Given my recent work on Claude Chabrol films from the last few years and from the New Wave period of 1958-62, it was interesting to go back to Chabrol’s most successful period in the late 1960s/early 1970s. La femme infidèle offers us ‘Helene and Charles’ (the characters’ names reappear in many Chabrol films) as a bourgeois couple living in a country house outside Paris. He’s a lawyer, she’s a woman of leisure and they have a son aged 8. Charles begins to suspect his wife is having an affair and pays a private detective to find ‘Mr Pegala’.
From the beginning, this is pure Hitchcock. Charles’ mother (a very Hitchcockian character) tells Helene not to allow Charles to get out of shape. Michel Bouquet as the husband is terrific. He is indeed a little podgy and jowly and he struggles manfully to carry out a Hitchcock murder and disposal of the body. Stéphane Audran moves through the film like a goddess and it’s nice to see Maurice Ronet again.
The whole film moves to its conclusion like a well-oiled machine. It’s fantastically smooth and controlled and ever so slightly preposterous with its almost comic policemen. I won’t give away what happens when husband meets lover, suffice to say there is a great gag that references Hitchcock again with an over-sized prop. In short the film is a masterpiece – flawless filmmaking. There is very little in the way of plot, but I found myself almost mesmerised by the way it is played. Best of all, the film ends with a beautifully shot sequence which is open-ended so that we can guess at what has happened, but we can’t know. This is similar to the endings of Les Cousins (1960) and The Girl Cut in Two (2007).
I don’t remember watching the film in the 1970s but I’m sure that I did and it struck me that somehow the film seems more ‘strange’ now than it did back then – i.e. I don’t remember Chabrol being ‘odd’ in any way, as some audiences do now. Is it just me who has changed as a spectator or are most films just made differently now? I’m not sure, but going by the recent Chabrol films, he has just kept on making them in the same way. He really is the true auteur, making virtually the same film each time with just enough difference in setting and narrative detail to keep us interested.
One technical point – the Region 2 Arrow DVD I rented had the wrong aspect ratio and I had to find ways of converting the digital file into one which allowed me to correct the mistake and achieve the correct ratio. It worked fine but was very fiddly.