Widely credited as the founding father of the French Nouvelle Vague movement, Claude Chabrol is responsible for a body of work that is as prolific as it is boldly defined. A master of the suspense thriller, Chabrol approaches his subjects with a cold, distanced objectivity that has led at least one critic to liken him to a compassionate but unsentimental god viewing the foibles and follies of his creations. Inherent in all of Chabrol's thrillers is the observation of the clash between bourgeois value and barely-contained, oftentimes violent passion. This clash gives the director's work a melodramatic quality that has allowed him to drift between the realm of the art film and that of popular entertainment.
Born in Paris on June 24, 1930, Chabrol was educated at the University of Paris, where he was a pharmacology student, and at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques. Following some military service, he developed an interest in the cinema and worked for a brief time in the publicity department of 20th Century Fox's French headquarters. Chabrol's true film career began during the 1950s, when he became one of a legendary group of critics for Cahiers du cinéma. Writing alongside the likes of Eric Rohmer (with whom he wrote a groundbreaking study of Alfred Hitchcock), Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and François Truffaut, Chabrol developed theories of authorship that are still influential today, and attempted to revolutionize the cinematic value system.
One of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement, Chabrol began his filmmaking career in 1958 as the director, writer, and producer of Le Beau Serge. Modeled after Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, the film charted the visit of an ailing city-dweller (Jean-Claude Brialy) to his hometown, where he is reunited with his childhood friend (Gérard Blain), who is now a self-pitying alcoholic. Their transference of personal guilt, and then, in the words of Chabrol scholar Charles Derry, "exchange of redemption," gave audiences an initial taste of the deeply-psychological situations Chabrol would continue to examine with chilly objectivity throughout his career, and established him as an important new talent.
Chabrol's next film, Les Cousins (1959), proved to be another great critical success, earning a Best Film award at the Berlin Film Festival. Reuniting Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain as two cousins who are polar opposites, the film continued to develop Chabrol's distanced approach to his subjects, and also introduced the director's use of the names "Charles" and "Paul," names he would continue to use in a number of his films to represent, respectively, the more serious bourgeois man and his pleasure-seeking counterpart. The same year he made Les Cousins, Chabrol released his first color feature, À Double Tour; a crime drama centering on the effects of the murder of a woman upon a dysfunctional family, it contained a measured critique of bourgeois moral values and the social and familial causes of violence.
These films, as well as L'Oeil du malin (1962) -- which revolved around another triangle formed by a bourgeois couple and an outsider -- constituted what many critics refer to as the more "personal" works of Chabrol's early period. When they failed to do well at the box office, he turned to more commercial assignments (such as Le Tigre Aime la Chair Fraiche, 1964) that tended to alienate the critics who had championed his previous efforts. The director again won critical favor in 1968 with Les Biches, a psychological drama that addressed one of the central themes of his work, that of an outsider affecting a relationship between two people. The film, which revolved around the intrusion of a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) upon a lesbian relationship, was a critical success, and heralded a new, more mature phase of Chabrol's career. The film also starred Stéphane Audran, an actress who was both Chabrol's muse and, for a number of years, his wife. That same year, the director released another tale concerning a relationship fractured by external forces, La Femme Infidèle. One of Chabrol's most celebrated -- and, to a number of critics, self-assured -- film, it starred Audran as Helene, a woman whose marriage to Charles (Michel Bouquet) is drastically altered when Charles kills Helene's lover, Victor (Maurice Ronet).
Time and again, Chabrol would revisit the theme of the simmering, potentially dangerous passion that chafed against the constraints of bourgeois repression -- as well as those of a disrupted relationship -- and did so through triangles formed by characters called Charles, Paul, and Helene. Que La Bête Meure (1969) saw Charles hunt down the hit-and-run killer of his son, and in doing so interrupt the relationship between the killer, Paul, and his sister-in-law Helene. In Le Boucher, released the same year, Poupaul, a possibly homicidal butcher, tries to have a relationship with uptight schoolteacher Helene, who has displaced her sexual energies onto Charles, one of her young students. Further conundrums of passion are on display in Juste Avant La Nuit (1971), when Helene, the wife of the adulterous Charles, must resort to an act of violence to squelch the passion that threatens her ordered bourgeois existence.
Toward the end of the 1970s, Chabrol began making television films and international co-productions, something that marked a departure from the nature of his previous work. His team of regular collaborators, who included Audran, Jean Yanne, Michel Bouquet, composer Pierre Jansen, producer Andre Genoves, and cinematographer Jean Rabier, also changed -- with Chabrol's son, Matthieu, replacing Jansen, and new actors such as Isabelle Huppert starring in his films. Huppert essayed the title character in Violette Nozière (1978), one of Chabrol's most acclaimed films of the 1970s. Based upon the true story of a 19-year-old girl (Huppert) who was convicted of poisoning her father and attempting to kill her mother, the film achieved the remarkable feat of lending its unlikable protagonist a degree of three-dimensional sympathy, and drew favorable comparisons to Hitchcock, whose work provided Chabrol with a constant source of inspiration.
Chabrol's films of the 1980s and '90s largely suffered in comparison to his earlier work; some critics noted that they lacked the unity and quality that gave the director's films of the 1950s and '60s such enduring resonance. Still, he continued to work prolifically, earning particular international acclaim for Une Affaire de Femmes in 1988. Starring Isabelle Huppert as an abortionist who ends up holding the dubious honor of being the last woman guillotined in France (by the Vichy government), the film -- like Chabrol's earlier Violotte Nozière -- succeeded in painting a complex, sympathetic portrait of a fairly unlikable woman, and offered one of the most insightful and balanced looks at abortion ever recorded on celluloid.
Chabrol's subsequent collaborations with Huppert formed his most celebrated films of the 1990s: 1991's Madame Bovary was a great success in France, while the 1995 psychological thriller La Cérémonie earned transcontinental plaudits. Boasting a strong cast that included Huppert, Sandrine Bonnaire, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jean-Pierre Cassel, the César-nominated film provided an incisive look at class tensions, jealousy, and the politics of murder. Many critics declared that Chabrol was back at the top of his form. Although his next two major thrillers, Rien Ne Va Plus (1997) and Au Coeur du Mensonge (1999), were not as warmly received, there was no denying the director's continued impact on both French and world cinema.