indispensable contributions to excogitative examinations of ethics.)

Chabrol's latest is in many ways yet another pummeling of the pomp of the bourgeoisie, but as usual for the celebrated 78-year-old, his film is less acrimonious than simply stubborn in its observances, and for the most part gently satirical. Called a Hitchcockian thriller by some (it's not) and a black comedy by others (perhaps of only the driest sort), it elides scenes that would usually be of considerable import to many other filmmakers and leaves the general ripple that lingers after the closing credits that betrays Chabrol's mature and comprehensive understanding.

Loosely based on the New York City turn-of-the-twentieth century affair involving Evelyn Nesbitt's triangular dual affair with famed architect Stanford White and the “mad millionaire” Harry Thaw, A Girl Cut in Two begins with a note of undiluted foredoom. The opening credits unspool against the windshield of a car in the point-of-view of a driver while a truncated piece from Puccini's Turandot ("In Questa Regia") plays over the soundtrack. The visual field is bathed in a tinting of crimson. Chabrol's methodology is a forewarning as well as an ostensible trap for the viewer—one may expect the picture to follow through with its initial promise of an outlandish oratorio. (The sequence also reminds one of a spermatozoa, a potentially powerful metaphor for male penetration of the female, contentiously at the heart of Chabrol's latest picture.) However, Chabrol's intentions are probably only meant literally. It is the cinematic equivalent of opening your film with the title card There Will Be Blood.

The titular girl is the 23-year-old Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a Lyon, France television “weathergirl.” In the film she soon finds herself inadvertently walking into a make-up room with acclaimed and popular novelist Charles Denis (Francois Berleand) having his face worked on before a television appearance. Denis' age is never disclosed but as played by Berleand in his mid-fifties, he must be at least around thirty years older than the weathergirl. Somewhat striking in its similarity to Elegy, which also portrayed a May-December relationship involving an eminent man some thirty years older than the highly attractive woman, partly due to its being the first “new” film seen by this blogger since that picture, A Girl Cut in Two's romance is finally more twisted. Befitting Chabrol's consummate interest in the challenges and pitfalls of perversity, sexual complications pertaining to Denis' relationship with Gabrielle neither support nor gainsay the claims of his rival so much as merely work as a counterpoint Chabrol coolly examines. Denis and his friends frequent a high-end sex club; eventually the woefully naïve Gabrielle finds herself the object of Denis' lascivious “games,” as she calls them.

Buttressed by his son Matthieu Chabrol's distressingly dissonant score, Eduardo Serra's serviceable cinematography and the screenplay for which he shares credit with Cecile Maistre, Chabrol creates a convincingly authoritative portrayal of a Stygian melange of lust, jealousy and hatred. Gabrielle's “mad millionaire” is Paul Andre Claude Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), son of a major pharmaceuticals magnate, whose insecurity manifests itself in his auto-sabotaging with Gabrielle while persistently pursuing the lovely young woman at the same time. Self-destructively hateful of Denis already, he becomes enraged when he learns that the woman he so desperately wants for the rest of his life has had her heart won over by Denis. Regularly biting at his fingernails, Gaudens detests his mother for never having loved him and spending such a disproportionate amount of her time bestowing charity to people she never knew.

Gradually, Chabrol's essaying of the class confusions and nuances—such as Gabrielle being glowingly appreciative of the artistic culture and witty gracefulness of Denis, as most recognizably conveyed by his habitual quoting of others, something she shares from her father giving her a book of quotations when she was a child—at the troubled heart of the story enhances his picture's integrity. The director's atavistic response to the excesses of the bourgeoisie may hang over the proceedings at all times, but A Girl Cut in Two nevertheless boasts a finer empathy characteristic of Chabrol's art. Gaudens, portrayed by Magimel as a spoiled, mildly self-loathing young man of volatile and dangerous instability, may repel many an audience but a monster he is not. He is in so many ways easily referred to as pathetic, and disgusting, but the rigors of his joyless, inherited life have simply poisoned him, forever corrupting his soul. His life is perpetually burdened by his nouveau riche status, doomed to vacillate between a patina of propriety and succumbing to the insecurities that plague him. Late in the film his mother informs Gabrielle—and the audience—that a childhood tragedy played a significant part in shaping him into the twisted person he finally became. The source of the tragedy is an open-ended but definitively sagacious questioning that circles back around to only affirm a certain righteousness to Gaudens' otherwise petulant and at times insufferably anguished bitterness.

The somewhat startling similarity to Elegy cannot go unremarked upon. Both begin in a roughly related place but advance quite differently from one another. Whereas Elegy portrayed an older male fantasy as a kind of partially therapeutic escape from the identicalness and grinding monotony of an older man's life—which began in its current form as an escape as well, from his past life of marriage and family—A Girl Cut in Two is icily mocking with the indirectly but prevalently caustic wallop of a scene with Gabrielle flaunting her body, wearing the tale of a peacock as she crawls on the floor to please Denis. What Gabrielle slowly comes to learn is that neither the highly talented, cultured but fundamentally irresponsible older man nor the apparently talentless, spoiled, arrogant and crazed but earnestly lovestruck younger man signify lasting happiness for her. What begins as a way of sealing herself off from the author and creating separation between she and Denis—accepting Gaudens' obsessively-followed fixation of wedding her—ends as a draining, hellish experience of captivity and heartache. After foolishly offering her husband some of the details of her liaisons with Denis and his friends, he compulsively asks her for more information, ensuring a wearying cycle of mania and sexual paranoia that sends him reaching for the easiest ways to combat his own neuroses.

