LES BICHES (Claude Chabrol, 1968)

After the financial failure of a few legitimate films, Claude Chabrol withdrew into commercial filmmaking, ostensibly to recoup his losses, but also to mend and regroup after the savage attacks from critics on the occasion of his stunning Les bonnes femmes, which was deemed as cruel and incomprehensible in 1960, although it is cherished today as one of the crowning achievements of the nouvelle vague. Les biches marked Chabrol’s return to serious filmmaking. The film looked back to the occasion of his biggest hit that was also an authentic film, Les cousins (1958), and it looked ahead to his newly refined style, paving the way, more or less, for the remainder of his (ongoing) career.

Les biches revisits Les cousins, transforming its triangle of two boys in love with the same girl into a triangle consisting of two women who are involved with the same man. The cousins in the first film, with the attendant homoerotic undercurrents, are now bisexual lesbian lovers in the second. The film’s title, Les biches, literally means The Does (as in deer), but the term is French slang for girls or girlfriends. (There is also a pair of male gay lovers in Les biches—unexpected broad comic relief.) In Britain, the film is often called Bad Girls, but Innocent or Vulnerable Girls would be closer to the mark. (Stateside, the meaning of biches was presumed to be—oh, never mind.) Like Les cousins, Les biches ends with a death; but, whereas the shooting of one cousin by the other is (consciously, at least) accidental in the earlier film, one doe’s stabbing of the other in the later film is murder. Like Les cousins, Les biches was written by Paul Gégauff and Chabrol. It is a more rigorous, more distanced, less accessibly sad and much more chilling piece of work. It’s one of Chabrol’s most beautiful and remarkable films.

Les biches opens out of focus; we make out a bridge. We expect to see action on the bridge, but, when the focus sharpens, the bridge remains in the background and the action proper is in the foreground, on a Paris street. The opening image and the reversal of expectation suggest the nature of the film. Les biches is full of surprising twists and turns, and it is an ambiguity that it will become our job to resolve, as best we can, by bringing all that we see into sharp mental focus. We will not entirely succeed; much of what unfolds will remain cloaked in mystery. This is to the point, for ambiguity is more than a style that Chabrol is applying to a story; it is the theme of the film, and this theme is correlative to the ambiguous nature of reality, especially regarding sexual relations and tensions, and the complexity and elusiveness of motivation pertaining to these, as the filmmaker apprehends it.

One of the women is a street artist whose specialty is the drawing of does; the other, elegantly garbed and composed, will take the younger woman home. This is Frédérique, who drops a 500-franc note into the clouds of the other woman’s chalk drawing on pavement, with a seeming contemptuousness that suggests payment to a prostitute—or the attitude, “Now I own you.” Her long hair all loose, the younger woman looks up from her busy, not-so-deft work for a quick glance at her sudden benefactor. When Frédérique asks her her name, the younger woman, deft in this matter, asks Frédérique hers. When Frédérique presses her question, the other woman answers, “Why”—not pourquoi, the French word for why, but the English word why. This becomes the non-name by which Frédérique subsequently addresses the stranger, and we never learn Why’s real name. I suspect it is Frédérique.

Chabrol follows a power struggle that quietly develops between the two women as Frédérique seeks to dominate Why and Why seeks to resist this domination. (Dance critic Mindy Aloff informs me that Les Biches is also the title of a famous 1920s ballet. The story, apparently, is entirely unrelated to Gégauff and Chabrol’s, but—I am quoting Aloff—“the delicacy of all the power plays is similar.”) Why becomes Frédérique’s protégée and lover, but Why’s description of herself as a virgin suggests a heterosexual bias requiring a heterosexual event to substantiate her advancement to sexual activity and maturity. On the other hand, although she also is bisexual, Frédérique seems to proceed from a lesbian bias; she seems to be truly smitten with Why, and something in her bold, even public initial seduction of Why suggests that Frédérique is well practiced in going down this particular path. Chabrol is, of course, without judgment in the matter, objectively noting the nature of his characters and their subjective apprehension of one another. Like country boy Charles in Les cousins, who naïvely has his first city crush on a girl who (unbeknownst to him) is a lesbian, we, if we are male, and I bet if we are female, fall in love with both these characters. It helps that they look like Stéphane Audran and Jacqueline Sassard, the gorgeous actresses who play them.

