Lost in the Movies: The Sunday Matinee: Les Bonnes Femmes

The Sunday Matinee: Les Bonnes Femmes

This is an entry in The Sunday Matinee series.

Les Bonnes Femmes, France, 1960, dir. Claude Chabrol, starring Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon

Story: Four shopgirls while away the daytime hours in tedium, then spend their nights prowling Paris, looking for fun, excitement, and perhaps true love - only to find predatory jerks, cowardly boyfriends, lascivious bosses, and a mysterious motorcyclist who stands in the shadows, watching all like a wise demigod - or a prowling tiger.

When, all at once, a new group of young filmmakers arrives on a national scene, there may share some common wellspring. In the U.S., it was often an apprenticeship under Roger Corman (Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Hopper all made early B movies with the prolific independent producer). In Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, the new generation came through the state-run film schools; in the UK, the "kitchen sink" realists were usually documentarians before they made narrative features. In France, the situation was more incestuous than most. If you were to pick the ten or so major French filmmakers to emerge in the French New Wave, at least half of them came from Cahiers du Cinema, the fiery, controversial, and influential start-up film publication. In the late fifties, right around the time Cahiers editor and New Wave mentor Andre Bazin died, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer all began work on their first features. It was Chabrol who hit screens first, with Le Beau Serge (about a young urbanite visiting the provinces) but Truffaut and Godard were the ones who brought attention to the movement, with The 400 Blows and Breathless. In some ways, Chabrol was the odd man out of the five.

Each Cahiers graduate had a very distinct personality, manifested in their work. Truffaut was lush, romantic, full of passion for the medium and emotional investment in his characters (perversely, though, I've sometimes found myself distanced from his films). Godard was the intellectual but also the jester, inflammatory, radical, on the cutting edge so that you often didn't know whether to laugh, clap, or scratch your head (usually, you find yourself doing one or the other intuitively - Godard's status as a cerebral filmmaker has perhaps been overstated; few directors invoke such instinctive, visceral responses to their work). Rivette's work slithered across the screen like a boa constrictor, so long you lost track of time and found yourself hypnotized by the movement; it contain multitudes within its belly - these are films you could get lost in (and sadly, films that got lost: almost all of his masterpieces await proper U.S. releases). Rohmer, who passed away this year, was of course the king of talk but in an unusual way - his dialogue was enmeshed in the physical surroundings, the gestures of the actors, the cool immersiveness of his pacing: seldom has speech seemed so "cinematic."

In comparison Chabrol, who also died this year, seems harder to pin down. Granted, I'm on shakier ground with him than with his peers, as I've only seen Le Beau Serge, Les Bonnes Femmes, and - three week ago - his final film, the satisfying, unpresumingly rich Inspector Bellamy. But even before I'd seen a Rivette or a Rohmer, their reputations preceded them; Chabrol was known for his dark humor and love of Hitchcock, but stylistically he's less commonly identified or identifiable than the other four. Going on the basis of Les Bonnes Femmes alone, it's not hard to see why: this film, one of his most praised (though Le Boucher is commonly cited as his masterpiece), while a fully controlled piece of work, is elusive in its meaning, cagey in its style, ever-shifting in tone and perspective. There's something slightly aloof and evasive about this movie, which fascinates and perplexes. Movies, particularly when it comes time to write about them, are often described in terms of their narratives and themes, though this is seldom the source of their truest appeal. The greatest films are most fundamentally collections of moments, the greatest filmmakers evokers of mood, sensation, and sensibility - the stories are clotheslines from which to hang the experiences which, mixing the metaphor like this film mixes genres, are the true meat of the movies.

So then, expecting a narrative to make "sense" might be missing the point, focusing too intently on the forest at the expense of the trees. Yet some films, and Les Bonnes Femmes is one of them, don't simply skirt narrative or capture it for their own purposes, the way Godard did. They play with it, tease us with inclinations of what "type" of film this is, where it belongs, where it is going and then twist our expectations around on themselves. Les Bonnes Femmes begins with comedy and ends with tragedy, but the humor always has a tragic tinge and the darkness has a sardonic edge. Likewise, Chabrol dips into his characters' consciousnesses at will, but we find our allegiances and points of view constantly shifting - these friends and co-workers have a tendency to bitch about one another behind each other's backs (an amateur singer bemoans the shallowness of her peers, while a romantic young woman laps up a lover's praise that she's "not like the others") and we tend to believe whomever we're with at the moment. Then, sometimes, we pull back and seem to be somewhere else, embodying the archly objective, almost merciless gaze of a Hitchcock-like auteur, arranging and slaughtering his cattle with bemused contempt.

