Thursday, August 14, 2008

Girl interrupted

A Girl Cut in Two is a nasty title for a genteel picture, which IFC Films releases tomorrow. The worst of it happens beneath the surface, as it often does in the thrillers of Claude Chabrol. "Thriller" isn't really the right word; it's more a slightly satiric observation of class differences, with a murder. The 78-year-old Chabrol has been called the "French Hitchcock" (whose 109th birthday would have been yesterday) but with 70 features and TV credits under his belt he's very much his own auteur, making films with a cadre of close relations the way other families plan annual barbecue get-togethers. He co-wrote the script with his stepdaughter and long-time first assistant Cecile Maistre and directed; his wife Aurore supervised the screenplay; his son Thomas co-stars; and his other son, Matthieu, composed the score. DP Eduardo Serra, who as usual supplied the coolly textured cinematography, and male leads Benoit Magimel and Francois Berleand are like blood relatives at this point.

Chabrol has an enviable track record for a foreign filmmaker in the U.S. Because he works in a saleable genre, most of his movies do get at least a modest release here, and if you have IFC Films on Demand on your cable system you don't even have to make an effort to go out and see this one. In his quieter niche I don't think he's ever made a commercial picture like the current French-language arthouse success Tell No One, which is closer to the Hitchcock mold. But there are Chabrols like La Ceremonie and The Bridesmaid, which heighten the suspense, and there is Girl, whose twists are entirely, and intentionally, familiar. If you look up the Evelyn Nesbit/Stanford White case on Wikipedia, you have the storyline for this one, and the new movie takes its cue from Richard Fleischer's 1955 movie about the crime-of-the-turn-of-the-last-century saga, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

Here, the girl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), works as a TV weatherperson. The White character, Charles (Berleand), is a jaded novelist, married, much older, who is attracted to Gabrielle's lack of guile--and her willingness to go with his flow and enact his kinky scenarios (implied more than shown, though Sagnier does more with a large feather than dust with it). Charles keeps his dark side under wraps; it spills right out of Paul (Magimel), the spoiled heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune, who is irked by Gabrielle's attraction to her sunset years lover. The two men, one charmingly but irreedemably cynical and the other attractive but hopelessly schizophrenic, pull her in different directions. Homicide clouds the picture for the plucky weathergirl, as a front of old money represented by Paul's frosty mother (played by Caroline Silhol) moves in to tidy up the mess.

A Girl Cut in Two is full of false fronts, right up to the final image, a nod to Lola Montes (released the same year, coincidentally, as the Fleischer picture). Only Gabrielle is exactly what she appears to be, an ideal template for a mediagenic age--but what that is remains a private mystery. (The appealing Sagnier has appeared in numerous homegrown films, like Francois Ozon's hits Eight Women and Swimming Pool, but Chabrol sparked to her as the cute Tinkerbell in the recent Hollywood Peter Pan.) Her co-stars give expert performances as unknowable, if somehow likable, men; Magimel's Paul (pictured, with Sagnier) is so confused he can't even decide on a hair color. Also in the cast is Mathilda May, the delectable vampiress of 1985's Lifeforce, whose very presence adds a note of perversity to the film without her having to do much to reinforce it. Nothing is pushed, it's a notably chaste picture, reasonably faithful to the century-old case but at a discreet distance from the sensationalism of our own era, and likely to strike an audience primed for more as detached. But that cautious remove is part of the Chabrol bloodline.

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