Death in the Afternoon: Christopher Bray Explores a World of Secrets and Stifled Passion in Claude Chabrol's Claustrophobic Thrillers

By Bray, Christopher | New Statesman (1996), August 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Death in the Afternoon: Christopher Bray Explores a World of Secrets and Stifled Passion in Claude Chabrol's Claustrophobic Thrillers


Bray, Christopher, New Statesman (1996)


It's come to this. A man (widowed) and a woman (unhappily married) have fallen for one another. The woman's husband won't let her go, so they decide to bump him off. One night they bash him on the head, put him at the wheel of his petrol-soused Citroen, and push the car over a cliff. Boom!

So ends the long middle section of Les Noces rouges (1973), one of Claude Chabrol's studies of listless marriage that manages both to groan with numbed desire and creak with the clumsiness of pre-menopausal passion. No big-screen lovers ever looked more base and Balzacian than Stephane Audran's Lucienne and Michel Piccoli's Pierre. In place of the oyster satin sheets and sunset glow to which adulterous Hollywood flesh is heir, Lucienne and Pierre crunch noses in a clammy kitchen.

Brutally summarised, Les Noces rouges sounds like a French bourgeois take on James M Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, it was based on a true story. An adulterous French couple really did bump off the woman's husband, and Chabrol's picture was for a while banned in its country of origin for fear that its grimly naturalistic take on the affair might prejudice the couple's trial. Try imagining a recent Hollywood thriller earning such a fate. The only naturalistic detail in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992) is the golfer's V-neck that Michael Douglas sweats up during a ludicrous disco grind scene.

The most thrilling insight in Chabrol's pictures is that killers are the least thrilling of people. Chabrol's victims always seem less surprised by their murder than the murderers themselves. "I want to know what happens when someone is killed," the director once said, and his films are far more interested in post-mortems than in mortems proper. Chabrol--whose mid-period is being celebrated with the release of a four-DVD collection--first made a name for himself as a writer about Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom he shared an obsession with the mechanisms of guilt. That sense of past actions burning down on present feelings explains why Les Noces rouges is inflamed by rather more than just a frazzled Citroen: why your heart beats faster after the murder rather than during it.

To watch Chabrol is to be reminded that the thriller is a form capable of saying as much as Greek tragedy or lyric verse. It need not even be action-packed. Take Juste avant la nuit (1971), which begins with Charles, another of Chabrol's faithless husbands, killing his mistress--accidentally and off-screen. From there on in, the film gets even less eventful. Michel Bouquet, in a minutely judged performance of febrile frostiness, plays the hapless Charles, a man who spends the next hour-and-a-half mooning around because neither his wife Helene (Stephane Audran) nor his best friend--Francois (Francois Perier), who just happens to have been married to Charles's lover--can bring themselves to think badly of him.

Thirty years ago, during the high tide of New Left orthodoxy, it was fashionable to criticise Chabrol for not criticising the bourgeoisie. …

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