MOVIE SHELF: COMPARING FILMS TO THEIR LITERARY COUNTERPARTS

christopher funderburg

CLAUDE CHABROL'S THE BRIDESMAID

based on THE BRIDESMAID by RUTH RENDELL

Welcome to Movie Shelf, a 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 original source material, what he changes, how the two different works vary from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book and vice versa. All this and more will be examined in this ongoing line of articles.

 

Put on your helmets: this is a long one, but despite the turbulence it's worth it. It's all you'll ever need to read about Ruth Rendell or the film Claude Chabrol made from her novel The Bridesmaid. You want my advice? Have a friend print it out for you and then tear those pages up into tiny pieces and mail them to you and from there you would painstakingly reassemble those epistolary fragments using scotch tape. I think that will give you a deeper, even mystical connection to the article. Or at least a sense of obligation, like you went through all that, you might as well read it.

Over the course of his storied six-decade career stretching from when he kicked off the Nouvelle Vague with Le Beau Serge in 1959 to his death in 2010, Claude Chabrol adapted dozens of novels into films, everything from Gustave Flaubert's ageless melodrama Madame Bovary to political journalist Edward Atiyah's fiction thriller Just Before Nightfall - and that's not even including his pointed homages to certain authors such his final film, a Georges Simenon/Inspector Magritte pastiche half-heartedly disguised under the title Inspector Bellamy. The majority of his finest films are adaptations, including a pair of Undeniable Masterpieces based on works by Ruth Rendell: La Cérémonie and The Bridesmaid. Coming out in 1995, La Cérémonie ended a 15 year streak of variable output from the mild-mannered critic-turned-filmmaker that included his worst films like Club Extinction and Innocents with Dirty Hands as well as mediocrities torpedoed by baffling miscalculations like the aforementioned Madame Bovary and The Twist. La Cérémonie and the creative run that followed for Chabrol established him as the only member of that Nouvelle Vague Cahiers du Cinéma critic clique doing inarguably the best work of his career - certainly, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette weren't (and Truffaut was too busy being dead.) Chabrol's generalized tendency towards unassuming excellence lasted up until his death and saw him steadily producing near-masterpieces with nary an out-and-out stinker in sight. The worst work from this period, 2003's La fleur du mal (yet another adaptation), would actually rank among his best work from the 60's or 80's. I'm no Rendell expert (hell, I'm not even the site's Chabrol expert) but because of the greatness of La Cérémonie and The Bridesmaid, I've always associated her closely with Chabrol. Despite the greatness of Chabrol's Rendell adaptations, I've had very little curiosity about her work, so we're going to dig into this with the warning that I've only read two of her novels all the way through and I gave up on another after twenty pages. Considering my praise thus far for the film into which it was adapted, it might surprise you that I literally chucked La Cérémonie's source A Judgement in Stone across the room and left it there. (Before returning it to the library.)

Everything about Judgement seemed to be at odds with La Cérémonie and I gave up on it for what I think is a common fear, although usually in reverse: I worried the book was going to ruin the film for me. Of course, the more usual dynamic (although one from which I almost never suffer) is that a bad movie will "ruin" a book and interfere with a reader/fan's self-generated mental image of the material: "Now that I've seen Shaq in the role, I can't imagine the Arabic genie described in the book!" With Judgement, I didn't want Rendell's work to in any way interfere with a movie I adore and, bluntly put, it wasn't nearly good enough of a piece of writing to risk it. After I gave up on Judgement, John Cribbs loaned me A Sight for Sore Eyes and The Bridesmaid, the former of which has never been adapted into a movie (certainly not a great one by Claude Chabrol) so I could get through it. You will be excited to hear that despite its reputation as a fan-favorite, I found it to be a slog! A couple days after I finished that one, I started on The Bridesmaid with the idea that I would write a Movie Shelf (this here fucking article) on it. Really truly (truly really), I wanted to have more of a familiarity with Rendell before I wrote this* but I just couldn't do it. Two was enough. More than enough. And as with Judgement, Chabrol had altered nearly every detail but the broadest of broad strokes in adapting The Bridesmaid for le cinema. On top of that, A Sight for Sore Eyes and The Bridesmaid are so similar that I feel like I have Rendell's number and don't need to read anything else to understand her - funnily enough, much like if I had only seen La Cérémonie and The Bridesmaid, I could actually write about Chabrol in general pretty darn accurately. Maybe I'm wrong and she has some curveballs out there, but the dullness and predictability of her writing make me sincerely doubt it. The funny thing about both of Chabrol's adaptations is not that they take liberties (all adaptations must take some liberties) but that they resist the novels - even Godard's legendarily flippant Parker adaptation Made in U.S.A. has more straight-up reproductions of scenes, characters and dialog from its source novel The Jugger than Chabrol's work does to its Rendell source.

