Sunday, 28 April 2013

Small Town Minds

Odd.  Weird.  Not quite normal.  We don’t understand it!  A key scene, the pivot on which the plot revolves, contains too much ambiguity; which is a mistake because it confuses the film’s meaning without enriching it.  Too much happens too quickly.  There should have been a few extra scenes to properly fill in the explanatory background so to clarify the character of Hélène.  Chabrol cuts a corner, and it shows: we interpret some crucial moments very differently from what we believe is the director’s intention.  The unity of the work is broken, and we become aware of a narrative flaw: the motivation of Lucienne’s daughter is not so obvious to us as it should be.  Puzzled by an inconsistency we try work it out for ourselves.  Oh dear!  Instead of letting the movie do its osmotic work we spend our time trying to solve a pseudo-problem that should never have existed.  Enamoured with our own thoughts we lose track of the film, engrossed in a question we struggle to answer: why did Hélène shop her mother to the police?

After the crimes have been committed the two lovers stop seeing each other, afraid that if their affair is discovered the murders will be too.  They are living in torment!  Incarcerated inside fears they themselves have created.  This wasn’t their original idea at all…

Lucienne and Pierre killed their partners to be free.  Yet in a terrible irony they have now lost all their freedom, and there is no prospect of them regaining it. Obsessed by their crimes they think it is impossible to resume their liaison, afraid the community and the police will jump to the obvious conclusion when it is made public.  Whereas before they could see each other intermittently, now they live in solitary confinement; their fears of future gossip and innuendo the locked doors and barred windows of their isolation cells.  They are serving a prison term where there is no remand!  Because of course everyone will believe they did their spouses in.  The risk of exposure is too great, so the only way to keep their affair secret is not to meet!  But how long must they wait?  One year?  Five years?  Forever?  The latter is possible.  And even if it isn’t, the psychic agony their separation creates could permanently ruin their relationship, as well as themselves.  What a fate!  To be walled up inside their own imaginations.

Pierre’s wife Clotilde is suffering from acute depression, brought on by hypochondria.  She has given up on life, and finds no interest in it.  For years Pierre has patiently looked after her; but then he meets Lucienne, another person deprived of emotional succour, and the madness of sexual passion overwhelms him, and his days are absorbed in thoughts of his new mistress.  If only he could spend his nights with Lucienne!  By killing Clotilde he thinks he will be free to do just that.  He is right.  Now they can spend three or four hours together in bed, rather than a few minutes in the woods or half an hour in the town’s historic chateau.  Bliss!  Although happiness causes its own problems: by seeing each other more often they are more likely to be seen, which increases the risk, or so they believe, of the murder being discovered. 

They have created an impossible dilemma that they cannot resolve.  The couple are ensnared by their own minds!  Under pressure, and obsessed by details that are mostly irrelevant, their judgement dissolves and they kill Lucienne’s husband.  Yet another mistake!  Afraid of the consequences, worrying about what people think, assuming their guilt will be transparently obvious, they lock themselves up inside a permanent present which they are too afraid to vacate.  They daren’t do anything!  Any action could disturb the delicate balance of their lives, and thus expose them to rumour and to arrest and to eventual conviction.  And so they refuse to see each other.  It is their last and biggest error.  Both their lives have stalled completely as they wait for something to happen.  And of course something does.  Catastrophically Hélène acts on their behalf.

Absolute freedom is impossible.  Remove one set of constraints and you replace them with different ones.  In the past they feared the discovery of their infidelity: nicely captured by the decision of the town council to institute police controls of the chateau to discover the teenagers they think are sleeping on its antique beds.  The couple are also scared of their partners.  But these are small worries compared to what has replaced them.  It is the French state who is their enemy now.  Yesterday it was adultery.  Today it is murder. Before it was only the facts of the affair that worried them; now these have been replaced by something much more terrifying - their own ideas.  Now they dread exposure, which they believe will lead to their arrest.  This couple’s fears have grown into something very large and amorphous: the terror of public opinion which, they think, will automatically assume they are murderers because they are lovers.  This fear is mostly metaphysical, allowing the creation of endless speculative permutations, which in turns heightens the emotions, causing them to live on the edge of paranoia and neurosis.  The relationship thus becomes deeper and more obsessive, while at the same time the feelings of constraint increase. They love each other more, but see each other less.  A nightmare!  Chasing after greater freedom they find they have lost it all.i   

