Skilled, delicate, pernicious

by Claudette Charbonneau and Lucy Winer

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 6-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

In his 20-year career, Claude Chabrol has shown a very decided aversion to films unbespattered by "blood and gore." Gentle butchers who may or may not chop up young women (LE BOUCHER, 1970), charming Parisian bluebeards who entice lonely women to suburban villas where they are shoveled piecemeal into stoves (LANDRU, 1963), and a general population of spouses and lovers who cannot seem to avoid murdering their mates (LEDA, 1961; THE THIRD LOVER, 1963; THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS, 1968; LA FEMME INFIDELE, 1969; THIS MAN MUST DIE, 1970; JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL, 1975; DIRTY HANDS, 1976, to list a few) are the types to which he is invariably and even obsessively drawn. It appears that the subject of murder is something of a commitment for director Claude Chabrol (a strange state of affairs for a man who sees commitment and clarity of any kind as a pass-time to be indulged in by the weak-minded and the deluded).

He chiefly delights in lodging the inexplicable murderous impulses of his characters behind an unexceptional, unspectacular, and finally impenetrable facade. In his films, Chabrol cultivates enigma, and moral dissolve in his hands and become incredibly complex and difficult of assessment. The simplest point is fraught with mystery. His method is the modern equivalent of Milton's 17th century Satan who "made intricate seem straight" (Paradise Lost, Bk. 9, 1.632). Chabrol's posturing, of course, lies in the opposite direction: he attempts to make the straightforward seem intricate.

We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Chabrol's moral and intellectual skepticism has intellectual value. We've been fooled too often into believing that complexity in and for itself has virtue, that complexity alone can shield us from being shallow or rigid. Actually, Chabrol's stance is neither tolerant, nor expansive, nor even interesting. Rather than being profound, the obfuscation is shoddy. How easy to rely on cynicism to ridicule but never challenge the status quo. In the Chabrol film, action is always doubly damned: for he combines monstrous behavior and unfathomable cause, either one of which would be enough to leave an audience inert and suspicious of positive impulses. What better way to undermine even an incipient desire for change than to disparage our capacity to act meaningfully, never mind humanely?

The reactionary values behind Chabrol's vision become stunningly clear when we look at his latest film from a feminist perspective. Given his history (and it is, unfortunately, abundantly a "his"-story) as a filmmaker, VIOLETTE cannot surprise us. But we can still be outraged. Chabrol spurns any insight generated by the last 15 years of feminist theorizing. The film specifically re-affirms the most traditional, most blatantly male-biased conceptions of womanhood. The heroine, in fact, fulfills so many stereotypes, so completely, that upon hearing the plot, one might assume in 1978-1979 that a sense of irony was at work.

In her daily life, Violette enacts the traditional dichotomy of female behavior, the tiresome, whore/virgin" schism. She is a practiced if somewhat bohemian prostitute when loose on the streets, but a well-scrubbed and virginal schoolgirl within the confines of her parents one-bedroom flat. In addition, whatever energy and creativity Violette has — and she has more than the usual share of imagination and spunk — it is all turned against her and those who surround her.

Not content with a career of sexual promiscuity and deceit, she goes on to become a murderer. She successfully poisons her father and almost kills her mother, thereby committing the most sacrilegious of murders, patricide and near matricide. Once again, the unleashed energy of a woman is depicted as profoundly irrational, menacing, and destructive, confirming society's most terrifying notions of what constitutes the female nature. Violette is not only a "loose woman," she is deadly.

