“Depraved to the bone.”
Shortly after beginning Claude Chabrol’s film A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille Coupee de Deux), I realised that this had to be a re-working of the love-triangle between eminent, middle-aged, married architect Stanford White, Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit and deranged millionaire Harry K Thaw. There’s a tasty version of their story, set in the Gilded Age of a colourful New York. It’s a film called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing reviewed here. If you watch the film, you’ll understand the title, and the film stars the gorgeous Joan Collins, young enough to carry off the innocence required in the role of the ingenue who’s seduced by a worldly rake.
Back to Claude Chabrol:
In A Girl Cut in Two, the three main characters are Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), the young effervescent weather girl on the local television station, seasoned (and kinky as it turns out) middle-aged married author Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Bereand) and the unbalanced heir to a pharmaceutical company, Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel). The film begins with Charles Saint-Denis and his wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli) at their country home in Lyon when his literary agent Capucine (Mathilda May) arrives to help Charles promote his new book.
One look at the literary agent, and we know something is not quite right. This is an attractive older woman who dresses to publicise her rampant sexuality rather than her professionalism. In one scene, Capucine sunbathes in a swimsuit that barely captures her breasts, and she does this right next to Charles’s bikini-clad wife. As the plot spins out, however, it becomes clear that Charles is a bit of a swinger, and what’s more the missus knows and doesn’t care.
Poor little Gabrielle is woefully ill-prepared when she steps into Charles’s open marriage. They talk one day at a book signing held in her mother’s (Maire Bunel) bookshop. Charles has previously spotted and noted Gabrielle, but it’s at the bookshop that he approaches this young girl. Also at the bookshop is Paul Gaudens, and he too makes a beeline for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle begins an affair with Charles, and soon she’s accompanying him on expeditions to collect rare and valuable erotica at auctions, and being “instructed” in the art of various kink. I should add that most of this is kept off-screen, and the fact that this is largely left to the imagination makes the tale darker.
Charles really is a revolting character. While Gabrielle imagines that she’s in an affair with an unhappily married man, in reality, she’s little more than a passing fad. While we don’t know exactly what Charles tells Gabrielle about his marriage and his wife, the actions he takes to extricate himself from the affair make it clear that he is deceiving her. He might waffle on about choice and liberation, but he’s extremely manipulative. Gabrielle suffers a breakdown of sorts, and then there’s good old Paul Gaudens waiting to pick up the pieces….
A Girl Cut In Two manages to exude a macabre flavour and this is achieved by not revealing everything that takes place and instead dropping veiled hints about some of the conduct that takes place behind closed doors. What, for example, is really going on when Gaudens is hustled out from the restaurant by his bodyguard? His mother instructs the bodyguard to take Gaudens to the car for cigars. Does the bodyguard shoot Gaudens up with a tranquilizer, or is Gaudens just locked in the car for punishment? These are the sorts of intriguing hints that Chabrol drops throughout the film.
In spite of the subject matter, no one gets very passionate here. It’s all conducted with a certain amount of restraint, and is consequently delivered as a morality tale as the film follows the Stanford White-Thaw-Nesbit triangle. The confrontations at the restaurant, the insane jealousy, the domineering mother, it’s all there. Gabrielle and Saint-Denis are updated 21st century versions of Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, of course, but the loony spoilt millionaire with the equally loony mother cannot be disguised or even transcribed into another “type.”
For Chabrol fans, the film should not be missed, but the story can be faulted for the fashion in which it sails on the surface of its characters’ emotions. Gabrielle, for example, has choices that were unavailable to Evelyn Nesbit at the turn of the 20th century. But the film never explores Gabrielle’s decisions and instead avoids mining the psychology of its characters.