La femme infidele
There is something mellifluous and calm about Claude Chabrol's La femme infidele, and a quality found not at all in the director's work as a whole, but central to three great films from his middle-period, Les Biches, La femme infidele and Le Boucher as well as partly evident in the slightly later Wedding in Blood. It is as if Chabrol has conquered plot, managing to make thrillers devoid of both suspense and surprise, without removing from the genre its fascination. Indeed, he may have increased it. "Although I make plenty of thrillers, I am not really interested in plot. What I am interested in is the mystery, the intrinsic mystery of the characters" (Positif) Here we have a long-married couple with just one son living in a very sumptuous house somewhere near Versailles, around 17 kilometres from Paris. Paul Desvallees (Michel Bouquet) works in the city centre; Helene is stuck on the outskirts, reliant on occasional buses and lifts in from Paul. She doesn't seem to possess a driving license since the price of a car wouldn't appear to be an issue, and we see Paul's mother drive off in a very sporty one near the beginning the film. The mother appears to have more energy than her son, and comments on the fact that he needs to do more exercise. Helene couldn't do much more to improve herself, and Chabrol films his real-life wife with the wonder of a lucky man who sees the complacency in Paul's attitude. Audran, with her perfect posture, clear skin and assured neck looks like she does indeed get enough exercise, as though a regular practitioner of the yoga we see her doing a year later in Le boucher. These might seem shallow observations we are making, but Chabrol at his best has always been a fine director of the superficial depths, asking us to observe carefully the mores of his character to understand the nature of their minds. It is true that some of his later fims, where Isabelle Huppert replaced Audran as his regular muse, became more complicated, offering a gap between what we can see and what Huppert discloses, but if his very finest work takes place during this period, it rests on the way he asks us less to understand the profundity of the psychological than the inevitability of the sociological.
It is often said that no director leaves things to chance, that everything we watch in a film has been put there for a reason, but often we sense that the reason isn't deeply imbedded in the film, even if it is clearly reflective of the character. We feel that the relationship has been chiefly between the set designer and the actor: a variation on the old saying "what is my motivation?" as "what is my set design?" We could easily imagine an actor saying to a set designer that they wouldn't believe their character would have a Blondie poster on their wall but one from the Cure instead; that they would have Habitat furniture rather than Ikea. But Chabrol is a director who knows that mise-en-scene is thematic unity: that the car someone drives, the paintings on their wall, the house they live in and the food they eat not only reflects them but also defines them. Of course, advertising has made very good money out of turning the former into the latter, insisting that what we wear, what we drive and what we phone on is not a minor aspect of character, but a defining element of one's personality. A reflection suggests no more than an appearance of comfort, a definition a strong proof of it. The latter is metonymically significant: it is a small part that signifies a much larger whole. This is what the National Bureau of Economic Research discovered: "knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016. Back in 1970, not long after La femme infidele came out, Jean Baudrillard noted that "there are no limits to man's 'needs' as a social being...The quantitative intake of food is limited, the digestive system is limited, but the cultural system of food, for its part is indefinite. And it is, moreover, a relatively contingent system. The strategic value of advertising - and also its trick - is precisely this: that it targets everyone in .their relation to others." Apple did this wonderfully.
Yet we want to suggest that though Chabrol is as interested in the metonymy of material definition as the advertising industry, this doesn't mean he fall prey to the same demands. His purpose seems instead to counter it perversely. To suggest that though the Desvallees are materially very comfortable, it is by shifting the notion of relation to others, from materialism to adultery, that Chabrol finds out of his glacial surface a shocking depth, and thus counters the relationally materialistic that is nevertheless vital to his work, just as it is to advertising. We can think here of the shot of the Mercedes convertible the mother drives. Initially, when she gets into the car we see the vehicle partially; it is only when Charles comes back out of the house with the glasses she forgot that we see the car from the front and notice it is a Mercedes hatchback. Charles himself also drives a white Mercedes but a less sporty model, clearly signifying in filmic terms the stuffiness of his character, but in material terms indicating the comfort he possesses. Like, the house, the car defines him but it does so in a manner that Chabrol wants to critique. He may be the man he might always have wished to have become, but this is the advertising self that Baudrillard invokes. But what if the self one wishes to become has another side to it: one that insists not in competing with others for material self-definition, but more fundamentally, realizing that one must murder another man?