They are trapped by their expectations of what they think people will believe.  Lucienne and Pierre know the truth, and they assume everyone else will realise it too, if their love is exposed.  But this is not obvious.  They haven’t properly thought about their situation and the nature of the place they live in.  Only they know all the facts – when their affair started, the precise details of the death, Paul’s character and so on.  Other people, seeing only the external details of their relationship, may come to a different conclusion; as indeed they already have: the town has rejected the official explanation of death by natural causes and assume Clotilde committed suicide, because of her illness.  If the liaison were made public their views might change.  They may even think that Pierre’s affair caused the suicide; an important but nevertheless slight shift in public attitudes, which would result, it is true, in Pierre being morally but not criminally blamed for his wife’s mortality.  Their lives could get a little frosty, but he would not be sent to jail.  Murder?  It is impossible in a place like this with people like these!  This is the provinces, and Lucienne is the wife of the mayor, and Pierre is his deputy.  Respectable people who live in little French towns do not kill their husbands and wives.  It is simply not done.  So there!

And this is not all.  There is a general lack of curiosity in the culture, which stops people questioning their impressions and basic beliefs.  We see this especially after Paul’s death.  The head of police prefers to stop the investigation, worried that it might uncover something disreputable – like drink driving or perhaps worse.  The mayor’s reputation must be protected even when he is dead.   Small town assumptions and political expediency have a tendency to accept appearances for what they are (or prefer to keep appearances intact rather than destroy them with dirt-stained realities).  Pierre and Lucienne are safe.  The town makes them so.  Its comfortable prejudices will protect them from close scrutiny and scurrilous rumour.  Yet they cannot see this; the lovers scared of phantoms they themselves invent.  Looking at their own actions all too clearly they mistakenly assume others will see them in the same incandescent light, even though their neighbours have only a smidgen of the available facts.  Of course they’ll look at the affair differently.  It is an awful irony that Pierre and Lucienne are too provincial to escape their own provincial culture; unable to see their own people with the detachment and clarity that would allow them to escape their self-made fears.  Trapped by their background and their extra ordinary situation they turn the local population into a fantasy.  It is this fantasy that destroys them in the end.

Hélène share’s Lucienne’s views about her husband Paul Delamare.  Both know that he is a completely unemotional and insensitive man who is only interested in power and money.  She is not sad to see him go. 

Hélène is also very smart.  She very quickly realises that her mother is sleeping with Pierre; and later, when she thinks about the affair, fits all the pieces together and completes the puzzle, telling her mother what she believes is the truth.  Lucienne is shocked.  But somehow she controls herself, and confesses only to the relationship.

What follows is Chabrol’s mistake. 

After her mother’s confession Hélène writes to the chief of police about the terrible rumours that are circulating in the town regarding Lucienne and Pierre.  She asks him to investigate the case to establish the truth, and so exonerate them both completely.  The town will therefore know for certain that her mother and Pierre are in no way responsible for these two deaths.  The official is surprised by this letter as there have been no such rumours.  However, accusations like these have to be investigated, and so he revisits the mayor’s house.  This time Lucienne can’t act it out, and overwhelmed by the revelation that it is her daughter who notified the police she confesses.

Why did Hélène do it?  The simple answer, and the one that fits into the overall pattern of the film, is that she desires her mother’s happiness, and believes this will only occur if the affair is made public; which requires that her suspicions, which she projects onto everyone else, are removed.  It is childish innocence, and adolescent solipsism.  It is also contains a lovely little irony: it is precisely because she is so naïve that she can recognise the brutal truth.  Without the prejudices (or more accurately: without the sophisticated culture) of the town she can put the facts together without any pre-conceptions, and without sentimentality, and finding the cause in her own hatred of her stepfather she can create a tightly plotted story that is both compelling and accurate.   Only a child could have made all these connections and been so direct in their formulation.

Hélène here embodies, it is one of the odd aspects of this odd scene, the emotional coolness of the adults – thus even Lucienne quickly recovers from the revelation that Pierre has murdered his wife.  However, the nuances are huge.  Hélène is clear-sightedly rational rather than emotionally indifferent.  She acts out of love for her mother, whom she thinks she is helping. 

She acts out of love for her mother…  It is exactly this anomaly we have to explain. 