But if these are often stock characters, they are not stick figures. If the film gleefully parodies its "types" (the lecherous old man, the reptilian skirt-chaser, the dutiful bourgeois son, the untalented entertainer) it also delights in fleshing them out, and filling in every little detail with loving attention. These personalities have parameters, but within those parameters the variations are endless. And this lived-in quality extends not just to the major characters, but the bit players and even extras as well. So often in movies, pedestrians, crowds, and service workers are treated as mere background noise - here, if you peer into the corners of the frame, every face has a presence. For example, a waiter stumbles upon a couple kissing and hesitates with his platter, unsure how to proceed - these are not objects filling out the frame or serving a narrative purpose but people with their own offscreen lives. We sense that Chabrol could branch off in any direction should he choose to. And in a way he does, because the film, seemingly random and naturalistic in its approach, in fact hews to a tight structural conceit - a rotating-stage approach in which every episode centers on a different heroine.

And Jane, out for a good time, serves as our introduction to the quartet (though, notably, the film begins not with "les bonnes femmes" but with the leering men gathered in the dark to pounce on their prey). While seemingly less complicated than the others, Jane is not so much shallow as merely resigned to her fate. Bernadette Lafonte - one of the stars of the New Wave, who made her feature debut in Le Beau Serge - imbues Jane with an unsentimental humanity, so that she is at once silly and self-destructive (why does she go home with those creeps?) yet neither stupid nor self-pitying. Her hungover, post-coital (and the film strongly suggests, post-rape) visage on the morning train is a study in straightforward stoicism. The rest of the film moves back and forth between the dull workday, in which the girls keep one another entertained while counting down the minutes.

They endure the pontifications and gropings of their manager in the days before sexual-harassment lawsuits. They tease the eager delivery boy making his twice-daily appearance at the shop full of attractive young ladies, even when he has nothing to deliver. They also good-naturedly pester Madame Louise (Ave Nimchi), the middle-aged cashier whose relationship to them is ambiguous - at times she's a co-conspirator in their romantic entanglements and disgruntled employee rants, at others an aloof authority figure and eccentric oldster (despite their friendly banter, at the end of the night, when she locks up and walks off, alone, they all ignore her to cluster together and plan their night on the town). She also possesses a secret "fetish"/souvenir which is her lucky charm - the girls want to know its substance and significance, but she won't tell; when she finally confesses, the item is bizarre and grisly, a foreshadowing of what is to come.

If Jane is the good-time gal uncertain where she's headed, Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) knows and has good ground to dread it, though her discomfort is suggested rather than shown. Her fiance is a pretentious twit who speed-lectures her about Michelangelo so that she will make a good impression on his bourgeois parents. This storyline is essentially handled in a single scene, with the other three girls gathering at the table behind Rita, trying to keep their distance so as not to upstage her first meeting with the future in-laws. (In every individual digression, Chabrol isolates the character in question from the rest of her peers, suggesting that she perceives herself as "different" from the rest of her ostensible friends, though since this occurs with each young lady in turn, it says more about their latent mutual antagonism than any true "me vs. them" dynamic).

The next of the shopgirls to stand in the spotlight, literally in this case, is Ginete (Stéphane Audran) who mysteriously withdraws from her pals many nights - does she have a secret lover? Is she sleeping with the boss? When her three co-workers attend a variety show, they discover Ginete's secret identity: crowned in a black wig, affecting an eccentrically throaty vocal style, she is a singer, though judging from the reactions of the audience, she probably should not quit her day job. Terrified to discover her "friends" in the audience, she automatically assumes that they will mock her; in fact, they are encouraging but her hesitance and their initial astonishment suggest potential rifts beneath their enthusiastic congratulations after the curtain falls.

Meanwhile, throughout all these episodes, accompanied by startling whip-pans and occasionally ominous music, a mystery man hovers on the perimeters of this world, seemingly delivered from another film altogether. His name is Albert (Mario David), and he only has eyes for Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) - and she for him. Jacqueline is the most naive and romantic of the shopgirls: dreamy and quiet, she is approached by the delivery boy but rejects him because she's already in love with a man she's never spoken to. Then they finally speak, after he rescues her from aggressive men at the pool (aggressive is putting it mildly - these guys, one thirtysomething, the other hovering around fifty, would make Tucker Max blush). Major spoilers from here on, and the ending of this film is best viewed fresh.

