Not playing: Violette (1978)

by

comment

Isabelle Huppert won the best actress prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival for Violette.
  • Isabelle Huppert won the Best Actress prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival for Violette.
In our current print issue, we erroneously reported that Claude Chabrol’s Violette (1978) would be screening at the Alliance Francaise tomorrow, March 14. The screening in fact takes place on Wednesday, May 9—which means you have something to look forward to for nearly two months. The movie contains one of my favorite moments in Chabrol's mammoth body of work, a scene that may justify the entire film. After the title character—a real-life juvenile delinquent who murdered her parents in the 1930s—gets diagnosed with syphilis, the family doctor insists that her parents take medication too, just in case they’ve contracted their daughter’s disease. Cut to a brief shot of all three at the dinner table, taking their nightly dose together as if proposing a toast. It’s an understated expression of Chabrol’s favorite satirical barb: that any transgression can be made banal once civil society gets its hands on it.

Chabrol often made this point in his 70s films, his angriest by far, which breach subjects like sadomasochism (Just Before Nightfall), drug addiction (La Rupture), open marriage (Une Partie de Plaisir), and terrorism (Nada). And yet Chabrol’s direction became increasingly refined during this decade, approaching the Hollywood genre filmmaking that he praised as a critic in the 1950s. Dave Kehr, in his original Reader review of Violette, called it “Chabrol in his restrained and responsible mood.” I agree with that assessment, but only so far: there’s still plenty of rage beneath the surface of this film. This rift between mood and theme points to Chabrol’s deceptively casual late period, which starts roughly in the mid-80s with movies like Cop au Vin (1985) and Masques (1987) and continued right up to his death in 2010. These films are as easy to digest as paperback mysteries—which their stories usually resemble—but they’re often thematically dense, building on ideas that had been stuck in Chabrol’s craw since his 20s. I could probably watch one of them every week.

Claude Chabrol in 2008
  • Claude Chabrol in 2008
Key to the eminent likability of late Chabrol is the relaxed yet confident performance style he elicited from his actors. By many accounts, his sets were casual, even homey environments. Indeed, they contained plenty of spill-over from his domestic life: for the last few decades of his career, his third wife, Aurore Chabrol, was always on hand as the continuity expert, and his two grown sons often participated in the productions as well. Isabelle Huppert, who stars in Violette and would reunite with Chabrol numerous times, compared their relationship to that of a father and daughter. It’s ironic that one of the movies’ most bitter satirists of family life would spend his last three decades amid such domestic bliss. Having depicted so many awful (if not murderous) families, perhaps he knew exactly what to avoid.

I’m surprised that no one in Chicago has attempted a Charbol retrospective in the 18 months since his passing. He’s by far the most accessible of all the French New Wave directors, and with roughly 50 features to his credit, there’s no shortage of material for a series (if not two or three). In looking forward to the May revival of Violette, here's hoping that other Chabrol screenings are soon to follow.

Add a comment