A Twist of Claude Chabrol

I am a Claude Chabrol fan. What does this mean? Well, among other things, it means that when I heard that Twist had come out on DVD, I immediately rushed to the Internet to buy a copy, and the instant it arrived, I watched it. This, for a film that even Chabrol himself admitted (correctly) was his worst ever creation. So, this week, a tribute to M. Chabrol, by way of his worst film, in all it’s stinky, putrid glory.

DVD box cover

Now, I should explain first why I felt such an attraction to this film, despite its deservedly poor reputation.  Well, you see…

Once upon a time, Claude Chabrol set out to make his own addition to the cinematic adventures of Dr. Mabuse.

No, that’s not right. When I phrase it like that it sounds like it only happened the once. In fact, Chabrol spent decades trying to launch his Mabuse film. Eventually it happened, in 1989 (and the result was terrific), but he’d left behind a trail of bread crumbs leading up to it. In the mid 1970s, especially, he seemed to be narrowing in on his goal.

There was a run of films that had connections to Fritz Lang and to Dr. Mabuse, and which were steeped in richly surrealist imagery.

Alice or the Last Escapade was a delirious work of surrealistic horror openly dedicated to Fritz Lang. Another, Death Rite, cast Gert Frobe as a Mabusian clairvoyant. Both of these immensely rewarding films are MIA on DVD. But sandwiched between them was another half-measure towards Chabrol’s Mabusian goal–a film that Chabrol directed for producer Artur Brauner (who controlled, and still controls, the Mabuse copyright). This was Twist, AKA Folies Bourgeoisie.

Movie poster

Let’s get one thing out of the way first and then move on–Twist is an uncommonly terrible DVD. As you can see from the frame grabs and video clips presented here, it looks and sounds like a ragged old VHS–and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what was used to master the DVD. Although I wish that the film had been decently mastered for home video, if it had been me producing the disc I too would’ve balked at spending any real money on something that would only appeal to masochistic completists anyway.

Another point that maybe needs to be established upfront is what a “good” Chabrol film would be. The press insisted on calling him the French Hitchcock, but this was always a misleading piece of PR nonsense. Brian DePalma shamelessly aped Hitchcockian plots and motifs, but Chabrol remained a master of his own distinctive idiom.

The French Hitchcock

At his best, Chabrol made shaggy dog stories–replete with red herrings and misdirection, glacially paced and icy cold, all but impenetrable on first viewings. They were rambling, digressive slice-of-life dramas into which the stylistic tricks of thrillers would intrude awkwardly–that is until the inevitable moment when a murder happened.

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But Chabrolian cinema was never about those murders. These were never whodunits, nor even whydunits. It was simply taken for granted in Chabrol’s universe that anyone could at any time kill another human being, and so any honest depiction of the Human Condition would include murder.

(By the way, if you’re reading this and haven’t seen a Chabrol film before, I’d recommend you start with La Rapture. It’s my personal favorite, it’s exceedingly representative of his style, it hails from his most fecund period, and it’s easily available on DVD. Score.)

DVD box art

When Chabrol said Twist was an indefensible film, he also said it was a deliberate exercise in bad taste. But what he means by bad taste and what the term generally connotes are two different things–although both apply in this instance.

The conventional idea of bad taste is evident in scenes like this:

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There’s some even worse stuff later in the film, but I couldn’t provide excerpts of the most tasteless material in this family-friendly forum.

But what Chabrol really meant when he called the film tasteless was that it freely mixed contrasting tones–broad farce becomes psychological thriller becomes emotionally realist drama and then back to farce. “Good” filmmaking is about maintaining consistency, not veering clumsily all over the road. Chabrol said that he knew he was violating conventional rules, and was doing so deliberately, as an experiment.