This is where the film casually, more or less unsuspensefully, shifts from exploring the material accoutrements of a life, to the essence of life itself. At a certain point the relations with others is no longer simply a metonymic one, but instead a primal demand. Chabrol shows this well in a sequence that could appear on thriller terms to be over-extended. After hiring a detective and discovering his wife's been having an affair, Charles makes his way to the other man's apartment and finds himself invited in. The impression he gives is that he is unperturbed by the affair, and during Charles visit, the other man, Victor (Maurice Ronet) becomes more and more confessional and complicit with Charles. He tells him Helene is tender and gentle, but he also answers simple questions that indicate Charles is the 'better man'. Charles asks how many rooms he has in the city apartment: "it's not very big, there's the living room, small bedroom, a really fine bathroom. Then there's a kitchen, cupboards, a closet." He then offers to show Charles the rest of the flat, including of course the bedroom that Victor and Helene had shared time in. Just after this Charles starts to feel unwell, he says, and a moment after that he starts striking Victor with a small, no doubt heavy statue, he picks up from the sideboard. "You look awful" Victor says just before Charles succumbs to the deed, and we might be reminded of his mother's comment early on suggesting he take some exercise. Charles on that occasion responded by saying "don't undermine my authority" and he could have said something similar this time too. But the undermining of his authority has moved from the societal to the primal, from a man who is comfortable with a lifestyle that he feels cannot entertain any changes to his habits, to one in which he becomes a murderer. It is as if this lengthy, fourteen-minute sequence in the apartment takes so long because Charles is working out what his status in the situation happens to be, initially trying to retain his claim on his wife by indicating that he has no problem with her having an affair.
Throughout this sequence, we might be wondering if and when Charles will have had enough, with Chabrol playing for time all the better to find the balance required between Charles' need to compete and the need to kill. At one moment in Victor's bedroom, Charles sits on the bed and plays with a lighter so big that it loses its status as a material object and looks like a potential murder weapon. It had belonged to Charles before; Helene gave it to Victor reckoning, Victor says, that Charles had forgotten about its existence. Charles fiddles around with it as the camera tilts down from his face and focuses on his midriff as his hands grip the lighter as we might wonder if he will soon be gripping Victor's neck. The entire, lengthy sequence is a very fine example of Chabrol's ambivalence towards the thriller that all the better releases the contrast between the world of things and the world of people. In the thriller the emphasis is on the world of people, however ruthless, cold and manipulative the character and narrative happen to be. This is partly why, "broadly speaking, both Singer and Neale [writers on genre] have found that 'melodrama' meant 'thriller', and hence was used principally to describe and to label crime films, adventure films, war films..." (The Cinema Book) Chabrol's de-melodramatization works perhaps as an extension of Hitchcock's interest in what Peter Wollen, writing on the gaze in cinema, and paying some attention to Hitchcock, sees as a Hegelian aspect to film that could be especially useful in understanding what Chabrol does with the thriller. Here Wollen quotes Alexander Kojeve on Hegel. "In the relationship between man and woman, for example, desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the desire of the other . . . that is to say, if he wants to be 'desired' or 'loved' or, rather, 'recognized' in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. Likewise desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is 'mediated' by the desire of another directed towards the same object; it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it." "Thus", Kojoeve, notes, " an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (such as a medal or the enemy's flag) can be desired because it is the object of other desires. Such a desire can only be a human desire, and human reality, as distinguished from animal reality, is created only by action that satisfies such desires: human history is the history of desired desires. Wollen reckons, In the beginning, then, desire is always competitive. In the last analysis it implies the possibility of struggle and, inevitably, the risk of death. (New Left Review)
The point of the melodramatic thriller is to emphasise the subjects not the objects. The suspense in the thriller resides in the tussle between these subjects, even if in many of the best of them an object is central to that tussle. Let us imagine how a solid thriller would use that lighter: wouldn't it be either an object of revelation or aggression? Wouldn't it make our central character realize his wife is having an affair and/or be used to attack his wife's lover with it? Chabrol chooses to do nothing with it narratively, as though interested less in the suspense the device can generate, than the tension between subjects and objects. At this moment it would seem the husband can no longer mediate between the accoutrements of his life and the nature of his feelings. He can up until this point perhaps convince himself that he is the superior man, the one with the large house in the upmarket outskirts, rather than a relatively cramped apartment in the city centre. We have seen he has the power very quickly and effectively to find out who the lover happens to be and where he lives. He can corner him in the lover's space and bombard him with questions. He can pretend that he knew all along that his wife had a lover and present himself as a man of the world. But the object defeats him. This lighter has passed from one man to the other just as Helene has passed from Charles to Victor. The field of meaning has been disturbed and so consequently Charles has been too. He must kill his man.
