Friday, September 17, 2010

Film Review: Violette

"Violette" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

As film lovers all over the world mourn, or at least should mourn, the passing of the legendary French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, I am going to review one more of his many titles as a sort of tribute to one of cinema's great masters.

"Violette" (1978) is sadly not a Chabrol film which instantly springs into the mind of moviegoers when they think of Chabrol. This is truly unfortunate. The film belongs in a class with some of Chabrol's best films such as "Les Biches" (1968), "Le Boucher" (1972) and "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969).

After hearing about the news of Chabrol's death, I knew I was going to review another one of his films. And I immediately knew it was going to be this title. Mostly because I've never seen this film before. I didn't want to go back and rewatch one of his films which I have seen. I wanted to take delight in something new.

I had heard of this film however. To Chabrol fans it is known as the movie which began the collaboration between Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert. They would go on to work together six more times; "The Story of Women" (1989), "Madame Bovary" (1991), "La Ceremonie" (1997), "The Swindle" (1997), "Merci pour le Chocolat" (2002) and "Comedy of Power" (2006). Making Huppert, as far as I am concerned, Chabrol's greatest muse since his ex-wife Stephane Audran, whom also co-stars in the film.

"Violette", despite its lack in popularity and prestige, is quite a typical Chabrol film. Many of his favorite themes are on display here. The film deals with the classes. It doesn't engage in the class warfare "La Ceremonie" did, which was Marxist at its core, but does show us people who strive to crawl out of their social class.

Young Violette Noziere (Huppert) seems so sweet and innocent. At first we see her sitting down with her parents; Germaine (Audran) and Baptiste (Jean Carmet) having dinner. She does her homework without being told and kisses her parents goodnight. She appears to be the model child. But all is not what it seems. Violette has her bad side. The Noziere's are middle class. But Violette is a social climber. She wants to be rich. She has a tendency to steal and is something of a prostitute. So much for family values.

Huppert, who looks so young here, is perfect to play this character. She somehow manages to capture both the innocence which is required of the role and a seductive nature. But that has always been the strength of the characters Huppert has played, especially in her films with Chabrol. She has always had the ability to mask her character's feelings with her poker face. We know something is going on in her pretty head. We can sense the wheels are turning. But what exactly is she going to do? What is she capable of?

Violette downplays her family's status. She likes to look elegant. She allows friends and potential clients to believe she comes from a wealthy upbringing. This allows several people to be jealous of her. At the hotel where Violette takes her clients one of the maids admires her clothes. She would love to be like her, not knowing they are really both the same. But this also attracts the attention of Jean Dabin (Jean-Francois Garreaud) who knows nothing about her past but wants to use her for her money.

And like any Chabrol film there are family secrets. Germaine and Baptiste at first appear to be a rather bland and boring middle class couple. Everything in their life is routine. At night Violette can hear them make love and can recite to herself what they will say. Though Germaine may not be as proper as we or even Baptiste may think. Violette is not his daughter. Germaine, perhaps, had an affair, with a wealthy man, Emile (Jean Dalmain), who Violette blackmails into giving her money.

There is actually a lot going on in this film. Maybe a bit too much. I also thought the movie runs a little too long. Trim some of the sub-plots and cut the running time 30 minutes or so and I'd say the film is a masterpiece. It's not. It comes pretty close though.

The film plays around with linear structure. It also changes POV (point of view) so at times we don't know when we are seeing reality or Violette's version of truth. And because Violette has a tendency to lie, we can never be quite sure if what we are hearing is the truth. At this point does Violette even know she is lying? Has her stories become her reality?

"Violette" was written by Odile Barski, who had worked with Chabrol on several screenplays. Together they wrote Chabrol's last film, "Bellamy" (2009) and "Comedy of Power" (2006) among others. Frederic Grendel was another writer who worked on the script. He may be best known for writing "Diabolique" (1955).

The film has some of the most beautiful cinematography you will find in a Chabrol film. It was done by his frequent collaborator Jean Rabier, who worked on "This Man Must Die!" (1971) and "La Rupture" (1970, released in the U.S. 1975). Besides his work on Chabrol films he also shot "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964). "Violette" has a similar romantic quality to it. The film is suppose to take places in the 1930s. Rabier gives the movie a nostalgic look.

Although what is really impressive about "Violette" is Huppert. The movie could have used more of a psychological undertone to it in order to explain Violette but perhaps Chabrol wanted to avoid that on purpose. Make the character more mysterious. But it is still interesting to see how Huppert portrays the character. A young woman whom you feel never quite knows the consequences her actions will have. What made her this way?

The film was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. It won one, Huppert for "Best Actress", while the film was nominated for the palme d'or. The only other film Chabrol made which was up for the top prize at Cannes was "Cop au Vin" (1986). The film was also nominated for four Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and won one for Audran as "Best Supporting Actress".

As I have said before, I'm going to miss not having Chabrol make any more new films. Watching a film like "Violette" makes us realize how much we have lost when we lost Chabrol.