A GIRL CUT IN TWO (Claude Chabrol, 2007)

Working from his and Cécile Maistre’s fine, twisting, elusive script, Claude Chabrol made one of his most teasingly ambiguous films: La fille coupée en deux, both a heartrending feminist fable and quite cruel black comedy that concludes with a sardonic, agonizing dash of Max Ophuls’s Lola Mont ès (1955): the fated stage-bound finish that echoes the bravura opening shot familiar to Chabrolians: the advancing shot from inside the front of a car, including (besides roadway trees) through a tunnel suggesting the unconscious, only this time bathed in pretty red that cunningly invokes the protagonist’s rose-colored view—and perhaps our own. Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier, superb) is indeed introduced to us by way of sham television “theater”; she is a young, beautiful, voluptuous “weather girl” with a seemingly celestial career path ahead of her; but the two men who fall in love with her, or say they do, “cut her in two,” driving her into voluminous depression and a moral and a mental breakdown. She is ill-used by them both and is last seen being exploited by her own uncle, whose gigantic rotating blade aims, literally, to cut her in two as part of his cheesy theatrical magic act. At the point of incision, whether real or illusory, tabled Gabrielle turns her head away from the thrill-seeking audience and looks instead into space, in our direction, all the while knowing—she is no longer naïve—that we also will not lift a finger to help. Sufficiently jaded to be at war with angelic innocence, we also want to see her cut in two.

Who are these men who unwittingly conspire to destroy Gabrielle before the mad magician, shall we say, settles the matter? (In his stage makeup, Unc is the image of lasciviousness. He reminded me of the pimp, Clovis, in Chabrol’s Les cousins, 1958.) Both are celebrities. Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand, immaculate), three decades older, is a popular author. Gabrielle marks the latest in a string of extramarital affairs in which Charles’s wife, we discover, is complicit. Charles at one point takes Gabrielle to his “club”—it is a place out of David Lynch—so that he can share her with his male compatriots in female debasement and corruption. Someone should shoot Charles—and someone does.

The other man is even wealthier, though jobless; more controlled by his class-bigoted mother than even he knows, young Paul André Claude Gaudens lives off the wealth of his late father, a pharmaceutical industrialist. Charles and Paul, mysteriously, were some sort of rivals even before Gabrielle (and we) entered the scene; they hate each other. Gabrielle marries Paul after Charles abandons her for a book tour, before which he hands his wife the keys to “Paradis,” the private apartment where he carries on his affairs, so that she can straighten out the place and have the locks changed and the keys replaced. Once they are married, Paul’s jealousy balloons into lunatic proportions. When his wife lewinskies him under the covers, his suspicion that Charles taught her how to do this erupts. The boy can’t let go. Some have suggested that a homosexual encounter, possibly an affair, between Charles and Paul shadows them still.

Benoît Magimel plays Paul. I have never seen Magimel give such a brilliantly crafted performance. It is full of mannerisms, each of which legitimately seems to belong to the character, not the actor. Paul’s strident confidence proves a crumbling façade.

Perhaps the two moms are the film’s most ambiguous characters. Paul’s mother’s detailed account of the death of a first-born son, intended to help her manipulate her daughter-in-law, is likely a well-rehearsed fabrication; meanwhile, Gabrielle’s mother, who owns and operates a bookstore, may not exactly have her daughter’s best interests at heart—at any time. She is quite young, herself, and perhaps driven by a suppressed rivalry with Gabrielle. However, be forewarned: Chabrol isn’t trading in the hysterical mother-daughter melodrama of Mike Nichols’s misbegotten The Graduate (1967). His are authentic characters, not strained stereotypes from the soaps. Everyone loves Gabrielle, and tells her so, but I doubt that anyone cares about her.

Frenchified and updated to the present, and of course considerably altered, La fille coupée en deux refers to the 1906 murder of Stanford White by Harry Kendall Thaw, which Richard Fleischer turned into a New York period-piece, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), where teenage model Evelyn Nesbit is the bone of contention between the two men. The old Hollywood movie, however, cannot compete with Chabrol’s version for pulsating entertainment. A better companion-piece for a lovely double-bill would be Woody Allen’s sublime Match Point (2005), which surely here and there informs Chabrol’s terrific late achievement.

For this film, Chabrol took a critics’ prize at Venice.

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