It is true, the cover is rather ugly. Even too ugly. It is only just about that Claude Chabrol’s face, drawn as a man-fish, are recognizable swimming in a fishbowl. Strange metaphor. Curious idea, while it would have been so much simpler, and, doubtlessly, more effective, to illustrate the cover of the book Claude Chabrol, Par lui-même et Par Les Siens which has just appeared from the publisher Stock with a recent photo of the filmmaker.
The book was begun during Chabrol’s life by Michel Pascal. The latter did not permit his name to be listed on the cover even though he was the originator of the book. It was, he writes in his preface, it was right after the death of Eric Rohmer, on January 11, 2010 that Chabrol finally made up his mind to undertake the dialogue with a view towards publication. “What about me telling you the my real life story?” he said to him. To read this book, which is easily read and not with emotion, one wonders, was Chabrol getting himself ready for an autobiography? are the things, or aspects of his life that we are unmindful of? did he not, himself prefer his labor, his films, his body of work, to his own life? I thought that I pretty much knew everything about the man, only son of a bourgeois family, his father a pharmacist and a member of the Resistance, his severe, authoritarian mother who kept her son at a distance, and vice versa. “I was not enamoured of her, as François Truffaut. There was without doubt an issue of affection between us. I loved her at a distance trying to wipe away a tear. Madeleine was her name, and, with her, it was pure Catholicism, the appearance of strictness and honesty, the typical bourgeois of the late 19th century holding herself straight up.”
In his films, Chabrol did not settle the score with his mother, that is not a theme running through his work. The impression is that he settled the business in choosing to become a film director. The rest, the Catholic religion, the bourgeois morality, Paul Gégauff, who was his accomplice and scenarist, (perhaps of Chabrol’s best films, Les Bonnes Femmes, Que la bête meure) but also, in a sort of way, his “brain-washer” played a crucial role in the intellectual evolution of the filmmaker, “Without Gégauff, my personal evolution would have been slower and not as joyful. I. doubtlessly, would have succeeded at the same ends, but with much more difficulty. He blew apart the deadbolt at my Judeo-Christian core. He incarnated the freedom that I did not know how to gain all by myself.” No more beautiful homage.
As opposed to others - for example, Truffaut, often cited in this book -, Chabrol did not make films to tell his life-story. And nevertheless... Reading this book, conceived by Michel Pascal, begun with Chabrol and seen through to its conclusion, beyond the death of the filmmaker last September, with the participation of his family - we will come back to this - helps us to understand better how, in the work of the singular person that Chabrol was, things become interwoven. This is borne out, first off, by the frankness with which Chabrol expresses himself when he summons up his own life, through diverse passages which are as much short chapters recounted with a quick spirit and a great deal of humor. One has the feeling that Chabrol is finally letting the mask fall away, that he is no longer looking, as he had so often done, for refuge in a hearty laughter in order to sidestep the heart of the matter.
What emerges, and those who like his films - which I do, while appreciating the human qualities of the man - already know are two things. An unbelievable intelligence in its strategy of the most sophisticated mechanisms that are able to animate the human being, with their defenses, their fears, their buried desires, and also, a taste for joy. The intelligence is something readily shared among filmmakers of Chabrol’s caliber. As for joy, that’s something else. Can it be said that Godard has a taste for joy? I do not believe so. Truffaut? That’s complicated, Truffaut liked his work, his independence, but he bore on his frail shoulders all the worry of the world. Chabrol had a unbelievable capacity for reasoning, for making his sense of logic understood. He quickly found his point of equilibrium, between a relatively stable private life, that of a loving father of a family surrounded by his own, and a rigorous management of his work. Chabrol, speaking of his vision of the world: “My vision of the world was forged between 1955 and 1964, after my military service. I began by noting the bullshit around, I had true radar. I was in the clutches of a frightening spiral of events for I realized the errors being committed by people who had the same opinions as I...” The most important question regarding Chabrol is, how did he conceive this absolutely unique strategy, so different from that of his “New Wave” friends, of “making films ‘theme and variation’”. He tells Michel Pascal, “a pre-meditated act”. And he applied himself, without ever a deviation, making compromises from time to time, but without abandoning the essential: the joy of making these films, films that he choose to undertake. “There is nothing abject in venturing into all fields. I do not see why filmmakers could not be like painters who have the right to make bad canvasses, if only to deepen their art. I am not like Truffaut who wished that all of his films were equals among each other, and who was successful in that way. I wanted to film, whatever happened.”
When you understand that in his work, the taste for joy is the fundamental core, the cornerstone which pulls in all the rest, things follow naturally. Chabrol shot film after film, preserving intact in it his sense of the provocative, a logical rigor, worthy of that of a chess player, in the construction of his mise-en-scene, a continuing and replenished pleasure of exploring the Human Comedy (Balzac, Simenon). He lived a an orderly life, in turn with three women, each of whom will bear witness with intelligence and generosity in the work: Agnès Goute, his first wife, the mother of Jean-Yves and Matthieu, Stéphane Audran, the mother of Thomas, and Aurore, with whom Chabrol lived for more than thirty years, his associate and script supervisor, the mother of Cécile, who was adopted by Chabrol as his own daughter and was his assistant director.
Chabrol, in the last chapter of his remarks, evokes his wanderings. The word is new in his language, you suddenly sense in him something like fatigue - he had just passed the age of 80 -, the fear of running out of steam, of no longer being in a physical situation to make films. The last interview with Michel Pascal dates from August 2010. The man no longer has all of his robustness, he says things very gentle, and deserved, about Gérard Depardieu, with whom the meeting was late but happy (Bellamy). And Chabrol concludes thusly, “Such that they will give me three pennies and a little bit of so that I can show my wanderings, I will continue.”
Aurore Chabrol recounts her encounter with Chabrol at the beginning of the 70s (Juste avant la nuit, a masterpiece). Her testimonial. as those of others who figure in the book (Agnès Goute, Stéphane Audran, Jean-Yves Chabrol, Matthieu Chabrol, Cécile Maistre and Isabelle Huppert) is touching, most sincere and of course, intimate. But it is also in the image of the person, that is to say, droll: “I spiffed him up with nicknames that he more or less appreciated. His favorites were Hercule Poivrot, and the Ayatollah Khomédy. He lived happily, extolling the revolution but detesting the conflicts, forgiving the fly-by-night characters whose laziness or acquiescence he was a victim of... He was an egoist with a heart of gold. And rare were those who succeeded in paying a restaurant tab in his presence. He didn’t lend, he gave.“
To read this books is assuredly to spend some time in private with Chabrol, with him and those close to him, Which permits us to better know this man who spent part of his time making us believe that he was keeping his secrets. The other part of his time, he spent doing his work, a veritable œuvre, to help us better understand human reality.
Claude Chabrol, Par lui-même et par les siens, avec Michel Pascal ; Stock.
Claude Chabrol intime published on Le Blog de Serge Toubiana