Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two (2007, Claude Chabrol)

As a moviegoer, there’s something to be said for “the thrill of the new”- discovering a talented neophyte, becoming immersed in a unique style, and so on. But there’s also real pleasure to be found in the work of a longtime veteran who has nothing left to prove. When a filmmaker has a style that’s firmly established, a truly talented filmmaker who’s not simply coasting will begin to tweak that style in his later years because he’s confident enough in his filmmaking gifts that he knows how far he can venture from his comfort zone. I kept thinking of this while watching A Girl Cut in Two, which seems at a glance to be a textbook Chabrol film, but turns out to be one of his darkest and most perverse films in years, and his best in over a decade. Of course, all of the expected ingredients are there- upper-class decadence, the trappings of high culture, and an outsider character who’s fascinated with these things until she actually gets a taste of the diseased lifestyle they come with. On the surface, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) is simply faced with a choice between spoiled, erratic heir Paul (Benoit Magimel) and doting, married, older author Charles (Francois Berleand). But once this initial premise has more or less played out, that’s when it gets really interesting. A lesser film would take one side or the other re: Gabrielle’s future, but in Chabrol’s world, they’re both fairly rotten, mostly because they’re rich enough that they’re out of touch with the rest of the world. Each man in his own way dominates Gabrielle, Charles by only meeting her at his convenience and stringing her along by promising to leave his wife, and Paul by virtue of his, shall we say, unstable personality. Meanwhile, what’s going on with Gabrielle? In some ways, she’s manipulated, but she never really thinks of simply leaving them. Each man comes along when she needs him, and she’s too weak-willed to cast them to manipulate them back. And she lacks the knowledge or the wisdom to realize that, in either case, she’s doomed. As the plot becomes ever more convoluted, Chabrol only reveals what he really has to, and the plot points he keeps vague (does Charles’ wife ever know? An enigmatic bit of dialogue involving a set of keys would indicate that, but you never quite know) become endlessly tantalizing in retrospect. And all the while, there’s the pleasure to be gotten from the exquisite cast- this is almost certainly the best-acted film I’ve seen this year- and the director who knows exactly what to do with them. Magimel’s leading-man good looks are offset by his bizarre clothes and hairstyle, and the aesthetic clash helps him create a memorably unhinged character. Sagnier is much bubblier than the typical Chabrol heroine, but then, the character exists to have her effervescence robbed from her by the storyline. And what else can be said about Francois Berleand, who is becoming one of my favorite character actors? To be sure, he’s an unconventional choice for the role of a sexually-liberated older man, but he and Chabrol use his hangdog face and sadsack presence to give the character a strange serenity of a man who with age and success has gotten used to getting what he wants out of life. He can’t really be blamed for his eventual fate, I suppose. After all, he couldn’t have known that it was out of his hands.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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