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French Cinema

La femme infidèle (France 1969)

Helene (Stéphane Audran) and her lover, Paul (Maurice Ronet)

Helene (Stéphane Audran) and her lover, Victor (Maurice Ronet)

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.

Discussion

One thought on “La femme infidèle (France 1969)

  1. I agree that “La Femme Infidele” (1968), is one of Chabrol’s most Hitchcockian films. In fact, voyeurism plays a key part in the story, as Charles is constantly watching his wife, Helene. This characteristic leads to the discovery of his wife’s infidelity and her lover, Victor. What follows is a sequence which has been compared to Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” (1954). The theme of Chabrols film, could be described as guilt and suspicion threatening the happiness of a romantic couple and yet again Hitchcock provides an example of this, in his “Notorious” (1946). A further connection to this film, can be found in Chabrol and Rohmer’s book on Hitchcock. When writing about “Notorious” they state: “The misfortune of the protagonists comes from the fact that as victims of their mutual preconceptions, they refuse to pronounce the saving “word”. They fail to appreciate the virtue of this confession”. In “La Femme Infidele” the “saving word” Love, cannot be spoken by Helene and Charles, because of the guilt and suspicion. Only at the end of the film, after all that’s gone before, can they express their love for each other. It’s at this point of the film, that Chabrol uses a technique developed by Hitchcock for “Vertigo” (1958). The final shot of the film, is on Helene and her son Michel. What Chabrol does, is zoom his camera forward, whilst tracking it back. The effect of this, is to cause uncertainty in the audience. Yet another example of Chabrol giving his films an ambivalent ending.

    Even though the film is very Hitchcockian, Chabrol still finds space for his Fritz Lang influences. The ending of “La Femme Infidele”, does suggest possible redemption in Charles and Helenes relationship. Similarly, in Fritz Lang’s “Clash By Night” (1952), a marriage is saved, when an unfaithful wife witnesses the violence of her husband to her lover. In the mise en scene, the bourgeoisie world of Charles and Helene is portrayed as a cold, sterile world of whites and blues with everything in its place. However, when Charles meets Victor, we see a bright red lightshade in the apartment and later, when he arrives home, a vase of red flowers. As the story develops and love again begins to bloom between Helene and Charles, the colours appear to become warmer and the house looks more lived in. Symbolically, the bust of a woman’s head plays an important part in the film and the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle could refer to Victor or the “saving word” Love. Either way, Michel blames his father for the missing piece.

    Of all the “Cahiers Du Cinema” directors, Claude Chabrol is probably the most successful, both critically and commercially. Whilst Godard became revolutionary and experimental, Truffaut became more mainstream and Eric Rohmer followed the arthouse route. Chabrol stayed truer to the “New Wave” ideals. As an auteur, his films deal with a bourgeoisie decadence, voyeurism and the ambivalence of life. He continues to work in genres and as “La Femme Infidele” showed, he’s not afraid to use “New Wave” techniques such as jump-cuts (as seen in Charles visit to Victor’s apartment). As already stated, he freely references other directors and their films. None more so then his own. Again,in “La Femme Infidele”, after Charles visit to Victor’s apartment, he passes a cinema showing Chabrols previous film “Les Biches” (1967). Soon after this, a vehicle runs into the back of his car, the driver of which is one of the cast of “Les Biches” (Dominique Zardi).

    Posted by Stephen Gott | August 1, 2009, 21:16

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