Monday, September 24, 2007

More on Le banc de la désolation

I had the impression that the recent MOMA series "The Other Claude Chabrol" was greeted rather coolly, and that in general commentators have acquired the habit of focusing on how uneven Chabrol is, instead of celebrating the many, many superb films he has given us. Myself, I had an excellent time at the MOMA series: in particular, all the TV work from the 70s that MOMA programmed was distinctive and successful. And the series gave me an experience that film buffs yearn for but rarely attain: to discover a great film that is almost unknown. Le banc de la désolation was one of two programs that Chabrol contributed to a series of Henry James adaptations that appeared on French TV between 1974 and 1976; the other, De Grey, remains a tantalizing unknown to most of us. (Among the other directors who did episodes of this series was Luc Beraud, the director of the excellent Plein Sud, who seems to have been forgotten by American film buffs.) Le banc stars Michel Duchaussoy, best known from Chabrol's Que la bête meure, and the excellent Catherine Samie, who showed up this year in Michelange Quay's Eat, for This Is My Body at the Toronto Film Festival.

It's sometimes hard to get a handle on what makes Chabrol such a superb filmmaker, and Le banc is a opportunity to see him divorced from his usual subject matter and themes and functioning purely as a director. So I'll describe a few impressive moments or aspects of the film.
  1. Much of the film's impact depends on the look of a single location: the seaside bench where Duchaussoy goes every day, sometimes to meet a lover, usually just to brood about his unjust fate. Chabrol found a bench at the very end of a dilapidated boardwalk, seemingly the last place to sit at the edge of the civilized world. Low camera angles emphasize the balustrade of the boardwalk against the gray ocean and ceaselessly overcast sky. Staging so many important scenes at this location gives the drama a faint flavor of absurdism.
  2. In general, and certainly in this film, Chabrol generally moves the camera for purely dramatic effect. In other words, the start and end point of the shot does not seem to be important, nor the change in angle or in the content of the shot; the camera moves slowly through space solely to create a sense of narrative expectation.
  3. In the film's most memorable scene, set in a restaurant, Duchaussoy approaches a banker, whom he knows only by them having dined in the same room for years, to ask for advice in borrowing money. In order to establish a relationship, Duchaussoy offers to buy the much richer banker an expensive brandy and cigar. The banker accepts immediately, and proceeds to ignore his supplicant as he goes through all the phases of preparing a fine cigar for smoking: certainly a process I have never seen in the cinema, rendered here in every detail, as we wait along with Duchaussoy for the narrative to resume. The scene pulls in two directions: Chabrol's appreciation of fine food is well known, and the novelty of documenting this process surely appealed to him for its own sake, and is fascinating for the receptive viewer as well. But we are simultaneously made to feel the banker's casual pleasure in asserting power over his social inferior. Our enjoyment of the process is impure.
  4. In the middle of the film, a startling series of jump cuts moves us quickly through Duchaussoy's marriage to his young sweetheart, beginning with the idealized love of the premarital period, passing through stages of enmity and recriminations over money, and ending in the wife's premature, embittered death. The same heavy issues that were easily overcome by love before the marriage return to poison the marital bond after love subsides. The short sequence, which relegates the marriage to a subordinate position in the narrative, recalls the elliptical ending of Rivette's La Religieuse, imparting a morbid tone of inevitability to unhappy developments that fly in the face of the conventions of fiction, but that are too common in life.
  5. In his darkest period, Duchaussoy goes to his accustomed seaside bench, only to find a young romantic couple there. Duchaussoy stares balefully at the couple from a short distance until they withdraw in discomfort, then proudly takes his place on the bench, miserable but entitled. The essentially literary concept is mostly rendered in a single shot - cutting would have given the moment a narrative weight, whereas the scene is pure digression - that exploits the ironic abstraction of sea and sky, then terminates along with the petty power play.
  6. The central relationship of the story, between Duchaussoy and Samie, is cursed by coldness: Duchaussoy's sense of superiority, coupled with his unconscious desire to fail, distances him from our identification and affection; Samie is first depicted as the most calculating and heartless of villains, and the story twist that commends her to our sympathy still leaves her a rather frightening figure, evil devoted to the cause of good. The couple's reconciliation, with Duchaussoy accepting Samie's awkward embrace on the bench of desolation, is his final surrender to passivity. The embrace reverses the movie's visual strategy of distance and isolation; sensitive to this overtone, Chabrol promptly freezes the frame and runs the credits.


Daniel Kasman said...

I was quite excited about this series but managed to only get to MoMA one day, and not even for the film you recommended nor Chabrol's latest. But both films were rewarding, and specifically the surprise of Codename: Tiger which I had always read as written-off by most New Wave histories and, clearly like Le banc de la desolation is a good instance of a director approaching different material and thereby rendering his formal mastery unusually apparent.

The same, sadly, couldn't be said for the director's take on the Fantomas remake, which has a guillotine construction sequence that sounds very similar to the cigar-lighting one you describe in this film. But again, it has its own pleasures and was certainly worth seeing and talking about.

Dan Sallitt said...

Daniel - I agree, both on the virtues of the Tigre films and on the lesser appeal of Fantomas (which I saw long ago, not in this series). I think that the world is better prepared to appreciate those "commercial" Chabrol films from 1964-67 now that Hong Kong, Tarantino, etc. have acclimated us to a reflexive genre cinema that builds on surface appeal.

It's interesting that Hanin, the star of the the Tigre films, also wrote the stories and worked on the scripts under a pseudonym, and that his wife Christine Gouze-Rénal was the producer. Looks as if Chabrol was a hired gun on a vanity project: the Hanins lucked out on that one. Actually, I find Hanin a charming action hero, and the scripts are actually rather witty, whoever is responsible for the dialogue. And I agree that the project does put Chabrol's form and sensibility on center stage, much like the James adaptation. More and more I think that a lot of Chabrol's talent lies in a thoughtful, formally conscious sensibility that gently excavates abstract ideas from the material and uses form to lift them to a prominent position.