Mise-en-scène in Chabrol’s films, especially in this one, stresses the distribution of characters within the frame to indicate who at a given moment is dominating whom. Les biches is very much about power—in particular, power as an indicator of one’s happiness. (To feel powerful is to know you are happy.) For Frédérique, feeling powerful vis-à-vis Why provides a corrective antidote to the intense vulnerability she feels because she is increasingly in love with Why. Frédérique’s wealth only compounds this predicament, because she wants to be loved for who she is, not for the luxuries she can bestow on a lover—a note of self-pity on her part that moves Chabrol, who knows that Frédérique’s wealth is a part of who she is, no matter what the meaning of the word is is. For Why, it is different; she is, for all we know, living on the streets before Frédérique comes into her life. It isn’t easy for her to divide love from gratitude, and merely the attempt to have to do so breeds resentment. As ever, Chabrol makes us think about class, and about class divisions and distinctions, in a peculiarly non-dogmatic and humanistic way. We always hear how less political Chabrol is than Jean-Luc Godard; I say instead that Chabrol approaches political considerations from a different perspective. No one who watches Les biches in a serious way can remain aloof from the politics and socioeconomics of the Frédérique-Why romantic relationship. As a result, one begins to reflect on sexual relationships, even one’s own, as something more than the mass of congruent/combative feelings of its participants. One begins to perceive these relationships in a social and political context.

Frédérique takes Why to her provincial home in Saint-Tropez—a somewhat incongruous circumstance, their being, that is, in a resort town in wintertime. A village where artists congregate, however, it will provide the scene for a shift in power from Frédérique to Why, and back again to Frédérique, and perhaps back again to Why. An architect, Paul Thomas, enters their lives, and he seduces and (from her heterosexual perspective) deflowers Why, encouraging feelings of jealousy in Frédérique. Why has never seemed happier and more relaxed than the morning after, when she nonetheless tells Frédérique at breakfast that she doesn’t think she is in love with Paul. Unbeknownst to Why, Frédérique visits Paul at his work site, where he is overseeing the construction of a development he designed. This is the most critical and brilliant passage in the film, the one where Chabrol’s theme of ambiguity crystallizes. I have never seen anything like it, for in this seduction scene, no matter how many times one views it, it is impossible to determine who seduces whom: a circumstance that often comports with the fluid dance of romance in reality (a dance since the sixties that has largely become extinct), but a stranger to the generally blunt portrayals of seduction in cinema. This ambiguity, in fact, extends the ambiguity of Frédérique’s motivation for driving to see Paul in the first place. Oh, by seducing Paul she wants to reclaim the power that she feels she has lost by the beginning of Why’s affair with Paul. But wait; Why said she isn’t in love with Paul. It is just as likely that Frédérique wishes to sound out the sincerity of Paul’s interest in Why in order to protect her. Probably Frédérique is driven by a mix of both motives; then which is more prominent? Is one motive conscious, the other unconscious? If so, which is which? Frédérique seems to fluctuate in a sea of cross-purposes, lubricated by the alcohol with which Paul plies her once they arrive at his place. She seems to be resisting him, but is she really? They become lovers, and in fact Paul, so calculating and caddish with Why, seems really to fall in love with Frédérique, and without doubt Frédérique, against all her own expectations, falls hard in love with Paul. Now, for the first time in the film, Frédérique is a doe—open, vulnerable—like Why, and Why is the odd doe out. Paul moves in with the two women, and into Frédérique’s bed, replacing Why. Some sort of disaster is imminent.

Taking a page from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), Why begins to appropriate the image and personality of Frédérique as Frédérique used to be before she fell in love with Paul. Why’s personality crumbles, and she exacts from Frédérique and Paul both, in Paris, a pitiless revenge that may or may not, as she desires, calm her demons. The film takes a mad, violent turn.

Throughout, Chabrol’s filmmaking is exquisite, abetted by the extraordinary lighting contributions of color cinematographer Jean Rabier. Sexual scenes are erotic tangles of limbs and flesh, and a three-shot of the hugging drunken trio makes the imitiation in Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) seem like child’s play. Stéphane Audran—Mme Chabrol at the time—gives an astonishing performance as Frédérique, winning her the best actress prize at Berlin, and Jacqueline Sassard as Why and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Paul are excellent, too. I saw this film when it first came out, but at twenty I scarcely appreciated any bit of it. Life, and a lifetime of watching good and great films by Chabrol, have brought Les biches close to my heart. Dangerously, deliciously close.

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