funderburg & cribbs

In a footnote in his recent piece on Masques, Christopher Funderburg sneered (derisively, no less!) at the venerable British Film Institute's list Claude Chabrol: 10 Essential Films. This lead to a conversation with his Pink Smoke compatriot John Cribbs about what they would consider Chabrol's Top 10 films.

What follows is their exchange on one of The Pink Smoke's favorite filmmakers and his multifarious and elusive essence. Was Funderburg right to deride BFI's list or is he simply an arrogant blowhard who will end up eating his own words? The answer can be "both."

{Funderburg on MASQUES}
{Cribbs on LA CEREMONIE}
{Funderburg on CRY OF THE OWL}
{Funderburg on THE BRIDESMAID}
{Funderburg on BELLAMY}
{Funderburg on LE BEAU SERGE}
{Funderburg on LES COUSINS}
{Cribbs on CRY OF THE OWL}
{Funderburg on COMEDY OF POWER}
{Funderburg on A GIRL CUT IN TWO}


FUNDERBURG: Did you read that BFI "10 Essential Chabrol Films" list I link to in a footnote of the Masques piece? It's insanity! Pure insanity:

Les Bonnes Femmes
Le Boucher
La Rupture
Alice ou la Derniere Fugue
Masques (!)
Story of Women
L'Enfer (!!!!!)
La Ceremonie

I mean... I understand that for some reason folks have decided the mediocre Les Bonnes Femmes is one of his best movies, but it's completely inessential. Nearly half of these decisively belong in the category of "somewhat interesting, borderline failure": Betty, L'Enfer, Alice, Masques.

To the writer's credit, Le Boucher, Story of Woman & La Ceremonie would almost definitely be on my own "Essential 10 Chabrols" list while La Rupture and Bellamy are good but like the picture-perfect definition of "inessential." It feels like Bellamy is only on there for the reason that it's his last film, like how A Prairie Home Companion insanely shows up on "10 Essential Altman" lists. You might as well put Cop Au Vin or Les Cousins on your list or something just in terms of throwing a very usual, B+ kind of movie on there. It's doubly dubious because that final stretch of his career capped by Bellamy includes some of his very, very best movies - if you want to show he was still going strong, up until the bitter end, Bellamy is probably your weakest example, although overall it's probably better than Comedy of Power (which at least has the bitter-sweet distinction of being his final team-up with his long-running collaborator Isabelle Huppert.)

With something like Le Beau Serge you can at least argue "look-e-here, it's the first Nouvelle Vague film to get released" and you probably should argue that if you're going to put together a list like this. It's also so on-model for his later work in terms of the main duo's dynamic and just setting a dramatic tension he would explore over and over. That's a historically important film as well as the one that defines his earliest era comprising the first half dozen or so films of his career.

I think this would be mine:

Le Beau Serge
Les Biches
Le Boucher
Just Before Nightfall
Violette Noziere
(not because it is great, just as a demonstrative/transitional thing.)
Cry of the Owl
Story of Women
La Ceremonie
The Color of Lies
The Bridesmaid

I could just as easily go with A Girl Cut in Two for the last selection and there's an argument that Ten Days Wonder or Blood Relatives deserves Just Before Nightfall's slot, if only to show that he did "go Hollywood. sorta." for a while there. But I'm not sure every era and every style he attempted needs to be represented, only his best. I think that's my subliminal definition for "essential:" the best work from his best eras.

CRIBBS: Can't believe neither of these lists includes The Swindle. The very definition of essential!

I more or less agree with what you say. I think both your list and the BFI's demonstrate that Chabrol is a director whose "essential" works are tough to identify. As you've written about extensively and we've discussed at length, he has such reliable formulas and recurring ideas that I think pointing to one movie and not another really just comes down to a matter of preference. Les Cousins and Les Biches are two great movies that also happen to be two sides of the same coin, it's just a question of whether one finds the admitted silliness of Cousins or the more pretentious leanings of Biches more tolerable (I'd say Stephane Audran is the trump is that particular case). Beyond the ones that are obviously fucking masterpieces, it's just sort of pick and choosing favorites.

