Like Hitchcock, who he is often compared to, Claude Chabrol has never quite received the same level of respect his fellow new wave colleagues Godard and Truffaut have over the years. Generally working within a more conventional framework, his films focused on the dark secrets of the French bourgeoisie; generally adultery and murder. Chabrol never provoked the intellectual following his fellow new wave comrades enjoyed over the years, when needed; he willingly bowed to the making of a commercial film so he could gain the freedom to do a more personal project.
In the United States Chabrol’s film rarely got beyond the art house circuit and rarely outside of New York having never had a financial windfall of grosses on any of his works. One of Chabrol’s biggest successes, both artistically and financially was his 1969 thriller “Le Femme Infidele.”
Here we have Charles Dasvellees (Michel Bouguet), an upper middle class businessman who suspects his wife Helene (Audran) of having an affair and hires a detective to prove himself right. Once he learns who the lover is, one Victor Pegala (Maurice Ronet), a divorced writer living in a small apartment, he calmly and coldly sophisticatedly goes to his apartment, introduces himself as Helene’s husband and claims that he and his wife have an arrangement. She can have her lovers and he can have his. Though Chabrol films these scenes very matter of fact they come across as to the viewer as unsettling. Your collar begins to fit just a little too tight. Can Charles really be this blasé?” The answer comes soon enough when Charles stoic demeanor snaps after Victor gives a tour of his small apartment and he sees the unmade bed where he seems to envision Helene and Victor made love. With an unexpected swift movement Charles whacks Victor on the head with a heavy ornament he picked up off a table. A lifetime of civilized living is gone. What follows is a methodical cleanup of a murder scene reminiscent of Norman Bates cleaning up after “Mother” massacred Janet Leigh in the shower, the entire sequence from the initial cleanup to the dumping of the wrapped up body into a lake repeatedly reminds one of Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
As the police begin an investigation after Victor’s disappearance, they discover Helene’s name and address among Victor’s belongings. A series of visits begin to the Dasvellees home. Helene admits she knows him but claims she cannot remember when she last saw him. Charles claims to have never met him. The police are not convinced either is telling the truth.
One day Helene finds a photograph of Victor, with his address written on the back, in one of Charles suit pockets. She realizes Charles knew about the affair and that he killed Victor. A small self gratifying smile appears on her face. Helene takes the photo. Chabrol’s camera methodically watches her come down the stairs and go outside where we see her carefully setting the photo on fire destroying the evidence.
Still there is something else going on with the police as they appear one more time finding the Dasvellees family outside of their house. Just before Charles goes and talks to them, he declares his love for Helene and she does the same for him. As he walks toward the police Chabrol leaves Helene and their young boy far back in the distance. We watch the conversation from Helene’s POV but like her cannot hear what is being said. Suddenly, Charles turns around and looks back. Chabrol’s camera now reverses to look back from a distance toward Helene and their son. The camera begins to move slowly to the right behind some leaves obscuring slightly the mother and child. The film ends without answering many questions. Only the affirmation of their love beyond the dark secrets is what we are sure of.
Chabrol’s camera is exquisite in its movement, like Hitchcock he is a master of camera placement. There is no unnecessary movement. You see only what he wants you to see and it is all part of the succulent pleasures this movie offers.