When I think of adapting novels for films, there's a little anecdote from my own life that stands out in my mind. And has nothing to do with Rendell or Chabrol or even good novels or movies. Back when I was working for the Jacob Burns Film Center, we hosted an event with the author of the novel upon when Jimmy Jimmerson's** Sideways is based. It was a screening followed by a wine tasting (if you can believe it!) and I got to chat with the guy for a bit. Here's the thing, the Paul Giammatti character in the film was based on him; the novel is more or less autobiographical. Now, I'm sure you're picturing some sad sack pseudo-intellectual type standing around with me sipping Pinot Noir in a movie theater basement, but that is absolutely not the case: he was a hulking frat-boy man-child, a golf-loving sophisto-bro from a privileged background who didn't need to work and was a schlub only to the extent that lazy, drunken trust fund cardigan and khaki-types are "schlubs." He was a statuesque man with a handshake that nearly crippled me, but his imposing nature was undermined a bit his mild gut, a natural granite mountain of square-jawed testosterone gone to seed because there were no repercussions for such. And it obliterated the film for me in retrospect - the character makes too much sense as that type, as that real author than as a Paul Giammatti: Sad Sack. Everything from his friendship with the fratty Thomas Hayden Church character to MILF Virginia Madsen's attraction to him to his shallow self-satisfied philosophizing to his knowledge of fine wine to a golf-weekend spent womanizing and drinking makes so much more sense as the author wrote it. Even Sandra Oh's character being a bohemian college girl in the novel makes more sense - the book undermines the film. It resists the film. You can't go back. Chabrol's The Bridesmaid is the rarer inverse where the adaptation successfully resists the source and undermines it. That's the stuff I think about. Those are the anecdotes.

Now, I'm not sure how finely I should split hairs here in explicating what I mean that Chabrol's The Bridesmaid "resists" the book. Famously, films like Jaws, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Christine, Apt Pupil, The Running Man, The Lawnmower Man, Firestarter and Cujo all exceed and improve upon their literary counterparts, but I want to make clear that it's not just an improvement I'm talking about here but maybe something closer to a betrayal. The Bridesmaid refuses to be the book and replaces it as the "correct" version, as though Rendell's book is a shoddy novelization; the novel feels like the failed adaptation, the work by the artist who just didn't "get it." Maybe Jaws or what-have-you also qualifies, I'm not trying to talk to you about Jaws or The Godfather, folks, let's not get too off-track here. Focus. I think something like Kubrick's The Shining is more what I'm talking about, something that throws the original out the window under a bus which then flies off a cliff to the bottom of the ocean - the film stakes its claim as the true version and makes the source novel look a bit silly and useless in comparison. Anyway, back to The Tommyknockers. Chabrol's film so completely resists the intentions, the themes, the ideas and characterizations of Rendell's work that it replaces her original - you can't go back to picturing Phillip as a dim-witted, violence-detesting blue-collar Paul McCartney look-alike after you see Benoit Magimel's slippery, charming performance, a work of acting equal parts deranged and relatable. Rendell's Phillip is a phony thing sitting there lifeless on the page in comparison.

In terms of broad strokes, both films are a variation on Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train concept of two folks exchanging murders ("criss-cross!"), one person killing a stranger on behalf of the other and vice versa. Only this time, it's a pair of lovers each killing someone! Original and daring. The basic set-up is, titular wild-woman Senta*** meets young interior design contractor Phillip when she is part of his sisters' wedding party. She follows him home after the reception, strips off her clothes and declares she has fallen instantly in love with him on a deep, cosmic, spiritual level. They get. It. On. From there, he's hooked, they're in love...then they squabble, she balks, he pleads for a way to prove his love and she throws out the following: "Some say that to live fully you have to have done four things. Do you know what they are? I'll tell you. Plant a tree, write a poem, make love with your own sex, and kill someone." It's actually one of the few pieces of dialog repeated in the film verbatim from the novel. Rather than commit the capital offense, Phillip lays claim to the murder of a vagrant he read about in the newspaper and Senta responds in kind by purportedly murdering a businessman who jilted Phillip's mother. The first time I saw the film, I was hoping they would keep it going and follow Phillip as he reluctantly had sex with a dude under Senta's stern, matronly approving gaze. And then planted a tree. Ah well, murder seems to be enough for her.*-*