Kids are at the same time very smart and very stupid.  Hélène is so desperate to know the truth, yet when Lucienne confesses to the affair, while at the same time denying the murders, she believes her absolutely.  Hélène is only a child, so full of love, and so intelligent and so naïve…

Hélène is a child.  She lacks the experience to understand the consequences of her actions.  She doesn’t realise that once a suspicion is raised attention is concentrated on the targeted object, such concentration liable to distort or exaggerate, or even, as in this case, uncover the unexpected truth about it.  Hélène’s actions show the limits of her understanding, which could stand in for those of the town.  In some ways Hélène is its representative… No, this is not quite right.  This is better: she symbolises what the rich and the sophisticated think small town provincial people should be like.  Thus when she writes her letter she is only imagining the reactions of the local population from her own relatively privileged position: she knows a few more things than they do, while she is prejudiced in a way that they are not – they do not share her hatred of Paul Delamare.

Chabrol has a better sense of the realities.  In the last scene a police officer asks the couple why they didn’t just move away.  They don’t know.  They hadn’t even thought about it!  For these people such an idea is too big and too radical to even conceive, trapped by their own habits and the customs of a place that is driving them insane. The world they inhabit is too tiny to escape.  Their small town mentalities are not original enough to see the obvious.  Although they can, of course, create huge fantasies.  Murdering a partner easier than leaving for Lille or Rouen.  How true this is!

It is perfect.  And yet I had to really think about this scene before I arrived at this interpretation.  It wasn’t my initial opinion.  While watching the film I couldn’t understand why Hélène wrote that letter.  My first thoughts were that it was an example of innocent cruelty; Hélène punishing her mother because she believed the love affair would threaten their own relationship.  Closely related to that idea is this one: that Hélène, with her adolescent obsession with certainty, has a compelling urge to know the truth that overrides everything else.  Logic before feelings!  Alternatively, her behaviour may be nothing more than a simple impulse; manifested in this case in the desire to spread malicious rumours.  That is, there may be no reason at all.  It is just another game that kids play.  All these interpretations are possible, especially if we bring in old doctor Freud and poke around in inside Hélène’s subconscious.   So many ideas!  They confuse us, and we become entangled in our own thoughts, more interested in them than the movie.  We have become Pierre and Lucienne!   They spent too much time imagining what other people would believe; while we are losing sight of this film in speculations about Hélène’s mental state.  We are distracted.  Our imagination is set free.  We are adding superfluous elements to a story that doesn’t need them; its main theme sinking down into our marshy fantasies…

There is another possibility which may account for Chabrol’s decision: Hélène’s behaviour confirms the belief of Lucienne and Pierre that once their love is common knowledge the public will think them killers.  Hélène can thus be seen as a touchstone for the community’s reaction.  However, in the paradox that is reality she is actually the town’s exception; her peculiarity embodied in her odd behaviour that is a parody of their original fears – she forces a police investigation to clear their names not to arrest them!  How sad and comic is fate.  For of course if the couple had declared their love Hélène would have easily accepted her mother’s lie; the truth too outlandish to be taken seriously if the rebuttal is firm enough.  Hélène, a child that can see with great clarity but who also gets many things wrong, destroys Lucienne with her foolish innocence.  Crucially she cannot see that apart from her mother and herself (and Pierre of course) no else would share their suspicions; blind to the real nature of an adult world that is so mundane and egocentric in its concerns. 

If only they had made their love public, they would have been safe.  Instead they are caught out by their own timidity, which allows a child to believe she can save them.

She did it out of love.  Hélène is not as disconnected from life as Clotilde Maury or as cold as Paul Delamare.

In a fascinating scene we see what a monster Lucienne’s husband can be.  After a lunch where it is obvious there is some emotional connection between the two friends Paul manufactures a situation where he catches his wife out.  He then invites Pierre to the marshes, where he shows his arrogance and complete indifference to Lucienne whom he treats as a whore; the affair an opportunity to secure a crooked scheme by using it as leverage to guarantee his deputy’s support.  Sexually and emotionally uninterested in his wife he treats her as if she were a disposal object.  He even says that he is glad they are sleeping together - it makes this deal easier.  Lucienne simply the pen he uses to sign this contract, the only thing that excites him.  For Paul Delamare his wife has no existence as a person.  She is an object d’ art he uses to decorate the house, in which he has little interest.  Only money and power, and the sleeping drug that is TV, can hold his attention.  People exist only as opportunities to achieve his selfish aims; thus his choice of the leftist Pierre as running mate only because he could win the workers’ votes, and so secure his own election.  Politics is simply business by other means. Ideology doesn’t exist in a mind like Delamare’s.  Paul is a very cold and calculating person, and interestingly, the only one in the town who is connected to the French establishment.  We are told he represents its population to the minister in Paris, a place he visits regularly, and where he gets the authority for his corrupt deals; able then to acquire land for property development, in which he makes large profits, although ostensibly it is all for the community’s benefit.  Pierre suspects the proposed factory is a fake.

