When director Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes was released in France in 1960, it was neither a critical nor a commercial success. Like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, released in England the same year, it was considered to be too vulgar and too dark and generally up to no good.
But some sort of dismissal was not an unusual fate for an early Chabrol film. Though he had been one of the founders of the French New Wave, the widely varying quality of his first decade of filmmaking led critic and film historian Andrew Sarris to justly refer to him, when Les Bonnes Femmes was finally released in this country in 1966, as one of the movement’s "forgotten figures." It wasn’t until the late ‘60s, when the director began a string of subtle and insightful movies about murder and madness, that something recognizable as "a Chabrol film" began to emerge – at which point his earlier output was due for a re-evaluation.
Unfortunately Femmes, after piquing the interest of those lucky few who saw it in ‘66, generally disappeared from the United States, until recently. Now one is struck by how much the film foreshadows the director’s languidly perverse masterpieces, such as La Femme Infidèle (1969) and Le Boucher (1970) – and how much it seems to be an archetypal New Wave period piece, with its black-and-white documentary views of Paris street life, its combination of calculated composition and handheld immediacy, and its rapid shifts from frivolity to seriousness – an innovation which wouldn’t appear in American films until Arthur Penn’s heavily New Wave-influenced Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Chabrol’s story, co-written with his frequent collaborator Paul Gegauff, concerns the interactions of four young Parisian women who work in an appliance store – an absurdly overstaffed one, since we never see any customers come in. Rita (Lucille Saint-Simon) sees escape in her approaching marriage to a bourgeois twit, while Ginette (Stéphane Audran – who married Chabrol in ‘62 and became the iconic star of many of his films) dreams of a career as a singer, something she’s egregiously unsuited for. Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is both tough and reconciled to her shopgirl existence, her counterpoint being Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano), the film’s shy sacrificial lamb.
It’s a credit to Chabrol’s approach that the film has been called both feminist and misogynist. But it’s nothing that simple. It’s a highly stylized slice of life full of ordinary complications that become, with a final and merciless turn of the screw, almost unbearably poignant.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.