Claude Chabrol: Masques, Story of Women, and La Cérémonie
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Born in 1930, director Claude Chabrol has made films at a staggering rate, with as many as three releases in a single year. Now with over 60 films to his credit, Chabrol's pace hasn't slowed. Almost every year you can expect a film from Chabrol. At this point in his career, you might expect Chabrol to be coasting on his previous successes and repeating past themes, but nothing could be further from the truth. While his name might be most closely aligned with thrillers, this hasn't stopped him from attempting a brutally frank character story, Story of Women (1988), or a shocking portrait of isolation and friendship that turns to murder, La Cérémonie (1995). While he might settle down every now and then to turn out a familiar thriller, such as Masques (1987), he still imbues his genre films with rich characterizations and intriguing developments.

Back in the late '50s, when the French new wave was established with directors such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Chabrol was arguably the most conventional of the lot, but over four decades later, his résumé is one of the most impressive in all of French cinema.

Home Vision Entertainment has now made available three choice films from Chabrol's past two decades: Masques (1987), Story of Women (1988), and La Cérémonie (1995).


Masques is the slightest movie in this salvo of Chabrol titles from Home Vision. It is largely a conventional thriller, somewhat in the tradition of Sleuth, which means it contains plenty of plot twists. Philippe Noiret stars as TV personality Christian Legagneur, who hosts a game show where he fawns over the guests. On the air, he's kind and charming—loved by everyone. But is he the same man away from the camera? Robin Renucci stars as a young man searching for his sister. Her last known address was Legagneur's estate in the country. Renucci arrives under the guise of a reporter named Roland Wolf, who plans to interview Legagneur for a magazine article. Legagneur graciously offers to provide room and board for Wolf at his estate. This situation sets up a cat-and-mouse game, as Wolf tries to help a young woman also staying with Legagneur (and possibly in a situation similar to Wolf's sister).

The simplicity of the scenario actually works against the scenario because there are largely just two possibilities: 1) Wolf is right and Legagneur is a murderer or 2) Wolf is wrong and Legagneur is as gracious and charming as he appears and has nothing to do with the disappearance of Wolf's sister. A clever film might have surprised us by uncovering additional possibilities, but while Masques does provide a few surprises, these surprises don't involve the basic plot premise. With this limited vision goes much of the movie's limited appeal. The setup is great. We cringe as Wolf insinuates himself at Legagneur's home and experiences the too-wonderfull-to-be-believed Legagneur in the flesh. And we cringe as Wolf attempts to help extricate Catherine (Anne Brochet) from Legagneur's home. But here Chabrol is trapped by the thriller format. When he drops the pretense and reveals Legagneur's true nature, the movie must then continue on the power of the characterizations, but the characters are too slight and the movie falters. This movie is minor Chabrol.

 Story of Women

With Story of Women, Chabrol broke away from the thriller genre entirely. Here, he crafted a frank and somber story about a mother who struggles to deal with the absence of her husband during WWII. While he's away in battle, Marie (Isabelle Huppert) must raise the children on her own. She must struggle for whatever money she can get. When she strikes up a friendship with a prostitute, she starts thinking about ways that she can profit from the friendship, and profit she does. She rents out a room to the prostitute and takes a cut of the profits. It's a pretty good setup, and soon she's making out rather well. At long last, she can supply her children with fine clothing and luxurious meals.

Story of Women isn't necessarily easy to take. When Marie's husband returns from battle, shell shocked and unemployable, she shows no sympathy for his situation. She won't let him touch her. Meanwhile, she begins spending several hours each week with a dashing young man, who just happens to be an informer for the Nazis. Huppert sees nothing wrong with this. She is excited by her lover's charm, good looks, and power. In effect, he's everything her husband is not.

I suppose the movie's title is meant to align the movie with the fate that has awaited many women throughout the ages: women have been forced to raise children and provide for them, while men were away at work or combat. Huppert's reaction to this situation is anything but conventional (so "the story of women" title becomes somewhat ironic).

While watching Huppert, it's a challenge to not dislike her. Her life becomes hedonistic while her poor schmuck husband, who seems to be a nice guy, gets our sympathies. It might be hard to empathize with the choices that she makes, but she is capable of living the type of life that she wants to live. She kicks free of her spiraling role as a mother, where just putting food on the table each day was a struggle. She improves the lives of her children and provides for her husband in a way that she could never have done before. The alternative was utter poverty, hungry children, and a husband who only served as a further drain on the family's meager resources. She adopts the traditional male role, while confining her demasculinized husband to the female role (much to his chagrin).

Isabelle Huppert is superb. She won a Best Actress award at Cannes for Story of Women. Her uncompromising performance shows many facets of Marie. With her husband, Marie is cold and impersonal. With her children, she's sullen. With her prostitute friends, she's happy. With her Nazi-sympathizer boyfriend, she's ecstatic. Huppert makes these various facets of the same character convincing and compelling. Whether or not you like her, Marie becomes a fascinating character.

 La Cérémonie

While Masques is all thriller and Story of Women is all character study, La Cérémonie comes down somewhere in between, mixing elements of both types of films in a powerful and shocking display of unusual characters and brutal violence. La Cérémonie may very well be one of the best movies of Chabrol's career. It places the thriller and mystery elements of the story within a grim but compelling study of a maid named Sophie (played by Sandrine Bonnaire). She harbors a secret that she guards zealously: she's illiterate. Because she's unwilling to confess her handicap, she can't keep a steady job.

In this case, problems arise when the woman of the house (Jacqueline Bisset) leaves a note for Sophie and when the master asks her to retrieve a particular paper from his study. This situation becomes complicated when Sophie meets the outgoing but deeply troubled woman (played by Isabelle Huppert) who works at the local post office. Sophie's employer, Georges Lelievre (Jean-Pierre Cassel), doesn't like Jeanne (Huppert). His trips to the post office become shouting matches as he accuses her of opening his mail. So he's shocked when he later finds this same woman at his house. Sophie has invited Jeanne to visit. Jeanne's belligerent manners soon rub off on the impressionable Sophie, who remains a bit of a cipher throughout the movie.

Chabrol presents no easy psychology to explain Sophie. We never learn why she would sacrifice employment in favor of concealing her illiteracy (especially when her employer offers to help her). Depending on your preference, this is either a strength or a weakness of La Cérémonie. On one hand it makes the movie all the more mysterious as it emphasizes our inability to truly comprehend Sophie—which becomes especially important here as the plot turns toward murder. But on the other hand, without supplying the background that makes us go "ah, now I understand" Sophie becomes elusive and possibly unsatisfying as a character

Chabrol's approach doesn't provide easy answers. It gives us a situation certain to elicit sympathies, at least initially, as Sophie struggles to conceal her problem. At first, it seems as if La Cérémonie is meant to be one of those affliction-of-the-month dramas so popular on American broadcast television, but Chabrol turns the tables on us by slowly revealing the dark side of Sophie. Eventually La Cérémonie builds to a devastating ending that will leave everyone gasping.

Masques, Story of Women, and La Cérémonie are now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in new digital transfers that have been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Story of Women DVD special features: scene comments by Claude Chabrol, presentation by critic Joel Magny, interviews with producer Marin Karmitz and writer Francis Szpiner, and an original French theatrical trailer. La Cérémonie DVD special features: a 20-minute "making of" documentary featuring Claude Chabrol, Isabelle Huppert, and Sandrine Bonnaire and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $19.95 for Masques and $29.95 each for Story of Women and La Cérémonie. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.