Some filmmakers, like Chaplin and Kubrick, determined that they should release a film only every few years, to make it more like an event to be anticipated. Other filmmakers work faster and harder in an effort not to be forgotten, like Spike Lee or Woody Allen. It's difficult to determine which method is more effective, but it seems like if a filmmaker turns in over fifty films of mostly high quality, their work is eventually taken for granted. Everyone loves Hitchcock now, but in 1976 when his final film opened, he must have seemed like a relic compared to Rocky and Taxi Driver. That's how I imagine Claude Chabrol today. Now 77, he releases a movie a year, more or less, and passed the fifty-film marker some time ago. Unlike his French New Wave colleagues, he didn't make a single masterpiece in his youth, and so has nothing to live up to. Rather, he's consistently reliable and skillful, and it's difficult to judge any one of his films up against another. Look through reviews of his most recent films, and for each one you'll find at least one person claiming it's his best film in years.
And so comes A Girl Cut in Two, which recently screened at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival. I loved it. It's another superbly-made, highly enjoyable Chabrol film, but you probably won't see it on any top ten lists, nor will Chabrol be collecting any awards for it. I think "consistent" is a bad word among film people; we're more easily impressed by change and diversity, or by the newest, latest thing. Actors like John Wayne were routinely overlooked in favor of actors like Marlon Brando, though Brando could never in a million years have pulled off what John Wayne accomplished in The Searchers. Brando could do lots of things, but John Wayne was the best at being John Wayne. That's my standard rant, and that's how I feel about Chabrol. Now, onto the new film:
Co-written by Cécile Maistre, Chabrol's frequent assistant director, A Girl Cut in Two tells the story of a love triangle. A beautiful, ambitious television weather girl Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) falls for the much older, but successful, married writer Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand). It's an interesting game of seduction, as both players appear to be out-scheming one another. Gabrielle -- whose last name is "Deneige" but is translated to "Snow" in the subtitles -- comes on to him at a book signing. When he takes her to his empty city apartment (away from his country house), she's fully aware of his intentions, and she lets him get away with it. Later, he turns the tables by brushing her off, even though she seems truly smitten with him. However, at work Gabrielle knows just how to pull the strings to get herself advanced to a better job, even if it means stepping on a few people who are in the way.
At the same time, a snotty, rich younger man, Paul (Benoît Magimel) is swept away by Gabrielle and even more intrigued by her indifference to him. His usual method of throwing money around doesn't seem to work on her. She can see right through him; he behaves like a genuine twit with his family, and he openly hates Charles. Because Charles is devoted to his wife, Gabrielle gives up and gives in to Paul, even agreeing to marry him. She grants Charles one chance to leave his wife and stop the wedding. From there, I won't say any more since the movie doesn't quite go where you would expect. What Chabrol does here that's so remarkable is to establish a light tone, almost a black comedy, for the film's first two thirds, and then effortlessly switches to his "creeping dread" tone for the final stretch, without leaving anyone or anything behind. There's no sense of betrayal in this switch, because it feels like absolutely the right thing to do. Best of all is the ending, which wraps up all the movie's chord changes in one big crescendo.Chabrol is a master at dead ends, at setting up peculiar situations that may or may not go anywhere. For example, Charles loves his wife, but he flirts with his sexy publicist Capucine Jamet (the eye-popping Mathilda May, best known for playing a naked alien in Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce). Gabrielle allows her boss at the TV station to flirt with her and call her pet names, while Paul, who is slightly effeminate anyway, has a kind of male companion at his side; this person seems like more of an employee than a friend, someone to clean up after him. In a lesser film, these supporting characters would be dressing, but here they serve to render things a bit more off-kilter. This rich detail serves to complicate the love triangle, placing its multi-faceted participants on relatively even ground, and keeping them on their toes. As a result, A Girl Cut in Two keeps us on our toes as well.