The opening-credits sequence of Claude Chabrol’s new film A Girl Cut in Two reveals the film’s method. Text appears against a point-of-view shot of a driver driving through French streets, but the screen is bathed blood red, and a snippet of an aria from Puccini’s Turandot plays on the soundtrack. With this mix of sound and image, an unsuspecting viewer might expect a stylized grand opera, or at the very least a gripping soap. But this is Claude Chabrol territory, a cinematic universe in which characters from all walks of life grapple privately with burning passions while the director explores those emotions with an ironic but not entirely un-empathetic detachment. Thus, illusions of something lavishly melodramatic are dashed immediately, as that blood-red tint suddenly disappears and the slick, comparably drab colors of reality set in. That operatic atmosphere never makes itself evident again, despite the nature of the love triangle it recounts: Eduardo Serra’s cinematography maintains an emphasis on unassuming tones and shiny surfaces, while Mathieu Chabrol’s score veers from ironic lightness to lightly doom-laden dissonance.
Through it all, Chabrol maintains his good surface manners, eliding certain key events so we only hear about them in retrospect, and otherwise keeping his transgression rooted at the level of technique: precisely placed zoom-ins to emphasize heightened emotion; overhead shots that suggest a character saying one thing and thinking another; deliberate TV-style fades to black; and jagged editing rhythms that abruptly cut off certain sequences before things go out of control. “Tasteful” might be one way to describe Chabrol’s style, but that doesn’t account for the film’s psychologically probing and ultimately unsettling effect.
There’s an undoubted chill in the air as the eccentric love triangle at the heart of A Girl Cut in Two plays out: It’s the chill of a filmmaker observing human beings trapped in an emotionally draining web of naïveté, selfishness, illusions, perversity, hypocrisy—in short, all of Chabrol’s usual thematic concerns, wrapped up in a package that often looks like something out of the cover of those better-home magazines. Inspired by the turn-of-the-20th-century murder of Stanford White—a famous architect and notorious womanizer who was killed by the husband of Evelyn Nesbitt, White’s mistress at the time—Chabrol spins a doozy of an anti-romantic romantic tale here.
Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a perky yet gullible TV weathergirl, finds herself torn between the constantly shifting affections of Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), a popular writer and ladies-man, and Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the charming but schizophrenic son of a pharmaceutical magnate. Gabrielle finds herself trying to negotiate her way through her conflicting feelings for both these problematic potential suitors: when Charles brutally abandons her at one point, she starts clinging to Paul (who has come, selfishly or not, to comfort her at her mother’s request) and even goes so far as to marry him (against the wishes of Paul’s disdainful mother), though she retains a certain passion for Charles. Meanwhile, she’s trying to move up from her weathergirl status—well, she does move up, but tellingly, the movie doesn’t even bother to emphasize the points when she does—but her romantic tête-à-tête with these two men lead her astray and eventually diminish her.
But then, was there anywhere to go for her in the first place? In A Girl Cut in Two, Chabrol creates a world in which everyone is stuck, in their own way. Charles feels trapped in a boringly stable marriage, but even as he feels more alive with Gabrielle (in true old-man’s-wet-dream fashion), a part of him can’t bear to leave his wife, whom he calls an “angel” on more than one occasion. Paul’s privilege seems to be his trap; his family overprotects him even at his most mentally unstable, and he can only express himself through resentful behavior, emotional outbursts and a climactic act of violence. And Gabrielle? Despite the self-confident way she carries herself, she is, one can say, trapped in her own naïve illusions about love and sacrifice. Over the course of the film, she is shown blowing off a couple of potentially career-advancing meetings just to meet with Charles again, and she quite possibly sees her marriage to Paul as the ultimate love sacrifice.
None of this is explicitly spelled out; all of the characters and situations are presented for our observation and contemplation, not for cheap derision. Chabrol excoriates his characters, but he does so with enough of a sense of humanity that they never quite devolve into puppets: these characters can sometimes both charm and repel you in the same scene. You may be unsettled by what they do, but you never find yourself either loving them or despising them: Chabrol keeps too much of an observant distance for easy audience reactions.
Are there any human truths to be gained from watching this sordid roundelay play out to its bitter end? Maybe Chabrol’s point by presenting all this—aside from his usual preoccupation with class issues and humanity challenged by perversity, both of which are lightly touched upon here—is, at heart, quite simple: beyond flashy tabloid headlines and surface sensationalism, there are always people dealing with emotions and desires they themselves may not totally understand. Television distances us and makes it easy for us to judge and assume; so does class consciousness, for that matter. But, as ever, the real truths probably lie in between, and that’s where Chabrol peers his inquisitive eye.
The final two shots of A Girl Cut in Two encapsulate this beautifully and bleakly: Gabrielle is now reduced to being an assistant at a magic show, and she gets involved in—what else?—the classic cutting-a-girl-in-half trick. As she is laid down on the table and the saw bears into her, she looks away from the audience. The camera glimpses her and zooms in on her face: she has tears streaming down. Certainly that would be enough to make a sobering concluding shot, but Chabrol actually ends his film with another shot, in which she jumps out of a box as the trick concludes. The illusion has been maintained. Chabrol zooms in on his heroine again, and she’s all smiles, without a trace of the sadness in the previous shot. That’s the image Chabrol leaves us with, in freeze frame: Gabrielle’s ever-cheerful mask stays intact. Oh, but how much more we know about what lies behind it!
House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s Global News Desk in New York while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.