Ok. Maybe. I’ll table that idea for a moment, to focus on the wisdom of Chabrol even trying for broad farce in any measure, be it fragments of a whole or the entire movie. Chabrol is a man of sardonic wit, of ironic detachment, of satirical insight. An undercurrent of wicked black comedy underlies even his most austere of thrillers. But that kind of dry comedy has little in common with the self-conscious mugging and isn’t-this-outrageous excess that colors the farcical scenes of Twist.

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Stephane Audran is out of her element, both in terms of the stupid nonsense the script asks of her and the foreign language she’s forced to do it in. But for all that, Audran gives it her game best, and she’d been in so many Chabrol films by that point that she must have known perhaps even better than he did what he wanted. That, and the film is in part a fictionalization of her crumbling marriage to Chabrol. When each day’s shoot broke and the two went home to bicker and spat, that counted as a sort of rehearsal for the next day’s work.

But, what about Bruce Dern?

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This stretch in the middle 1970s found Chabrol’s financing often attached to strings that dictated the use of American movie stars. Rod Steiger, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow, Orson Welles… No flies on them. Chabrol also, understandably, sought out some of the actors associated with his idol, Alfred Hitchcock. It made sense–if the press was going to continue to refer to Chabrol as the French Hitchcock, he might as well embrace the term (for example, making a Hitchcockian cameo in Twist).

Chabrol’s use of Anthony Perkins in films like Ten Days Wonder and The Champagne Murders is quite effective. Perkins is clearly keen to steal every scene he’s in, and he is an undisciplined and awkward performer to boot, but his nervous energy suits his characters nicely. Here’s a clip from Champagne Murders to demonstrate how much the cold, alienating Chabrolian style benefits from his twitchy intensity:

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Bruce Dern was another matter. Like Perkins, his appeal lies in his raw, itchy imperfection. Hitchcock made great use of his non-glamorous, anti-Hollywood attitude. But Chabrol, who didn’t speak English well, simply drops the guy into a sloppily written movie and leaves him to his own devices. Dern appears to be improvising a fair bit of his dialog (unless there’s a writer somewhere who’d like to take credit for this stuff), and seems to believe that any scene will be improved if he just keeps talking.

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This is unruly, to be sure. It’s also so very un-Chabrolian. For something on the order of fifty years, Chabrol made pretty nearly a film a year, of extraordinary consistency. At times the similarities from film to film were so pronounced, he didn’t even bother to change the character names–or the actors or production crew. And throughout it all, he held firm to one organizing principle: you can’t know what’s in another person’s head. You can observe what they say and what they do, but what that means is a matter of interpretation.

I’ll admit he strayed from this occasionally. One of his early films, The Third Lover, was a low-budget affair that copped a familiar trick from the world of exploitation cheapies, and had it’s main character narrate the film from start to finish, while virtually no synch-sound was even recorded on set. That too produces a jarringly un-Chabrolian effect, but only up to a point. No matter how much the guy blathers on about what he thinks and feels, what he says never really makes psychological sense. In the final analysis, he’s as unknowable and alien as if he had kept his mouth shut:

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At his best, though, Chabrol keeps his audience at bay. His most compelling works are dense with loose ends and red herrings, packed with entrancing details that never entirely gel into coherence. They are opaque gems.

Twist has none of this. The characters talk endlessly to one another about what’s on their mind and why, and in between these endless verbal jags they go into dreamy reveries in which Chabrol depicts their fantasies come to life:

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In the same year, the BBC sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin used the same technique to bring audiences inside the fantasies of struggling salaryman Perrin.

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Since when is the father of the French New Wave stepping on the toes of British sitcoms?

About that “Father of the French New Wave” designation: I mean it.

In the simplest definition, Chabrol was the first of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd to make a film. He’d inherited some money, and decided that the most prudent use of that unexpected windfall was to make a low-budget art film that defied all prevailing trends in French film. If that doesn’t make you fall in love with the man right there, you’re reading the wrong blog.

But his fellow New Wavers criticized him, as did the rest of the French film establishment and art house critics the world over, for his insistent commitment to genre filmmaking. Year after year, he made commercially minded art films, or artistically inclined commercial films, at a time when True Artists where supposed to reflexively reject the market.

