THE MOVIE SHELF: comparing films to their literary counterparts
THE CRY OF THE OWL
claude chabrol, 1987
Welcome to The Movie Shelf, an ongoing series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases.
We at the 'Smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the source material, what gets discarded, how the two works differ from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book (and vice versa.) It's "book versus movie" time, compadres.
based on the novel
THE CRY OF THE OWL
patricia highsmith, 1962
~ by christopher funderburg ~
Any time I write about Claude Chabrol, the director of this here cinematic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Cry of the Owl, I begin by restating a basic concept: the vast majority of Chabrol’s films, certainly the good ones, all share the same general story: an overtly unbalanced character disrupts the life of a seemingly normal person and in doing so reveals an unexpected capacity for depravity in their unexceptional associate. Chabrol’s skill is in discovering myriad variations on this essential relationship, dozens of descriptions of the same psychological interplay, depictions ranging from the subtle to the Gothic, from the foreboding to the sleazy to the tender to the tempestuous. The unbalanced character might be scheming, mentally ill, emotionally wounded, obsessive, achingly romantic or libidinous, the variations on the theme for Chabrol were as endless as the theme itself was unchanging.
Highsmith’s works are not quite as rigidly schematic, although she did more or less invent a sub-genre and never strayed too far from it: the “frustrated desire gets sublimated into a destructive force” thriller. A character has a deep need that can never be fulfilled - but it demands to be expressed so it forces itself out, leading to ruination. Although the force in question is often criminally depraved or self-destructive, the origins of the desire are frequently tinged with tragedy: repressed homosexual longing, oppressive loneliness, domestic misery, inescapable self-loathing. The essential Highsmith story follows a character with a deep-seeded need that if expressed could easily destroy their life or the lives of those closest to them - but it’s a compulsive need, a need that can’t be ignored, even if its possessor is painfully aware of the dangers inherent in pursuing it.
For whatever reason, Highsmith’s work has yielded an unusually high number of good cinematic adaptations from a diverse set of esteemed directors: Purple Noon, Strangers on a Train, Carol, The American Friend and The Talented Mr. Ripley were all based on her work; each of those films ranks among the very best work by some deeply venerated filmmakers. Chabrol’s The Cry of the Owl isn’t as well-known as those I just listed, but I’d rate against every single one of them. I suspect the reason it gets overlooked is that it stars Mathilda May of Lifeforce booberiety opposite the bargain-bin Daniel Auteuil (Christophe Malavoy) and not Alain Delon, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bruno Ganz or Dennis Hopper. If only Billy Crystal and Anne Ramsay had done a feature length parody of it, who knows, it might be held in rightful esteem today.
In some ways, Highsmith is perfect for Chabrol: many of his best films were adapted from paperback thrillers; he seemed to be most at home when taking a preexisting pulp novel and transforming it to fit his template: Le Ceremony, The Bridesmaid, Blood Relatives, Violette Noizere, La Rupture, Merci pour le Chocolat, Just Before Nightfall, This Man Must Die, Cop Au Vin, Ten Days Wonder etc. were based on books by authors like Ed McBain and Nicholas Blake - you could even throw in his Inspector Magritte pastiche Inspector Bellamy which has an even greater feel for Simenon than his direct adaptation of the author, Betty. He had a special affinity for female authors, twice adapting both Charlotte Armstrong and Ruth Rendell* - and he frequently relied on Odile Barski as a co-writer. Together they also wrote excellent films like Color of Lies and Comedy of Power, which feel like they were adapted from pulp novels even though they’re original screenplays. There’s a level on which it would have been weird if Chabrol had never touched Highsmith.
* He also adapted Simon de Beauvoir with The Blood of Others, but one of the quirks of Chabrol was that his films generally got worse the more forceful the personality behind the work he was trying to adapt: Blood of Others, Madame Bovary (based on the Flaubert), L’Enfer (his attempt to finish what H.G. Clouzot had started) and Club Extinction (a truly bone-headed take on Dr. Mabuse starring Jennifer Beals) are all among his very worst movies. I haven’t seen his t.v. version of Fantomas, but it’s impossible to believe it’s any good. I’ve also always been curious about Ophelia, but almost no one has anything to say about it one way or the other. Chabrol and Shakespeare is a pretty resistible combo, but the concept is so far from Chabrol’s usual fare as to be intriguing. It even stars Alida Valli, who Cribbs named his daughter in honor of (due to his love for ominous Eastern European matrons.) Incidentally, John’s other daughter is named Odile and she’s named after Odile Barski (and, sure, Anna Karina’s character in Band of Outsiders) whom I just mentioned.
Patricia Highsmith in 1987 photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
THE CRY OF THE OWL
patricia highsmith, 1962
~ SKETCHING THE ~
~ YELLOW-BELLIED THUMBSUCKER* ~
Part of the Highsmith allure is what a striking character the author herself was: she was a legendarily unpleasant human being, an abusive alcoholic with a storied tradition of alienating those closest to her. Her frequent publisher Otto Penzler once told an interviewer, “She was mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being. I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly.” I would say that’s the classic quote on Highsmith, but if you spend any amount of time researching her, you’ll find of dozens of statements to that effect - tales of her drinking, smoking and abuse, her love of petty crime and petty meanness, her idiosyncratic tastes and seeming determination to be as off-putting as possible at all times. My personal favorite Highsmith anecdote finds her smuggling her beloved pet slugs on a transatlantic flight by hiding them under her sagging breasts.
