Impeccably made and uncompromisingly adult, Claude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two" is unquestionably the work of a master. As well it should be, given that the celebrated French filmmaker has produced more than 50 features in a full half-century of directing. If you don't believe all that experience can come in handy, this involving and intelligent film will change your mind.
The standard critical line on Chabrol is that he's a maestro of suspense, a kind of Gallic Alfred Hitchcock, but as he's gotten older (the director just turned 78, a month after Clint Eastwood) his films have ventured more toward investigations of the intricacies of human relationships, a subject that never ceases to fascinate.
This particular film, co-scripted by Chabrol and his longtime assistant director, Cecile Maistre, is especially interesting because it is unapologetically based on one of the great scandals of turn-of-the-century America, the salacious romantic triangle between New York architect Stanford White, comely actress Evelyn Nesbit and her unbalanced millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw.
Without missing a beat, Chabrol and Maistre have transferred the story to contemporary France and turned it into a study of the confounding nature of the human heart, of the way innocence and corruption can be at such devastating cross purposes that, as one character puts it, "love is the only crime that gives a life sentence."
"A Girl Cut in Two" is set not in the French capital of Paris but in Lyon, where reclusive literary lion Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand) has hidden himself away. A creature of bored-with-it-all cynicism, he's introduced taking a meeting with his editor, played by Mathilda May, who, in the director's words, emanates such a "strange sensuality" that "seeing her, we ask ourselves straight away into what world we have ventured."
The editor persuades Saint-Denis to appear on a local television interview show where he runs into the gorgeous Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), the local weather girl, understandably considered "the sunshine of this station."
An actress since she was 10, Sagnier has been in more than 30 films, including playing Tinkerbell in P.J. Hogan's 2003 "Peter Pan," and it is her ability to add complexity to what could have been a stock character that gives "A Girl Cut in Two" much of its effectiveness.
Though she is the weather girl, it's clear that Gabrielle is a smart, capable woman, definitely nobody's fool, though determined, as many young people are, to prove that "I'm not a kid anymore." Her weakness, as indicated by her last name ("of the snow"), is the purity and genuineness of her emotions, a character trait that in a better world than the one Chabrol has conjured up would be an advantage instead of a vulnerability.
Saint-Denis is not the only man who is seriously attracted to Gabrielle. She also catches the eye of Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), the mentally unstable heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, a man used to getting what he wants and a classic example of too much money and too little sense. But Gabrielle sees a kind of sweetness in Paul and, remarkably, his temperament reflects that when he is in her presence.
With his icy but somehow humane hauteur and his uncompromising narrative sense, Chabrol is the ideal person to investigate how Gabrielle fares in a heartless world where men control the levers of power. Chabrol, as he says himself, has created "an entirely chaste film whose characters are nonetheless haunted by the most perverse ideas." Gabrielle is more than a girl cut in two by this ambience, she's pulled every which way, a situation that the director investigates with the subtlety and complexity only a lifetime behind the camera can provide.
"A Girl Cut in Two." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Playing at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.