Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Country Cut in Two

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2008 at 10:00 AM

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The L's Henry Stewart unpacks Claude Chabrol's fine new A Girl Cut in Two.

The most insightful and well-articulated reading of Claude Chabrol's new feature, A Girl Cut in Two, came (coincidentally) from these pages. In his L Mag revie, Benjamin Strong wrote that here, as elsewhere, the director "explores how a capable woman navigates a world that for all its advances remains stubbornly dominated by the whims of bourgeois male privilege." Very astute, but, after seeing the film this week, a different subtext struck me. The battle of the sexes and the war between classes seems only Chabrol's starting point.

I was reminded of Michael Kimmelman's piece in the New York Times this April, A Lowbrow in High Office Ruffles France, the gist of which was that French President Nicolas Sarkozy — once caught text messaging during an audience with the pope — is that country's first high-office philistine, which has some Gauls worried. "Every French president since the liberation has cooked up some such pharaonic new museum or opera house or library or initiated some legacy-minded cultural program, until now," Kimmelman wrote. "Mr. Sarkozy's taste is said to be for Lionel Ritchie and Celine Dion." Sarko l'Américain, they call him. (To the freedom-fries crowd: it's meant as an insult.)

If the Times is to be trusted, France is facing an identity crisis, losing its proud intellectual past to a boorish future. It's facing the threat of Americanization and that struggle is, essentially, what Chabrol's new film explores.


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In A Girl Cut in Two, a twentysomething weathergirl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), finds herself torn between two inamoratos — the respected writer Charles (François Berléand) and the spoiled, talentless scion Paul (played with great finger-chewing vulnerability by the beady-eyed Benoît Magimel). Her affections are divided; she is, you could say, cut in two, as the film's final scene makes deliciously literal. But more to the point, Gabrielle is, for Chabrol, France, and her dual lovers representative of the pair of forces — the culture rich vs. the nouveau riche — battling for control of the country's soul. (Loosely, then, it is like Old Joy, which whittled down America's culture-war factions into two clashing avatars, but Francofied: Girl is sexy, noirish, where Joy was coasting and indie mellow.)

Gabrielle freely admits she never opens a book; she's "a true product of TV," as Dean Hoberman wrote, an avatar of young France irrepressibly drawn to the old-enough-to-be-your-father Charles. Like Gabrielle's bookstore-owning mother, Charles stands-in for Old France's literati tradition. Now pushing 80, one might think Chabrol's sympathies would lie with these old folks, but instead he withholds his support from either side. Charles and his aged friends have no use for Gabrielle but to defile her and toss her to the loups. For Chabrol, the French intelligentsia has abandoned their country. And maybe the country is better off for it.

Because Charles does not come across as a hero in A Girl Cut in Two, but certainly neither does Paul — the wolf, the Sarkozy. (When he sniffs a mouthful of uncorked fine wine, he does so with a haughty smirk, suggesting he is no oenophile but a profligate consumer. L'Américain.) Lusty, violent, mercurial, jealous and monomaniacal, Paul does not cut so much a pitiable or tragic figure as a frightening one, though Magimel, with his squinty DeNiro-esque grimace, plays him sympathetically. He's a dangerous man with whom we would not want to entrust our daughter — nor, certainly, our country. But, as the cruelly libertine Charles is no prize either, what is France to do? Thrive without either, as the final shot of Gabrielle, in one piece, suggests. Showing his age perhaps, Chabrol settles into a puritanical moral, accusing both sides (Charles and Paul) of being irredeemably decadent. According to A Girl Cut in Two, sex is destructive — it begets madness, misery and murder. Imagine if that were the creed of a New France?


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