There’s a grotesque, live-wire quality to the Tales of Highsmith (the person) that precede her, so it’s a bit shocking when you finally get down to reading her books and they turn out to be ice cold: they feature plain prose applied to reserved characters. Measured. Circumspect. The classic Highsmith character, Tom Ripley, Charles Bruno or even Therese Belivet, has something wrong** with them that they’ve successfully hidden from the world. They've hidden themselves. They've controlled their true nature. Hidden. Controlled.
Her books evince a measure of author-ly control throughout - it’s easy enough to contrast her to a contemporary like Jim Thompson, where the psychological instability of his characters and hysteria of his stories threaten to tear his books apart at the binding; or Chabrol favorite Ruth Rendell and her neurotic aversion to uncleanliness, sex, filth, bodily function and grime. “Over-heated,” the most common (and laziest!) criticism of pulp fiction, is the last word you could apply to Highsmith.
Even when she goes inside a character’s head, as she frequently does with Owl’s protagonist Robert Forester, there’s a logic and mental quietude at work, an almost passive voice where the character is carried along by their thoughts, rather than chasing after them in a panic. Nothing about Highsmith’s style spills even when the violence and depravity reach Grand Guignol levels, as it does at the end of Owl. Highsmith was a major fan of Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper, Donald Henderson’s 1944 novel about an affectless, middle-class serial killer; it’s easy to sees intimations of that work in Highsmith’s approach: Henderson’s book describes a kind of moral vacuum, a deflated psychological space where standard concepts of good and evil kinda don’t really make much sense anymore. Raymond Chandler was also a huge advocate of the book and saw it as pointing a way forward for the crime genre - I think it’s fair to say that Highsmith followed that path, a path that Chandler pointed towards but never much advanced down (for all his cynicism, Chandler is still a moralist.)
The Cry of the Owl follows an aeronautics engineer who has taken a new job in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania in part to get away from his unhinged ex-wife, but also as a more general escape from his own unhappy life, his own unstable mind, his own unsatisfying self. He begins stalking a young woman (Jenny Thierolf) who lives alone - he stands in her back yard and watches her for hours as she cooks and cleans and lives the kind of uncomplicated life that he’s all too happy to romanticize for its simplicity and order. There’s no malice in his behavior, no fear that at any moment he will do something terrible to the young woman - in the early going, Highsmith’s trick is making us afraid for him, afraid that he’ll be caught as he dashes behind the basketball baseboard in her driveway to hide from her boyfriend, that he’ll somehow be exposed and his mild middle-class existence will come entirely undone because of his compulsion to peek in on a contented normalcy that entirely eludes him.
There’s an irony in saying that book isn’t hot: Highsmith favors short sentences, brief descriptions and painting motivation with an almost passive voice - as far as her main characters are concerned, you rarely get the sense that you’re the presence of maniacs; the icy veneer is furthered by the book’s early snow-bound settings, the fog of cold breath, the characters bundled in coats, the rural desolation. The tension of the story isn’t in Highsmith convincing you that it will break open at any moment, isn't stoking a fever pitch with her style, but stoking it from story: your knowledge that it should lurch into disatser at any moment drives the narrative. The set-up is too unsustainable, the characters’ desires too overtly working at cross purposes, secondary characters are too righteously wounded and disturbed by the situation unfolding in front of them, everyone too unable to give anyone else what they need. It's muted in portraying emotional turmoil because the story’s conclusions are so self-evident. The Cry of the Owl is a story that cannot end well. There’s no need to stoke the fire. It’s all going up in flames, as a matter of course. As a matter of fact.
It’s burning to the ground.
The book’s quality of “cold to to the touch, burns like frostbite” is intelligible in context it being a highly mediated work of autobiography - remove the gender switch of the protagonist and it has as great as claim to autobiography as even The Price of Salt. The gender switch, however, is one of the distancing devices of the book, artistic maneuvers that allow her to grapple with personal subjects at a remove. The basic plot comes from a trip Highsmith made to rural New Jersey to stalk an object of her affection: she apparently acted as Forester did, standing in the young woman’s backyard to soak in her domestic bliss, Highsmith’s mental state caught uncertainly between invidious and romantic. The target of her obsession was a woman she met while working as a store-clerk in New York City - The Price of Salt being the more dishonestly romantic, stalking-free, happy-ending version of her relationship to “Carol.” Additionally, Forester’s shrewish ex-wife Nickie is purportedly a mean-spirited caricature based on a former lover of Highsmith (young adult author Marijane Meaker) and the rural Pennsylvania setting is clearly based on New Hope, Pennsylvania where Highsmith lived for many years.
