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Claude Chabrol collection

Claude Chabrol limited edition collector's boxset: Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, Que la bete meure, Le Boucher, Juste avant le nuit, Les noces rouges, Nada, Madame Bovary

Les Biches
cast: Stéphane Audran, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Jacqueline Sassard

director: Claude Chabrol

95 minutes (15) 1968
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Andrew Hook
Les Biches (The Does) contains many of the expected elements of the quintessential French film: the smouldering thirtysomething, the enigmatic male, the younger - less assured - female, the suggestion of sexual ambiguity, and examinations of the bourgeoisie set against a noir-ish background, the epitome of cool where nothing happens and everything is intimated. And where Les Biches succeeds is that it handles all these elements impeccably, creating a filmic slipstream that only falters slightly due to an unnecessarily dramatic ending considering the handling of what has gone before.

The movie begins with bored socialite, Frédérique (Stéphane Audran), dropping a ridiculously high payment to pavement artist Jacqueline Sassard, which creates enough conversation for Sassard to follow Frédérique home. Throughout the movie Sassard's character is known as 'Why', in response to an off-the-cuff remark she makes to Frédérique when she is asked for her name. Obviously there are metaphorical echoes to be considered here (and interestingly she is called 'Why' - in English, not 'pourquoi', the French equivalent), which basically stem around the reason for her being selected. Frédérique is probably a bi-sexual bourgeoisie with too much money, who seems to have picked up Why for amusement only. Yet how much of the movie is a pre-arranged game is difficult to tell, because once the action moves to St Tropez and architect Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) steps into the picture there is much ambiguity over which events might be planned and which are not. The three main players become enmeshed in a kind of mé´┐Żnage-a-trois (mostly intimated, nothing graphic), which eventually culminates in a death.

Surprisingly for a movie about passion, there is little evidence of it on screen, or even much under the surface. One interpretation could be that Chabrol believes that his characters' wealth assigns them the status of boredom - if they can have anything, nothing is desired. This analysis explains how Why slips so easily into her role, once plucked from the gutter she seems to lose ambition. Just as Frédérique drifts from one party to the next, seemingly not enjoying them, but having little else to do with her time, Why follows her, doe-like (hence the title), content to play out of her social class because once ensconced there her personality becomes superseded by her role. Paul himself is not much more than a stereotypical male, it is as though the characters are unable to think beyond their social constraints. Interestingly, Paul's masculinity is the only clearly defined sexual role, with Frédérique's St Tropez houseguests being a couple of obviously gay males. Exactly what conclusions Chabrol wants us to think are unclear - and some of the movie's edge may well be lost due to the passing of time - but the film doesn't lose power because of that.

The performances are well pitched. Audran, Chabrol's wife at the time (who starred in 24 of his movies), radiates directionless sexuality, and whilst she isn't a fantastic actress, it's often difficult to look away from her. Additionally, Sassard's Why is also incredibly watchable - indeed Paul can barely move never mind keep his eyes off her when they first meet. The similarities between the two women are further accentuated when Why dresses as Frédérique, mimics her voice. For Paul this might seem the perfect multi-relationship, but he is disquieted. Is his masculinity under threat here? Trintignant plays the role in a matter-of-fact manner. It's impossible to know what he is thinking.

Ultimately, Les Biches raises numerous questions about what is actually happening, both in the movie and in society when sexuality blurs. Yet despite its aloofness and a feeling that sometimes it feels staged and a little too cold, there is an inherent fascination created by the three main characters that pulls the viewer through. For that alone it's definitely worth watching, and for me ranks high amongst Chabrol's work of that period.

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