French Director Claude Chabrol

France's Claude Chabrol directed many kinds of films, but he was most celebrated for domestic dramas that end in murder

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Richard Melloul / Sygma / Corbis

Claude Chabrol directs a scene in Le Sang des Autres (1984)

"Right from the start," wrote the young critic in a 1955 Cahiers du Cinéma review, "Rear Window does present an immediate focus of interest that puts it on a higher plane than the majority of [Alfred Hitchcock's] earlier works, enough to warrant its entry into the category of serious films, beyond the mere entertainment thriller." The title of Claude Chabrol's essay was "Serious Things," itself an assertion that the loftiest cinematic artistry could reside in a mere thriller — either Hitchcock's or, when the critic turned director a few years later, his own.

Chabrol directed many kinds of films — breezy action-adventures, solemn adaptations of Flaubert and Simenon, true-life stories of notorious French citizens — but he was most celebrated for domestic dramas that end in murder. Some of his best films (La Femme Infidèle, Le Boucher) he wrote himself; other prime works (Les Cousins, Les Bonnes Femmes, The Beast Must Die, Une Partie de Plaisir) were scripted by Paul Gégauff. Still others were based on paperback novels by mystery writers from the U.S. (Stanley Ellin, Charlotte Armstrong, Evan Hunter as Ed McBain) and Britain (Ruth Rendell, Nicholas Blake). Call them mere thrillers, à la Hitchcock, with a sardonic Gallic accent and little chance of a climactic Hollywood resurrection. Chabrol probably wouldn't mind the label, for he was a scholar of the genre; in 1957 he and Eric Rohmer wrote the first book-length critique of Hitchcock's films, and he titled another of his Cahiers essays "The Evolution of the Thriller."

But even modes men get posthumous praise. When Chabrol died on Sept. 12 in Paris, at 80, after directing 55 feature films — from his 1958 Le Beau Serge to last year's Bellamy — and more than a dozen French TV movies and episodes, he was lionized as the founding father of that late-'50s film explosion known as the New Wave, along with such giants as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Rohmer and Alain Resnais. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed him an artist in the class of Balzac and Rabelais — "a great auteur and a great filmmaker." Really, though, Chabrol might have preferred to be linked with his favorite Master of Suspense. Comparison to a great and popular movie man: that would have been enough.

The camera, author John Berger wrote, is a man looking at a woman. Hitchcock often told stories of men with a toxic focus on women (Vertigo, Psycho); so did Chabrol — like every moviegoer, he was the viewer as voyeur. A connoisseur of the sexual appraisal that men send women's way, he identified its power, sickness and high mortality rate. Looking can kill you, he suggested — unless you're a professional, like a movie director. Paris-born but sent to the provinces during the war, he came back to study pharmacology — appropriately, because this director saw all desire as a dangerous drug; he was an anatomizer of eroticism, the suave coroner of desire. When a man and a woman got together in a Chabrol movie, someone was sure to end up hurt. Often dead, like the lovely Clothilde Joano in Les Bonnes Femmes, from 1960: she's strangled in the bushes by her dream beau. Or the woman in the 1971 Just Before Nightfall: she's engaging in a fond S&M romp with her lover, who, hélas, presses just a little too hard on her neck ...

Chabrol's death — from natural causes, we hasten to add — capped more than a half-century of deadpan domestic-crime films in the medium-high range. One wouldn't call them masterpieces (though Les Bonnes Femmes and a few others come close) any more than flops. Those words need to be shouted, and Chabrol was an artist of grimaces and whispers. Like Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and some other of his copains at Cahiers, Chabrol graduated from writing about movies to writing and directing them. (The magazine's top 10 film list of 1960 included three films from its alumni — Godard's Breathless, Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes — and there's not a ringer in the bunch.) But unlike his friends when they stepped behind the camera, Chabrol did not pinwheel an effusive or ostentatiously vivid style. His artistic imprint fell softly on the cinematic carpet. An admirer of classic Hollywood films, he made his own in a muted visual voice with sardonic, subversive undertones.

Yet his work was as distinctive and distinguished as that of his estimable friends. The Chabrol world was a well-furnished corner of the middle class where passion led to criminal foolishness — a tendency captured in the title of his 1976 film Folies Bourgeoises. Naive young men or women would meet someone worldlier and be tested, corrupted, defiled, defeated. Chabrol adapted a Richard Neely novel, The Damned Innocents, into the 1975 film Innocents with Dirty Hands, and both titles give a hint of his attitude toward his subjects. Few of them were wholly without sin. Most of them dwelt in rancorous restlessness, sank into suave or sordid deceit, and often came to believe that a marriage could be ended by means more final and fatal than divorce.

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