July 09, 2009

The Girl cut in Two

The Girl cut in Two comes with some substantial reccomendations- Claude Chabrol the director is one of the elder statesman of European cinema, Ludivine Sagnier the star is someone who has an interesting and enviable back catalogue of films behind her: these two figures deserve respect. Whether the film they have created together does is another matter. I watched this film and want to confess to two reactions- the first is that I was engrossed. The film has a marvellous storyline- a pretty weather girl meets two men, an old writer and roue and a young mentally unstable millionaire- both fall in love with her and she alternates between the two as the movie goes through, her alternations produce nothing but corruption- the corruption of a person through the ancient novelist and the corruption of a system through the young millionaire. The second thing that I will confess to is that I did not grow to like any of the characters beyond Sagnier's character, everyone important was vile, and to some extent, if it is true that we can judge people by the company they keep, then Sagnier's character is condemned by her friends. The film is involving but I could not get involved with the characters- and wondered out of the cinema wondering what a spectacle of decadence, sex (none seen but plenty implied) and violence was enacted to say.

In a sense I think my reaction is the one that the film drives towards. Lets take for a start the look of the film- a good place to start because we absorb films first through our eyes. Sagnier is stunning and dressed to look stunning in this film. M St Denis, the writer, looks debonaire and well preserved, M Gaudens the millionaire looks unstable and foppish- a kind of dangerous almost Byronic figure. The portrait here is one of exoticism and Chabrol uses as well the minor characters- particularly those who surround Sagnier's character as she presents the weather to give us that note of exoticism. These are TV personalities- brash and living in a world where champagne floats round a hall, where cameras are more familiar than kids. St Denis's world is one of oak fittings which conceal sex clubs, auctions where you buy pornography and the full range of Parisian taste- or at least the kind of taste that Englishmen of the eighteenth century would go to France to sample on the grand tour. It is the taste of Sade- and it is unsurprising that another glossy lover compares St Denis to Sade at one point. Gaudens inhabits fast cars, slick haircuts and shiny resturants- again wealth comes out but not the wealth of tradition and aphorism, the wealth of ostentation. Gabrielle, Sagnier's character, is being fought over by the Marquis de Sade and Cristiano Ronaldo, by Valmont and David Coulthard.

I do not think those associations are unimportant to what Chabrol is trying to do here- the spectacle of a film is often as important as its words. Chabrol is countering to us two worlds and their demands upon Gabrielle perhaps their demands upon us all. The first and second world share secrets- the first world has a secret decadence- M St Denis goes on the television to speak aphoristically of nunish behaviour (a reference to Diderot's pornographic nun, n'est ce pas- for such a learned film one would not presume the answer was no) and hides a liking to watch his beauties defiled by his friends. Gaudens has secrets about violence- he attempts Gabrielle in a dark alley and is stopped by his friend- footballers of the world would sympathise with that issue. St Denis and Gaudens hate each other from the beggining of the film because they each embody a different kind of celebrity- St Denis a witty aristocratic with pictures of naked women hanging inside his house and mistresses filing in sports cars to his door- Gaudens, idle, young, innocent expecting life to fall into his lap as he has the chance to have the wealth that others long for. Chabrol's view is that neither is healthy- and we see that in their impacts on Gabrielle- but that the former may present the possibility of survival whereas the latter may not.

Let us go a bit deeper here for the theme of the establishment brings us to a new level- a level which I think is the fundemental level of the film- the level of secret. Ultimately this is a film not about love nor class but about secrets. Everywhere you look there are secrets- even in the final denoument we see a secret enacted and when Chabrol moves his camera in on Sagnier's beaming face towards the end where she is literally cut in two, he moves us in to contemplate the secret. Recasting the film in terms of secrets brings in a final male character, Sagnier's uncle, a magician who has trade secrets of his own. He flits around Europe and the world- never where you expect him- his location is a secret. Bringing him in allows us to see what the film might actually be about- it is about a transition for the character of Gabrielle- a journey through different kinds of secret and a discovery about what kind of secret is comfortable as a fit for humanity. In a sense the film is what it says it is repeatedly- through the mouth of St Denis, through the mouth of Gabrielle's mother, through the mouth of Gaudens's mother- it is a film about growing up and growing up is about dealing with secrets.

Recast the film in your thoughts and imagine it now as a bildingsroman. Start with Gabrielle and take her through three relationships. In the first she loves St Denis because of his secrets- because he can show her how to do it- whether that it is oral sex or poetry matters not at all, the point is that it is an it. It is something that she does not know and hopes he can reveal- can take her beyond the oak pannelling into the world that we are not able to see but only hear about. The second relationship she has is with Gaudens. Here she has grown to see Gaudens's secret from the inside- she has accepted it to some extent though she does not realise its power- she does not realise that Gaudens is controlled by his secret madness. The story of her relationship with Gaudens is the story of that secret spinning out of control and destroying both their lives. The third and last secret concerns herself- she is not being cut in half- it is a magic trick- but she, her uncle and the audience all know it is a magic trick. From the charm of knowledge to the possession of knowledge, she has journeyed one step further to the control of knowledge: she has reached the point at which St Denis was in the film, fulfilled, sipping her champagne, in control of her secrets- having confronted them and explained them to herself. Confessing myself still ambiguous, I am not sure that the process is one of learning, however much it is one of growing.

I do not pretend that this does anymore than take another skin off the onion of the film's interpretation- it could do no more. But I do not feel this is an easy film to interpret. There is something unpleasant about watching old men ogle young women- something unpleasant about St Denis's lifestyle. The film of course is modelled on a real case- that of Stanford White- and Chabrol in that case was not completely in charge of his story- though he did of course choose to dramatise it and not another. Rather he has spun its focus away from the mad millionaire and the decadent roue to the girl- for the final key question at the end od the film is why, after all that has happened, is Gabrielle smiling? I'd suggest the reason is a secret.


James Higham said...

Depends which way's she's cut really.