There’s a level on which it was natural for Highsmith to dislike her own book (and she was not proud of Owl)- you can see how taken altogether it illustrates her worst self: the pathetic lovelorn stalker who writes retaliatory caricatures of ex-girlfriends and pines of over lost loves (it’s dedicated to “D.W.” commonly believed to be another former lover, one she knew in New Hope.) Highsmith’s own animus for The Cry of the Owl is likely why it gets relegated to second-tier status in the writer’s oeuvre and consequently an element of why Chabrol’s film get overlooked.
To the reader the book is chilly, but it’s very easy to imagine the (unpleasant, repulsive) heat coming off of it for Highsmith herself. However, it doesn’t deserve to be buried and it’s certainly a cut above her worst - it’s better than something like A Game for the Living, where her antipathy for humanity just manifests as racism or a mid-career work like Those Who Walk Away that reads only like a popular author meeting demand. Whatever The Cry of the Owl is (whether it is her best or a mistake), it is something not nothing.
If nothing else, it’s a primo example of what she was all about as an author. Highsmith often wrote novels centered on obsessive, even imaginary, loves: The Price of Salt, The Cry of the Owl, The Blunderer and This Sweet Sickness are all constructed around the mistake of targeting romanticized longing at an idealized figure. Nearly all of her novels contain false relationships or characters exhausted by keeping up appearances: loveless marriages, implacable longing, infidelity, messy divorces, stalking and daydreams of murdered spouses abound. The quintessential Highsmith institution is an unhappy marriage, a marriage so unhappy that one partner begins to entertain thoughts of murder or suicide or both. Self-deception and destructive idealization are the chief escapes from that institution. The Cry of the Owl (delightfully) has all that.
The Five Ripley novels*** are her most well-known books, but their stories about a conman who profits off deception is a bit off-model for Highsmith. If her characters lie to the world around them, it’s usually because they know they’ll be pilloried to the point of ruination if they dare to reveal their true selves. More off-model: as the series went on, the Ripley novels also dealt more directly with homosexuality than any of her other work (Price of Salt aside) where it usually gets sublimated (as in Strangers on a Train or the first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley) or converted to heterosexuality when an obvious stand-in for Highsmith herself is rendered as a man (as in The Cry of the Owl, A Tremor of Forgery, Deep Water or This Sweet Sickness.) Especially in comparison to Owl, the Ripley books express a worldview not often espoused by Highsmith: a fantasy-space where deception and a successfully masked identity results in wealth and power as opposed to misery.
But who knows? Maybe as a wildly successful closeted author who turned her antipathy for the world in fame and fortune, she considered the Ripley books her most autobiographical. I might reserve that dubious honor for one of her more overlooked works: her jaw-dropping short sketch collection Little Tales of Misogyny (originally published in Germany with a title that translates less misleadingly to Little Stories for Misogynists.) The title seems like it might be ironic, but based on the collection it’s clear that if anyone hates women, it’s the author herself. It’s fair to say that Highsmith specialized in stories about women making the people around them miserable whether through malice or naivety or their refusal to be possessed.
“The Female Novelist,” barely two pages long, is one of the more indigestibly rotten artists’ statements you’ll ever read - it’s a bizarre rally to enmity; the relationship between character and audience identification and author identification is all messed up: a female novelist committing a razorsharp assassination of "the femal novelist" type. The collection overall is a pit of gallows humor, one where you can’t exactly understand who’s to be hanged and who’s the executioner.
The pseudonymously written lesbian romance The Price of Salt is usually cited as her most autobiographical work, but something about that notion just won’t sit right. In its core, Salt is idealized: it’s the story of something that never happened, rewritten at the last moment to be given a happy ending for reasons that weren't driven by the story (it irked Highsmith that lesbian romances were always required to end in tragedy), a book in which (perversely) Highsmith’s personality is almost entirely invisible. Owl and Salt share a host of surface details - a suddenly broken-off engagement, a pair of volatile exes, some hiding out in hotels, a relationship ignited by watching a woman in everyday domestic activities, a story shifting between New York and a small-town - but Owl is like the honest reckoning of that same story: the mess and humiliation, the self-pity and self-deception, the emotional violence and everyday depravity restored.
It’s also true that Owl is a much better book than Salt (which has always been a curio in the author’s oeuvre) - so much of the work of Phyllis Nagy’s excellent script for Carol is renovating Highsmith’s faulty novel: giving it a new ending, reducing the potboiler-ish elements, engineering a smoother narrative flow. There’s something interesting in Salt but it suffers from the fundamental dishonesty of romantic idealization (the same mistake that brings down Robert Forester) – it’s a mode of storytelling for which Highsmith has no talent. When you read Salt, it’s impossible to shake the sensation that you’re being lied to, the way in which any romanticized story, badly told, feels like either like hopeless naivety or a self-deceiving lie. And Highsmith is utterly incapable of doe-eyed naif-ishness.
