Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chabrol and the unanswered question

What's my motivation?

So goes the question actors supposedly ask when they're unsure about how to make a scene work. They want to know what internal force pushes them to walk across a crowded room or open a door that should have remained locked. Yes, I'm being glib, but motivation can be a vital gateway to understanding character -- most of the time.

Sometimes, though, a movie benefits from a certain kind of not knowing. A character's lack of awareness can give a movie a fresh meaning, suggesting the impossibility of pinning things down. In such cases, it becomes the audience's job to forget explanations and marvel at the more baffling aspects of human behavior, the way it can appear predictable and elusive at the same time. In "A Girl Cut in Two," director Claude Chabrol has made such a movie, one that insists on following its own rules.

Not that the movie's events are completely unfamiliar. Far from it. The story finds Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), a suave older novelist, seducing Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), an alluring younger woman. It doesn't matter to Charles that he has an attractive and devoted wife and an exotic-looking publisher who dotes on him. It's possible that Charles, who creates fictional characters in his work, plots to seduce (and perhaps ruin) a young woman because he's trying to extend his authorial powers into the real world. Perhaps -- and I emphasize the word "perhaps" -- he wonders how much he can mold the young woman's fate. Or maybe it's just Charles' nature to tarnish what attracts him.

Chabrol doesn't really tell us why Gabrielle -- a self-possessed weather forecaster at a local TV station -- behaves as she does, either. As a result, the movie feels vaguely unsettling. A doomed love burns its way into Gabrielle's heart and remains there long after it should have begun to dissipate. To make matters more interesting, this young woman persists in her folly without judging herself. She's not asking the questions that taunt us. "Why?" "Why?" Perhaps it's her nature, as well. Better to have a doomed romantic destiny than none at all.

Meanwhile, a spoiled brat of a rich kid (Benoit Magimel) also vies for Gabrielle's affections. He stands to inherit the family fortune, and his personality embodies the kind of carelessness we might expect from someone who hasn't earned his wealth. Aggressive and boorish, Magimel's Paul Gaudens comes off as despicable.

But here's where things get tricky. Could Charles be capable of expressions of genuine concern? Does Guadens deserve a bit of our sympathy, as well? And what in the world compels Gabrielle to attempt a loveless resolution to a lover's problem?

Chabrol reportedly based his tantalizing tale on a real-life 19th century story involving Stanford White, a famed architect who became the centerpiece of a scandalous New York tale. Transferring the events to contemporary France gives the story new flavor, and all three principal actors (Sagnier, Berleand and the volatile Magimel) build memorable characters: Sagnier's Gabrielle submits to love and embraces her surrender; Berleand's Charles hides his cunning with world-weary sophistication; and Magimel's Paul freely indulges his taste for garish sport jackets, cavalier behavior and childish outbursts.

Chabrol's work often has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock's. Stylistically that may be true. But "A Girl Cut in Two" is its own movie, the creation of a director who at 78 has his own peculiar (and ultimately intriguing) disregard for reasonable answers to obvious questions. Chabrol provides hints, small asides that invite us beneath the surface of things and suggest motivation, but he also may be telling us not to look too hard.

So, back to where we started. An actor on Chabrol's set probably knows better than to ask about motivation. With Chabrol, a performance may have less to do with motivational clarity than with following a character's unarticulated imperatives to their most injurious conclusions.

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