Monday, August 20, 2007

Unseen Claude Chabrol (and The Bench of Desolation)

Another long movie watching session this Saturday. Museum of Modern Art is holding a retrospective of little seen films of prolific French director Claude Chabrol, well known for his cerebral psychological thrillers. I was in two minds about going initially but finally decided to go since I had nothing else to do other than (re-)reading The Magic Mountain (not as boring as I found it the first time). The three films on show were all initially made for television and are minor works in every sense. The village voice article has some details.

I have really liked the other Chabrol films that I have seen. It has been a long time since but I remember being frustrated by the endings, the way he refused to get into his character's motivations and psychology and his distanced, cold approach towards the story but may be it was because of this only that his films get under your skin and continue to itch for long, even after you may have disliked them initially. My favourite Chabrol films (I think these are only ones I have seen):

Les Biches
Le Boucher
La Femme Infidele
Une Affaire de Femmes
Madame Bovary
La Ceremonie

I also love the two actresses who are most associated with him. Stephane Audran, who was also his wife for some time, is in the first three and Isabelle Huppert is in next three. They are both very good though I have always found Audran's feline sexuality essentially comic. As if she is just going to break into a laughter in the midst of look-how-cool-and-sexy-I-am routine. May be it is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie effect. (She is great in that too.)

The most interesting of the three films on show at the moma was an adaptation of a Henry James story The Bench of Desolation. (It deserves a few stars just for the title!) The emotional terrain of the story will be familiar to readers of Chekhov. The same gentle melancholy, weary resignation towards hostile external forces, the same weakness of the spirit, all inexorably leading towards slow death of all hope, desire and life itself. Coming back home the first thing I did was to find more about the story. Now Henry James has always been a writer I am already prepared to admire and love even before reading him. I have read only two small works of his -- the astonishing ghost story The Turn of the Screw (very highly recommended) and The Aspern Papers which is a small masterpiece too. These two are really small works, not even hundred pages I think but are really tough to read. James doesn't write a sentence, he constructs them.

And now I am trying to read The Bench of Desolation and find this opening sentence. (The story is here)

She had practically, he believed, conveyed the intimation, the horrid, brutal, vulgar menace, in the course of their last dreadful conversation, when, for whatever was left him of pluck or confidence – confidence in what he would fain have called a little more aggressively the strength of his position – he had judged best not to take it up. But this time there was no question of not understanding, or of pretending he didn’t; the ugly, the awful words, ruthlessly formed by her lips, were like the fingers of a hand that she might have thrust into her pocket for extraction of the monstrous object that would serve best for – what should he call it? – a gage of battle.

I am already tired after the first paragraph.


Jabberwock said...

I have always found Audran's feline sexuality essentially comic. As if she is just going to break into a laughter in the midst of look-how-cool-and-sexy-I-am routine

Very good description. Despite the poker face she often uses, there's this inside-joke undercurrent, as if she's secretly winking at the audience. And of course, Bunuel used that quality magnificently.

Haven't seen a Chabrol in ages. Loved Les Biches, La Boucher, La Ceremonie, and a few of his other films. Was also quite fascinated by a very strange film of his titled Blood Relatives, with Donald Sutherland as a detective investigating a murder. It was made in English.

bloggerhead said...

came back to blog land after ages and decided to come visiting. It was like comfort food... knowing you were still around, still writing, still the same. Howdy?

Alok said...

jai: thanks! May be it is a French thing but I think the same can be said of many other French actors too....

bloggerhead: hey, glad to see you alive!!

bloggerhead said...

You have just inspired me to watch Chabrol! Not a big fan of french cinema though. Yeah, am alive and as you pointed out, the story continues. Perhaps one of those people who thrive on the nothingness, on all thats aimed at misery! Actually thats bull, am quite a happy person, honest to god!!! We must meet the next time you are around:)

KUBLA KHAN said...

i admire the binges you go on, i mean the movies. Is it possible for the retina to love such ferocity?

i have read your post about Mouchette. i was amazed when i watched it recently, amazed that i was a trifle disturbed,cynical and unjust as these times are. the amazing quality of Bresson seems his 'detachment' in depicting horrors. the camera too. the last scene, Mouchette drowning herself, but only a splash, no mouchette, must rank as a defining moment in any kind of cinema.

Alok said...

bloggy: misery and nothingness are part of life too. nothing makes you feel more "alive" and nothing like occasional doses of these to ensure a good spiritual health! you have an emailid btw? blog isn't the best way to communicate one-on-one.

About Chabrol...try Les Biches if you can find it somewhere. Love, Lesbianism, melancholy, jealousy, madness, murder it has everything. You will like it.

kubla: I have great stamina when it comes to watching movies. I can sit for hours continuously in the dar, alone without any company just staring at the screen and then be ready to do the same next day too and on and on.

Mouchette... I always find it very hard to talk about it. May be you need some special theological vocabulary to talk about pain, suffering and human spirit (soul) the way Bresson portrays them in this film. It hovers around all these concepts but in the end completely eludes, even mocks, standard religious concepts and cliches about transcendence, salvation through suffering, the unknowbility of the god's plan for human beings etc etc.

The last scene of Pickpocket is magnificent too. It is so simple and yet it soars up high...

bloggerhead said...

ya mail me on talk to you soon