From the standpoint of 2008, the French new wave that broke half a century ago is a towering monument to a particular moment — a solitary whitecap in a Courbet seascape. What was that surge?
As a film critic or a filmmaker (or, in most cases, both), each of the nouvelle vague big five — Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette — had his moment as a Young Turk. And any of the four survivors (Truffaut died in 1984) can claim the laurels of a grand old man.
Chabrol, who should soon be shooting his 70th feature, is at once wildly prolific and utterly faithful — at least to the conventions of the commercial thriller. And his latest is a quintessential work, even though it's an adaptation. Darkly droll, A Girl Cut in Two updates the scandalous case of the celebrated fin-de-siècle architect Stanford White, shot dead by the jealous young millionaire who married White's teenage mistress, a showgirl.
An old-fashioned cineaste, Chabrol came to the story by way of its 1955 Hollywood version, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, and he transposes it to contemporary Lyons. Charles, a successful novelist and practiced libertine (played with seasoned suavity by François Berléand), vies with Paul, the young and unstable heir to a pharmaceutical fortune (given a memorable foppish swagger by Benoît Magimel), for the favors of an innocent TV weather girl, Gabrielle (wide-eyed, luscious Ludivine Sagnier).
Confident yet vulnerable, she falls for the (much) older guy. On their first date, Gabrielle accompanies the famous author to a literary auction where he presents her with a rare 1,000-euro edition of Pierre Louÿs's S&M classic The Woman and the Puppet.
Gabrielle's mother may run a bookstore, but the infatuated weather girl, a true product of TV, doesn't read any foreshadowing in Charles's gift (nor does she seem to know which way the wind's blowing). In love for the first time, Gabrielle allows herself to be debauched by the veteran roué. Then, after a nasty breakup and an ensuing breakdown, she marries the preening young fool on the rebound — thus effectively incinerating them all.
A Girl Cut in Two is a spry piece of work. Chabrol uses this sinister clown show as a means to puncture the media world's hot-air balloons — as well as to highlight the hypocrisies of his favorite target, the haute bourgeoisie. The latter class's villainy is embodied not so much by Paul's strutting insouciance as by his mother's agonized affect and impossibly taut neck. Still, although directed for mordant comedy, the spectacle of a naive, lower-middle-class woman's misadventures in a nest of wealthy vipers is initially unsettling and ultimately gut-wrenching.
Chabrol has always been a sensitive director of actresses. (He's provided Isabelle Huppert with the lion's share of her strongest roles.) Sagnier, however, is more object of sympathy than active presence. The world revolves around Gabrielle; she's humiliated but never defiled. Sliding deftly over the sleaze, the filmmaker is as accomplished in manipulating his characters as Charles is — if not so self-regarding.
Putting his creatures through their paces with a child's fascination, Chabrol, who has more than once compared himself to an entomologist, is never more attentive than when regarding the antics of those specimens whom he most obviously loathes.