The films of Claude Chabrol are, more than those of any other director, highly unnerving. I don't just mean in subject matter, which are generally taken from pulp fiction. This plot is Double Indemnity as if written by Nabokov. The beautiful Julie, is married to overweight, rich, impotent, drunk, self-loathing Louis Wormser, and plots with her young hack writer lover, Jeff Marle, to kill her husband. Things generally go to plan, but Jeff panics and lies low in Italy, sending Julie letters, while she has to face the insinuating investigations of two detectives.
For a director of his intellectual reach, Chabrol shows a strange affinity for Golden-Age style mystery stories. Unlike the fiction of Pynchon and Borges, or the films of Bertolucci and Antonioni, he has no interest in formally deconstructing the mystery story, subverting its narratives, ironising its principle characters, obviously undermining its tenets (although his double act of Epicurean detectives, teasing out the crime like cross word puzzles over dinner, making lecherous jokes and misogynistic comments, unbelievably hitting on solutions, yet completely missing the point, are a comic, disturbing joy, as are the upturned faces of the Law searing Julie at the climax). It is perfectly possible to watch INNOCENTS as a straight thriller with a recognisable crime, investigation and solution, and plenty of excellent twists and turns.
Even on this conventional level, the film is unnerving. The abruptness of the decision to murder. The shocking, callous act of murder itself. The brutal, climactic rape. But Chabrol's real nagging is in his whole-hearted artifice. Many directors, from Chabrol heroes Lang, Welles and Hitchcock to Von Sternberg, Sirk and Ophuls are artificial, but they create convincingly hermetic worlds, which are totally artificial and plausible on their own terms. Chabrol's is different.
Although not as breathtakingly formal as LA DECADE PRODIGEUSE, INNOCENTS is highly artificial, from the stylised acting, the unrealistic dialogue, dissonant score and stunningly contrived plot, to the breathtakingly intrusive camera movements and alienating shifts in point of view, and, especially, the setting, the futuristic/modernist architecture which swallows up its characters; the decor that moves and closes in on them.
With Chabrol, however, this artifice is not self-sufficient. It co-exists, jarringly, with a sublime feeling for nature, for the French countryside, the shadows cast by wind-blown trees, the wide green fields, the parched roads. The two realms refuse to merge, and this disjunction of registers moves the film away from mystery to something much more metaphysical.
An interesting question that arises from this film is whether it is a film about misogyny, or a misogynistic film. We are shown quite clearly how a female protagonist who is in almost every frame of the film, who seems to be in control and driving the plot, is completely betrayed by men - husbands, lovers the law - an object of contempt, whose desires are made seem guilty, whose grasping for love in a chilling, loveless evnironment and marriage are reduced to petty motives.
Maybe they are - she does collude in murder and theft. She is often featured in scenes, present but silent, as men decide her fate. The director, further, is obviously a man, colluding in this too, filming her pain and humiliation, witholding from her all the information. Yet, despite this, the film is very sympathetic to Julie, its visuals often seeming to arise from her emotions.
However, I don't think the film is really a post-feminist 70s comment on the still marginal and oppressed role of women in French society. Before Chabrol became a filmmaking genius, he was one of the brilliant critics of Cahiers du Cinema, co-writing a book on the religious underpinnings of Hitchcock's thrillers. In one sense INNOCENTS (a religiously loaded title) can be seen as an allegory in the Bresson tradition of the spiritual progress of a woman, a three part processo of Sin, Suffering and Redemption.
The final image, when Julie rises in the darkness, stripped of material wealth, defining environment and human companionship, and walks towards a flickering light is compellingly enigmatic, possibly indicating suicide, but, such is the theorematic godlike structure of the film, the sly, allusive imagery, I prefer to think of it as Julie existentially completing her spiritual journey. In any case, an endlessly rich masterpiece.
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