Every so often a film just blindsides you. I have been a fan of Claude Chabrol almost as long as I’ve been a cinephile, my admiration stemming from early, formative viewings of Le Boucher and La Ceremonie, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chabrol work quite like this one and was not expecting a film that so obviously defined exactly what it is I like about Chabrol as a film-maker. La Rupture is a masterpiece, even a radical one, and deserves far more attention than it has received in recent years.
The mentally ill, drug addicted Charles Regnier (Jean-Claude Drouot) attacks his wife Helene (Stephane Audran) and throws their infant child against the wall. The child is rushed to hospital by Helene, who leaves her husband and takes up residence in a boarding house opposite the hospital. Charles is from bourgeois stock and his father (Michel Bouquet) wants to keep his family’s reputation intact and gain custody of the child during divorce hearings. He hires Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the penniless son of a business partner he wronged in the past, to spy on the working-class Helene. When Thomas can find little dirt on his almost-lilywhite target, Regnier Sr orders him to sabotage Helene’s case however he can. Thomas comes up with a plot of bizarre but exquisitely sleazy nastiness with the help of his girlfriend Sonia (Catherine Rouvel).
That is the plot in its bare basics, but the joy of the film comes not from the melodrama of the story but the manner of its telling. The always-perceptive Dave Kehr called La Rupture “one of the key films of the 70s” and stated that film is Chabrol’s “…most audacious experiment with narrative form — a modernist reworking of the melodrama … The “rupture” of the title belongs to the narrative, which begins with clear black/white, good/evil distinctions and then gradually self-destructs, breaking down into increasingly elliptical and imponderable fragments.”
I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as Kehr in claiming that the distinctions between good/evil disappear or weaken in the film; this is very clearly a film predicated upon Chabrol’s belief that the melodrama was a ‘left-wing’ and ‘proletarian genre’ (as recounted in Guy Austin’s book on the director), and Chabrol very clearly and deliberately has all forms of evil and corruption in the story stemming from the bourgeois characters, while Helene is a working-class image of almost pure goodliness. But Kehr is right in almost every other respect. In many ways this is the closest Chabrol got to the work of his New Wave colleague Jacques Rivette in the early 70s, a body of work equally concerned with the burning up of the traditional narrative ground upon which the cinema stood, and the effect of this experimentation and a similar emphasis upon elements of the occult produces a sort of giddiness familiar to anyone who has seen Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, Out 1 or Duelle.
What is often forgotten when speaking about Chabrol is his eccentricity, his love of the strange and the surreal, his very French admiration for panache. Critical discussions of Chabrol often focus upon the ‘cold, Hitchcockian/Langian’ side of his work, his masterly construction and control of narrative (and narrative trickery), but he was equally capable of rupturing this narrative flow by focusing on peculiar side-characters and their foibles and behaviours, moments of the inexplicable and uncanny and digressional observations of life in particular social milieus (think of the wedding dinner that opens Le Boucher). This tendency comes to the fore most explicitly and effectively in La Rupture (as befitting the film’s title). Acknowledgment of this rupturing is not a criticism, quite the opposite. It is this expansion beyond the usually tightly-contained world of the thriller story that also marks and is often forgotten in the films of Hitchcock and Lang, and which allows these film-makers best work to stand so highly above the usual genre effort. In these films we see a personal perspective and style that goes beyond an effort to recount a simple unfolding of events and instead seems to encompass and offer glimpses of a whole rich, tormented and often absurd universe.
In La Rupture the strangeness is personified by Helene’s fellow boarders, including the sympathetic and flamboyant theatrical actor Mostelle (Mario David) and the three old women, forever playing Tarots at a table in the parlour, who at first seem like simple gossips but later become agents of destiny and self-proclaimed guardian angels to Helene. This strangeness is there too in the figure of the balloon-seller who haunts the park where Helene retreats for peace (another sort of angel, this time signifying freedom) and the scheme which Paul Thomas cooks up which is truly disturbing in its encompassing of kitschy Satanic pornography, drugs, corrupted and corrupting dopplegangers and the exploitation of a disabled child. It’s quite possible that there is no other Chabrol film where the fullness of his beautiful, twisted, absurd universe is in such plain view (and all of it contained within a massive boarding house), and we are left somewhat breathless by the conclusion in which the film reach its apex of strangeness with Helene’s tripping on Paul’s drugged orange juice. The narrative fragments Kehr speaks of veer wildly in tone, sometimes within the same scene, from the grim to the comic to the tragic to the sleazy to the manic to the purely melodramatic to the wistful, and yet the film in its entirety feels complete and unified. It is a wild work, but a work where Chabrol always knows exactly what he is doing and this sureness of touch stands in stark contrast to those wild films where the bubbling madness is a result of material spiralling away from its creator.
Aesthetically the film is a marvel too. Employing a sort of collage of impressionistic subjectivity (particularly in Helene’s drug trip at the end of the film) and Langian objectivity, the world Chabrol positions Helene in is unsettled and surreal from the start, but constantly intruded upon further by madness. The colour blue, representing the bourgeois Regnier parents, comes to surround and trap Helene, particularly within the rich-blue walls of her boarding house room, and threatens to wash away the light and earthy proletarian tones that define her. Helene herself comments on this use of colour when she proclaims near the end of the film that “the colour blue is very important”, a moment of metatextual realisation spurred on by her hallucinations. Chabrol’s always-mobile camera may seem familiar to modern Steadicam-obsessed film-makers, but unlike many of those directors Chabrol always moves with purpose, confidence and skill, his paradoxically fluidly jagged editing also working to suggest a world in all sorts of constant flux when it comes to morality, motivation, meaning of behaviour and, for Helene, the nature and concreteness of reality itself.
Stephane Audran is at her best, giving a beautiful, subtle performance as a woman of fragile strength refusing to be reduced to rubble. Bouquet is genuinely odious as Regnier senior, and Cassel pulls off a coup creating one of the slimiest henchmen to ever appear on screen. But I found myself most enjoying Margo Lion, Louise Chevalier and Maria Michi as the three old women of the boarding house, bringing charm and joy to their transformation from nosy crones to scatty guardian spirits infused with the force of female solidarity.
Should La Rupture have exerted more influence on the following generations of cinephiles and film-makers, or is it’s experimentation, it’s radicalism, it’s immersion in and offering of a complete, mysterious universe too much of a challenge for, too much of a leap beyond the middlebrow security in which most film-makers still work and exist? Perhaps, especially if one agrees with David Ehrenstein’s assertion that successive decades have not seen the emergence of Jacques Rivette’s dreamt-of legion of young film fans craving a cross between ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ and ‘Les Dames Du Bois De Bolougne” (both films with which Chabrol’s La Rupture shares DNA), but rather fanboys who have dedicated themselves to the comfortable repetitions of traditional genre shlock. No matter, for the film is still startling and vital now and it’s hard not to feel that its importance, its capacity to shock and inspire will only grow in time. This film informs you that sometimes the best thing one can do for everyone is to pull the rug out from under their feet.