At the age of 78, French director Claude Chabrol is still going strong – so strong, in fact, that UK cinema distribution can’t keep up with his prolific work rate: his 70th film, the Gérard Depardieu-starring crime thriller Bellamy, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival back in February this year, but we’re only now catching up with his 69th.
Intriguingly titled The Girl Cut in Two (or La fille coupée en deux in French), Chabrol’s movie is inspired by a famous crime of passion dating back to 1906 involving celebrated architect Stanford White, his young mistress and her millionaire husband – a scandal that was the basis of Richard Fleischer’s 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. (If you’re wary of spoilers you may like to avoid delving too deeply into the last few links.)
Chabrol has taken the basic shape of this love triangle and relocated it to present-day Lyons, where ambitious TV weather girl Gabrielle Deneige (played by Ludivine Sagnier) finds herself being vigorously pursued by two very different men: famed middle-aged author Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) and spoilt rich kid Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the swaggering young heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and a man with a sense of entitlement that would put a British MP to shame.
Charles is married and three decades Gabrielle’s senior; Paul is younger, richer and more handsome; yet it is suave old roué Charles who succeeds in seducing Gabrielle, much to the neurotic Paul’s disgust…
The Girl Cut in Two is by no means vintage Chabrol. It lacks the chilling intensity of his last UK hit, the 1995 Ruth Rendell adaptation A Judgement in Stone (La cérémonie), perhaps because the class tensions between the characters, though pronounced, aren’t nearly so barbed. Yet the new film still offers much to savour.
The film’s contemporary setting is meticulously observed, with different gradations on the sliding scale of the French bourgeoisie reflected in the leading characters’ homes: ‘old money’ Paul lives in his family’s châteaux, nouveau riche Charles has an extremely covetable, ultra-modern house, while Gabrielle shares her mother’s modest, lower-middle class home.
Yet the film’s surface realism won’t fool anyone: it’s clear that The Girl Cut in Two is a fable, a dark modern-day fairy tale about innocence and corruption, power and illusion. Gabrielle, of course, represents youthful purity (her surname, Deneige, means snow). Paul wants to preserve this purity (significantly, he gives her a figurine of an angel as a gift), while Charles can’t wait to sully it.
With his neatly trimmed grey hair and beard, randy old devil Charles gives off a faint whiff of sulphur. Yet Gabrielle is all too keen to be corrupted, happily allowing herself to be inducted into his world of sexual libertinism.
Not that we get to see what they get up to. Chabrol describes The Girl Cut in Two as “a chaste film about perversion,” and if he doesn’t quite stop outside the bedroom door, he does at least halt at the foot of the stairs of the private sex club to which Charles takes Gabrielle. What goes on upstairs is left to the viewer’s imagination, chaste or perverse as it may be.
On general release from 22nd May