Partly why Chabrol's best films are full of tension yet contain little suspense lies in this inexorable logic that shows how characters negotiate life to protect them from its reality, only for us wait for that moment in which reality intrudes, and often with murder. The bourgeoisie are the way I show them in my movies, neither bad nor good. They make me laugh. Quite honestly and objectively they never were a hundred percent nice. Because they are scared of living. That's what makes them how they are. They fear the real life. (The Talk) Much of the irony in a Chabrol film rests on this question, a feat that is close to the timidity and tenaciousness of habit. At the end of Wedding In Blood, after the couple have murdered their respective spouses while maintaining their bourgeois lives, the detective wonders why they didn't just leave their spouses and set up life elsewhere. We hadn't thought of that, they reply. What Chabrol calls real life and the bourgeoisie's lack of it is a bigger problem than the bourgeosie, but they exemplify it. When Kojeve says it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it this resembles Milan Kundera's claim in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.: women don't look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women. Our point is that this is a widespread issue of indirectness: the inability to see ourselves or others without passing through an intermediate perception of ourselves and others. We needn't get too involved in the philosophical implications of such an idea (that would pass through Kant and lead us to structuralism), but to see how Chabrol's interest in it leads to films that manage to create tension without suspense.
What this means is that the tension resides within characters while suspense resides in situations. This might seem like we are contradicting our earlier claim when we insisted that objects were more important than subjects in his work, but this is not the subject as plot device, but character in relation to the importance of objects as explored by Kojeve/Wollen. When Chabrol says he isn't interested in plot but the intrinsic mystery of character, this manifests itself in trying to lay out the logic of the individual: what will make this person crack? Part of this is chemistry. I take an important characteristic that determines the character...and try to monitor its development in relation to others. It's chemistry, really. A chemistry of affinity. (Positif) But in La femme infidele we see how that chemistry of affinity passes through material items, and especially the lighter. The mystery to La femme infidele is the logic of Charles' personality. How can Chabrol turn this mild-mannered, sober and complacent man into a murderer? This covers the first two-thirds of the film. The last third asks how can his wife logically fall in love with him again even if he is obviously responsible for killing her lover? Thus what matters to Chabrol isn't the logic of the story, but the logic of the individuals within that story. Charles we find after an hour is capable of murder, but is Helene capable of loving the man who killed her lover, who happens to be her husband? Chabrol's purpose is to make that plausible, not suspenseful. Sure, there is the sequence where Charles crashes the car with Vincent's body in the boot. There is suspense to be had, but no more so than irony and critique. Throughout the sequence, Chabrol has learned from his Hitchcock (he co-wrote a book on the director with Eric Rohmer) as a minor traffic demeanour could lead to the revelation of Vincent's murder. Crashing into a van, the van driver (played by Chabrol regular Dominique Zardi) insists on taking the incident seriously and involving the police. Crowds gather and the police arrive. There the body is in the boot; will the police discover it? But there is nothing like the bad luck of an accident to bring about the propitious. The driver has rammed up against Charles' boot and it won't open. Chabrol opts for irony over suspense here as he dwells only for a couple of seconds on the cop trying to open the boot and instead leaves us musing over Charles' mixed fortunes. But there is the sense of fortune as well when we see the crowds gathering and the wealthy, uptight, usually upstanding and now up to his neck in trouble bourgeois just wishing to get back in his Mercedes and drive off. This is the political Chabrol at work as Charles hisses like a man of entitlement within the dread of his crime being discovered. We may identify with his plight but that isn't the same thing as siding with his predicament. We are with him because he is our central character, the one who has killed a man and diligently tidied up after him, with only the rubbish left to bin. However, this rubbish is another human being, and as Charles looks as if he may be soiled by the company he is momentarily keeping (the van driver is no bourgeois), so we see someone who takes wanting it all to a new level - the bourgeois who really does want to get away with murder.
