Almost all the major film-makers were in some way caught up in May 1968 and its aftermath. Even the generally apolitical Chabrol took part in the Estates General and later explored the world of the ‘groupuscules’ in Nada (1974). (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, in The Oxford History of World Cinema)
I don’t think Chabrol is such an explorer. He hardly leaves the inner ring road of the Parisian political establishment. Never, we suspect, has he jumped in his car to explore the outer suburbs of far left politics; that maze of tower blocks and concrete walkways where little groups hide out in flats that look like squats; and from out of which few return completely sane. Instead, he has made a film that is influenced by the atmosphere of May 1968; an event whose impact on the culture was probably far greater than its social, and certainly its political, effects. The intellectuals loved it, and have mourned those few days ever since.i
Nada was written in a café near the Sorbonne, and it shows. It simply doesn’t capture the emotional world of a tiny sect committing what for them is a major political act. They are, like most of the characters in his best work, too indifferent, too liberally normal, to be impassioned extremists; that is, real radicals.
Contrast this with Fassbinder who in his The Third Generation captures in full frontal nudity what Chabrol can only glimpse at through a translucent blouse: the ennui, the semi-fake idealism, and the emotional instability of a band of middle class terrorists whose ideas commit them to living an underground existence which goes against their own interests. Fassbinder able to show the many facets of their different personalities in way that is impossible for Chabrol: he can only present a limited range of emotional and intellectual characteristics – their indifference and inertia.ii The absurdities are more acute in the German’s work because he knows the minutiae of their characters so well; particularly the split between the accumulated habits of middle age and their youthful ideals which are no longer appropriate to their mature lifestyles.
The Frenchman is a little boy looking down at a riot from the inside of his St. Germain flat; closing the window when the tear gas rises too high and becomes uncomfortable. Afraid of being shot at, he walks to the other side of the room and turns on the television, and he sees a little known German playwright shouting out slogans amongst the crowd. He wonders what such a strange character is doing there….
The result is an interesting study, and a good but uninspiring film. It shows us the truth, without embodying it in characters that are sufficiently distinctive and alive to excite us. It has the qualities of a competent journalist writing a decent novel: all the details are correct, but the intuitive insight, the secret ingredient that makes it art, is missing.iii We watch Nada and it confirms what we already know. We are amused and entertained, but feel disappointed when it has finished. This is no Le Boucher. Turning to Pauline Kael we say: is that all? And laugh at the joke we share between us. For once we are together as one. She offers me a whisky, and of course I ask for a cup of tea, a pipette of milk, with one sugar; it must be sweet and the colour of dark chocolate.
With Fassbinder we are not so lucky. We watch The Third Generation and afterwards lie shattered on the rug before it. The wife rushes in, thinking we’ve had a heart attack. But no: a film has floored us with its brilliance. Although the result - she is on the phone to the hospital - might be the same.
[iii] D.J. Taylor discussing what a number of recently issued ‘modern classics’ makes this very point.
“Each of these five novels was well worth reissuing, without ever quite justifying its freshly acquired canonical tag. It is not just that they are period pieces… Rather, it is that they are less individually distinctive than collectively representative…
“[By contrast Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge] advertises some of the qualities necessary for a novel to extend its usual chronological span, transcend some of its built-in limitations, defy obsolescence and go on living. Identifying these bench-marks is not always easy: usually the reader merely notes a taxonomic black hole, an uncategorizable resonance that the other sheep whipped into the modern-classical pen mysteriously don’t possess. But whatever they are, Evan S. Connell has them in superabundance. (TLS 17&24/08/2012)