Lest we think that Violette's actions attack that most patriarchal of institutions, the nuclear family, the resolution of her career pointedly tells us otherwise. After she is captured and safely deposited behind bars, which recall the opening shot of the metal gates outside the courtyard of her parents' apartment building — Violette declares herself ready to make a "fresh start." And, indeed, shortly after this touching proclamation, which occurs toward the close of the film, we are told by an ironic though authoritative male narrator that Violette did go on to gain the successive pardons of Petain, DeGaulle, and, finally, in an almost unprecedented gesture, of the citizens of Rouen, who voted to return her full civil liberties shortly before her death in 1963. Not for nothing did the citizens of France pardon a former criminal. The narrator's description of her life after her release from prison reads like a handbook for the good burgher's wife: she marries, starts a small business, and gives birth to five children. Knowledge of her complete reformation, far from allowing the film to end on a positive note, simply adds the horror of futility to the horror of bloodshed. Since Violette recreates the very situation she so ruthlessly eliminated, she now exemplifies what is, for women, perhaps the most crippling notion: that it is impossible for women to use their anger in a productive and rational fashion.

One might argue that we should not blame Chabrol for formulating these stereotypes since Violette's career comes not from fiction but from fact, based on the actual life of a young woman in France during the 30s. The question, however, is not one of credibility but of choice. Why is Chabrol drawn to a tale which is bound to be profoundly reactionary? In the long overdue wave of feature-length films about women that has come about in the past few years, one can't but note what kind of woman has finally been considered worthy of the public's attention. What are the attributes of the heroine who has managed, after so long a time, to recapture the imagination of the filmmaker? In some cases, hopefully, this new heroine will not prove so easy to label. In Chabrol's case, however, she is not only easy to label, she is a stock character with a long and dreary list of predecessors: the romantic heroine whose desperate rebellion ultimately challenges nobody and threatens nothing.

What makes this film more pernicious than others is that it does deal with rebellion, a theme which might be expected to communicate a desire for change or at the very least to suggest a questioning of the status quo. For women, this film has totally negative implications. Violette Noziere's life is emblematic: she enforces the kind of moral lesson perenially foisted upon women to ensure their acceptance of their "proper," subservient place. The lesson is clear: attempts to rebel are defined in such a way as to ensure failure. The scope and quality of resistance are restricted to sexual experimentation, and so acts of defiance follow a predictable route. No chance here of a woman's channeling her energies into art, scholarship, productive work or meaningful political activity. No indeed. Instead she is doomed to defy convention in what are basically acceptable ways so that, ironically, conventionality is even more strongly asserted. Thus, in the first stage of her defiance, Violette violates the rules of behavior appropriate for "good" girls, only to end up following yet another set of rules, those appropriate for "bad" girls.

As long as women are seen as motivated, controlled and governed by their sexual natures, the possibility of a meaningful challenge is automatically thwarted. As long as the sense of rebellion, for example, is confined to the gesture of placing a shapely leg on a cafe table — as Violette does in order to shock and entice the fascist sympathizer across from whom she sits  — the audience need not fear that they will be asked to question their most basic and conservative assumptions concerning women. Sexual flamboyance is appealing, even touching; as a rebellious stance, its limitations are cruelly obvious. The audience can enjoy the sense of being on Violette's side, can appreciate her annoyance at puritanical codes, and yet feel totally safe. How convenient to see yet another dissatisfied young woman commit an act of rebellion that is, in fact, an act of conformity. How convenient that the act of female aggression simply serves to make her more sexually accessible to men. And, finally, how reassuring that in her aggression she herself emerges as a victim, the prey to her own irrational and destructive impulses. The film has a classic pattern. Each attempt to "break out" leads to further entrapment — first, prostitution, then unrequited love, and finally, jail.

In his customary fashion Chabrol has chosen to depict this clear moral tale in an ambiguous light. There is a gratuitous luxury in such a stance. It permits him to raise the issue of rape, for instance, and deal with it enigmatically. After her capture, Violette alleges that she murdered her father in retaliation for his having raped her. By this point in the film, Chabrol has repeatedly shown Violette to be a compulsive liar. Consequently, the audience must distrust anything she says. Chabrol then plays the trick of having us consider the possibility that she may this time be telling the truth. Some viewers may be beguiled into accepting this as a feminist gesture on Chabrol's part. But, infuriatingly, all his complicated maneuvers only lead us back to the same basic, male-chauvinist position — women are not to be trusted on the issue of rape. For Chabrol has scrupulously allotted the few shreds of evidence in such an even-handed manner that the audience can neither fully accept nor fully reject Violette's allegation. Her father may have raped her; but then again, he may not.

