Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Unsentimental Education: On Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes femmes (1960)

Les Bonnes femmes/The Good Time Girls (France/Italy, 1960), a French New Wave film directed by Claude Chabrol. 
The video was made in association with the non-commercial, scholarly film website Film Studies For Free. 

The above was my first, rather tentative attempt at a film-critical video essay. I completed it almost a year ago. I never knew that I would be able to create such an artifact when I started out as a jobbing Film Studies ('theory' not 'practice') academic many years ago. But what surprised me most about it, apart from how (relatively) straightforward it is to set about making such work now, given the proprietary editing software that comes free with most computers, was how much more I learned about the form of this film as a result of making it.  

Les Bonnes femmes was a movie I had taught many times and thought that I knew very well, which was why I chose to work on it. What I realised afterwards was that I had also been motivated by a desire to engage with this film's strangeness -- its beguiling yet disturbing affect -- which neither I nor my students had been able to articulate in words, in detail at least, in numerous individual sequence analyses in university seminars.

Working on the film in an editing programme was very much like studying it frame by frame on a flatbed editing table (as in the Film Studies classes of a mostly bygone era), and that rendered a much better understanding, for example, of the film's constant moves from high to low, and its graphic matching of key shapes, like that of the statue at the beginning.

But it was the process of having to construct and then convey or perform a meaningful analysis by re-editing the film that completely convinced me of the merits of the video essay as an analytical, pedagogical, and creative process. How better to understand the intense affective charge of the moment in the film when a character breaks the film's fourth wall than to try to re-frame it, while retaining the feeling of that charge, in the form of a new (summarised? pastiched? bowdlerised?) transformative work?

A year ago, I didn't have the confidence in this process to let an intuitive, creative understanding of the film emerge, to be expressed through a new practice of montage. The essay is quite long at thirteen and a half minutes and even its fairly sparse voiceover commentary (which was largely improvised to accompany the re-editing, rather than pre-written) seems too wordy to me now. That commentary is reproduced below, along with some links to other, hopefully useful material.

This is all just to announce that my next, quite different, video essay will be posted here, with an accompanying post at Film Studies For Free (my other website), in the next few days...

Claude Chabrol's 1960 film Les Bonnes femmes/The Good Time Girls opens in the Place de la Bastille in central Paris. We see the statue erected to the Genie of Liberty: not a statue of Eros as many commentators on the film have thought. The film thus opens with an image of freedom, and it is freedom and tyranny that will be its central concerns.

We pass through the Arc de Triomphe and gaze for a while at the image of the Eternal Flame before moving down the Champs-Élysées to the first main location of the film. Here we find ourselves outside the Club Grisbi, the Grisbi striptease club on the Champs-Élysées .

We've gone from the height of the statue to the low level of the street. And in the distance Chabrol is signalling someone who will be a protagonist in the film. Through the window of an appliance store André Lapierre, the man of stone, has caught sight of what he seemed to have been waiting for. And the woman he was waiting for can also sense him - captured once again behind glass and taken by the feel of his tiger skin seat.

Jacqueline is the first of the four 'good time girls' we see in the film searching for love. During the day she works at a different electrical appliance store in a different part of Paris along with three other young women, all searching, like her, for excitement and love, as well as an escape from the tyrannies of time and commerce.
Even in these documentary scenes, André Lapierre still lies in wait.
Liberated once again, they escape into the Parisian night. And nocturnal Paris is the space in which the film is free to explore the distinction between watching and being watched.

The animal postures and attitudes of the nightclub scene are echoed in one of the most famous sequences in the film: the trip to the zoo. In this sequence, spectator and spectated upon are once again divided by a thin layer of glass. In this way, the film questions the distinction between 'captured' and 'captors', between 'predators' and 'prey'. And it traces the literal distance between those dangerously on the same side of the glass.

In the swimming pool sequence, two of the film's many male figures of black comedy subject all of the girls to tormenting. But it is Jacqueline, alone, who is singled out by the film for danger. Here, Les Bonnes femmes begins to explore the divide between life and death.

In another of the film's moves from high to low, Jacqueline's waiting 'protector' springs into action. Can she really be unaware, the film seems to ask us, that tall, dark strangers sometimes bring dangers of their own? It's not that film doesn't warn her, but rather that, like us, she seems to be dangerously drawn into its cautionary tale.
Here at this moment of physical intimacy and emotional trust, the film and André begin to explore the limits of his freedom and the potential for her acceptance of it. She passes his test with flying colours and we can see that both André and the film have successfully negotiated the distance between the two hand gestures that bookend this sequence, and which transport us, fatalistically, to the film's dénouement. And the beauty of this sequence, with its sweeping arch-like pan, might make us wonder about its creator: what does he want us to think as Jacqueline is led off, a virgin to be 'deflowered'? Or to be sacrificed?

His deed now done, and seen once again from on high, Lapierre seems more a mere tragic-comic mortal than some kind of almighty Genie of Liberty and death. The strange coda to Chabrol's film, which has so mystified critics, takes place in another nightclub. Another man waits and watches. Another woman waits and is watched.

Like the sequence in the zoo, the camera is tracking the distance between the two people. It's a slow to and fro motion which is underscored by the music of this final sequence of the film. To and fro. The 'pick up' here is depicted as a mutual process - a mutuality which makes everything which preceded the film's coda even more troubling.

Men of stone and women of glass? On high, the glitterball doesn't just glitter; it mirrors. It witnesses and fragments what lies beneath: the 'special occasion' that punctures the endless dull time which imprisons us all. But we are held by the spectacle, waiting for something to happen. And then it does: the troubling moment when the character - as in so many other New Wave films - returns our gaze. What does she want to happen? And what do we want to happen?
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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I very much enjoyed your video essay on Chabrol's Le Bomme Femmes. I also greatly admire the film and its open-endedness, the quick and frequent shifts it makes from light comedy to horror and a sense of oppression (from, as you observe, dull time and commerce). Thankfully you pass over the number of the beast element post-murder - not that I disagree with Chabrol's touch at that point, but it appears as a kind of inessential "easter egg," reinforcing already present symbolism. Le Boucher is another personal favorite that I consider a companion piece, the at-risk schoolteacher representing, perhaps, a mature if emotionally damaged version of the victim in 'Femmes.

  3. Stephen, thanks for your comment, and especially for your insightful words about Le Boucher - absolutely a companion piece to Les Bonnes femmes.