Although this film is primarily a study of the incapacities of provincial life, the Paul Delamare character also suggests some scepticism about the metropolis.  In Paris the politicians and technocrats treat the villages and market towns instrumentally.  They are not seen as living places with their own integrity but considered only as investments and business opportunities; its people little more than anonymous things.  Above a certain height everything looks small, and everyone looks unreal.

But always we must be careful.  Generalisations have a habit of running their own fast race… to quickly leave behind our little plots of land, which become forgotten and unwelcome.

Paul Delamare is not simply a metaphor for national politics.  He is too inhuman for that.  Most Parisian industrialists and bureaucrats are warm-blooded human creatures.  He is not.  A caricature, of course, but a good one.  Paul Delamare is a monster.  And he is also something else: that particular type of character who outgrows their origins, and yet who doesn’t move away from them.  Thus he still lives in his old town, amongst his childhood acquaintances, which he dominates it with his powerful personality.  Elevated too far above his provincial associates he comes to look down on their lives and capacities; his neighbours and colleagues simply the tools he uses to fulfil his own more expansive purposes.  Although he too is trapped by the town’s habits and customs, which he has changed a little through his influence and the alien ideas he has introduced from the capital.  He is too big for this place!  He should have moved to Paris long ago.

He flourishes because other people when they get to know him devise their own survival strategies; they adapt to his weaknesses.  Hélène and Lucienne usually treat him with disdain and sly amusement: one night they watch him sleeping as if he is a cartoon character in some bedroom farce.  There is little feeling in the relationship.  This has strange effects.  Emotion tends to tie the intellect down.  Remove it, and the mind rises above the surface of things and sees all too clearly the faults that surround it: in this case Paul’s boorishness.  This kind of critical intelligence is emotion’s safety valve, and protects the person for as long as their own feelings are not overly stimulated; although it can also trap them inside unfulfilling relationships; Lucienne’s hate not strong enough to propel her into leaving a comfortable but emotional sterile domestic life.

An affair unleashes the passions.  Suddenly Paul is a barrier over which the lovers must climb; creating all sorts of frustrations, and even rage, as they catch and scratch themselves on the hard edges of the busted cars and broken tables, the chairs piled like wrecked scaffolding, they must now clamber over to get to even the next street.  Everything would be all right.  All the roads would be clear!  If he was out of the way…

But there is something else, and the scene at the marshes brings this out very clearly.  In a moment of crisis our dominant characteristics become more extreme; thus the uncaring and purely calculating nature of Paul Delamare is here displayed in its purest form.  He is a fantastically ugly moral character, revealed in his complete lack of feeling for Lucienne; his wife treated as a hooker he can sell to a client to clinch a contract.   But he has gone too far.  Lucienne rages against her husband as Pierre drives her away from this fateful meeting…  Paul has crossed a forbidden line; and it will result in the inevitable denouement - Aeschylus is quoted during the open credits.  Once the first unjust act is committed it unleashes a sequence of events that are beyond the control of the individuals concerned.  Killing his wife in order to free themselves Pierre and Lucienne have become entangled in ever increasing difficulties.  Now they must make an even bigger effort to be free, which of course generates an even stronger reaction.  Fate has become too powerful for them to control.  By taking the first fateful step to kill his wife Pierre has initiated a riot of new facts that neither he nor Lucienne has the ability to overcome.  Blown away by the revolution they have started. 

But why didn’t they leave?  This meeting at the marshes was the perfect opportunity.  Paul thinks the affair started after the death of Pierre’s wife when Lucienne was comforting a distraught widower.  Clearly they are not listening carefully to what he has to say.  It is a nice touch, for it highlights that lack of curiosity I mentioned earlier, as well as confirming that the lovers’ views about the local population are mistaken - like Paul they are more likely to believe that the affair began after Clotilde’s murder.  All they have to do is to tweak their story a little: “we fell in love while organising the funeral”; “I felt so sorry for him”; “I was touched by Lucienne’s kindness….”  However, such a small concrete detail is too enormous to think about when huge phantoms are flying around inside their heads.