The actor Mario David bears a striking resemblance to François Perier, who played the mustachioed, deceitful "nice guy" in Nights of Cabiria, the one who marries Giuletta Masina and then tries to off her for her money. The similarity is not just physical - but Albert is not only an agent of death, he's an agent of irrationality - killing for some perverse thrill rather than for profit. The film has already found itself galloping from comical flirtation into startling rape, sly satire to compassionate humanization, lighthearted repartee to macabre morbidity. Now it stops zigzagging across the path of its plot, and abandons the trail altogether. This happens not so much when Albert lies down with Jacqueline in the tall grass and then strangles her to death, but rather in the scene before. We've been suspecting and dreading Albert's murderous intentions (if not necessarily the ultimate outcome) for several minutes, but Albert's bizarre behavior at the dinnertable (and Jacqueline's acceptance of it) come as the real surprise. He begins by demonstrating several parlor tricks and making funny noises but before long he's swallowing cigarettes, literally bashing his head sideways onto the tabletop with a manic frenzy, and making loud farting noises in his armpit (only the last gesture finally strikes Jacqueline as going too far).

This unexpected outburst is followed by the cold, clinical, but mercilessly close-up killing, and then the movie concludes with another twist. Chabrol cuts away from the crime scene to a dance hall, and in doing so he cements the connection between the murderous behavior of Albert and the pursuits of the predatory males who've surrounded the girls throughout the movie (only the delivery boy and Jane's cuckolded army boyfriend come off sympathetically, the others vary between heel, buffoon, and psycho). A man, seen only from behind, approaches a young woman - someone we've never seen until now. She gets up to dance with him and as they sway back and forth in a slow dance, she looks at the floor, then at him, then right into the camera, at us. An air of melancholy dread and doom hovers over the sequence, with the disco ball reflections looking resembling teardrops, or perhaps the light rain falling on Jacqueline's corpse when we left it. (The most violent moment of the movie occurs after she's dead, when Albert yanks back his coat from underneath her and the crumpled body rolls to the side like so much trash).

What is ultimately so startling about Les Bonnes Femmes is, in a sense, exactly what's arresting about other New Wave films, like Jules and Jim - the encyclopedic knowledge of film form and history, used to mash-up different genres and perspectives, a process which creates something at once fresh and nostalgic, universal and individualistic. Yet the difference is that Truffaut and Godard did their mixing mostly through style, taking potentially conventional stories and delivering them in unusual fashion. Les Bonnes Femmes, on the other hand, subverts not style but scenario itself - though there are formal surprises as well (primarily the shifts between loose, handheld verite to a smoother, colder professionalism), the film is primarily a desecration of narrative expectations. In some ways, this is more shocking than stylistic pyrotechnics or experimental structures: the mainstream has a way of absorbing the most revolutionary visual techniques and storytelling strategies, but it has more trouble incorporating radical content. A comedy which ends in murder (not played broadly, but in brutal detail), an outlook which shifts from compassionate embrace to aloof satire, a film of observation which ends with the observers observed: these are all trademarks of Hitchcock, but his was the hidden subversion which could be appreciated either as art or entertainment.

Essentially, Chabrol's work here is that of excavation, unearthing and exposing the hidden appeal and tricky techniques of Hitch and other great commercial filmmakers - divorcing such devices from their protective cloaks, refusing to inoculate us against the rattlesnake's sting. The New Wave films were like exoskeletons in relation to the structures of Hollywood, with its dreamlike atmosphere and sleights-of-hands. But Chabrol's approach is like an exoskeleton with a thin film of skin on top, just enough to make us uncertain what type of being we're dealing with. Such an approach, if handled poorly, can be dismissed as sloppy ineptitude. If achieved with a slick but superficial aplomb, this versatility of tone and perspective can be dismissed as shallow, postmodern posturing. But when presented with control and also an understanding of each mode the filmmaker embraces, such a chameleon cinema still unsettles and unnerves us.

It makes us question not just the filmmaker but ourselves - why are we responding as we are, were we right to see things this way or that, what is our relationship to the characters and events onscreen, and where does this leave us? How perfect then that, in a nod to Ingmar Bergman's iconic Monika close, Chabrol ends Les Bonnes Femmes with a gaze into the camera, an acknowledgment not so much of artifice but of complicity. Yet even here ambiguity is retained: this last bonne femme is neither accusatory nor pleading, but regards us with a cool, slightly aloof inscrutability. Whether an embodiment of the female consciousness, ultimately untouched by grasping, condescending men, or an ironic incarnation of the Auteur letting us know who's been pulling the strings all along, the effect is to put us in our place, reminding us at once of the omniscience of the filmmaker, the unpredictability of life (and art), and the impotence of the spectator. "You don't know me," that look says, "but I know you."

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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