It’s interesting to consider Highsmith in the current context of identity politics - Salt has recently developed scores of advocates, specifically because of its surprise-for-its-era happy ending and the swooning, romantic tragedy Todd Haynes fashioned from its base material. It’s fascinating because Highsmith, as an author, represented so many qualities that are hard to defend from a vantage of political correctness:**** in her books you can find countless expressions (not critiques, but expressions) of racism, misogyny, sexually-motivated violence, rape, stalking and even a subtle but persistent homophobia (against gay men) in her later works.
The standard Highsmith hero is a self-pitying creep - Owl’s Robert Forester is stalker whose callousness drives a naive young woman to suicde, he’s plagued and pursued by a bottomlessly vindictive, shrewish ex-wife who embodies every cliche about toxic, crazy ex-girlfriends (including being a dirty slut who will fuck anyone.) And what’s more, Highsmith carefully maneuvers her audience to feel sorry for Forester, to understand him - he’s treated with above all with sympathy.
The traditional Highsmith hero spends the entire book sinking into a morass of his own creation: he feel sorry for himself and unjusty persecuted by the “deranged” behavior of those around him while seemingly oblivious to his own culpability in his problems. “I never made her any promises, Robert wanted to say, but the whining self-justifying words shamed him.” But Forester spends the whole book whining and self-justifying, attempting to shrink away from his responsibilities to Jenny. Jenny is overtly dramatic - she tells him over dinner at a diner “If this coffee had poison in it, I think I’d drink it - if you put the poison in there.” But Robert ignores any emotional responsibility to her, his main concern is escaping the ire of her meat-headed ex-boyfriend Greg and avoiding any repercussions for stalking her for months.
The villains of the book are the people who simply can’t understand a man like Forester: suspicious cops, nosy neighbors, jilted ex’s. Highsmith gets us on Forester's side - these people are scary, petty, ugly and ridiculous - again, Highsmith intends for us to feel sympathy for Robert and has us rooting for him to escape from the disastrous situation. In a late scene, Robert takes in and feeds a stray dog which is shortly thereafter felled by a sniper’s bullet during an attempt on Robert’s life. It turns out it was actually his neighbor's dog, the Huxmyer’s dog, and a gaggle of curious, concerned parties who storm his living room after the attack whip themselves up into a righteous fury, angry mob demanding vengeance against Forester because, as lady Huxmyer puts it, "he killed my dog!”
There’s no way to interpret that scene in favor of the mob or against pathetic callow stalker Robert Forester: he does a good deed to take care of a stray animal and as he’s bleeding out on the floor of his own home, busybodies unrelated to the situation are screeching for hysterical justice. The police are indifferent to his wounds and unwilling to believe that it was Jenny’s ex-boyfriend Greg who fired the shots (they simply don’t like him since Jenny’s suicide, which they hold him accountable for.) It’s a book when am man is constantly called to account for his deeds and bristles - he drinks constantly but when its suggested that he might be an alcoholic it plays like another off-base accusation (more autobiography!)
Robert’s problem is that no one understands him, not even Jenny - the books’ sick joke is that everything goes to shit when Jenny begins to idealize him as he idealized her. Only her ideals are about beauty and death and suicide: he “represents something about death” to her and what can he do?
In searching for an example of domestic bliss and simplicity, Forester unleashes an even greater violence, depravity and weirdness than he ever could have expected: a world where no one is normal, everyone is crazy and violence and death are nightmares than begin plague our waking lives. In trying to gain a grip on his sanity, Robert reveals a world of hateful, hatable humanity: a humanity quick to suspicion, devoid of meaningful connection, filled with a poison liable to seep out at any moment. Don't touch it. The Jenny/Robert dynamic makes the book a particularly apt match for Chabrol. But he has a slightly different take on those relationship dynamics – Chabrol doesn’t hate anybody.
* There ended up being no good place to mention in it the article, but the main character of The Cry of the Owl does sketches on postcards of imaginary birds that he sends to the young woman with whom he’s involved. They have names like “The Lesser Evil” (mating call “cudbee worse, cudbee worse”) and “The Yellow-Bellied Thumbsucker.”
** I understand how dumb and offensive it is to lump Therese’s lesbianism in with Ripley and Bruno’s murderous sociopathy - in Therese’s case, “wrong” obviously and emphatically belongs in quotes. My point is that when the book begins, she (like Ripley or Bruno) is successfully concealing a difference from the people around her that they would label “depraved” if not “monstrous” if they were to discover it.
*** I’ve been told that taken as a whole, the series is called the “Ripliad” - to which I can only say “boooo! booooooooo! shut the fuck up.”
**** This is a phrase you can’t even write without people freaking the hell out about it and beginning to parse your every statement for which side of the big cultural war you're on. It’s interesting because Patricia Highsmith is inarguably politically incorrect but being a take-no-shit lesbian in an era when shit was consistently given to ‘em is undoubtedly a factor in the still-growing reverence for her work (that is, political correctness elevates the status of someone who represents everything it stands against as a concept.) Oh well, great artists have a tendency to defy politicization.