To Chabrol, though, he knew he had come to films out of a love of the works of Hitchcock and Lang, of American film noir and Edgar Ulmer B movies. He was a child of pulp filmmaking and genre traditions, and he wasn’t about to disown that past. In that sense, he was truer to the spirit of what inspired the French New Wave than those directors who got their start writing essays in praise of a kind of film that they would then disdain the instant they had their hands on a camera.

Master of Suspense

Chabrol’s enduring commercial success, his tenacity, right up to his death in 2010, was a form of triumph. Last man standing wins, as they say.

Twist includes sly self-references to this personal history. Bruce Dern’s character is a writer pining for critical approval, but worried that his continued commercial success will prejudice the critics against him. Just in case the audience misses that reference, Chabrol makes the aforementioned cameo appearance in a scene set in the writer’s agent’s office. Chabrol is implied to be another writer, and Dern makes a passing disparaging remark that the fellow hasn’t written anything good in a long while.

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But even if you walk away from the nightmare that is Twist shuddering in horror at what Chabrol hath wrought, there’s no reason to conclude that the real Chabrol is as passé as his onscreen counterpart.

Twist is an anomaly, a hiccup, and kudos to Pathfinder to keeping it from total obscurity, even with its flaws.

24 Responses A Twist of Claude Chabrol
Posted By Tom S : August 13, 2011 1:13 pm

“Brian DePalma shamelessly aped Hitchcockian plots and motifs, but Chabrol remained a master of his own distinctive idiom.”

To be fair, I don’t think anyone would ever confused a De Palma movie for a Hitchcock, however many blondes and knife murders and and voyeurs are in them- De Palma stole elements from Hitch left and right, but they’re processed through an incredibly different mind, a different context (De Palma has, for instance, a totally different idea of what a city is like than Hitch did) and less restraint. It’s like the Leone-Kurosawa thing with Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo- there’s absolutely no doubt that the former stole heavily from the latter, and the plots are nearly identical, but they are unbelievably different movies.

Chabrol I think is one of those guys where part of why he’s less well known than his fellows at Cahiers is that he put out so many damn movies- it’s really hard to figure out what’s well-liked and what isn’t, what has a good release, what’s an underrated gem, and what’s skippable crap.

Posted By Tom S : August 13, 2011 1:13 pm

“Brian DePalma shamelessly aped Hitchcockian plots and motifs, but Chabrol remained a master of his own distinctive idiom.”

To be fair, I don’t think anyone would ever confused a De Palma movie for a Hitchcock, however many blondes and knife murders and and voyeurs are in them- De Palma stole elements from Hitch left and right, but they’re processed through an incredibly different mind, a different context (De Palma has, for instance, a totally different idea of what a city is like than Hitch did) and less restraint. It’s like the Leone-Kurosawa thing with Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo- there’s absolutely no doubt that the former stole heavily from the latter, and the plots are nearly identical, but they are unbelievably different movies.

Chabrol I think is one of those guys where part of why he’s less well known than his fellows at Cahiers is that he put out so many damn movies- it’s really hard to figure out what’s well-liked and what isn’t, what has a good release, what’s an underrated gem, and what’s skippable crap.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 13, 2011 1:32 pm

Twist appears to be skippable crap.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 13, 2011 1:32 pm

Twist appears to be skippable crap.

Posted By morlockjeff : August 13, 2011 2:59 pm

I know I once said that even bad Chabrol was more interesting than the best work of a lesser director but I have to say that’s not the case here. It’s hard to tell what he’s striving for and the tone wavers wildly from scene to scene but not in an entertainingly bad way. I subjected some friends to this during a vacation in Maine where I rented it from the local video store in the middle of nowhere. Only my wife and I made it to the end. And the other feature I rented for fun that weekend was even worse – HEARTS OF FIRE, the 1987 Bob Dylan stinker with co-stars Fiona and Rupert Everett!!

