Monday, May 9, 2016

Film Reviews: L' Enfer & The Flower of Evil

"L' Enfer"
**** (out of ****)

A woman makes life a living hell for her husband in Claude Chabrol's
"L' Enfer" (1994).

Claude Chabrol was one of the leading members of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave) in the 1960s along with Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. Prior to filmmaking each of them were movie critics for highly influential magazine "Cahiers du cinema". Mr. Chabrol directed the first recognized film of the "New Wave" movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958). Throughout his career, the master filmmaker passed away in 2010, Mr. Chabrol made movies which were cynical critiques of the Bourgeoisie, trying to peel away their facade of leading happy, ordinary lives and instead showing them engaging in murder and hiding family secrets. Because of these films Mr. Chabrol was given the nickname "The French Hitchcock".

"L' Enfer" was made during a difficult time in Mr. Chabrol's career. Between the late 1960s and into the mid 1970s Mr. Chabrol released his most critically acclaimed movies, several of them are masterpieces which stand up after multiple viewings. However after this time and into the 1980s and early 90s, Mr. Chabrol fell out of favor with American movie critics (sheep) and the general public. His work was no longer seen as influential. There were some bright spots such as "The Story of Women" (1989) but it wasn't enough to put Mr. Chabrol back into the good graces of the public.

Although "L' Enfer" is not generally considered to be one of Mr. Chabrol's great films, the movie stands out as a cut above the rest from this particular period in Mr. Chabrol's career. The material is not new, in fact minues a few changes here and there the movie is comparable one of the Mr. Chabrol's masterpieces "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969). The main difference is "L' Enfer" is more psychological.

"L'Enfer" (which translated into english means hell) was based on a screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot, himself a noted French filmmaker. The adaptation was done by Mr. Chabrol and stars Francois Cluzet, who gained international fame years later in the thriller "Tell No One" (2006) and Emmanuelle Beart, who worked twice with fellow New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette. Mr. Cluzet stars as Paul, owner of a lakeside hotel and Ms. Beart is his wife Nelly. At first Paul and Nelly appear to be the quintessential couple. Young, happy and in love. They are bless with a child. On the exterior they are a perfect match.

Paul however slowly begins to slip into a mad obsession when he suspects Nelly is cheating on him. It is the little things at first. Nelly, who helps out at the hotel, goes out with some mutual friends without telling Paul. Nelly is napping when she should be taking the hotel guests dinner orders. She lies about going to her mother's, in the city, after Paul followed her.

The question for the audiences becomes is Nelly really having an affair or is Paul imagining everything due to jealousy. Nelly is a young and beautiful woman. Young beautiful women tend to know they are beautiful. Men tend to notice it too. Some men don't mind telling beautiful women they are beautiful. Some women may secretly like the attention and may accept the advances from one of the men, if they like them. But what does that say about society and about women? Beautiful women can't be trusted? Beautiful women can't be faithful?

Women have long been presented as being unfaithful in the movies despite the illogical, irrational belief perpetuated by the media that men are the ones prone to cheating. Chabrol's own "The Unfaithful Wife" is one example. What about film noir of the 1940s and 50s and femme fatales? Isn't it always a woman that is behind every man's downfall? Men waste so much time chasing after women and then when they get them, men waste more time trying to hold on to them.

Of course infidelity has always been a good topic for comedy. It feeds off of our own human emotions and exaggerates upon it. Look at the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges and classic comedies such as "The Awful Truth" (1937). It works so well for comedy because of the silly things people do when they are in love and the mad heights jealousy leads people to.

Mr. Chabrol's film is different though. "L'Enfer" is exaggerated and for certain audiences the situations presented may become "too much", too over-the-top that there may be unintended laughs. For others though "L'Enfer" will become a brainteaser and a fascinating look into the world of a mad man.

There is though another way to interpret the movie's title. Who exactly is experiencing hell? At this point everything has been seen through the eyes of the husband but is the wife not going through her own hell living with a jealous husband? A husband that doesn't want his wife to leave the house, that questions her every move and at one point, ties her to the bed.

Although so much of the movie depends on Mr. Cluzet's performance it may be Ms. Beart that gives the more interesting performance. Mr. Cluzet's character can border on being fairly simple to understand. His obsession with jealousy consumes him. But what about Ms. Beart? When her character discovers just how jealous her husband is, she provokes him. She teases him by telling him he better stop following her and accusing her or else she will give him something to be jealous about. Is that really the best way to handle a situation when your spouse is jealous? This makes the performance a bit more interesting. We ask ourselves, what is this character up to?