The essential point of departure between the two works is the characterization of Phillip. Both The Bridesmaid and A Sight for Sore Eyes follow more or less the same story: a regular Joe (or in the case of Sight, "Jane") gets entangled in a romance with someone who's truly nuts and this regular Joe/Jane utterly fails to grasp just how murderously bonkers their partner truly is. In both cases, the main character's obliviousness borders on idiocy. With Sight, the teenage girl at the center of the story at least has the excuse of having led a completely sheltered life - Rendell's dull Phillip has no such excuse. Chabrol turns Phillip into the quintessential Chabrol hero. Over the course of his career, starting right out with the one-two punch of Le Beau Serge and its mirror Les Cousins going right up until the bitter end with Inspector Bellamy, Chabrol repeated the same story over and over: we are introduced to a seemingly decent person who appears to be the story's hero. That hero gets paired up with someone obviously a little on the crazy side and their relationship allows our seemingly decent/normal hero to display a capacity for depravity that might even exceed the insanity of their more overtly unstable partner. No wonder he loved Madame Bovary. Chabrol's Phillip easily resists Rendell's characterization simply because he has so much more depth and complexity - his relationship with Senta makes more sense than the one laid out in Rendell's generally unconvincing book. Rendell's Phillip Wardman consistently underestimates just how crazy his Senta is while Chabrol's Phillip Tardeau takes her insanity as an opportunity to explore his own demented fantasy life.

The last names of the main characters have been changed, I suppose to help transition the story from London to a provincial French town (the quintessential Chabrol setting), but every character gets renamed even in cases where it's not clear they needed to be made more "French" or even ultimately were: Fiona to Sophie, Cheryl to Patricia, Ripple to Crespin, Rebecca Neave to Raphaelle Plissier, the Tutonic Arnheim to Courtois. Absolutely the weirdest unnecessary name change seems to be Chabrol's unwillingness to simply call Senta, "Senta." In the film, it's explained that her real name is Stephanie, but she recently gave herself the more exotic appellation "Senta" and, in fact, calls herself something different "every six months." In the book, her real name is Senta and it's a serious point of contention when Phillip doubts it - when it's proven to really to be her name, he's in anguish because he knows he screwed up by doubting her. Adding another level of confusion for me as a reader who had seen the film several times before he read the book: there's a character named Stephanie in the book, another bridesmaid...and Phillip's troubled sister Cheryl insists to her family that she has seen him going out on dates with that very Stephanie. Even weirder: the name confusion never pays off in the book. In the novel, Phillip really is dating Senta, not Stephanie. Stephanie never becomes involved in the plot in any way other than the erroneous mentions by the sister. The confusion is utterly pointless. It just wafts there in the air like a fart, noisy and stink. Chabrol's bit about "Senta" really being named "Stephanie" feels almost like a reaction to this nonsense, a little like someone who knows better saying "Ok, here's something that would have been logical and been satisfying to the audience instead of your crap, Ruth Rendell." I don't want to get hung up on name changes but I couldn't help but notice how the film's script (by Chabrol and TV writer Pierre Leccia) jettisons details from the novel at every opportunity.

From the get-go Chabrol ignores Rendell's descriptions and characterizations. An important subplot involves a statue that Phillip's mother gives as a gift to the aforementioned businessman Gerard Arnheim/Courtois (who eventually jilts her): a likeness of the Greek goddess Flora, the overseer of the natural world. Rendell goes into quite a bit of detail about the statue, a chip on its ear and a green stain on its face. Chabrol transforms it from a full-body depiction to a bust and forgets about the chip and green stain (defects which actually play into the plot of the book in one of its sillier contrivances.) It's not just the statue that gets this treatment: Rendell spends an inordinate amount of time describing flowers, characters' clothing, household fixtures (in particular bathroom fixtures) and gardens (this appears to be a habit of hers as A Sight for Sore Eyes suffers from the same problem.) There's almost nothing evocative or memorable about these descriptions and despite their length and frequency, they hardly paint a more vivid picture than a simple throwaway phrase like "a modest garden" would have. She goes out of her way to specify things like "purple sheets" or a "moldy brass faucet" and point out an empty wine bottle on a window frame and Chabrol ignores almost 100% of these useless details. She always takes time to describe the flowers and bushes in the area where such things are present or the style of a character's clothes and Chabrol never bothers with any of it. Now, a measure of his defiance can be attributed to moving the setting from London in 1989 (when Rendell wrote the book) to France in 2004 (when Chabrol made the film) but it's clear Chabrol has no intention of recognizing any such details even when it might be feasible.