While we accept there is a ruthless streak in Charles, we may also wonder what streak happens to be in his wife, and we realize it is a perverse one. This is where Chabrol's attention to detail and attention to character prove themselves much more important than suspense and plotting. In a typical noir like adaptations of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice we have the emphasis on plot and suspense as we see the lover and wife embark on a passionate affair, kill the husband and see if they can get away with it. It is a common enough noir trope, but Chabriol inverts it not only because he wants to find a fresh approach to a tired story, but that in the inversion he can find the space between habit and the primal. It is not perverse for Helene to take a lover, it is simply immoral within the expectations we have of married life. It reveals her desires but not especially her personality. Yet when Charles comes across the lighter we can see that the affair with Victor may contain within it a revelation of character that we can call perverse. As a general principle any un-natural sexual satisfaction is seen as a perversion (Krafft-Ebing 1886). Actually, perversus is the one who "distorts", and perversitas is the activity of distortion, to upset common ideas. Krafft-Ebing conceives perversion as an act against nature whose effect is the criminal elimination of our organic constitution, Aldo Moroni says, adding, while those, on the other hand, who interpret the same notions in an amoral way give it a new sense of transparency, validity and innocence. ('Laws of Perversion and Hospitality in Pierre Klossowski') Part of the perversion from Helene's point of view is that she wants the maximum amount of desire with the minimum amount of fuss. We have no sense that she wants to leave her husband and change her life. In the scene where we see her in bed with Victor they discuss the newfound fact that he has two kids. They live with their mother, he says, which is for the best. Helene says she couldn't live without her son and that Charles couldn't either. Helene asks the time and Victor says five. She says in a firm tone she must go and immediately gets up and starts dressing. Victor may believe that he is an escape from Helene's conservative life - that he is the lover on the side - but by the end of the film we might be more inclined to see him as the exemplification of that bourgeois life in the form of perversion. If Charles proves himself capable of murder, Helene performs a more modulated crime: a perverse pleasure in knowing that her husband has almost certainly killed her lover. This might just bring them together even if first of all it will tear them apart. Yet this is too strong an idiomatic expression for how Chabrol ends his film, The police turn up for a third time and we can surmize that they have come on this occasion to arrest him, at least call him in for questioning. Before he goes over to the waiting cops, Charles tells Helene he loves her; Helene responds with a breathless j'taime, and as he leaves Charles says he is crazy about her. The camera remains fixed as he passes along his extensive pathway towards the waiting officers. And the reverse shot reveals it to be more or less from the point of view of Helene, A series of shot/counter-shots make clear a paradoxical distance and closeness: the shots themselves are in close-up and medium close-up though the characters are of course a long distance from each other. Chabrol retain this closeness/distance in the film's closing shot. The camera pulls away from Helene and their son as the director adopts a reverse track/forward zoom that closes the film. Our point however isn't to talk about the impressive form only, but to see how it manages to convey well Charles' passion and Audran's perversion.
Charles we discover is able to kill, and Helene is more than able to love her husband after he has committed murder. The revelation has nothing to do with who the murderer happens to be (as in a whodunnit like The Long Goodbye or The Big Sleep). But nor does it have too much to do with suspense involved when we do know who is responsible but fret over when they will be caught. (The Postman Always Rings Twice; Double Indemnity). The revelation rests much more on who these people happen to be, how well they modulate the problem of habit versus desire. While Charles realises what he is capable of and breaks through the regime of habit to show a murderous impulse, Helene finds that she very much loves her husband as she discovers in herself a perverse instinct. By the end of the film they will know each other a lot better, even if it might be years before they are once again a couple. While Chabrol talks often enough about how absurd he finds the bourgeoisie, the film is interesting partly because he doesn't judge his characters too harshly but instead muses over them almost fondly. They have come to know themselves, so that Charles trying to get away with murder, so to speak, in the scene when the van crashes into him, is replaced by what looks like the serene acceptance that he won't. His wife sees that she loves more than the lifestyle he has given her, even if it has taken the removal of another man's life for her to see it. She can now desire the man she always wanted to be with and the camera pushing in and pulling out simultaneously captures not so much her ambivalence as her perverse certitude. This is exactly what she wants from life the moment it might be removed.