To hedge on this question is to support the age-old myth that rape is a weapon used by deceitful women against innocent men. In reality the instances of women falsely crying rape are miniscule in contrast to the massive scale upon which rape occurs, not only in war but in peacetime, not only in the past but in the present. Rape as a constant fact as well as a constant threat in women's social condition has been amply documented in books (such as Susan Brownmiller's classic Against Our Will) and by the FBI whose conservative statistics estimate that a rape takes place on an average of every seven minutes. While Chabrol was making VIOLETTE, a celebrated rape case dragged through the courts in southern France. The case made legal history for two reasons: for the first time in France, the rapists were brought before the criminal court which judges serious crimes instead of going to trial on lesser charges; second, the men were convicted (N.Y. Times, May 4, 1978). The successful prosecution was certainly in part a response to widespread feminist pressure. It is in this context of developing awareness and agitation that Chabrol's ambiguous treatment of rape must be seen. To hedge on this issue is not to be "artistic"; it is to take a political stand, the wrong one, from a feminist perspective.

Granting his stance of total ambiguity, Chabrol succeeds admirably, for VIOLETTE is a beautifully made film. Chabrol is not heavy-handed; on the contrary, he has created a delicate structure in which he subtly posits his rare assertions against equally convincing negations. The elusive quality is intellectually provocative. Many of the key moments yield to more and more complex interpretations the more one ponders them. When Violette accuses her father of rape, it would appear she means her sociological father, since he is the one she has killed. However, upon a second reading, we recognize that she may be alluding to her biological father, a wealthy member of the upper class whom she has successfully bribed, presumably because of his past with her mother, but conceivably because of his past with her. When she refuses, in a pre-trial hearing, to identify the man who has provided her with money, is Violette protecting her mother or callously blackmailing her? Chabrol has so constructed the film so that once we discern an insoluble riddle, it leads us on to discover yet another. Isabelle Huppert's Bressonian acting style (which allows for little facial expression) is an ideal vehicle for Chabrol's enigmatic vision. The heroine's face, so nearly devoid of reaction, invites us to imagine a broad range of response.

The formal delicacy of the film is also evident in Chabrol's use of soft lighting and subdued color. These grant Violette's world an almost luminous quality; yet at other times they work to substantiate the unspeakable drabness of her environment. Perhaps Chabrol's finest achievement is his depiction of physical confinement. The scene in the family flat, the hotel room and the jail cell are shot through bars, gates, railings and doorways to emphasize the sense of imprisonment. When the camera moves, it is as if in defiance of the claustrophobic spaces it is obligated to record — so negligible do the chances appear for movement and growth in this world. The recurrent use of bars and gates as framing devices suggests that Violette, upon arrest, has simply exchanged one form of incarceration for another.

Chabrol also shows skill as a director in his choice of performers. The acting is consistently fine throughout, but it is in the small and intimate moments where the acting becomes especially memorable: the graceless and awkward and uncertain dictation by the father of a letter demanding that Violette's "young man" make good, and the mother's appropriation of Violette's gold ring.

At those moments when he reveals the minor details and daily horrors of his characters' lives, as in the scenes mentioned above, Chabrol drops his enigmatic approach. At times he even becomes sharply derisive. With a decided flourish, he not only mocks the repressive and hypocritical mores of Violette's working class family, but the self-righteous pomposity of the judicial bureaucrats or the irrational bloodlust and brutal enthusiasm of the crowds. Why is it that only on matters which are peripheral to the central issues of murder and rape that Chabrol assumes a clear tone? Why are the targets he selects those which have the merit of being at once both safe and fashionable — the courts or bourgeois' mortality? The political implications of such choices cannot be overlooked. Precisely because of his considerable artistry, Chabrol's reactionary attitudes become all the more disturbing.