Absence of Virtue
Claude Chabrol has died, aged 80. Like Eric Rohmer, he was someone who (as Rohmer's producer once said) chose his field wisely, and spent his entire life plowing it, slowly and carefully, in infinite variations. For Rohmer the field was the Comedy of Manners, for Chabrol it was the Element of Crime.
Every tribute-summary about Chabrol since his death has said roughly the same thing: that his work was terribly uneven, but that he was some kind of Master, and that his place in cinema history is secure. However, I suspect that Chabrol is actually much harder for critics to encapsulate, or embrace in his fullness.
I think back to the early 1960s and early '70s, when the first serious, lengthy appraisals of Chabrol's œuvre began to appear. An example to hand: the account by Gavin Millar, co-author of the classic textbook The Technique of Film Editing. Millar loves Chabrol's controversial les bonnes femmes (1960), but he visibly struggles with it. The dominant imagery of zoo cages, and the soundtrack of bird cries: does it "reduce the girls to the level of animals"? Heaven forbid! No, these motifs "express sorrow at how their circumstances have so reduced them". The tawdriness and banality with which Chabrol endows his female characters: is it a mark of sarcasm, cynicism or superior contempt? Oh no, never! Rather, this conveys "compassion for the second-hand dreams that the world has manufactured and sold them".
From Robin Wood and Michael Walker in their 1970 book Claude Chabrol, to Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his corrosive 1975 attack, the worry about Chabrol has always been the same: does this guy place positive value in anything, or does he lazily, even hypocritically damn everything that, on another level, he feeds off, like celebrity, bourgeois affluence, the nuclear family, or any kind of political passion, left or right...
In the mid '70s, Mark Le Fanu in the UK magazine Monogram tried to turn this all around for the age of post-structuralist semiotics: what mattered in Chabrol's films, he argued, was their "repeated insistence on their own fictions, a series of clues about themselves asking to be considered... We are witnessing a movement away from the sign meaning something to a situation where the sign refers only to other signs, other fictions..."
In truth, as Chabrol kept on working for five decades, he outfoxed all his critics, whether sympathetic or antipathetic. Always the doubt came back to his misanthropic drive: we felt happy acclaiming certain films, like la cérémonie (1995) or l'ivresse du pouvoir (2006) as obvious 'critiques' of State or Home or Nation or Dominant Ideology, but we flinched at the likes of la fille coupée en deux (2007), with its gleeful sadism, its ultra-Hitchcockian compulsion to put the audience, and the characters, through the very worst Fate imaginable.
Actually, like most of the Nouvelle Vague star-directors (Godard, Rivette, Rohmer), Chabrol proved himself wonderfully untamable, irrecuperable. He kept us on our toes, and will continue to do so from beyond the grave — because his work, as a whole, exhibits what the Australian critic Ross Gibson has called a "provocative absence of virtue", in which "values exist as sentimental residues, as vestiges of a society in moral twilight, or as clay pigeons to be blasted by the films' cynical armouries". And we all need to be shaken up, from time to time, by an art without virtue.