For sure - Le Boucher and La Ceremonie, clearly, are the two that should be on anybody's list. And Story of Women is such a phenomenal flick, I'd say it's unquestionably a career highlight.

Beyond that honestly, I think arguments for Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins, Les Bonnes Femmes, Les Biches, La Rupture, Just Before Nightfall, La Femme infidele, This Man/Beast Must Die, Violette Noziere, Cry of the Owl, Betty, Color of Lies, The Bridesmaid and A Girl Cut in Two are legit. Ten Days Wonder and Blood Relatives are kind of messy.

Les Bonne Femmes is his most New Wave-y film, but it's not as good as Beau Serge or Cousins.

La Rupture is one of my absolute favorites. It would definitely be on my list, but at the same time I admit it's not as "important" an entry from that era as Boucher, Unfaithful Woman or even Beast Must Die. Une partie de plaisir is another favorite that it would be hard to argue as "essential" over something like Violette, although I think it's important for Chabrol super-fans to see. I could see the same case being made for Alice or Masques, even though they are clearly curios and not must-see Chabrols by any stretch of the imagination.

Bellamy's also great, also important. Is it more or less important than Cry of the Owl or Color of Lies or Bridesmaid? Again, I'd call personal preference on that. Betty's a big one too, but it's ever so slightly off-model and stylistically very different from a lot of his work (I wouldn't call it a misfire tho, personally). I wouldn't think of it as "essential" Chabrol, but it's in the higher tier for sure, and miles above the other six films between Women and Ceremonie. (I have to admit, BFI's inclusion of L'Enfer is borderline insane. I feel like you'd only throw on that movie to fill out the list if you've only seen a dozen or so Chabrol movies total... you know, like the only film it edged out was Merci pour le chocolat.)

It's funny to have taken in over 30 of a director's movies, feel like enough of an authority on his work, but still have sizable holes in his filmography. The Horse of Pride? The Hatter's Ghost? The stray spy thrillers from the 60's? I've got no idea if any of these are any good. Les Magiciens (aka Death Rite) is one that sounds absolutely bonkers, but I've never seen it.

FUNDERBURG: Haha - that's absolutely right: that BFI list reeks of Merci Pour el Chocolat being the only film the person who made had seen that didn't make the list. Maybe that's my problem with it: Chabrol's work has notoriously spotty distribution and, with only a few exceptions, the BFI is over-run with the films that are easiest to see. Of course, there's the obvious argument that these films are the easiest to see because they are the most essential - but I don't read it and say "this dude really knows his shit!" I had a conversation with some dude on twitter once (I believe it was Dan Sallitt but am not 100% certain) and he had strong opinions about which version of Blood Relatives was preferable: subtitled or partial dub - that's the kind of dude who I really want to offer up this sort of this. If he read this article and was like "you guys are dipshits," I'd being willing to hear him out. Not so with the person who wrote the BFI list.

Anyhoo, I just saw some of those spy thrillers for the first time to write the Masques piece! Code Name Tiger and Blue Panther are weirdly anonymous - they are probably something you could identify as being more Hitchcockian than anything else Chabrol did, but only because they're just regular entertainments. I don't know much about spy movies (at all, even of the non-Chabrol variety) but these films seem like that sort of swinging 60's stuff that's aware of Bond but not aping it exactly. Well, Code Name Tiger is. Blue Panther is like a cross between The Lady Vanishes and The Pink Panther, only boring. But neither of the copies I saw had subtitles, so I could've been missing oh so much.

Bellamy is great, but it's so similar to the other "final era" masterpieces - and it's not as good as Girl Cut in Two or Bridesmaid, it doesn't have that sort of "bitter-sweet culmination of a career working together" feel of Comedy of Power, or the even the forcefulness of the somewhat of a misfire Fleur du Mal.

