Claude Chabrol | Les Cousins | The Champagne Murders | Ten Days Wonder | Masques

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Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol is the director of many French films, mainly thrillers and suspense.

Les Cousins

Les Cousins (1958) is notable for the hero's apartment. It is an elaborate complex affair, that anticipates the even more complex apartment complex in The Champagne Murders (1967). Both apartments are rich in an incredible diversity of different kinds of interior decor. The apartment in Les Cousins can be considered two long corridors of interlocking rooms; the one in The Champagne Murders contains three long corridors. I think the corridors in the later film are a bit longer, and divided into more rooms, as well. Also, the floor in Les Cousins is largely at one level, while that in the later film goes up and down in complex ways. Still, the two apartments are undoubtedly Chabrolian. One never sees anything else like them in the work of other film makers. Both have an open staircase going to an upper floor; in both films, one sees little of this second floor.

The Champagne Murders / Le Scandale

Color

The breakfast scene is largely in a mixture of hot orange and yellow, on the one hand, and blue on the other. These complementary colors anticipate the color schemes in Pedro Almodóvar's movies.

Tony Perkins wears a gray shirt whose shade exactly matches the stone of the castle behind him. At one point he goes and sits on the castle steps. He seems virtually to blend in to the stone work. It is a form of visual pun. There is also a suggestion that these people are so elegant that their clothes and their ancestral chateau all match. It is an unusual effect.

Evelyn's Rooms

Evelyn's apartment has some of the most complex architectural design in film history. This scene recalls Fritz Lang, in its intricate design of camera angles exploring every nook and direction in the apartment. It also recalls Alfred Hitchcock, with its bright colors, modern design and dynamic camera movements through the space. It is like a synthesis of the two masters.

Chabrol's fellow New Wave directors were also fascinated by apartments. One recalls Godard's endless camera movements around the apartments in Contempt (1963) and A Woman is a Woman (1961), and Resnais' exploration of the apartment in Muriel (1963), not to mention the chateau in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Clearly, all of these directors have an architectural interest in interiors.

There is also an influence from Josef von Sternberg in these scenes. Sternberg loved murals and screens with paintings behind his characters; so did his disciple Kenji Mizoguchi. Many of the walls in Evelyn's have such murals. The psychological or emotional effects of such murals is unusual. We are definitely not used to seeing such murals in daily life. They often seem spectacular on film.

The apartment in Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) was full of doors and glass panels, so one can see from one room into another. Chabrol goes one better. Many of the rooms here are walled off by either transparent screens, or by thin, see through white curtains. In addition, there are many large doorways allowing one to see long vistas from room into room.

Another similarity with Lang: the use of alcoves. In Scarlet Street, many of the rooms have alcoves built into the walls. These are rectangular openings set into the walls, often with seats or beds placed in them. These alcoves are very photogenic. They add to the complexity of a wall. Instead of being blank and uniform, there is a whole sub-area set into the wall, often with its own furniture and function. In Champagne, the alcoves are often decorated differently, and in are even in different colors, an option not available in the black and white world of Lang. In both filmmakers, the alcoves have a certain implausibility, looked at as real life architecture: what is on the other side of the alcoves? How do they relate to outside walls of the building, or apartment walls next door? Fortunately, filmmakers don't have to answer these questions on their studio sets. If they think an alcove will add visual interest, they just put one in!

Each wall is marked off with distinctive visual coverings. The curtained room seems to be a photography studio. Its boundaries are full of large standing photographer's lamps. These lamps are always intruding into the compositions in the most elaborate ways.

The shots are full of intricate visual rhymes. The viewer will recognize a piece of sculpture, a mural or a curtain from a previous shot. But here it will be from a new angle or distance. The new shot will seem like a partial echo of the first, with parts new, parts familiar, but transformed. The familiar objects will keep recurring like rhymes in a poem.

