Thursday, August 14, 2008

Chabrol’s Cut

In 1906 Henry K. Thaw murdered his wife’s lover, Beaux-Arts architect Stanford White. That crime and the resulting trial of the six year old century have inspired several literary and dramatic adaptations. While E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and the subsequent film and musical are the best known, Claude Chabrol’s latest psychological drama also takes its initial kernel of inspiration from the White case. Opening Friday in New York, A Girl Cut in Two (trailer here) shares some elements of his great crime films, but has more in common with his psycho-sexually charged films like The Pleasure Party.

Charles Saint-Denis is a man who extracts as much pleasure as he can out of life. He is a successful, well-regarded novelist, with a low-stress wife on very good terms with his ambiguously affectionate editor. When he happens to meet Gabrielle Deneige, young woman building a television career on being cute rather than deep, he takes advantage of what chance offers. However, as he lures her deeper into 9 ½ Weeks style debauchery, she becomes more emotionally attached to the older man, which obviously will not do at all. After finding herself abruptly dropped by her lover, Deneige eventually succumbs to the advances of a conspicuously unstable, but filthy rich suitor, Paul Gaudens.

While Cut is a crime film of a sort, with Saint-Denis standing in for Stanford White, it is all about the build-up to the murder, with the scandalous trial coming as anti-climax, before a head-scratching denouement that only seems to serve the purpose of literally illustrating the film’s title (it is not what you might think, so do not consider that a spoiler).

Chabrol is a great director, and Cut hardly suggests it is time for him to retire. He handles the film’s adult themes quite deftly, conveying precisely what manner of lurid behavior is going on behind closed doors, without taking viewers inside to revel in the depravity. Chabrol also still shows a gift for crafting intense scenes, here abetted by Edouardo Serra’s cinematography and Matthieu Chabrol’s music, which both heighten the hot house atmosphere. He elicits some strong performances, particularly from François Berléand as the world-weary hedonist Saint-Denis and son Thomas Chabrol as a cold-blooded defense attorney.

Unfortunately, the screenplay has serious issues. Motivations are often vague at best, which creates problems of credibility. Five minutes with Gaudens should be sufficient to convince anyone he is bad news, yet Deneige marries him, albeit out of spite for Saint-Denis, only to be shocked by his capacity for violence later. Also, Cut places far too much significance on her name, which translates as “the snow,” as in pure as the driven.

Chabrol is still a world-class director. He just misfired in Cut. While there are flashes of his masterful skill in the film, compared to the rest of his filmography, it is a bit of a disappointment. It opens Friday in New York at the IFC Center.