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Filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who helped launch French new wave, dies at 80

A photo taken in 1979 shows French director Claude Chabrol on the set of his film "The Horse of Pride."
A photo taken in 1979 shows French director Claude Chabrol on the set of his film "The Horse of Pride." (Jean-pierre Prevel - AFP/Getty Images)

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Claude Chabrol, a critic and filmmaker who helped launch the influential French new wave movement in the late 1950s and whose Hitchcock-inspired thrillers such as "Le Boucher" ("The Butcher") explored the darkness lurking below the surface of middle-class life, died Sept. 12 in Paris.

He was 80. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Chabrol made more than 55 feature films, including his most recent, "Bellamy," a 2009 murder mystery starring Gérard Depardieu. His initial acclaim came a half-century earlier, when he helped revolutionize the production and visual presentation of French filmmaking.

Like peers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut, Mr. Chabrol began his career as a writer for the Paris-based film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. As they each ventured into filmmaking -- notably Godard with "Breathless" (1960) and Truffaut with "The 400 Blows" (1959) -- they challenged and paid homage to Hollywood moviemaking conventions. They were collectively known as the French new wave.

Mr. Chabrol helped lead the charge with "Le Beau Serge" ("Handsome Serge," 1958), about a young, tubercular Parisian (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) who returns to his provincial home town and becomes obsessed with saving a self-destructive friend (Gérard Blain).

Funded by family inheritance and produced on the cheap, the movie won critical acclaim and was a box-office success. More important, it showed how to make movies outside the established and insular world of French movie production.

Mr. Chabrol followed with "Les Cousins" (1959), another well-received film about a pair of contrasting characters -- a country boy (Blain) and his cousin, an urbane sophisticate (Brialy) whose life he eventually destroys.

Pauline Kael called "Les Cousins" "one of the major New Wave films," but Mr. Chabrol was less overtly political and experimental than his new wave counterparts. He was, if anything, greatly indebted to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, whom he had interviewed in the mid-1950s. He then collaborated with Rohmer in 1957 on a groundbreaking, book-length examination of Hitchcock at a time when few critics saw the British-born director as a major artist.

In his own movies, Mr. Chabrol combined the art of suspense with social commentary, sardonically highlighting the passion, desperation and violence beneath the placid facade of bourgeois life.

There was his moody and brilliant "Les Bonnes Femmes" ("The Good Time Girls," 1960), about four Parisian shopgirls whose self-deceptive fantasies about love lead to tragedy. One of the stars was Stéphane Audran, who became his second wife. She appeared in many of his movies over the next several years, notably in "Les Biches" ("The Does," 1968) as a lesbian whose relationship with another woman (Jacqueline Sassard) is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a male architect (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant).

In 1970, Mr. Chabrol made perhaps his most widely respected movie, "Le Boucher," about a small-town schoolteacher (Audran) who falls in love with a butcher (Jean Yanne) who has returned from the Algerian war. As their relationship deepens, she begins to suspect that he is responsible for a rash of unsolved murders in the town.

"If one sentence or phrase could sum up Chabrol's view of the middle class world, it's that the world is all full of rules, correctness and etiquette . . . and just below the surface there is horror and chaos," said film scholar David Sterritt, who has written extensively on the new wave. "He was making movies that were marvelously entertaining and still had that edge, that twist -- 'I'm making you smile, you in the audience, but at the same time I'm skewering exactly the kind of life that you and I lead as proper middle-class people.' "

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