Les Biches

(France - 1968)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jacqueline Sassard, Stephane Audran, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Henri Attal, Dominique Zardi
Genre: Thriller/Mystery/Drama/Film-Noir
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Paul Gegauff & Claude Chabrol
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Composer: Pierre Jansen
Runtime: 95 minutes

"Some win, some lose, that's life" - Frederique

Among his greatest syntheses of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and his love-hate relationship with the bourgeois, Les Biches was Claude Chabrol's return to the significant art film after a handful of more commercial oriented ventures to recoup his finances. It's a film for those who want movies to make them think, not to make them think a certain way.

I can see where a lot of people wouldn't like this film. It's not the usual everything that starts with L', Le, or Les is going to be pretentious and endlessly talky, which is kind of ironic since most great Hitchcockian or film noir since the New Wave are French or made by someone that regularly works there. This is a film of imagery over words, exceptionally shot and scored, but it's the kind you either find fascinating or say, "nothing happens."

Les Biches is incredibly ambiguous, doesn't have much plot or even dialogue, and creeps along. I find it to be a hypnotic experience. The film has a lot of moods and styles, but you can't figure it out or classify it. You almost don't realize what is happening because it sweeps you along without telling you where you are going or what is important. It's not a long film, and most of what we see and hear seems inconsequential. Much of what makes it interesting though is wanting to crack the film, to know what it's really about and if there's a reason behind the inclusion of the seemingly unimportant and the exclusion of all the "pertinent" details.

I think the pace is one of the big reasons the film is effective. This is a film where someone's violent nature is going to take over momentarily. One can figure that it'll happen at or towards the end, but the tensions and complications are such that anyone could do it to any other. The languorous, insidious pace makes it tense in the vein of an old chamber horror picture. There are several reasons behind what happens, but as far as the viewing experience goes it's almost all about the anticipation.

Essentially, there are five characters - two haves and two have-nots. Frederique (Stephane Audran) is an aimless rich woman that uses her fortune to amuse herself. She's more than willing to spend money on things she knows nothing about, unless her foolishness is exposed prior to paying like the scene where she tries to act knowledgeable about engraving only to identify the copy as the expensive original, but her thing is surrounding herself with people that like her money enough to comply.

The film starts with Frederique strolling across a bridge and dropping 500 francs to a poor girl painting a country scene on its pavement. Shocked at the sum of the donation, they begin a conversation that is hardly the friendliest, but nonetheless results in Frederique bringing the girl to her estate to live. The girl is only known as Why (Jacqueline Sassard) because initially she tells Frederique that her name is none of her business. Why is the character that somewhat represents Chabrol. Chabrol was working class, but his first wife was bourgeois and Chabrol was more than willing to make use of her money, funding the first film of the New Wave, Le Beau Serge, through her inheritance. Why actually has no idea what she'd do with the money if she got it, but she does know she's been struggling to survive on the streets for quite a while, and Frederique's offer of a peaceful decadent life with "Games in the afternoon, card parties at night, or just plain parties. And of course intellectual pleasures" sure beats scraping around for change.

The key event of the film is architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) coming to one of Frederique's parties. He immediately takes a liking to Why, but after deflowering her that night he winds up with Frederique the next afternoon. Since the film is ambiguous as all hell, one could make a case for any of several theories as far as whether Frederique set this whole scenario up or her and Paul just realized they have a lot more in common since both are bourgeois. In any case, Paul moves in and soon notices an unhealthy atmosphere.

The two clowns, Robeque (Henri Attal) & Riais (Dominique Zardi), are two of Frederique's pets that live at the house. These guys have largely outlived their usefulness to Frederique, but they are hilarious in a very obnoxious sort of way. These two tend to chirp one after another like a couple of parrots thinking in unison, but altering in response. When they first meet Why they walk about 3 feet behind her as Frederique shows her the house, arguing about her features in a pretentious manner. After several compliments, one decides he's not sure he likes her butt, so she turns around and asks "Do you mind?" They gang up on her, "You're listening?" "That's not nice!" "Not polite!"

Soon Frederique & Why try to get some rest after their long journey and these guys proceed to play or blow everything they can get their hands on from instruments to pans, all of which are set up as if they take themselves seriously as "musicians". When Frederique comes in the room they are "jamming" in, one says "You're not sleeping?" and the other tries to ensure they stay focused, "No false notes, huh?"

The funniest part is when Why has just returned from Paul standing her up. She's there silently, in trance, and they are getting in her face and screaming in her ears trying to get her to take part in playing "animals". The idea is one person imitates an animal's sound and the others try to guess the animal, but the clowns seem to mix the animals up, particularly calling a Woody Woodpecker noise a sheep.

Robeque & Riais seem like inspiration for the characters in Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro films. The difference is here they are quite an amusing diversion, while Jeunet & Caro think a good film is a bunch of weirdoes inhabiting a heartless exercise in virtuoso style. Diversion also isn't the clowns only reason for being, one is a revolutionary that asserts, "What bothers me, I overthrow."