As I mentioned before, the two versions of Phillip couldn't be more different but it's not just him: every character has been altered and re-imagined in some way. His mother Christine goes from being an incompetent dingbat who burns the scalps and clips the ears of the clients in her home hair-dressing salon**** to foxy middle-aged motor-scootin' lady who exudes loveliness and charm and doesn't stink up the house with the smell of rotten eggs while making perms or shrink from even the slightest confrontation. Young sis Cheryl/Patricia goes from an addled punk-rock***** kleptomaniac who is, I shit you not, addicted to gambling on "fruit machines" as a way of connecting with the memory of her deceased gambler father to a dreadlocked sass-mouth who steals electronics with a gang of young thieves. Big sis goes from a dowdy near-spinster with a crass sports-loving lout for a beau to a prim, attractive career gal with a goofy young fiancé who works for city hall. None of these changes are essential and none of them even serve the changes Chabrol and Leccia have made to the mechanics of the plot. He's clearly consciously made the decision to ignore the novel, to avoid Rendell's characterizations of the people involved in the story and the lives they lead. Surprisingly for how different a character she ends up being, Chabrol might have most closely hewed to the fulcrum of the narrative, Senta. She remains an actress inspired by her belief in cosmic forces to demand her lover commit murder and then to commit murder herself. So that's all the same in a way that, say, little sister's umbrella-based clothing thievery and heart-sick slot machine addiction is not as it is in the film. But Chabrol changes everything else about Senta.

First off, look at this crazy description of Senta which comes upon Phillip first seeing her: "She was extraordinary. This wasn't in her height or something startling about the shape of her, for she was shorter than other girls and very slender. Her skin was white but not what other people mean when they talk about white skin - very pale or creamy - but whiter than milk, white as the inner side of some deep sea shell. Her lips were scarcely less pale. He couldn't tell the colour of her eyes, but her hair, which was very long, nearly waist length, straight and smooth, was silver. Not blond, not grey, but silver, with here and there streaks of tarnish on it." What a beauty! Honestly, that description sounds like some kind of cave-dwelling albino sub-human (white lips?), a sickly creature with silver hair? But at least she took the time to not describe her eye colour - thanks for that, Ruth! Later on, she describes Senta's breasts as being massive and her pubic hair as being deep red. I mean...this is just a grotesque description of a lady and points to Rendell's substantial lack of talent describing the physical attributes of people and things, which is unfortunate considering just how much time she wastes doing so. I pictured the omni-sexual demigod Invincible Asia from Swordsman 2 when I read that description, but that gave way to picturing one of the creatures from The Descent. Even now, I have no idea what picture Rendell imagines she has conjured in us. Come on, "whiter than milk?" Think about that - that's sure as shit whiter than a fucking albino. And with hair like tarnished silver as well as blood red pubic hair? This is just nonsense.

But Chabrol senses what Rendell is getting after and clarifies it: when we are first shown former model Laura Smet as Senta dressed in an unflattering bridesmaid's dress, her hair frizzy from the humidity and her chin pointed down to form slight rolls of fat on her neck and emphasize the frogginess of her mouth, she is not beautiful per se but striking. There's something startling in Smet's manner and appearance that's memorable without being beautiful in any meaningful sense of the word. Based on what I've read, I think Rendell overall is interested in the fluid nature of beauty and the ways in which beauty is frequently little more than a projection, but she's not sure-footed enough in her descriptions to pull off her intended thematic feats outright. When Smet drops her robe, she's a sexbomb set off and you know Phillip is blown away. She transforms from weird-looking to hot with that single aggressive gesture. With the book, I pictured Phillip kissing lips paler than an albino's. Whiter than milk. It was gross and unerotic - combined with my image of Senta as some kind of cave-dwelling sub-humanoid thing, Rendell's descriptions of their vigorous love-making made me think of Isabelle Adjani's sex scene in Possession. Smet has a European opacity to her beauty that balances between enticing and impenetrable in a way that's absolutely perfect for the character - she's the siren you've only imagined to have heard sing. She has a modest physique (no gargantuan breasts for her) that can be easily hidden by her clothing as well as a way of pouting and grimacing that can dispel her beauty; her introductory moments play brilliantly with this ability to conceal her gorgeousness. There are times in Rendell's book when this same idea seems to be on the table, but she's such a weak writer that I can't say for certain.

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* I think this might be the first Movie Shelf where the writer hasn't read a dozen or more books by the author being discussed.

** John, any interest in looking up that director's name? I genuinely can't remember - he's the "flip-flops… are funny!" guy. Idiots and assholes love him. You know who I'm talking about.

*** In the film this is only sorta her name. Don't worry, we'll get into it.

*-* Fortunately there are no poems read over the course of the film.

**** I kept picturing Allison Steadman in The Short and Curlies as I read the book.

***** Technically a "suede-head."

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