"L'Enfer" is not the first movie someone should watch to introduce themselves to the world of Mr. Chabrol's films but it is a worthwhile effort and one of the master filmmaker's better films from the period.

"The Flower of Evil"  **** (out of ****)

Claude Chabrol's "The Flower of Evil" (2003) opens with the image of a beautiful home. The camera slowly takes us up a staircase and leads us into one of the rooms where we see a dead body.

As the audience watches this sequence we hear a piece of music, a French song from perhaps the 1940s plays over the movie's credits. The song contains a lyric stating memories haunt us for an eternity.

You may not realize it the first time you watch "The Flower of Evil" but the song's lyrics serve as a key insight into the movie and fits perfectly into the cannon of Mr. Chabrol's films.

"The Flower of Evil", Mr. Chabrol's 50th feature-length film, will answer the question of whose body we see but the movie takes a spiral approach, having the movie end where it begins. As with any Claude Chabrol film however the sight of a dead body does not surprise us. We expect it. Death is merely used as a springboard to bring the audience into the lives of a Bourgeoisie family.

As with "L' Enfer" Mr. Chabrol presents us with a false exterior. Nothing in "The Flower of Evil" is as its seems. And we are reminded of the song playing over the titles. Memories. Why do they haunt the characters in this film? What kind of personal demons are they living with? While that within itself may be interesting to figure out, it is also interesting to watch how these characters try to cover up their past.

"The Flower of Evil", for me, remains the last great work Mr. Chabrol gave us. It is a throwback to his early films made in the 1960s and 70s. "The Flower of Evil" gives us every aspect we expect to find in one of Mr. Chabrol's films and the movie goes about presenting its ideas in such an effortless way, we may require multiple viewings to catch everything. A lot of that will also be due to we are having such a damn good time watching it we may not be wearing our "critic hat" to decipher everything.

This proves all the nay-sayers wrong. With age one does not lose their talent. When "The Flower of Evil" was release Mr. Chabrol was 73 years old yet the film is as fresh and clever as any film Mr. Chabrol had given us over the decades. In fact, according to film critic Michael Wilmington in his Chicago Tribune review for the film, he states Mr. Chabrol has called this movie one of his two favorites of his own movies. The other was "The Story of Women".

The movie follows the intertwining relationship between the Charpin family and the Vasseur's. Anne (Nathalie Baye) is married to Gerard (Bernard Le Coq). Anne's husband and Gerard wife were killed in a car crash together. After which Anne and Gerard got married. Anne had a daughter from the marriage, Michele (Melanie Doutey) and Gerard had a son, Francois (Benoit Magimel). Francois has returned home after living in America, Chicago to be exact, for the past three years. His reasons for leaving are mysterious but he may have had something to do with Michele, who claims she loves Francois, and the family, including the oldest member, Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon), whole-heartedly approve of the union, as it will carry on "tradition" of the two families being joined together.

These family secrets wouldn't matter much but Anne is running for office as the town's mayor and someone has revealed this family's torrid history in a leaflet distributed within the community. Could Gerard have done it, since he does not approve of his wife engaging in politics? Will it prevent Anne from winning the election? And what will it do to the family's social standing in the community since no one can refute the claims, since it is all true?

The Aunt Line character proves to be more important than some audiences may realize. She is the glue holding the family together and we begin to suspect those memories haunting us for an eternity may be the memories Aunt Line has been carrying with her for decades. Painful memories going back to World War II. Will Aunt Line try to protect the family name? Is it worth protecting?

Trying to save yourself from the sin of the past and protecting the family name may be meaningless as the movie hints "sins" are still be committed. It is suggested Gerard has a wandering eye. Is he acting on it? And what about Anne's running mate, Matthieu (Thomas Chabrol, Claude's son)? They spend a lot of time together going out trying to get votes. Could something be going on between them?

For some audiences this may all sound a bit too much. But Mr. Chabrol handles this material with a sure hand. He delicately weaves all of these stories together heightening our involvement. Providing us with a cynical, perhaps even chilling conclusion. People aren't what they seem and the rich always have secrets.

"The Flower of Evil" was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and was one of my choices for the best films of 2003, being placed in the number five spot. If you are not familiar with the work of Claude Chabrol "The Flower of Evil" is not a bad place to start, which may seem unusual to movie fans. You wouldn't expect a later film in a director's career to be so quintessential to their output but "The Flower of Evil" is clearly the work of a master filmmaker.