Written by Chabrol and Paul Gégauff, Claude Chabrol’s masterpiece depicts the bleak, harsh world of four Parisian shopgirls. Along with Que la bête meure (1969), this is Chabrol’s most personal film, as well as his starkest and most exacting. Its initial hostile reception found Chabrol (after a dip into rank commercialism) replacing its style with a silken, elegant one that yielded many beautiful results, but nothing to compare with the profound tragic disposition of Les bonnes femmes.
Chabrol signals his intent. The opening credit sequence, in gray daylight, shows Parisian traffic from an unsettling low camera angle. Immediately afterwards, blaring lights punctuate pitch blackness—a brusque shift to nearly lurid visuals that undoes the commercial come-on, “City of Lights.” We hear an offscreen voice at the Grisbi Club huckstering naked women, commoditizing humanity and suggesting the vulnerability to economic and other forms of danger of close-by shopgirls Jane, Jacqueline, Rita and Ginette, who work together at an appliance store.
Chabrol expertly handles the individuation of the shopgirls and their participation in a group identity, a joint fate.
Empty workdays, off-hours fun, romantic connections and pickups: the moment of truth between Jacqueline and the man on a motorcycle who has been shadowing her, who is as lost and compulsive as G. W. Pabst’s Jack the Ripper (Pandora’s Box, 1928), who yet saved her from drowning in the community pool, brings things to a head in Federico Fellini’s woods (The Nights of Cabiria, 1956).
Robin Wood has remarked that even the shopgirls’ dreams have been constricted by their limited environment, debasing these dreams. Theirs is a life absent transport, transcendence.
A four-shot of three of the girls and Jane’s fiancé, a soldier, “cages” them at the zoo.
Chabrol’s closing passage is the most heartrending in cinema.
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