There is a cut at one point to the mystery woman, Lydia. She is seated on a bench by a wall. The viewer has no idea where this is precisely: it is part of the apartment he has never seen. The hero is looking at her, however, and this suggests the wall is somewhere on the far right of the apartment. The camera then tracks and pans left with her, as she makes her way out of the apartment. Much of this path is through entirely new turf, not clearly seen by the viewer before. It conveys that she is a major new factor, someone with her own geography and visual imagery.

Evelyn's Rooms: A Description

Not counting alcoves or the entrance hallway, there are just six rooms at Evelyn's. The rooms all seem to be rectangular. They are arranged in a 2 by 3 grid. What could be simpler? Despite this, the overall effect is of a labyrinth.

We first see the entrance hallway. It appears in just this one shot, at the start of the whole sequence. The camera tracks backwards towards the viewer in this shot, following the hero as he walks forward. But otherwise the camera keeps the same orientation. Suppose the a viewer is standing where the camera is in this shot. The viewer will then be at the far left of Evelyn's.

There are six rooms all told. Let's describe them. Both front rooms are large and square. The mid and back rooms tend to be longer from left to right than they are deep from front to back.

Our hero enters the apartment through a small entrance hallway. On left wall is an alcove, with a seat for two. The hallway ends in the front left room.

Front Left Room. Photography room, full of standing lamps. The room is separated off by white curtains, on its back and right wall. Left wall is where the hallway exits into Evelyn's, with steps going down. The front wall contains a large white panel, with a black panel curving next to the floor adjacent. This is where the body is discovered in the final shot.

Mid Left Room. The room with the circular staircase. Its left walls are full of Asian screens, with spectacular golden art and high black ornamental frames at top.

Back Left Room. This room is connected to the Mid Left Room by a doorway with two huge tusks on either side. (Paired tusks will recur in Ten Days Wonder.) The room has a circular carpet on the floor, with a table on it. At its rear wall is an alcove. Another alcove is on the left wall, with gold painting in it.

Front Right Room. Left wall is partly a mural, then partly a white curtain toward the rear; the curtain is shared with the Left Front Room. We only get a good look at the front wall and right wall after the hero wakes up the next day. The right wall has a long curtained window in a shallow alcove. There is a gold statue of a sort of palm tree in the room, as well as some easels and some standing candelabras. Along the mural is the small mirror on which Evelyn draws.

Mid Right Room. Is full of plants, with African sculpture in the middle. Front and rear walls are transparent white screens, jointed at angles. White bench on right wall is where Lydia sits. There is a matching white grillwork chair on the far left.

Back Right Room. The left hand side contains two large white abstract statues, which look as if they were made of painted wood, in the Louise Nevelson manner. The right wall is a gray mural. The back wall contains a large alcove, which has hanging scalloped gray curtains. There are small stairs leading up to the right wall. The front of the room is a jointed transparent screen; at its far right is an arched doorway.

The Roads

When our hero flees the building, he drives madly down two laned, tree lined country roads. These look exactly like the sort of roads one saw in Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915-1916), of fifty years before. These also remind one of the roads in the Avengers, the British TV series that is contemporaneous with The Champagne Murders.

Ten Days Wonder

Ten Days Wonder (1971) is a close adaptation of the 1948 mystery novel by Ellery Queen. According to an introduction to the novel Chabrol later wrote, he had been reading Ellery Queen since his childhood, regarded Ten Days Wonder as one of the best of all mystery novels, and had long wanted to make this film. The introduction is reprinted on a new DVD of the film.

Influence from Fritz Lang

The opening of the film recalls Fritz Lang. We see a dream sequence of the protagonist, a dream involving water and aquatic life, like the dream opening of Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1948). Both dreams are remarkably successful at expressing the inner tension of their protagonists. The dream in Ten Days Wonder opens with purely abstract imagery, complex patterns of light and shape. These are less mathematically regular than the patterns in Lang, but Lang's film also contains some abstract elements. When Charles (Anthony Perkins) wakes up, there is a complex moving camera shot. It opens with abstract patterns of blood on the hero's hand, then goes on to involve not one but two mirrors. Such complex mirror shots were a Lang trademark. Chabrol combines them here with intricate camera movement, something that is more Chabrol-like than Langian. The intricate relation between people and the ornately decorated interiors of Chabrol's work is one of his main traditions.

