Twilight of the Idols: Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two and Rohmer’s The Romance of Astree and Celadon
It is a real treat to be a filmgoer in New York City this week, when new films by two elder statesmen of the French New Wave (not the usual suspects, either) will have their theatrical debut. Godard may hog the limelight with near-annual retrospectives of his ’60s oeuvre (someone please, please have the nuts to program “For Ever Mozart” or “Eloge de l’amour,” preferably this century), and the late Truffaut’s work may be the most fondly appreciated thanks to “The 400 Blows,” that seemingly inexhaustible film-school and repertory staple, but longtime craftsmen Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer have remained vital and prolific voices, too, well into their silver years.
Rohmer, now 88, is the granddaddy of the Nouvelle Vague bunch. He is also its brainy, contemplative romantic, wedded to exploring the mystery of eros and longing, often in loquacious dramas that draw heavily on literary tradition. His latest film is no exception. Based on a 1607 novel by Honore d’Urfe, “The Romance of Astrea and Celadon” is an almost laughably fey sylvan fantasy, unraveling in quaint glades where mirthful, soft-featured youth and a cloyingly cheeky, lute-strumming wastrel squander the hours in the diffuse, daisy-hued sunlight. The story revolves around the efforts of dejected Celadon (Andy Gillet) to win back his comely lover Astrea (Stephanie Crayencoeur), who rejects him out of the mistaken belief that he has not been faithful. Rescued by three wood nymphs when he attempts to drown himself in a river, Celadon disguises himself as a girl and becomes, quite implausibly, the unwitting Astrea’s new bosom friend, a deception he agrees to simply to be near his beloved.
When I first saw “Celadon” at the New York Film Festival last September, I was convinced that Rohmer’s film had to be a subversive parody, not the naive, courtly 5th-century melodrama it appeared to be. But halfway through, I realized that Rohmer, never a satirist like Diderot, was playing it straight, tunics and druids and all. It’s hard to think of a recent film more disengaged from contemporary history and sensibilities, from concerns like war and genocide, terror and technology, or even love and relationships in the Information Age; “Celadon” exists in a hokey, Gallic faery world all its own, where nothing but the bittersweet agony of lovers’ separation troubles the beautiful youth. Perhaps Rohmer, who has indicated this may be his last film, has finally embraced so wholeheartedly the idealistic strain in his work that relevance is no longer the point. Only purity of intention. Perhaps the critic-innovator who gave us his “Six Moral Tales” to ponder, including those cerebral, enthrallingly talky studies of obsessive passion, “Claire’s Knee” and “Chloe in the Afternoon,” has no millennial anxieties to wrestle with. Yet, after watching this bizarrely effete historical pageant, it occurred to me that Rohmer may, in fact, be contemplating the afterlife, as imagined by Puvis de Chavannes and Shakespeare. There is something both academically classicist and playfully liberatory about the milieu his characters inhabit in this film. Maybe, like Ariel at the end of “The Tempest,” he is finally at peace with the world: “Merrily, merrily shall I live now/Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” What better vision of paradise for an elderly romantic (and formidable intellectual) than a pastoral utopia where gender fluidity is as natural as an April breeze, and where the ardor of love is the sole motor of sing-songy conversation, the raison d’etre of its winsome inhabitants?
Chabrol’s moral vision has always been darker and more scabrous than his illustrious elder peer’s. Back in the heyday of Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du cinema, the journal which housed the early critical writings of Truffaut (who originated the “auteur theory”), Rivette, Rohmer, and Godard, Chabrol was something like the patron saint of the Nouvelle Vague. It was he who secured financing for the maiden directorial efforts of his soon-to-be-famous friends and who started a company to produce their first cooperative efforts. Chabrol also authored a book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock with Rohmer, and eventually found his own metier as a filmmaker by focusing his energies on the same genre as his British hero: the crime thriller.
“A Girl Cut in Two” (IFC Films) continues Chabrol’s interest in puncturing the hypocrisies and pieties of the haute bourgeoisie, the wine-swilling educated class he loves to skewer with droll humor and a biting irony to rival Bunuel’s. Murder, of course, is also on the menu. Here, he has taken a tabloid-worthy Gilded Age scandal about a deadly love triangle involving notable architect Stanford White (who was slain in 1906) and updates it to present-day Lyons. In the film, high-profile novelist Charles Saint-Denis (the graying, effortlessly august Francois Berleand) meets lithe young TV weather girl Gabrielle (luscious “Swimming Pool” siren Ludivine Sagnier) at a book signing and gives chase. But he has a hostile young rival in Paul Gaudens (played with dark, nervy insouciance by Benoit Magimel), the spoiled, emotionally unstable heir to a pharmaceutical fortune who reviles Charles for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Smitten by the rakish writer, who seduces her with a rare print from “The Woman and the Puppet” by famed erotomaniac Pierre Louys, Gabrielle falls into a no-holds-barred love affair with Charles, who promises he’ll leave his wife, though they continue to meet and make love in a rented, out-of-the-way flat. Meanwhile, Paul avidly pursues Gabrielle, and reacts viciously when she rejects his advances. When Charles later abandons his lover, soon after she’s corrupted herself in a lewd act orchestrated for his pleasure at a private swingers’ club, Gabrielle is shattered. On the rebound from this messy emotional divorce, she takes up with the buffoonish Paul, and agrees to marry into his aristocratic, dysfunctional clan, setting into motion the film’s final act of vengeance.
Chabrol’s “A Girl Cut in Two” is a coiled, superbly polished potboiler. And it isn’t hard to divine the significance of Chabrol’s title: Gabrielle is cleaved in half between the man she loves and the pompous cretin she’s gone and married. But in unspooling the events that eventually result in spilled blood (elegantly foreshadowed in the hemaglobin-red tint of the opening sequence), Chabrol also cleverly explores the traditional feminine oppositions of virgin and whore. At different moments in the film, Gabrielle embodies aspects of both personas in her relations with men—or rather, in how she is perceived by them—while Charles’ wife and his smoldering, middle-aged agent and confidante, Capucine, are mature expressions of the same impossibly idealized binary.
Sagnier, best known for her roles in the films of Francois Ozon (another Hitchcock devotee), is clearly comfortable playing the temptress, but here she stretches out a bit, adding a more naive vulnerability to her naturally chipper sex appeal. This admixture complexifies her character, and allows Chabrol to position her as both the object of desire and the object of our sympathy. Gabrielle is a middle-class striver adrift in the perilous waters of class and male sexual privilege—first, she falls prey to Charles’ urbane, icily calculated come-on and then she founders on Paul’s menacing acquisitiveness (not to mention his mother’s hideously stiff and quasi-aristocratic reserve). Chabrol is not insensitive to her predicament, but he seems most keen to observe, with caustic irony, the petty neuroses and moral failings of the French elite, embodied by Charles Saint-Denis’s cynical decadence and the horror show that is the Gaudens family.
Despite his age and the number of iterations of his principal themes (jealousy, derangement, guilt, impulsive murder), Chabrol hasn’t softened his stance any and still doesn’t play nice with the monied bourgeoisie whose values he loves to savage. Nor should he. With each subsequent outing, the New Wave icon finds a novel way to unsettle complacency and reveal the malignant malevolence at the heart of social attitudes he knows all too well.