If only they were as cool as Paul Delamare, and could see it from his coldly rational perspective.

If only they could distance themselves from their relationship, and see it from the outside. 

If only they would think more accurately about the environment in which they live.  For this is the provinces, where murder, especially by local dignitaries, does not happen.  It is a logical impossibility!  In such places sudden deaths are explained by other stories; those that are familiar and ready to hand – like suicide or a fatal car accident.  In small provincial towns, dominated by routine and custom, where the culture is deeply conservative, even the most extreme acts will be transformed into the most banal of incidents, if given the chance.  Lucienne and Pierre are protected by their history.  Yet they cannot see it.  Blinded by their own imaginations.

Of course this is not all.

There is not enough to do in a small market town.  It is no surprise, therefore, that the couple spend too much time putting their own fictions into other people’s heads.  Too much effort is spent speculating about the future; that great obstacle to creative thought and rational activity.  In Paris the small details of their past would have been removed from their consciousness by their daily negotiations with its crowded streets and busy offices.  Paul and Clotilde bumped and barged and finally knocked into the gutter by the relentless traffic of the French capital.  Large cities those great erasers of time!  After a few months their minds too full to accommodate their recent history; squeezed out of the door by the onrush of Parisian facts and Parisian things and their own expansive sense of freedom.  How easy to forget when there are so many new things to see!  And do.  And buy.

There is also another reason for their tragedy.  These characters have been watching too much TV.  In the nineteenth century it was romantic fiction that led Madam Bovary astray, while it was sexual passion that destroyed her.  One hundred years later popular entertainment has progressed by a fraction.  Now it is televised “trash” that provides the escapist fantasies, while it is metaphysical fears that destroys both lovers.  Life has become just a little more abstract and equal.

By the 1970s sex was unimportant as a moral issue.  Thus Paul’s complete indifference to his wife’s affair.  This is the new twentieth reality the couple refuse to see; too consumed with their sexual passion to notice this obvious truth.  If only they had been satisfied with adulterous sex they would have been all right.  But for them fun is not enough.  These lovers are living inside a different fantasy: the contemporary one of love and freedom.  At the height of their passion they want to be together all the time.  Complete independence is their ideal.  It is the reason why, unlike Madame Bovary, they are not jaded by the relationship: because they are striving after a goal they will never reach. Television and the habits of modern life – Pierre’s wife is kept going by modern medicine - has created a new kind of romantic fiction, which they try to act out in their own lives.  Sex alone can no longer satisfy them.  No!  They want more!  They must be free of all restraint, and their love must be permanently on tap; a tension that is not easy to sustain over the long term, as both of their failed marriages illustrate.  But of course a new affair always promises the impossible.  Love the great illusionist and salesman: “That first kiss the first page of an ‘astounding’ new book that will ‘revolutionise’ the nature of relationships.”  It is the promise of an October Revolution without the Leninist dictatorship and Brezhnev bureaucracy.

Paul and Pierre’s wife are murdered because of their emotional indifference.  If either had shown some common feeling they might have survived.  Paul treating everyone as objects, Pierre’s wife treating her husband as a servant, have severed the human connection between themselves and other people; and have thus reduced their partners’ intuitive sense of their individual worth.  Therefore, although they dominate their respective relationships, they are (curiously) relatively easy to kill when in the midst of an intense affair they are experienced as cruel and unjust obstacles.  The emotional involvement in their deaths is not very high.  Love, it seems, can make monsters of even the most respectable of folk.

The motivations and causes are different but the effects are very similar: both those in and out of love can treat others with indifference.  Yes, even love can make us inhuman.  We become like animals living inside a compulsive present; while the future is imagined as enormous and impossible, made up, as it is, of our daydreams and crazy fears.

The couple wants to escape into a paradise.  They want to be free!  That is, Pierre and Lucienne want to be human animals of the richest kind, which requires the unconstrained expression of their natural sexual and emotional impulses.  Chabrol knows this is not possible.  All life is compromised.  The more we strive to be free the greater the bonds we create to hold ourselves down; until one day a copper comes and puts the handcuffs on.  Click!

(Review of Les Noces Rouges)


[i] See my comments on earlier Chabrol films in This is Love.  He seems to have grasped the essence of Freud: emotional fulfilment comes from restraints and tensions, not liberal tolerance.

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