Posted By morlockjeff : August 13, 2011 2:59 pm

I know I once said that even bad Chabrol was more interesting than the best work of a lesser director but I have to say that’s not the case here. It’s hard to tell what he’s striving for and the tone wavers wildly from scene to scene but not in an entertainingly bad way. I subjected some friends to this during a vacation in Maine where I rented it from the local video store in the middle of nowhere. Only my wife and I made it to the end. And the other feature I rented for fun that weekend was even worse – HEARTS OF FIRE, the 1987 Bob Dylan stinker with co-stars Fiona and Rupert Everett!!

Posted By Emgee : August 13, 2011 4:18 pm

Great post i have yet to see a Chabrol film which left me totally indifferent but this may be the one. Oh well, even the English Hitchcock has made some poor movies, and i say this as someone who has seen some of his films ten times or more. But a movie like Topaz is pure torture to watch.
Personally i would recommend Le Boucher as a film to see first to determine if you can appreciate the Chabrol style. Or maybe Poulet au Vinaigre ( Cop au vin…..) which is a more conventional policier in the Maigret tradition.

Posted By Emgee : August 13, 2011 4:18 pm

Great post i have yet to see a Chabrol film which left me totally indifferent but this may be the one. Oh well, even the English Hitchcock has made some poor movies, and i say this as someone who has seen some of his films ten times or more. But a movie like Topaz is pure torture to watch.
Personally i would recommend Le Boucher as a film to see first to determine if you can appreciate the Chabrol style. Or maybe Poulet au Vinaigre ( Cop au vin…..) which is a more conventional policier in the Maigret tradition.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 13, 2011 4:22 pm

Emgee- I agree about Topaz. It’s boring. It’s my least favorite Hitchcock, without a doubt.

Posted By dukeroberts : August 13, 2011 4:22 pm

Emgee- I agree about Topaz. It’s boring. It’s my least favorite Hitchcock, without a doubt.

Posted By AL : August 13, 2011 6:02 pm

D & E–You perfectly described my sentiments about TOPAZ…

Posted By AL : August 13, 2011 6:02 pm

D & E–You perfectly described my sentiments about TOPAZ…

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 13, 2011 6:54 pm

it’s really hard to figure out what’s well-liked and what isn’t, what has a good release, what’s an underrated gem, and what’s skippable crap.

Tom, my rule of thumb is “practically any Chabrol is worth watching.”

For the Chabrol novice – and to the experts – I recommend this link, Ten Days Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, held two years ago by Ray Young of Flickhead. Ray is a Chabrol expert, acolyte and promoter. I reviewed a lesser Chabrol for it, The Bridesmaid, but lesser Chabrol still means superb movie, as Bridesmaid is (review here: Let the Great Illusion Drown).

And, of course, this very post by David provides proof that there are, indeed, some Chabrol movies where the mark is missed but it happened so rarely, it feels like the exception that proves the rule.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 13, 2011 6:54 pm

it’s really hard to figure out what’s well-liked and what isn’t, what has a good release, what’s an underrated gem, and what’s skippable crap.

Tom, my rule of thumb is “practically any Chabrol is worth watching.”

For the Chabrol novice – and to the experts – I recommend this link, Ten Days Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, held two years ago by Ray Young of Flickhead. Ray is a Chabrol expert, acolyte and promoter. I reviewed a lesser Chabrol for it, The Bridesmaid, but lesser Chabrol still means superb movie, as Bridesmaid is (review here: Let the Great Illusion Drown).

And, of course, this very post by David provides proof that there are, indeed, some Chabrol movies where the mark is missed but it happened so rarely, it feels like the exception that proves the rule.

Posted By Tom S : August 13, 2011 7:04 pm

Thanks for the link- though unfortunately a few of the links within it are down, including the one for Le Beau Serge. As Criterion’s releasing that one and Les Cousins pretty soon- how do they compare, in quality and as examples of the kinds of things Chabrol makes?