THE CRY OF THE OWL
claude chabrol, 1987
~ EMERGING FROM DARKNESS ~
On the surface, Chabrol’s film is a surprisingly faithful adaptation, surprising for how different it ultimately ends up from the source novel in terms of tone and texture and intent. Especially in the first half of the film, before the roadside brawl that sends Highsmith’s story spiraling off in another direction, Chabrol reproduces the story more or less as it appears in the book: there are almost no invented scenes, scores of lines taken directly from the book, almost no invented characters, very little compression of multiple chapters or sequences into a single scene - hell, Robert Forester is only slightly Frenchified into “Robert Forestier” and moved to Vichy from Langley/Rittersville Pennsylvania; he otherwise keeps the same job doing mechanical drafting, the same crazy ex-wife, the same hobby sketching birds, the same stalking habit.
The major difference between Chabrol and Highsmith, the difference that I noted above, is that Chabrol doesn’t hate anybody. Highsmith concerns a lot of her book with making sure that Nickie, Greg, Detective Lippneholtz, tattle-tale Susie Eschram and the nosy, craven neighbors are as detestable as possible. Since Robert Forester is a Highsmith analog (and the story’s ostensible hero) she’s determined make him as sympathetic as possible - which is kind of tough considering that he’s a self-pitying peeping Tom who’s self-servingly (self-deceivingly) ambiguous towards the naive young woman who has fallen in love with him. Her main strategy is to make everyone around Robert Forester as awful as possible. Chabrol invents a line for Robert in the film that seems like a direct rebuke to Highsmith’s approach. “No self pity. Others in this case are more worse off.” Highsmith’s Robert only processes Jenny’s suicide in terms of how it will affect him - Chabrol’s Forestier has an impenetrable reaction, one that insists only on being devoid of self-pity.
When Highsmith’s writing reveals the scarcely concealed strangeness of human beings, she’s shining a light on our “awfulness” whereas Chabrol is concerned with our darkness and delusions. It’s a slight but crucial difference. There's a judgment (if not paranoia) in the Highsmith configuration that is absent from Chabrol's. By contrast, Greg (now called “Patrick” and played by Jacuqes Penot (who looks like Mathieu Amalric in a fake mustache)) is given a dignity and pain that Highsmith never allows her character. Ex-wife Nickie’s nastiness reveals itself more slowly and only in the final scene reaches the fever pitch that Highsmith’s character maintains throughout. I suppose you could blame some of the change in tone of Chabrol transporting the story to France: there’s a world-weariness and intellectuality to the characters that are absent from Highsmith’s backwoods denizens.
In the film there’s also a lack of class tension: there’s a level on which Highsmith is pitting rich New Yorkers against small-town yokels, on which sophistication, introspection, the artistic impulse and intellectualism are automatically at war with the common folk, tractors and farms, salt of the earth. “Class tension” isn’t precisely the right description of what’s at play, though: urbane Nickie and All-American meathead Greg team up, for example - it’s more of a sense of a world divided between those who would go to see a psychiatrist to treat their depression and those who would assume that anyone who does such a thing is a nut who belongs in the booby hatch. It’s a divide that disappears into the ether when the film is reset in Vichy, decades later. The awfulness of prying neighbors, disappointing fair weather friends, uncomprehending family members is absent; the cultural pressures behind Highsmith’s central antipathies are irrelevant in Chabrol’s 80’s France. The conflicts evaporate.
In comparing Highsmith’s book and Chabrol’s film, I have to admit I had a strange reaction. Before I read the novel, I saw the film several times and always liked it quite a bit. But reading the novel mucked with my reaction to the movie. This resembles a usual reaction where one likes an interesting film significantly less after reading its absolutely brilliant source material. But that’s not what happened with the two versions of The Cry of the Owl: I really don’t at all think Highsmith’s novel is superior to the film (if anything I have more concrete complaints about it than I do the movie.)
But Chabrol’s film is enigmatic, its characters unpredictable and tough to read: it expresses its emotions and ideas obliquely; it uses emotional opacity as a device to set the mood, to hold the audience’s attention, to create an unsettling atmosphere and slowly draw us in. But experiencing the directness of the book somehow undermined Chabrol’s approach: watching it again after reading the book, characters’ motivations felt poorly expressed (as opposed to obliquely expressed) or worse: etched with a dubious, even affected, vagueness.
I’m not sure if I agree with myself on that account, though. That’s why I use the word undermined: knowing the book and being familiar with its presentation of Robert, Nickie, Greg and Jenny, the book itself seemed to interrupt the film as I was watching it, saying “no, no, no this is what this scene’s all about, this what this moment means.” In the book, Robert Forester’s inner turmoil is a driving force in the narrative: his fear of being caught as a prowler, his desire to get away from Jenny versus his fondness for her versus his fear that if he blows her off the situation will somehow rebound against him, his insistence that’s there nothing between even as their relationship blossoms. In the movie, there’s no hint of this turmoil. Christophe Malavoy plays Forestier as preternaturally pleasant, bizarrely unflappable. His fear at being outed as a prowler dominates his decision-making in the book - in the movie, he waves it off by briefly admitting to the activity to friends and saying “We’ve got a right to look at people.”
