Sunday, September 14, 2008

Film Review: A Girl Cut in Two

"A Girl Cut in Two" *** (out of ****)

It has been exactly 50 years since the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) started in 1958 with Claude Chabrol's debut film, "Le Beau Serge". Ever since then Chabrol has kept his eye on the bourgeoisie exposing their desires and attacking politics.

It has been a bumpy ride for Chabrol. Now after 69 films under his belt (strangely not all of them have been distributed in America) he is considered a master, but during the late 1970s and into the 1980s the critics and the public damned him. Everything Chabrol did was met with criticism. Comments like "it's not as good as his earlier work" were repeated often. But Chabrol kept working being "rediscovered" film after film.

As much as I admire Chabrol (he's one of my favorite directors) his work of late has suffered. Not to suggest he is no longer talented. The films are better than most of what passes for good films in today's cinema but Chabrol has become soft. His last great film was "The Flower of Evil" made back in 2003. His films since "The Bridesmaid" and "Comedy of Power" no longer have Chabrol's cynical outlook.

It's said that writers and directors usually love their characters. They treat them as their babies. Despite all their faults they represent blood, sweat and tears. And I'm sure that is true in Chabrol's case too but Chabrol was always willing to judge his characters. That has really been the point of his movies. Exposing the upper class lifestyle. On the surface everything looks perfect. The loving wife, the happy children and the faithful husband but beneath of all that lurks dark, hidden secrets.

Nowadays Chabrol doesn't judge these people as harshly. Watch "The Bridesmaid" than compare it to "Wedding in Blood", "The Unfaithful Wife" or "Innocents with Dirty Hands".
Some of that bite finds its way back in "A Girl Cut in Two" but the film almost seems too stylized for its own good. It doesn't feel like a Chabrol film. It seems too modern. Modern in the choice of music, the dialogue and the acting styles.

The film follows a rich novelist, Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand). He is a typical bourgeoisie. He leads a sheltered life with his wife of 25 years, Dona (Valeria Cavalli). He has contempt for modern day society. He doesn't even watch television. But with his latest book, his editor, Capucine (Mathilda May) has talked in into giving TV interviews and attending book signings. After a struggle, he agrees.

It is at the book signing he meets Gabrielle Snow (Ludivine Sagnier) a local weather girl. She is young and beautiful. She catches Charles' eye. He suggest the two go out on a date. She is responsive. She knows his situation but is not bothered.

Now enters Paul (Benoit Magimel) a spoiled rich kid. He says he loves Gabrielle after only one date. She doesn't love him. He says he has connections and could jump start her career. She doesn't care.
Paul and Charles know each other and for unknown reasons Paul hates Charles. The two now compete to win Gabrielle's favor.

In Paul, Chabrol gets to make fun of the rich. Paul is one of those people who thinks he can do whatever he likes because of his family man. He parks wherever he likes and when given a parking ticket, merely rips it up. He thinks Gabrielle should be with him because of his money. Chabrol presents him as an unstable loser.

The problems with "A Girl Cut in Two" are due to the acting and the casting. Normally I would not write such a remark because it would seem inappropriate but Francois Berleand is an ugly man. He can act, but he doesn't look the part. Why such a young and beautiful woman like Gabrielle would talk to, even look at him is beyond me.

Ludivine Sagnier first caught my attention in a pair of Francois Ozon films; "Swimming Pool" and "8 Women". After seeing her in "Swimming Pool" she would seem to be a natural for Chabrol film I thought. But Sagnier is not the typical Chabrol female. Compare her to Stephane Audran or Isabelle Huppert. Sagnier comes off too vulnerable. Audran and Huppert always kept a certain mystery about them. They had that Buster Keaton "stoneface" on all the time. They always seemed to be thinking. And usually about murder. Sagnier isn't as mysterious. Her character only becomes confusing. Does she really love Charles? Is she using him to get ahead? If she just wanted to get ahead surely Paul could arrange things for her. What are her motives?

The film was co-scripted by Chabrol and his step-daughter, Cecile Maistre. It is based on true events, the 1906 murder of Stanford White. He was killed by Harry K. Thaw because Thaw felt he was going after his woman, a chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit. The idea seems interesting enough where I could understand why Chabrol was interested. But the material doesn't develop enough. There seems to be so much more going on then meets the eye. What exactly is Charles' relationship with his editor? It seems they once had a sexual past. Why does Paul hate Charles so much? And does Dona really not know anything about Charles' secret life?

"A Girl Cut in Two" is not a bad film. Of all the films I have seen directed by the master, only one has disappointed me, his 1992 film "Betty". But given his track record I feel I owe it to him to give that film a second chance. This film is at times watchable. And its fun to look at Sagnier but over all I cannot say this is one of Chabrol's great films. It belong near the bottom of the ladder.

p.s. I have already written about Chabrol. I included his 1968 film "Les Biches" as part of my "Masterpiece Film Series".