I have not seen Une partie de plaisir! It sounds like something I should. And I like La Rupture very much as well, but again it's like Bellamy - it's so similar to the other masterpieces of the same era and not as "important" as any of them and not decisively better than any of them. He has a stretch of films from 1968-1971 Les Biches, Unfaithful Woman, This Beast Must Die, Le Boucher, La Rupture, Just Before Nightfall and everyone of them is brilliant. It's such an insane output in such a short amount of time and any one of them is "good" enough to be on a list of Chabrol's best work, but it feels weird to me to overload an "Essential" list films from that 3 year span.

As you say, it's taste but Biches and Beast Must Die are both very good, very Chabrolian films and both were big hits for him. La Rupture is him repeating what he had been doing with the previous 4 films. I put on Le Boucher because it's critical to include (if you did a "Top 2 Essential Chabrol Films" list it would be Le Boucher and La Ceremonie) and then Les Biches because it's where he discovers that style - it's the moment where he really truly becomes "Chabrol" as we know it. I have a harder time justifying Before Night Falls other than as personal preference.

I'm trying thinking in terms of "Essential" not "Best," so every good era and successful style should be represented in some capacity but not over-represented because he did make so many films in such different styles over such a long period of time. So, I like Betty and Masques, but it's far from a pair of his best and they belong to that period of wandering through the late 80's/early 90's that he emerges from decisively with La Ceremonie in 1994. The highlights of that period are Story of Women and Cry of the Owl (including it also serves to highlight his interest in old Hollywood, pulp novels and, yeah, Hitchcock.)

Anyhoo, as you say I don't think Bonnes Femmes or Alice are essential because they are so away from what he normally does and neither one is so amazing that you simply must see it. Bonnes Femmes is particular is easily skippable. Sure, it's his most New Wave-y but it's not like as this Nouvelle Vague lark he made Band of Outsiders or even The Soft Skin. He made Bonnes Femmes. Which is just ok. I like it. I like Alice. But calling either of them essential is mauling the word, unless you think it's essential to show he experimented a lot, which completely changes the conversation. Then you have to decide what film hits the nexus of "Experimental" and "Good" most sweetly. It's not Bonnes Femmes because Le Beau Serge (and Les Cousins) is fairly similar to it in terms of styles and quality. I think if you go that way you end up chasing after films like the apochryphal non-mangled director's cut of Club Extinction, an off-beat mess like Flower of Evil or The Horse of Pride which really, truly should not be on any essential list.

I think a better list is a supplementary one:


The Horse of Pride
10 Days Wonder
The Hatter's Ghost
Les Magiciens

...but then the fact that I have only seen 35 or so of his films bites me in the ass! Does Une partie de plaisir belong on this new list? The Third Lover? The episodes of the Fantomas t.v. show he did? I called it "intriguing" to cover my ass. More importantly, though: was my making fun of the seeming lack of a breadth of knowledge in the BFI list misplaced arrogance as there's so much I myself haven't seen?

(And shouldn't one of his 80's cop films be included somewhere in here? I say "no" because they're not his best work, so maybe Bellamy pulls double-duty as a cop film and a final era film? Maybe I'd drop Cry of the Owl for Cop Au Vin? Is all I'm doing here proving that the BFI isn't insane because pinning down Chabrol is so difficult? Do I owe BFI a big apology for thinking inside my head "look at this list, what a stupid pile of shit?" Yes. Yes, I do.)

CRIBBS: I'd say my list was pretty much identical to yours. I'd maybe replace Just Before Nightfall or Violette with La Rupture or This Beast Must Die, but again more out of personal preference than an absolute belief that they are ESSENTIAL:


Le Beau Serge
Les Biches
Le Boucher
La Rupture
Violette Noziere
Cry of the Owl
Story of Women
La Ceremonie
The Color of Lies
The Bridesmaid

FUNDERBURG: So there it is. Our list. One that I'm sure I'll re-read three months from now and say "What the fuck was I thinking?" You're right that it would look more reasonable with Bellamy as the final selection.

~ DECEMBER 27, 2016 ~