28 February, 2008

Claude Chabrol's LA RUPTURE (1970)

The balloon man at the site of the psychedelic climax of LA RUPTURE.

"What an utter darkness suddenly surrounds me!" from PHAEDRA by Jean Racine

Darkness is not only visible in Claude Chabrol's LA RUPTURE, it's the seemingly normal state of being in the land of the European bourgeoisie... yes, it's the bourgeoisie again.

The camera is pressed up against the bark of a tree in a middle class area of Brussels, a quick movement to the right reveals the modest house in which Helene (Stephane Audran) and her family live. A scene of appalling domestic violence which develops with very disturbing rapidity leaves Helene's young son with a severe head trauma. She proceeds to beat the child's assailant, her troubled husband, senseless with an iron skillet. A sudden bloodbath in a neat kitchen. As Helene rushes the boy to the hospital, the camera is directed out the car's window recording the quiet, ordered streets and tranquil vistas of Brussels, a quaint, elegant city which is cleverly used as the ironic stage for this increasingly unhinged melodrama.

Ludovic Reigner, the wealthy and powerful father of Helene's husband, hires a sleazy agent (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to prevent Helene from taking the boy away from her husband's family. Michel Bouquet delivers one of his subtly menacing performances (cf LA FEMME INFIDELE) as Reigner, who seems to want to destroy his daughter-in-law as much for her past as a stripper on top of the fact that she's from a "lower" social class. The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. In fact, this pitch black comedy of manners very much anticipates that Luis Bunuel film as well as certain aspects of Kubrick's THE SHINING.

It's really tempting to describe what happens in terms of outrageous plot points throughout but in the end the fascination which LA RUPTURE manages to exert is due to its style, which is is unnervingly unpredictable, bordering on surrealism at times, theatre of cruelty, subtle, poetic and finally completely over the top in the final reel in which Helene is given a psychedelic drug for breakfast by the ruthless agent who wants to prove to the world she's a drug addict as well as sexually dangerous woman. She goes out and re-images the world while her reality is brutally exterminated. Paul, the amoral fixer, seems to redefine evil as a laugh riot in which his level of fun is as important as the incredibly complicated web he spins for Helene. He and his girlfriend just want to have fun as they move on up into the next social class. The fact that he destroys lives doesn't seem to be a problem for him. It's just something he does remarkably well.

Paul's incrementally revealed evil makes us reconsider the husband's madness and violence which is demonstrated in the precredits sequence. LA RUPTURE is about, among other things, the dangers of moral relativism in the modern world, specifically in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And the perhaps equal dangers of moral rigidity. There are only victims and predators in Chabrol's worldview and a possibility of redemption which nevertheless is often undone by cowardice, brain chemistry and that most clever card player, Fate.

In the end LA RUPTURE is not really about Helene's personal hell as much as it is about the negative capacity of the desperate souls who desire her destruction. Helene is destroyed but so is Ludovic, who has generated the action against her. The final horrifying (is it a horror film?) tableau redefines the meaning of "family." All that's left are the balloons hovering in the sky, a pastel canvas over hell on earth. There's even a classical chorus of well dressed crones to witness the descent. The fixer Paul evokes Macbeth in his final bloody fury and seems to disappear into a mirror at the end (cf Chabrol's elusive 1977 ALICE). Transgressive (one scene cannot be described here), pitiless, brutal, unpredictable and finally moving, LA RUPTURE is worth seeking out for adventurous viewers. Be warned, it's not a pleasant film to watch.

Chabrol had directed three masterful thrillers which made his name in the late 60s, LES BICHES (1968), LA FEMME INFIDELE (1969) and LE BOUCHER (1969), the last is, in my opinion, a masterwork. Even Pauline Kael, who rejected Chabrol's subtly finessed style, acknowledged him as a master. The director of LE BEAU SERBE (1958), the first feature film of the French Nouvelle Vague, he had been a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema and was one of the founders of the auteur theory (along with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) and published a study of Hitchcock nearly a decade before Truffaut's book on the great director. But one doesn't want to take the Chabrol-Hitchcock connection too far. His career has been quite uneven and he's probably made too many ill-considered films. Besides the above mentioned titles, I would also recommend NADA (1974), the early A DOUBLE TOUR (1960) and would love to locate ALICE. He also made several Eurospy romps with titles like MARIE CHANTAL CONTRA DR. KHA!

Adapted from Charlotte Armstrong's THE BALLOON MAN, the Chabrol who directed LA RUPTURE was near the top of his form. It's pulp fiction reborn as tragedy amidst Eurotrash. The most memorable sequence is perhaps Helene's tram ride through Brussels, a sad, beautiful journey which is exquisitely defined by Jean Rabier's delicate palette and sensitive film editing. Pierre Jansen's score evokes certain Bartok and Schoenberg string quartets and provides an uneasy, somewhat atonal sound environment. Stephane Audran (although probably miscast) gives a courageous performance as the prey while Cassel seems to perfectly understand the nature of the beast he is playing, a force who cuts through all social classes; an amused, self satisfied agent of destruction who thoroughly enjoys blackmail, kidnapping, slander, sexual perversion and getting well paid for conceiving nasty plots.

Fans of the 1971 Belgian vampire film DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS will notice the director of that film, Harry Kumel, in the small role of a suspicious taxi driver.

[Note that the 2003 PATHFINDER DVD has some minor print damage, doesn't really adequately reproduce the film's unique color schemes and appears to be nearly 5 minutes shorter than the reported uncut run time of 125m-. I've seen the film in 35mm and it's a much more eye-drugging experience than suggested by the DVD.]

(C) Robert Monell, 2008


Adam W. said...

Great review, Bob. Chabrol is the master at exploring the evil under the surface of ordinary life. LA RUPTURE is probably the strangest of his mid-career classics. The opening scene of violence is a horrific vision of domestic life, which might be compared to BLUE VELVET. LE BOUCHER is my favorite Chabrol, but JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT is a close second. In this one, Michel Bouquet unconsciously/accidentally kills his friend's wife during sex. He seeks punishment...well, if you haven't seen this one I won't spoil the rest. It is a hollowing experience.

Robert Monell said...

Thanks so much for your positive feedback, Adam. He is indeed a master of atmosphere and is as adept as Hitchcock and Bunuel in skewering certain social classes. SHADOW OF A DOUBT seems to be a major influence on him. LE BOUCHER is his most disturbing and moving film and for once the characters seem totally real. The Lascaux cave sequences are really chilling and evocative.
I actually saw JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL in a NYC arthouse back in the mid 70s but I would have to refresh my memories of it. Bouquet was the perfect Chabrol guilt ridden protagonist.

cinebeats said...

I've only seen one or two of Chabrol's later films so I'm not very familiar with his work. I really should make an effort to see his early films since they sound fascinating. Thanks for sharing this review Robert! Between you and Jeremy over at Moon in the Gutter, I'll be forced to finally see some later Chabrol films sooner or later.

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your comment, Cinebeats. The later films are out in a boxset but I have only seen this one. I would recommend LE BOUCHER as a great place to start. I much prefer his 60s and 70s work to his later ones.