La Fille Coupee en Deux (The Girl Cut in Two)



PARIS -- Claude Chabrol has been making movies for half a century, turning out films with clockwork regularity at the rate of one a year. His favored themes are self-destructive behavior and polished perversity, and customers seeking more of the same will not be disappointed with his latest offering, "La Fille Coupee en Deux," whose literal translation would be "The Girl Cut in Two."

The director's name recognition should ensure decent boxoffice, and the film is boosted by a talented cast and excellent cinematography by Edouardo Serra. But its impact is weakened by a limp ending and a sense that it all adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.

Chabrol's starting point is the 1906 murder of Stanford White, the architect of Madison Square Garden, whose killing by the husband of his actress mistress gave rise to what was described in its time as the "trial of the century." Transposing the story to contemporary France allows him to do what Chabrol enjoys most -- skewering the mores of the rich and powerful, particularly the moneyed bourgeoisie.

When celebrity novelist Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand) meets at a book-signing ceremony weather forecaster Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivigne Sagnier) -- her name, signifying snow, is intended to herald purity as well as her job -- his urbanity and wit are enough to attract her sexually despite his being twice her age.

His rival Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel) is the spoilt, rich and slightly disturbed heir to an industrial fortune. Paul is used to getting what he wants and does not take kindly to losing out to a much older man. Eventually, Charles tires of his conquest and gives her the brush-off, enabling Paul to win her on the rebound.

A society wedding is announced, causing Charles to renew his interest. He shows up as Gabrielle is trying on her wedding dress. She tells him she will give it all up and return to him if he will leave his wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli), but for Charles that would be a real betrayal, or a self-indulgence.

The marriage goes ahead. Paul, realizing where Gabrielle's affections really lie, is consumed with jealously. He shows up at a charity event organized by his do-gooding mother Genevieve (Caroline Silhol), where Charles is to speak, and guns him down as he addresses the gathering.

A postscript deals with Genevieve's maneuverings to persuade Gabrielle to testify in her son's favor. He finally receives a lenient sentence for psychiatric reasons. The movie concludes with a visual metaphor, the cutting in two of the title, after Gabrielle signs on as a magician's assistant.

The borrowed story is a pretext for Chabrol to revel in the incidential details of French social life and its sexual undertones: the publishing world in which Charles moves (Mathilda May is particularly eye-catching as his publicist Capucine); the shallow, predatory world of television in which the pert, pretty Gabrielle is irresistible bait to middle-aged middle management; and the world of refined manners and inherited wealth that turns out monsters like Paul and his siblings.

Ultimately what Chabrol is concerned with is class conflict, summed up by the matriarch Genevieve's dismissal of Gabrielle's mother Marie (Marie Bunel), who runs the bookshop where Gabrielle first met Charles, as "the little book-seller."

Berleand excels as the libertine Charles and presumably Chabrol's spokesman when he confides to a friend, during a visit to a high-class brothel, that he cannot decide whether society "is heading towards puritanism or towards decadence." Berleand appears set to succeed the late Philippe Noiret as the embodiment of weary, surly but nevertheless engaging Gallic cynicism.

As Paul, all strut, sharp suits and cigars, Magimel does nothing to harm his reputation as a promising young talent. However Sagnier is miscast: Innocence is not part of her natural register. She is unconvincing in her portrayal of a young woman falling durably in love with an older man and capable of entering a living-room on her hands and knees with a peacock's fan emerging from her backside as -- as Chabrol would have it -- an expression of purity.

Aliceleo Cinema, France 2 Cinema
Director: Claude Chabrol
Writers: Cecile Maistre, Claude Chabrol
Producer: Patrick Godeau
Director of photography: Eduardo Serra
Production design: Francoise Benoit-Fresco
Music: Matthieu Chabrol
Costumes: Mic Cheminal
Editor: Monique Fardoulis
Gabrielle Deneige: Ludivigne Sagnier
Paul Gaudens: Benoit Magimel
Charles Saint-Denis: Francois Berleand
Capucine Jamet: Mathilda May
Genevieve Gaudens: Caroline Silhol
Marie Deneige: Marie Bunel
Dona Saint-Denis: Valeria Cavalli
Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating