My first post, and first “review” of sorts. Excuse me while I get settled in… I have only the vaguest sense of what form these reviews will take. Hopefully I don’t bore myself to death trying to find anything even remotely interesting or nuanced to say. But enough with the disclaimers.
Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes is an early example of French New Wave (Nouvelle Vogue) cinema, released the same year as Jean Luc-Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless. For those unfamiliar with the French New Wave, the filmmakers associated with the movement were highly derisive of French cinema’s “Tradition of Quality”. According to these critics (who included the likes of Chabrol, Godard, and Francois Truffaut), French films were unimaginative and stiflingly professional in their construction of narrative and their use of the cinematic form. In response, the French New Wave critics-turned-filmmakers employed experimental film techniques and unconventional narrative styles to challenge this dominant mode. New Wave films frequently placed far greater emphasis on the formal elements of film (lighting, camera angles, editing, etc.) than on narrative, resulting in stories that are often difficult to follow, characters who resist audience identification, and plots in which…well, in which not much happens and nothing is resolved. Maybe a more accurate way to describe the New Wave attitude towards narrative is not that it’s unimportant, but rather that it can be flexible, disjointed, and to some point anarchic. Somewhat unexpectedly, these filmmakers looked to a handful of mainstream Hollywood directors (like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) for inspiration, naming them auteurs–that is, filmmakers operating within a relatively restrictive major studio context who nonetheless demonstrated a unique and personal vision in their work. (We have the French New Wave to thank for popularizing the notion of the director as the primary author/artist of the films he or she directs.)
Chabrol is frequently understood as the New Wave director most indebted to Hitchcock’s work, particularly in terms of his interest in the thriller/suspense genres. Les Bonnes Femmes is indicative of Hitchcock’s influence on Chabrol, though the film’s thriller elements are kept more or less subtle up until the film’s surprising conclusion. Like many New Wave films, Les Bonnes Femmes self-consciously borrows from different genres (thriller, romance, comedy, Italian neorealism) in order to destabilize generic categories and upend audiences expectations. Throughout, the soundtrack resembles that of a thriller film, despite the fact that there’s little suspense in terms of the narrative development. As the film approaches its end, it takes a detour into the romance genre, indicated by a sequence in which one of the film’s main characters frolics about with her mysterious new love interest… It’s only once the film is over that this particular choice for non-diegetic music makes any sense to the viewer.
The film centers around the lives of four young Parisian shop girls, each with her own desires and fantasies, and each disappointed with the reality they face. The women seem to represent a sort of angsty, existentialist ennui commonly found in French New Wave films; shots abound of the women looking bored and frustrated both at work and during their nights out. In the case of each of the women, men play a large role in the disenchantment the women experience, and an even larger role in their disempowered social position. Their curmudgeon boss at the shop constantly harasses them, but their financial insecurity keeps them from quitting or even rebuking his advances.
Like watching a Hitchcock film, I’m never quite certain whether Chabrol is offering a critique of normative gender dynamics and patriarchy, or whether the tragedy is meant to be seen as a sort of inevitable result of inherent differences between men and women. On the one hand, the film exposes the patriarchal conditions responsible for the women’s unhappiness. Virtually ever male character in the film is a total sleaze-ball looking to take advantage of the women, or else demanding they live up to some bourgeois expectation of femininity. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, one of the women, Rita, is rapidly coached by her fiance on how to make a good first impression on his elitist parents, who they are meeting for dinner. Henri, the fiance, chastises Rita for not wearing a nicer blouse, then encourages her to lie about her father’s profession (“Better say your father is an overseer”), before finally asking her to not even mention their impending marriage for fear of offending his traditional mother. Understandably, Rita is flustered during the dinner, saying very little in hopes that she won’t disappoint her fiance or his parents. Prior to the scene, Rita brags to the other shop girls about finally meeting Henri’s parents, as if it’s evidence of his love and approval. The painfully awkward dinner scene that follows seems to be a disavowal of Rita’s assumption, an ironic look at romance that ultimately suggests the limits of love in the face of social class structures. Henri is only willing to introduce Rita so long as she can fulfill (read: perform) her role as the perfectly “cultured” and respectable young woman his parents (representing high-society) expect.
On the other hand, the film seems to treat its female characters as naive, as partially to blame for the conditions they find themselves in. When Rita asks her co-workers what they want out of life, each responds that it’s love that they truly desire. Later on, it’s Jacqueline’s (the quiet one of the group) willingness to believe in the love of her stalker that leads to her grisly demise. That the film ends with an unnamed woman happily dancing with a stranger on the dance floor might be Chabrol’s way of turning Jacqueline’s naiveté into a larger commentary on the vulnerability of women due to their unrealistic romantic dreams. It’s troubling that not a single one of Chabrol’s female character in this film seems content to search for fulfillment anywhere other than in the arms of a man (especially when all the men are such incredible jerks…). There is definitely some social commentary at play in the film, but there’s much to be desired if you’re looking for a nuanced feminist critique of gender relations.
Though I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen a ton of Chabrol’s other work, I’ve seen enough New Wave films to feel confident in declaring Les Bonnes Femmes a relatively accessible introduction to the movement. Its formal and narrative experimentation is undoubtedly present, but doesn’t beat you over the head the way a Godard film might. Whether or not this is a strength or a weakness of the film seems dependent on each viewer’s individual tastes. In any case, the film’s cynical yet witty examination of romance–a sort of deconstructive examination that challenges dominantly held beliefs typically espoused in film–makes for a decidedly cool movie that illustrates much of what the French New Wave was all about.