Claude Chabrol, 80, Pioneer French Director, Dies

Claude Chabrol  – the French Alfred Hitchcock

Claude Chabrol, the prolific French director and critic who was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave and went on to produce a series of stylish, suspense-filled films like “Le Boucher” (“The Butcher”) and “La Femme Infidèle” (“The Unfaithful Wife”) that were often compared to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, died Sunday in Paris. He was 80 years old.

Claude Chabrol on the set of his film “The Horse of Pride,” in 1979.  (Jean-Pierre Prevel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

His death was announced by Christophe Girard, the chief cultural affairs official in Paris, but he provided no details. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on television that Mr. Chabrol “was a great cineaste and showed humor and truculence, both in his films and in his life.” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said, “French cinema has lost one of its maestros.”

Mr. Chabrol was a young film critic working for the magazine “Les Cahiers du Cinema” alongside François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard when a family inheritance allowed him to form his own production company. In 1956, he produced and wrote the screenplay for the short film “Le Coup de Berger,” which was directed by Mr. Rivette, and then used his own money to finance “Le Beau Serge” (1957). “Le Beau Serge” and a subsequent Chabrol film, “Les Cousins” (1958), are often cited as the opening volley of the French New Wave.

An acerbic study of a smug Parisian, François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who returns to the provincial village of his youth and attempts to rescue his former best friend, Serge (Gérard Blain), from a seemingly pointless, working-class existence, “Le Beau Serge” (“Handsome Serge”) established the piercing anti-bourgeois themes that would shape much of the rest of Mr. Chabrol’s career. It also demonstrated, to a professionally closed and aesthetically conservative French film industry, that an outsider could break into the system and make a commercially successful, critically acclaimed film.

This lesson was not lost on his “Cahiers” colleagues. Mr. Truffaut followed Mr. Chabrol’s example with “The 400 Blows”(1959) and Mr. Godard with “Breathless” (1960), both of which became internationally successful and established “La Nouvelle Vague” (“The New Wave”) as a phenomenon.

While never quite equaling the fame of Mr. Truffaut and Mr. Godard, Mr. Chabrol continued to explore questions of class and sexuality in films like “Les Bonnes Femmes” (1959) and “L’Oeil du Malin” (1961). An unabashed admirer of the American cinema — he and the director Eric Rohmer co-authored an early and influential study of the work of Mr. Hitchcock in 1957 — Mr. Chabrol also happily accepted more “commercial” assignments, such as the thriller “Landru” (1962) and the pulpy spy films “Le Tigre Aime la Chair Fraiche” (1964) and “Marie-Chantal Contre le Docteur Kha” (1965).

Like the Hollywood professionals he admired, Mr. Chabrol refused few of the projects that came his way, no matter how doubtful their origins. As a result, he averaged two or three films a year through the 1960’s and 1970’s, alternating personal films like “La Femme Infidèle”(1968) with international co-productions like the dual-language “La Decade Prodigieuse”/”Ten Days Wonder” (1971), starring Anthony Perkins, Michel Piccoli and Orson Welles.

Frequently working with the cameraman Jean Rabier and the screenwriter Paul Gégauff, Mr. Chabrol, in more than 50 films and TV productions, developed an elegant, formally distant style, built around controlled camera movements that often seemed to be describing the imprisonment of his characters in a stifling social order. His style was studiously cool, his detachment from his characters disguising a deeper compassion for their plight as victims of a hypocritical middle-class moralism. He employed close-ups with discretion, as if he were declining to violate the privacy of his characters out of a concern for bourgeois propriety. But behind the well-bred manners could be found a sly, mocking sense of humor — a quality Mr. Chabrol carried over to his frequent appearances on French talk shows.

“Le Boucher” (1969), a Hitchcockian suspense film starring Stéphane Audran as a schoolteacher attracted to an Algerian war veteran (Jean Yanne) who may be a serial killer, became a commercial and critical hit in the United States, while other films, such as the broadly comic “Docteur Popaul” (1972) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, were barely seen outside France. Referring to the uneven critical reception of his work, Mr. Chabrol is said to have remarked, “You have to accept the fact that sometimes you are the pigeon, and sometimes you are the statue.”

Mr. Chabrol made some 25 films with Ms. Audran, who was his wife from 1964 to 1980, many belonging to what has come to be known as the “Hélène” cycle after the name Mr. Chabrol frequently gave to the elegant, reserved but erotically vulnerable characters he created for her. In “Violette” (1977), Ms. Audran appeared as the mother of the main character, Violette Nozière, an obedient young woman secretly addicted to depravity, memorably played by Isabelle Huppert.


It was Ms. Huppert who took up the role of Mr. Chabrol’s muse when she was reunited with him for the 1988 “Story of Women,” and they worked together in a long series of films that included “Madame Bovary” (1990), “La Cérémonie” (1995) and “Comedy of Power” (2006). In 2008, he celebrated his 50th year as a filmmaker by working for the first time with another giant of the French cinema, Gerard Depardieu, on the police thriller “Bellamy.”

Mr. Chabrol was born in Paris on June 24, 1930, the son of a pharmacist who dwelt in the same sort of bourgeois social environment that he went on to satirize. He spent much of his childhood in Sardent, a village in central France, where he passed the war years running a film club. He returned to Paris to study law (one of his classmates was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the right-wing National Front political party), but dropped out to study pharmacology (his father’s profession), eventually ending up with a degree in literature.

His passion for the cinema led him first to a job as a publicist for Twentieth Century Fox, then to writing reviews and interviews for various publications including “Art” and “Les Cahiers du Cinéma.” He immersed himself in the city’s film culture and met other aspiring directors. In 1955, he and Mr. Truffaut interviewed Mr. Hitchcock on the set of “To Catch a Thief,” and two years later he and Mr. Rohmer wrote a book-length study of Mr. Hitchcock’s films.

He married Agnes Marie-Madeleine Goute, whose inheritance allowed him to establish his production company, in 1952 and had two sons with her, Jean-Yves and Mathieu Chabrol, the latter a composer who has scored most of his father’s films since the 1980s. His marriage to Stéphane Audran produced one son, Thomas, an actor who has appeared in many films for his father and other directors. Mr. Chabrol is also survived by his third wife, Aurore Pajot, who acted as his script supervisor on nearly all of his movies from 1968 on and whom he married in 1981.

In 2004, he was awarded the European Film Prize for the body of his work.

“Stupidity is infinitely more fascinating that intelligence,” Mr. Chabrol once observed, “Intelligence has its limits while stupidity has none. To observe a profoundly stupid individual can be very enriching, and that’s why we should never feel contempt for them.”

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