Chabrol's newest film possesses all of the tropes entailed in revisiting the world of the rich and of the perversions of characters within and without the highest strata of society for which he is so well known. One may briefly blanch from the repeatedly visited pallor of this milieu in the context of the familiarity of it all. Chabrol fits neither with the most consistently shape-shifting directors, whose continual alterations to the “foreground” and “setting” entice and excite many a moviegoer, nor with the most abjectly iterant auteurs. Somewhere between these extremes, his films capably meet one's expectations while occasionally devouring them. The singular associative technique of the French icon is still present, still assiduous and still relevant. What makes A Girl Cut in Two most pleasingly surprising is its coda. At first, it seems Chabrol has lost his senses, and has made both the conditions of the story and the title of his film painstakingly literal. Commencing as a threateningly reductive sequence, Gabrielle becomes a magician's assistant, capitalizing on her newfound fame and, finally, infamy, and how deceptively pedestrian things appear to be when she is, naturally, cut in two, on the stage by a saw. Yet Chabrol uses a zoom-in close up (a recurring visual motif of this work) to at once devastate and confound the viewer. Gabrielle, after turning her head away from the crowd, is crying for the camera. Just as Chabrol's tight close-up seems to go on and last forever, finally it concludes. The shot is replaced by one of Gabrielle beaming, her lustrous emerald eyes and dazzling smile leaving a mark of great propriety and serenity, masking the sorrow inside. Deliciously, artifice is evaluated, commented upon and allowed to stand on its own for further examination by the audience. Few directors, whatever their age, are so courageous.


Sam Juliano said...

Actually Alexander, that "truncated" piece from Puccini's "Turandot" is none other than 'In Questa Reggia," one of the most ravishingly beautiful soprano arias in all of opera---and it does make that opening scene a spectacular wedding of sound and image.
Yet again you have chosen words creatively to examine a rather difficult film, one that I pretty much line up with you on. It sometimes seems oddly disjointed, but yet has startling performances and a shocking climax, typical of the master. I think you placed the film well within its sociological and psychological contexts. Your work is exceedingly and consistantly excellent.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, thank you, Sam, "In Questa Reggia" is indeed a marvelously ravishing aria.

The film does occasionally feel quite disjointed. Ultimately what won me over was that Chabrol made the struggle--the cutting of Gabrielle in two, so to speak--palpably personal. Denis in some ways represents the father she did not have; when Gabrielle's mother opens the door for Gaudens during her daughter's depression, tragedy is sure to ensue.

Thank you for the kind words.

Pat said...

"A Girl Cut in Two" is the first Charbrol film I have seen. What fascinated me was that the creepiest elements of the story were the ones withheld from the audience. It's amazing how suggestive a single, well-chosen image or one well-crafted line of dialogue can be. On the surface, it appears to be a tasteful, bourgeouis-acceptable film, but there's a whole lot of perversity bubbling just below that elegant surface. Is this true of Charbrol's other films?

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, this is certainly Chabrol's "wheelhouse"; his films often explore the connections between sexual "perversity" of individuals and the ambitions and excesses inherent in his depiction of the upper classes.

Chabrol has often been called France's answer to Hitchcock. It's an interesting, and immediately arresting moniker, but it's also a simplification of sorts.

Pat, your comments about scenes elided by Chabrol's narrative rings quite true. I just looked at your review, and you rightly point out how Chabrol eschews most of the scenes that would typically be prerequisites, displaying how Gabrielle's professional advancement continues. Instead, we are given hints and little scenes that largely make the point in any event.

Craig Kennedy said...

I liked this one up to a point, but it felt a little too carefully diagrammed and on-the-nose, from the title to the conclusion.

Ok, here's a relatively innocent young girl torn apart by the intellectuals on one end and the upperclass on the other. I get it.

On the other hand, it's a pretty entertaining disection of both classes. Her treatment by the rich guy's family is particularly harsh.

I keep meaning to see this one again to see if I swing more towards liking it or more towards disappointment.

K. Bowen said...

the thing that always strikes me about Stanwyck is how relatively eh she looks in photos and how thoroughly sexy she is onscreen.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very interesting, Craig. In some ways I agree with you--the film does feel a bit bogged down, perhaps even maddeningly literal, if one is to interpret it that way.

I'm not sure how the film would "age" with subsequent viewings. I'm afraid it would probably be at least a bit more tedious. Yet there are considerable attributes that I found be worthwhile. As one reviewer said, Chabrol takes a while to get to the punch line, and for some, that punch line won't have too much resonance. So the film's measure of success has to be partially judged on the psychological merits, I would contend.

Andrew said...

Incredibly detailed and insightful, review, as always. Keep up the good work.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Andrew.

Buddy said...

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