But it’s hard to say which version is more “correct.” In the novel, the characters of Greg and Nickie drift into caricature - by reducing the clarity and directness of their motivations, Chabrol assuages this problem: Nickie isn’t from the get-go insistently a shrewish crazy ex-girlfriend prone to near-psychotic outbursts nor is Greg a dopey, self-righteous lunkhead. There’s a strange problem where I prefer the film’s characterizations, but after reading the book, they feel thinner, less justified. Everyone acts for their own wicked reasons in the book and Highsmith very carefully lays out those reasons, sometimes to the point of cartoon-ish overstatement and with a repetitiveness that doesn’t always work in the book’s favor. The first time Highsmith introduces Greg, he’s a volatile hothead; the last time we see him, he’s a volatile hothead; every moment between those points, he’s a volatile hothead. Same for Nickie: in her first phone-call to Robert, she’s a vile, vicious, mean-spirited obsessive. She ends the story in the same state. Both characters are rarely fleshed out beyond those basic (and base) characterizations.
One of the rare exceptions is a late film sequence where Greg (renamed Patrick in the film) is bailed out of prison by his father. Seeing the character in the context of his father is fascinating: the blue collar old man is a mix of humorless, cold-bloodedly paternal and unwittingly enabling. It’s an insightful portrait of a very specific kind of bad parent, a sharp sketch of a father and son and the relationship that led to Greg being the (detestable) man he is. Chabrol knows what’s up, so he keeps this sequence, although he entirely rewrites it to fit his Frenchified version of Greg. In general, since the second half of the film alters and compresses more of the novel, it’s fairly telling that Chabrol makes time for this secondary character (one who’s more or less unnecessary to the story.) The book has no such insights into Nickie, her unrelenting shrillness one of its most memorable and compelling aspects - but also its element most caught up in dubious cliches.
But I truly don’t believe any of this is a mistake on Chabrol’s part. He’s well aware of what film can or cannot express and despite a general fidelity to plot, scene order and the cast of characters he’s not out to make a faithful adaptation of Highsmith - as is his tendency when adapting crime fiction, he’s simply using Highsmith’s story as a jumping off point to explore the themes and ideas that have interested him all along (whether they’re present in the book or not.)
And here’s a bit from early in the book: Forester wonders to himself, “Do psychopaths necessarily look like psychopaths? Certainly not?” That’s Chabrol’s mission statement and it’s something that Highsmith considers only glancingly. Or rather, it’s something that hangs in the background of her book, but Chabrol switches the focus onto it directly. With much of his work, Chabrol points out that we can’t judge who is most crazy, dangerous or deluded based on their outward behaviors - that’s how the essential Chabrol plot plays: a seemingly bonkers person reveals an unexpected capacity for depravity in a seemingly normal associate.
But there’s a moral quandary there, a question that suggests an unsettling irony: if we can't judge someone's sanity based on their outward behavior, how can we judge someone on their behavior in any case? Can you accurately judge someone based solely on how they behave?
The extreme emotional and psychological opacity he applies to his characters in The Cry of the Owl teases out this question: who is the most insane person here? Is it the casual prowler Robert Forrestier? He stalks an isolated woman, puts a shotgun to his sleeping wife’s head and drives Juilette/Jenny to suicide - but he’s pleasant, rational, kind, gentle, thoughtful, unassuming. Do the outcomes of his behavior matter? Can he be judged sane for not pulling the trigger on the weapon aimed at his wife’s skull? After all he didn't kill and his control over himself was what he set out to prove with the initial action. By reducing Veronique/Nickie’s shrillness, Chabrol mediates the excuses for pointing the gun at her - in the book, Robert is taunted into it, we see and feel acutely how her incessant abuse pushes the people around her into erratic behaviors. Is Greg/Patrick the most insane? What could be more sane than a jilted lover who wants revenge? Does it matter that he’s not a prowler, has never pointed a shotgun at his sleeping girlfriend and (unlike Robert) didn’t spend six months in psychiatric care?
Most tellingly: Jenny, the essential character of the book and the stand-in for the object of Highsmith’s real-life obsession, is almost entirely altered in Chabrol’s take. In the book, she’s a hopeless naif, a romantic who quotes Lord Byron on the subject of death, a 23 year-old about whom Highsmith emphasizes her girlishness over and over: “girlish,” “little more than a child” and “thought her to be much younger.” Her delusions about love and death are that of a poetic teenager; when she kills herself, it’s not much of a surprise based on her being positioned throughout the book at the traditional youthful crossroads of morbidity and romanticism.
In the film however, she’s played by Mathilda May: womanly to her core and imbued with a disaffected (and very French) laxity entirely at odd’s with Jenny’s fragile podunk innocence. It’s impossible to believe that May’s Veronique feels the slightest pressure to get married, appease prying neighbors, please her parents or generally keep up the kind of appearances demanded of a young lady in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1950’s.*
So when she’s emotionally wounded to the point of fatal despair, there’s a mystery of the core of her suicide: what actually drove her to overdose on pills (now given to her by Greg/Patrick rather than stolen from his traveling salesman bag)? Robert’s rejection, sure, but in the film they don’t even share that single spectacular kiss in his kitchen. You must question what’s happening inside of her mind to push her over the edge. It’s the question Chabrol wants you to ask, the question you ask yourself after experiencing a friend or relative’s suicide in real life: an unresolvable, hopeless, empty why? Chabrol has perversely made a film directs your attention at interiorities; emotional interiorities that he utterly refuses to expose to the audience. He wants you to look deeply at things he will not show you.
