Directors as proficient and prolific as Claude Chabrol can be maddening. As with Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom, or Takashi Miike, it's tempting to wish that Chabrol waited for true inspiration (or at least better scripts) before dusting off his director's chair. On the other hand, a willingness to work may be what makes him great. If he finishes with the same handful of masterpieces as Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, does it really matter that he filled in the gaps with borderline hackwork?
The latest three entries in an ongoing series of Chabrol DVDs come from an era when the director was regaining his footing. Chabrol's string of post-New Wave classics from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s had faded to rumor by the time he whipped up 1987's Masques, a low-ambition, high-entertainment take on a TV star's venality. Chabrol followed that immediately with 1988's Story Of Women, a high-toned historical drama that restored his international reputation. His greatest subsequent success has been La Cérémonie, a 1995 suspense film that doubles as an exposé of bourgeois fear.
All three films possess a slick, dynamic style, well-explicated on one of Story Of Women's DVD featurettes, where Chabrol breaks down the reasons behind his framing choices. Even the low-to-the-ground Masques employs an artful moving camera to tell its story of a blustery game-show host (Philippe Noiret) and the reporter (Robin Renucci) who dogs him with rumors of missing young girls. Tonally, Masques rests about on the level of a darkly comic TV mystery—more Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Alfred Hitchcock—but Noiret elevates the material with his swaggering performance. Story Of Women shows more reserve, even though its tale of a working-class abortionist in WWII is inherently gamy. Isabelle Huppert plays the amateur doctor, who gets rich in occupied France by providing her services to overburdened housewives and prostitutes. Story Of Women contains a potent gender critique, given that Huppert's venality makes her as suspect as the paternal power structure that shuts her down, and the film subtly examines how people excuse amorality by claiming a higher purpose.
The same theme runs beneath Chabrol's late-period masterpiece La Cérémonie, about a vacant maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) and the upper-class family that wants her to be happy so she can make them happy. Huppert returns as a bitter postal clerk who prods Bonnaire to assert herself, with bloody consequences. The title comes from an old French expression for the march to the guillotine, but it also describes the games that servants and masters play. Bonnaire disrupts the already-awkward circumstance of a live-in employee by behaving like Herman Melville's Bartleby, so blank that her exploitation becomes painfully obvious.
Chabrol's point of view remains consistent enough that any of these titles could suit any of these films. All in some way address the rituals of rubbing up against a life of privilege, and how feelings of arrogance and selfishness fester on all class levels. Noiret sums up Chabrol's sensibility superbly in Masques, when his character freaks out and flings a parakeet out a window. After taking a deep breath, he explains, "It was the bird or me."