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Happiness is moviemaking

Director Claude Chabrol loves to skewer the French bourgeoisie. Witness his 50th film, 'The Flower of Evil.'

October 19, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Paris — "The thing that makes me despair the most," the French director Claude Chabrol says on a recent morning in a conference room of his production offices at MK2, "is when people say after a film, 'Oh, it was great. I forgot my problems for two hours.' " He laughs his isn't-life-ridiculous laugh. "I would like that a film helps people to resolve things, on the other hand."

And then Chabrol refers to the unconventional ending of his latest -- and 50th -- film, "The Flower of Evil," in which guilt is passed from generation to generation like an heirloom, blooming eternal in the breasts of the Charpin-Vasseurs, a bourgeois Bordelais family with more than one skeleton in the closet -- and a corpse in the bedroom.

At 73, Chabrol, long dubbed "the Hitchcock of France," is a director who has long skewered the peculiar hypocrisies and charms of the French bourgeoisie, of which he is a part, and roasted them over a particularly glowing set of coals. Like all national treasures, he is both revered and taken for granted in his own country.

"There are those who say that his cinema is like television," says Benoit Magimel, the 29-year-old actor who plays Francois Vasseur, one of the new film's main characters. "They don't see that simplicity is part of his style -- he doesn't need effects to tell his story."

More than a million people went to see "La Fleur du Mal" when it opened this year in France. Those who don't live in France, where Chabrol is a popular apparition on television and the author of several dryly humorous books of instruction and memoir, won't know that though his films are famed for their dark, ironically dispassionate displays of human depravity, the man himself betrays none of this darkness. Chabrol is wide of berth, possessed of a large-eyed, bemused gaze. He is indiscriminately charming. In short, he is adorable.

Like all charmers, he has the ability to deliver iron observations with a velvet tongue. In France, Chabrol is also a famous gourmand and wit. His latest book, "How to Make a Film," is a slim volume (fewer than 90 pages) of interviews with the French journalist Francois Guerif. In it, he says, among other things, that he has always said, and still believes, that it takes about four hours to learn all the necessary skills to make a movie.

Easy to say for a man who has made 50 films. "It's like a chef who gives out his recipes," says his son Thomas, one of his four children, who plays an aspiring politician in the film. His mother is the French actress Stephane Audran, one of the three women Chabrol has married. "It's not a problem for Jean Troisgros to give out his recipe for saumon a l'unilateral. The problem is knowing how to make it. It seems simple, but there's always a little something.... You can't transform sensibility."

Chabrol loves to make movies, loves the process and distrusts filmmakers who prefer the solitude of the editing room. People today, he says, are not (as he is) driven by a need to make cinema but by the desire to be in the movies. He does not dream of happiness, he has often said, he lives it. And to him happiness is making movies.

His current wife is the continuity girl on his sets and knows how to translate his tiny handwriting into movie minutes. His daughter works as assistant director. Said actress Nathalie Baye, who plays Anne Charpin-Vasseur: "He works with his own family, with his wife and his daughter and his son; the crew are people he likes a lot. So there's something very warm about him. You have the sense not only of going into the universe of an artist, but into his own personal universe."

His son Thomas says that when he's writing a script -- always in longhand in a spiral notebook -- "you have the impression of watching a grandfather sitting on the couch in front of the TV writing a check, but he's in the midst of writing his film. It's pretty impressive," he says. "I mean, he's quite a factory."

By all accounts, Chabrol comes to a set fully prepared. Everything is thought out but never planned -- he detests storyboards and once wrote that he quit trying to imagine his films years ago. The point about making a movie, he says, is showing up on set knowing what you want to say.

"Even films that are based on sensation pass by the head," he says. "But I've seen films in which manifestly the guy making it didn't know what he was doing. Like 'Independence Day.' That guy had no idea what he was doing! He didn't realize what he was saying," he says. "I will say, it's rather Bush-esque."

Taboo subjects

In the case of "The Flower of Evil," figuring out what he wanted to say included grappling with taboo subjects like incest and murder. "If I want to treat a subject that's a little bit difficult," he says, using the Frenchman's habit of softening hard blows with understatement, "I absolutely must not be willing to shock for the pleasure of it but be slightly above it. And above all, not to be shocked myself by the subjects that I treat. To try to understand."

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