Stylistically, Chabrol’s film works to serve this enigma. In his own way, his filmmaking is as cold as Highsmith’s prose: his framing, editing and camera movements are simple and direct, his performers restrained, his production design unostentatious. The style of the film refuses to overplay its hand: the image and sound give you no special insight into the characters, no emotional cues to project upon their actions. It features few stylizations intended to make interiority concrete.
Chabrol’s frequently called “The French Hitchock,” a dubious accusation, but Owl might be his most Hitchcockian film. It never slips into Brian DePalma or The Bride Wore Black-style pastiche, but the nods are there: notably, he takes on Highsmith, whose short story was adapted by ol’ Alfie into Strangers on a Train. He has a brief cameo as a police patrolman (at least, I think that’s him hanging around in the station) and the score by his son Matthieu recalls Bernard Herrmann’s climbing, swooning theme for Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s style is, of course, bold and clever; frequently bombastic, usually meticulous - the opposite of standard-issue Chabrol. Who knows why he finally did it? Maybe three decades into his career he decided it wouldn’t hurt to throw in the nods critics were so desperate to see - whatever the case, it’s interesting to see the Accents d’Alfred pop up in one of Chabrol’s most emotionally fuliginous films. It’s almost like a joke, a little experiment to see how Hitchcock’s stylistic gasconading meshes with such a muted and cryptic work - or maybe just a reminder that despite his reverence for the Under Capricorn auteur, Chabrol was entirely his own man and his own filmmaker (again, unlike DePalma who would have trouble existing without Hitchcock to riff on.)
Interestingly, Highsmith’s novel has a handful of passages written from the perspective of a character in an addled mental state: drunk, on the verge of death by suicide, passing out after being shot. In these sequences, Highsmith drops into a style that passes (for her) as loose, freeform, dreamy, even poetic. That is to say, her writing very slightly steps off of its narrow stylistic path. Chabrol’s film follows her lead and delivers the kind of “character lost in delirium” sequence that’s well beyond a cliche at this point. Of course, extravagant depictions of characters grappling with delirium were a staple of Hitchcock; Vertigo, Spellbound, Frenzy, etc. all feature heavily stylized sequences depicting a fractured mental state.
Chabrol rarely dipped in that direction; it’s only appropriate that his most Hitchcockian film features a soft-focus semi-nightmare with piggish neighbors literally pressing their noses up against his window, a doctor’s voice fading in and out, and inexplicable, eerie imagery (in this case a portly old woman swinging at midnight on a nearby playground.) Like Highsmith’s writing, Chabrol’s film only puts a toe on the line of experimentation, but it's fun to see two such rigid and determined artists step even slightly out of bounds. On the flipside, I believe because of his rigidity that Chabrol eschewed a handful of my favorite scenes from the novel - which is illustrative of the weird tension in film between fidelity and rejection.**
I’ve always said/written/thought/explicated that Chabrol doesn’t make thrillers in the conventional sense: he’s not trying to build intensity to a shattering climax or get you biting your fingernails during gripping set-pieces, he’s not trying to bring up the heat and finally get the whole thing to boil over. Instead, I use the metaphor of “his films curdle.”*** That is, Chabrol’s films rot from the inside out - you don’t get carried along breathlessly by a Chabrol film, they’re not kinetic or packed with twists. They don't methodically build to a shattering climax. His thrillers are not actually what you’d call “thrilling.”
No, there’s a moral rot, a moral decay that eventually causes the whole wretched mess to turn, Chabrol's films tell the stories of a situation spoiling into a sour nastiness that’s beyond salvation. Blood-curdling is an appropriate association. Because his interests are behavioral, psychological, moral and philosophical, he’s indifferent to telling a ripping yarn is what I’m saying.
This is a contrast to Highsmith’s book (cool to the touch as it is) where Robert Forester is hounded - he’s relentlessly pursued by a his bad decisions, his history of mental instability, merciless police officers, Jenny’s psychotic ex, his own psychotic ex, his psychotic neighbors. The whole world it seems is out to get Robert Forester and the pressure mounts and mounts until his whole world is filled with unseen snipers, snide cops, accusing strangers, vile relations and the dead bodies of those foolish enough to be nice to him. It’s a very traditional “thriller” in that Highsmith creates the ol’ “pressure cooker ready to explode” type narrative scenario - a wrong (if not wronged) man spiraling into desperation; unrelenting, hounded. That’s almost never what Chabrol is after, almost never the effect he intends for his audience - and definitely not with Owl.