There is much sexual tension and ambiguity in the film. Frederique and Why might be bisexuals. Robeque & Riais might be homosexuals. Paul seems to want a menage a trois. All we know for certain is that both women sleep with Paul. The film makes me wonder, does lack of information make you want to write your own story or is that just easier than determining what info is pertinent toward the one that's actually there for you? Or is writing your own story just sexier? In any case, this style of film lends to repeated viewings because you put forward a hypothesis or two, for instance whether Frederique taking Paul from Why was calculated, and then you focus on those aspects. Or maybe it's just more fun believing that it was calculated?

What seems clear is that the bourgeois lifestyle is corrupting. Chabrol is objective and understanding though. This isn't a bourgeois=bad film. It shows that people with riches and people that want them going to far, but does so as a collision of wants, "needs", and backgrounds. Everyone wants money because that's what we've always been told is important, but mainly because they want to lounge around all day. Where they differ is you have people that can act a certain way because they have it and people that feel like they must act a certain way because they don't and are "stuck" grasping for whatever they can reach.

Frederique has servants and maids, but she'd rather have Why serve her because she's not one of them. That exerts her power over Why, exhibits the gap in their standing. Frederique may well be attracted to Why, but when she pets her hair, I think it's because she sees her as a pet and plaything, something to toy with rather than someone to have a genuine relationship of whatever kind with. In Chabrol's La Ceremonie, certainly one of the greatest, the amazing Sandrine Bonnaire plays the maid to a bourgeois family tremendously in a depressed, somber manner. Why is hardly oblivious to Frederique's little games, but what's surprising is she doesn't seem to mind. She seems defeated by her social standing, not even pissed at Frederique because it's just the way of the world and they are just playing out the game that world allows, creates. Keeping in mind that Why is the younger and more attractive of the two, I think this is particularly shown by Why's response when Frederique tries to get her over Paul by convincing her he never cared for her.

Frederique: You know, when I suggested going with him to Paris, he immediately said yes.
Why: Of course! What man wouldn't!

One of the big issues is that the bourgeois lifestyle is empty and emotionless. The characters don't say or even express their feelings, but they really don't know what they are even if they could. They are alone together or apart, but it's much more comforting to be alone drifting through life together.

One thing I like about the film is it's not afraid to show scenes where nothing profound happens. When you are around the same people most of your time, you don't necessarily talk to them all that much even if you like them. You start inhabiting the same space and not really interacting often, just kind of going through the motions and rituals of whatever the activity dictates. The scenes here cut deep in satirizing the bourgeois lifestyle because Chabrol has issues with it, but also simply because that's the one he's showing us. He's condemning the bourgeois for using their money to amuse themselves through frivolous endeavors, but at the same time pointing out that the working class wishes, and sometimes more than that, they had the luxury of wasting their time on such activities.

One reason the film can get away with being sparse on dialogue because it boasts a great progressive string and piano score. Chabrol's films sometimes feature scores that seem to have a mind of their own. In Le Beau Serge, I don't think it was at all effective because it just screamed mismatched. This score has so many effects. It can be serene and soothing in going along with the images or as a way to not be so obvious that the characters are searching for something. It can create tension out of thing air by being ominous and mysterious, but more in an anticipatory way that reminds you the situation will explode sooner or later. It can be poetic or quite simply bothersome. The scene where the opera record gets stuck was just aurally unsettling.

What I'm saying about the music really ties in to the overall strength of the film. You can throw out all these terms like dreamlike, hypnotic, haunting, mysterious, beautiful, intense, sly, insidious, and so on, but the thing is they all work together. The film doesn't have an overall tone or feeling, it's always shifting and winding, capable of eliciting conflicting emotions and making you go back and forth between many of them.

The acting is of the highest level. Audran, who was Chabrol's wife at the time and arguably his favorite muse appearing in 24 of his works, is definitely the standout. Chabrol ultimately seems drawn to women that perform in the same manner; cool, nonchalant, serene exterior, but smoldering interior types that keep you eternally puzzled at what they are up to because they won't let on. This is certainly also the case of the wonderful Isabelle Huppert, who has starred in 7 of his features. The difference with Audran here is that she's more vulnerable than typical Huppert because this character doesn't know what she wants.

If you asked me who the most underrated directors are, Claude Chabrol would certainly be one of the first names out of my mouth. I've yet to see some of the films like Le Boucher, Les Bonnes Femmes, and the long out of print La Femme Infidele that are considered his best, but most everything this most prolific director has done is at least a good film (of course, the one with Jodie Foster is garbage) and even some of his "lesser" efforts like L'Enfer are brilliant. Although he's usually in the vein of legends Hitchcock and Lang, he has a different mannerism and way of putting his ideas forth that helps his films always come off as his own. Although he's explored themes of the working class vs. bourgeois, the facades of human relationships, desire, jealously, obsession, and murder countless times, his mixture is complex and his films tend to start off as one thing and wind up another, so they actually wind up being unpredictable.


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