A Claude Chabrol Primer

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It’s been a rough few years for the mid-20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Antonioni, Rohmer, Altman, and Bergman have all died recently, and this morning brought the news that Claude Chabrol had died. Although he was 80, the news came as something of a surprise to the film world — especially considering that he was healthy and still working on new films.

One of the central figures of the French New Wave, Chabrol remained staggeringly prolific as he aged, averaging something like a film a year in a career spanning more than half a century. He is best known for his taut, subtle psychological thrillers, movies that take normal (and often familial) relationships to tormented extremes. For those who aren’t terribly familiar with Chabrol and might be intimidated by an oeuvre spanning more than 50 titles, we offer this introduction to five must-see films by this master of characterization and suspense.

Les bonnes femmes (1960)

A classic film of the French New Wave and the best film of Claude Chabrol’s early career, Les bonnes femmes is a portrait of a clique of shop girls in Paris. But this is no ’60s Sex and the City. Instead, this tense and eerie meditation on youthful, female sexuality and its inherent dangers blurs the line between dark comedy and comedic tragedy. This is the obvious starting point for those looking to get into Chabrol. The swimming pool scene (above) is legendary. Lucky for you, if you’ve got three bucks, you can stream it over at Mubi.

Le boucher (1969)

Chabrol’s first film to make it big in the US, the thriller Le boucher is the story of a teacher who meets a war-veteran butcher and slowly begins to suspect that he is a serial killer. It’s a great representative of the filmmaker’s “Hélène” series, which starred Chabrol’s then-wife and muse Stéphane Audran.

Violette (1978)

If Audran was Chabrol’s first great muse, then his second was undoubtedly Isabelle Huppert, the fire-haired actress with a talent for playing extraordinary and complicated women. The director and his star came together in Violette, a film based on a true story and starring Huppert in the award-winning title role of a murderous 19-year-old girl. Look for Audran as her mother.

Story of Women (1988)

A decade passed before Chabrol and Huppert collaborated again, on Story of Women. Based on the true tale of Marie-Louise Giraud, a World War II-era abortionist and the last woman to be guillotined in France, Story of Women has the doomed but poker-faced Huppert stumbling into her illegal career and spicing up her life in the bedroom, too. Watch the trailer here.

Merci pour le chocolat (2000)

Perhaps Chabrol’s first best film of the 21st century, Merci pour le chocolat is a complex thriller starring who else but a gracefully aging Isabelle Huppert as Mika Mueller, the head of a chocolate company and a woman who has just remarried her first husband. Like much of Chabrol’s oeuvre, this is an unsettling mystery contained quietly within the life of a single family.