Posted By Tom S : August 13, 2011 7:04 pm

Thanks for the link- though unfortunately a few of the links within it are down, including the one for Le Beau Serge. As Criterion’s releasing that one and Les Cousins pretty soon- how do they compare, in quality and as examples of the kinds of things Chabrol makes?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 13, 2011 7:29 pm

Tom, that’s very early Chabrol and one I’ve not yet seen myself. How exciting it’s getting Criterion release. Les Cousins is excellent, though it wasn’t until Les Biches, a masterpiece, that he truly hit his stride.

Also, his work with Isabelle Huppert is fantastic. She gives great performances in Madame Bovary and La Ceremonie in particular.

There are still so many I need to see myself though (which is why I recommended the link, not knowing some would be down – most work though). I look forward to the release of Le Beau Serge.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 13, 2011 7:29 pm

Tom, that’s very early Chabrol and one I’ve not yet seen myself. How exciting it’s getting Criterion release. Les Cousins is excellent, though it wasn’t until Les Biches, a masterpiece, that he truly hit his stride.

Also, his work with Isabelle Huppert is fantastic. She gives great performances in Madame Bovary and La Ceremonie in particular.

There are still so many I need to see myself though (which is why I recommended the link, not knowing some would be down – most work though). I look forward to the release of Le Beau Serge.

Posted By davidkalat : August 13, 2011 9:20 pm

My own feeling is that newbies to Chabrol would do themselves favors by starting with his work in the late 1960s and 1970s–the aforementioned LES BICHES, THIS MAN MUST DIE, LA RUPTURE, LE BOUCHER–this is where I started and it’s what turned me into a fan.

Posted By davidkalat : August 13, 2011 9:20 pm

My own feeling is that newbies to Chabrol would do themselves favors by starting with his work in the late 1960s and 1970s–the aforementioned LES BICHES, THIS MAN MUST DIE, LA RUPTURE, LE BOUCHER–this is where I started and it’s what turned me into a fan.

Posted By Emgee : August 14, 2011 3:44 pm

I saw Le Beau Serge after seeing his later work and could hardly believe it was by the director of those tense psychological thrillers; it’s a VERY different picture. So abandon all expectations of seeing a forerunner of Les biches, Le boucher, etc. It’s a good film, but just…..different.

Posted By Emgee : August 14, 2011 3:44 pm

I saw Le Beau Serge after seeing his later work and could hardly believe it was by the director of those tense psychological thrillers; it’s a VERY different picture. So abandon all expectations of seeing a forerunner of Les biches, Le boucher, etc. It’s a good film, but just…..different.

Posted By Kingrat : August 16, 2011 4:04 pm

LE BEAU SERGE is one of the few Chabrol films I’ve seen. It’s filmed on location in the country and is a psychological drama, not a thriller. Jean-Claude Brialy, a student, visits his old friend, Gerard Blain, and is displeased that his friend has married a woman not worthy of him. There’s also a local hot to trot gal played by Bernadette Lafont. It’s a good film, but not the way Chabrol would go.

I’m crazy about LES BONNES FEMMES, which shows the influence of Hitchcock but is clearly all Chabrol. By the way, there’s a hot to trot gal played by–you guessed it–Bernadette Lafont.

Posted By Kingrat : August 16, 2011 4:04 pm

LE BEAU SERGE is one of the few Chabrol films I’ve seen. It’s filmed on location in the country and is a psychological drama, not a thriller. Jean-Claude Brialy, a student, visits his old friend, Gerard Blain, and is displeased that his friend has married a woman not worthy of him. There’s also a local hot to trot gal played by Bernadette Lafont. It’s a good film, but not the way Chabrol would go.

I’m crazy about LES BONNES FEMMES, which shows the influence of Hitchcock but is clearly all Chabrol. By the way, there’s a hot to trot gal played by–you guessed it–Bernadette Lafont.

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