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NYFF: A Girl Cut In Two

October 12th, 2007 (12:00 am)

© 2007 D. Gordon

I've seen a few Claude Chabrol films in the past. Although "a few" is nowhere near Chabrol's total output of sixty, I figured I had him pegged: upper-class families in country estates dance around hidden secrets; a beautiful young couple comes together, only to find out that they're related - too closely related to avoid the i-word. But they just don't care, can't stop, and continue on to an eventual bad end. So I figured that La Fille coupée en deux (A Girl Cut in Two) would be more of the same, although I was intrigued by the description in the festival guide:
a mordant social satire filled with unforgettably nasty characters - and inspired... by the sensational Gilded Age shooting of architect Stanford White - [showing Chabrol] at the top of his game... Chabrol skewers the pretensions of literati and haute bourgeois alike and, although the inevitable crime of passion is committed late in the movie, it's evident that what we have really been watching the murder of a soul.

"Murder of a soul" definitely got my attention - as did Stanford White.

There are a number of narratives covering the bizarre life and death of the Gilded Age architect Stanford White. The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing (1955), starring Joan Collins, focuses on Evelyn Nesbitt, the woman at the center of the real-life murder and trial. That movie should have been subtitled Little Evelyn Tells You All; it was based on Nesbitt's recollections and the trial transcripts (in which Nesbitt's testimony plays a major role), although for a number of reasons she was a fairly biased, unreliable source. The Architect of Desire is a 1997 book by White's great-granddaughter Suzannah Lessard; while it's a combination of research and insight into the family itself, and likely the closest we'll get to the truth, Lessard is by birth and family dynamics not the most objective source either. There are others, and now Claude Chabrol adds his name to the list. Obviously he's not personally tied to the case, but he is personally tied to his vision - what I interpreted as his vision - so he wasn't likely to diverge from that.

How wrong I was. Chabrol does plumb the depths of male-female relationships as before, but this is nothing close to the "stock" storyline I expected. He's moved the triangle to modern-day Lyon, where famed writer Charles Saint-Denis and unstable pharmaceutical heir Paul Gaudens battle over TV weather girl Gabrielle pure-as-the-driven Deneige. Gabrielle is young and having fun; somewhat sexually knowledgeable, although emotionally closer to Evelyn Nesbitt (who was likely the victim of statutory rape) than she would be comfortable admitting. She has little trouble seeing both men, but then is drawn into a closer relationship with one, and turns to the other as she gains the hardened edges of life. However, picking one over the other is not a matter of changing clothes - or names.

The trio's descent into madness is fascinating, and in the end it's not clear whether we're witnessing the death of innocence, the maturation of selfishness, or a crime with no true victim. He may not be my favorite, but Chabol's produced one of the most solid stories I've seen yet at the festival. Go, Claude.