The blue wallpaper in the hall anticipates blue walls later on in the film, especially behind Paul (Michel Piccoli) as he explains the crime at the end. The deep focus hallway scenes seem charged with a compositional punch, as the corridor recedes into the background. Later, in the blackmail sequences, we will see the heroine in hotel hallways. And there will be deep focus shots at the very end, showing Orson Welles going down a hallway at the mansion, and up the stairs.

Soon, we see the hero descending the staircase. The complex stairway and the tilting angles recall a bit the opening of Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956). However, Chabrol goes one better than Lang, in his deeply tilted camera. This moves the "baroque staircase shot", a Lang core image, in innovative directions not foreseen by Lang.

Next, the hero's face and the staircase behind him are reflected in the mirrored surface of a hotel desk. This horizontal, flat mirror is an innovation in film noir, too - most mirrors in Lang and the film noir he influenced are vertical and parallel to walls. The way the shot combines mirror and staircase, the two great themes of Lang cinema, shows Chabrol working within the Lang tradition, in a creative way.

At the train station, there is a spectacular crane shot that goes up from one side of the station, looks at a clock high up on the station wall, then down to the heroine standing on the other side of the station. The clock is also a central Lang theme. The high crane shot recalls a bit the shots on the exterior of the asylum near the start of Lang's Ministry of Fear (1943). There is a troop of what looks like Boy Scouts wandering through this complex long take.

The shot of Paul in a telephone booth late in the film echoes a previous shot of the heroine in a rising elevator, earlier at the hotel. Both show the characters in cage-like containers, with glass-paneled front doors. Lang liked glass rooms, such as the offices in Scarlet Street (1945) and While the City Sleeps.

Ovals and Curves

There is an oval portrait on the wall of Paul's study, and there will be more at the house.

The odd curved shape of the pink lamp at the end will anchor the compositions during the final confrontations between Paul and the villain.

Characters

The men's characters draw on previous films of Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins. Welles is a vastly wealthy man who controls and rewrites other people's lives, just as he was in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and The Immortal Story (1966). Welles also opens the film with a narration, as in the latter film, and he tells many stories in his patented raconteur style throughout the movie. The character has clearly been custom tailored for Welles.

Perkins plays a son who is completely dominated by his father, and is suffering from mental breakdown because of it, as in Robert Mulligan's Fear Strikes Out (1957).

Ten Days Wonder was made with both English and French soundtracks. I prefer the English. It allows us to hear the voices of both Welles and Perkins.


Masques

Masques (1987) is a delightful mystery thriller. It shows Chabrol's virtues of good storytelling and visual excellence. Masques is the kind of movie that is fun to watch. It tries to give pleasure to the audience at every turn.

Masques has a similar plot structure to La Rupture (1970). In both films, an innocent outsider goes to live in a sinister large house. The household is full of secrets. We see both the denizens of the house, a strange diverse lot, and the caretakers who run the house, a group full of sinister goals and methods. In both films, a young woman is victimized by the house's inhabitants.

The kind of leading man we see in Masques returns in The Swindle (1998). In both films, he gets into a triangle relationship with a crooked older man, as rivals with him for the love of a younger woman. In the second film, he plays a much less likable person. In both films, he is quite glamorous and handsome.

Masques also recalls a bit The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947). Both films look at a mansion filled with diverse characters, and mysterious situations. In The Unsuspected, the mansion is owned by a radio show host. In Masques, the owner has been updated to a popular television show host. Both men are middle-aged, and well-loved by their public. In both films, a handsome young man of mysterious background shows up to stay at the mansion. The Unsuspected is based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong. Chabrol would go on to film Armstrong's novel The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) as Merci pour le chocolat (2000).