His approach, the commitment to opacity and rot, causes him to lose out on a couple of the best scenes from the book: one is poetic, the other infuriating and intense. In one of the missing scenes, after their first "date" Jenny and Robert stand in the parking lot of the nicest local restaurant, a light snow falling on them as Robert unsuccessfully tries to slip away from Jenny’s attention. He wants to break things off without a scene and to get away without any repercussions of any kind (for prowling, for inadvertently drawing her romantic attention, for drawing Greg’s ire) but the moment is lovely, Jenny’s combination of innocence and determination charming, the setting quietly beautiful. Instead of breaking it off, he agrees to take her for a ride. It’s the kind of moment that Todd Haynes’ Carol is built out of and Chabrol is entirely uninterested in the simple poetry of it - it’s one of the most cinematic scenes in the book and Chabrol ignores it.
The second scene it’s instructive to note Chabrol has ditched is an infuriating moment late in the book when Robert finally catches Greg. Jenny’s deranged ex has spent several chapters acting as an unseen sniper, taking potshots at Robert and whoever is unfortunately enough to be with him. The police have developed a severe antipathy for Robert, the neighbors blame him for stealing and killing the Huxmyer’s dog, the papers imply he’s a killer, and pretty much everyone who has been nice to him in the book is dead. It’s a low point, Greg keeps getting away with it, there’s no one to help Robert and then, BAM!, he gets the drop on Jenny's violent ex. He catches Greg stalking him outside his window (oh, the delicious irony) and knocks him out, stealing Greg's gun away.
Suddenly, old man Kolbe (who we know to be a stupid hick asshole) appears, shotgun in tow, and takes Greg’s side. He believes the young man when he insists he’s not Greg Wyncoop and makes Robert give Greg his gun back. It’s just an infuriatingly true portrait of pettiness, stupidity and small-town dipshitery. As someone who lived for much of his youth in rural Pennsylvania, the scene was painful: with some people truth and common sense are not on your side. Those people happen to be extremely dangerous and innately on the side of the Greg Wyncoops of the world.
It’s a great, intense scene. But Chabrol drops it - and why wouldn’t he? There’s nothing inexplicable or hard to read about any of the characters’ behaviors. It's too intense, too reliant on narrative mechanisms, thriller devices, for its intensity. Highsmith includes it to jack up her themes about societal oppression, another one of her misanthropic musings on the willful meanness and sinister intransigence of most folks. But those aren't Chabrol's concerns.
When I try to encapsulate what’s happening with Chabrol’s film, its strange simultaneous fidelity to and rejection of Highsmith’s novel, I’m finally at a loss. Instead, I’m compelled to talk about the film's beautiful images that capture unforgettable scenes and translate them into a new language that doesn’t have precisely the same meaning: the image of Robert standing directly behind the flame when he first emerges from the darkness to reveal himself to Veronique. The long tracking shot, surely one of the most elegant of Chabrol’s career, where the camera sweeps over Veronique’s isolated villa, through the field of wild-grass behind it and settles on the ground beside her corpse.
A situation that exists in the book becomes tenfold more powerful in image: Robert, bloodied and battered after his roadside brawl, joins Veronique for dinner. The image of a man sitting at a fancy table, blood running down his face and staining his shirt collar, is stunning, brilliant, shocking, strange. It’s mentioned in the book, but it becomes a signature piece of Chabrol’s film. It might be too much to say that Chabrol’s film is worth watching for that short scene... but it’s close.
One of the only moments that Chabrol has invented: a light bulb goes out and, as Veronique is afraid of electricity, Robert replaces it for her. While he’s up on a ladder, precariously positioned, the light comes back on. Patrick/Greg is now standing in the room with them, confronting them for the first time about their bizarre relationship, accusing Robert of having been the prowler. Patrick’s sudden appearance from the darkness, his stealthy surveillance and sudden emergence, explicitly recalls Robert’s backyard reveal in the light of flames.
It’s an invented moment that’s both an amplification of Highsmith’s ideas and the kind of bold stylistic gesture associated with the thriller genre, exactly the kind of thing Hitchcock would’ve loved. It is more Highsmith than Highsmith, yhe kind of moment Hitchcock built entire films arounf. But it’s a bit of a throwaway moment for the movie. And Chabrol doesn’t invent anything else for the film along those lines, something stylish and lined up precisely with Highsmith’s thinking - this, despite endless opportunities to invent more bits just like it.
It's almost like it's there just to prove it, just to prove that he could be Hitchcock or Highsmith if he wanted to. But also to remind you that he doesn’t.
~ April 20, 2016 ~
* I should also mention that a lot of her style is totally, totally 80’s.
** Grad students, now is the moment to make a comparison between the film’s “fidelity and rejection dialectic” and the narrative’s “fidelity and rejection dynamic.” For you see, Robert Forester both feels a deep connection to Jenny Thierlof and rejects her simultaneously, just as Chabrol’s film feels a deep connection for Highsmith’s book and rejects it simultaneously. What a bold and ingenious insight. That one’s free of charge, you can have it for your thesis.
*** A metaphor is a figure of speech where you compare something to something else.