Though Chabrol has made more obviously political films - Nada for example focuses on a radical organization kidnapping an American ambassador that echoed the political organizations of the time, like the Red Brigades, ETA, the IRA and the Red Army Faction - usually the director's political sense is less direct, even if it manifests itself in the murderous. One think especially of La ceremonie where Isabelle Huppert's postwoman and Sandrine Bonnaire's maid slaughter a haut bourgeois family in Britanny. However, La femme infidele is political in the most perverse sense, taking into account the line at the end of Wedding in Blood. The couple there couldn't think of changing their life; in La femme infidele the couple needs a reconfiguration of their situation to see the love they have for each other. Chabrol's irony is that it is done yet again through murder, as though death is the reality that habit masks. Chabrol's politics consists so often in wondering how this could be otherwise. If the assumption in working-class life is that the proletariat must revolt to find for themselves a better existence, to escape the habitually oppressed life that demands radical change, in Chabrol's work the bourgeoisie must murder to acknowledge the staleness of theirs, or get murdered by others before understanding the resentment evident. I remember an article, Chabrol says, I can't recall who by, it was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which said that now the Wall was down, there could be no more class war. Only someone with money could ever say such a thing. Ask the lower orders if class war can ever end!(Positif) How can it end if the haves have on the basis of a material identity they wish for others to have only in a much more debased form? We might think it easier to imagine Charles locked up in a cell than to see he and his family living in a cramped council flat in the suburbs of Paris. If this is the case, then it gives us some idea of how difficult it would be for Charles and Helene to imagine a life for themselves outside of the privileges they enjoy. It is why we have focused so much on the materially habitual and the existentially real: to say that often this reality can only be seen in extremis. Thus Chabrol isn't interested in murder as a means of generating plot but to delineate social limits: to say that it is easier to show the wealthy murderous rather than compromising.
Charles is not so much greedy, as caught in a structure of self that is not at all based on necessity but on definition. Baudrillard is right to say that our bodily needs are limited but our egoistic demands unquenchable. Chabrol's purpose is to illustrate how a man can be pushed to the end of his tether partly by the tethering that is his social status. Charles is a murderer made out of the society in which he belongs in a manner quite distinct from the one who has the mitigating circumstances of a terrible upbringing, poor education and what the racially motivated would regard as poor genes. Charles is the calibrated killer whose act of murder is consistent with his life of snobbery. If he could have controlled the structure of power he may not have needed to kill Victor. If he had not found the lighter he could perhaps have convinced himself that the complicity remained between he and his wife and not his wife and her lover. This, of course, has nothing to do with the lighter as an object but with the connotative value of it for each of the three subjects involved in the love triangle. It is the emotional equivalent of a revelation and shows just how interested Chabrol is in the nuance of perception. This is the sort of object that in a more conventional thriller would 'prove' something: the giveaway detail that indicates an affair has taken place, a murder has been committed: the sort of detail vital to the detective's investigation. (Chabrol would use the question of a lighter and its emotional/deductive potential again in Le Boucher.) Chabrol uses it to trigger in Charles the question of ownership, to see that for Charles he has lost his wife because he has lost his lighter. In an ever more precarious world of subjects and objects, where self is predicated on things (and perhaps always has been, just now ever more so - taking into account Kojeve and Baudrillard - then what we need are examinations of selfhood as a criminal endeavour. By the end of the film Charles has got his equilibrium back: he owns all he surveys. But another man is dead and prison is likely to beckon. Yet this would seem to be a small price to pay for a missing lighter. One offers this facetiously, but Chabrol's skill as a filmmaker lies in understanding that underneath this facetiousness there is an entire world of subject/object relations inevitable because the human has consciousness, and fights not only for material survival. Most of these battles will be sublimated in various ways, but Chabrol wonders what happens if that sublimation fails, if the Charleses of this world cannot find a way to retain their ownership of the objects in their lives and find in themselves a primal reality. Chabrol manages to show to us the failure of sublimation; how murder surfaces out of the primordial depths alluded to in Le boucher, where he focuses on the Cro-Magnon cave paintings vital to the region in which the film is set. In La femme infidele he shows us that there is in Charles no lack of love (for his wife) nor an excess of hate (for the victim); as though the situation could have so easily been very different if only Charles and Helene hadn't lived quite so far out of town. It is this sense of shallowness colliding with the depths that make Chabrol a mystifying yet satisfying director of the thriller.
© Tony McKibbin