Half Wit
By Michael Koresky

A Girl Cut in Two
Dir. Claude Chabrol, France, IFC Films

Claude Chabrol again goes about dissecting the vanities and hypocrisies of the rich and/or famous with A Girl Cut in Two, the latest of his nearly annual socially satiric potboilers. The outline, naturally, is familiar: a suspiciously de-eroticized love triangle in which fresh-faced young TV weathergirl Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) finds herself cleaved, as the title would suggest, between the poisonous twin affections of famed aged novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) and the arrogant, childish heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), she meets, not fortuitously, at a Saint-Denis book signing. Chabrol keeps the proceedings lively, if not fresh, with his usually effortlessly cynical take, a detached bemusement that precludes true emotional involvement yet engenders a certain self-conscious affection. Not unlike Chabrol’s recent works, Merci pour le chocolat and The Flower of Evil, A Girl Cut in Two takes a pragmatic, almost laidback approach to its sensational narrative, situating scandal as something of a given within such privileged settings. Though superficially similar to that in his 1994 film L’Enfer, which depicted the unraveling of a untrusting husband’s psyche as a headfirst plunge into fiery, sweaty derangement, the jealousy on display here is naturally dispassionate, a fact of life for those who never felt the need to learn to trust.

Though the opening credit sequence does indeed portend a psycho-thriller in the vein of L’Enfer, with its baroque operatic music engorging the soundtrack and a deep, mottled red cast over the passing skies and woods seen through a car’s windows, Chabrol quickly settles down into a relatively staid, classical narrative mode. As is usual for recent Chabrol, we get economic shooting and cutting, frequent close-ups, and a focus on characters’ repeated behaviors and mannerisms. It’s in the latter that A Girl Cut in Two most distinguishes itself, while also foregrounding the tale’s inherently absurdist veneer: Magimel’s Paul Gaudens is a deliciously anachronistic fop, his prissy lips, roman nose, and ice-blue eyes a pale backdrop to an elegantly appointed wardrobe and dashing demeanor, his eternally unbuttoned shirt-cuffs resembling the frilled sleeves of an 18th-century dandy. Living off of private income and doing not much else (when asked what he does for a career, he replies, without embarrassment, “I live”), Paul flaunts his spoiled-brat persona around Paris, parking his sports car in the middle of a bustling city street, cutting in lines at bookstores with snobbish entitlement, combing his floppy blonde bangs down at a haughty angle. Though there’s the strong intimation of bisexuality (which indicates prankish libertinism in films such as these), Paul also feels no shame in coming on strong to Gabrielle upon first meeting, and ensuring he remains a fixture in her life from that point forward.

Magimel, usually stoic or simply reactive onscreen, is so assuredly, colorfully repellent as Paul that Sagnier and Berléand naturally recede a bit by comparison. Considering just how unmotivated and relatively absurd it is that Gabrielle’s sexual attraction to Charles would give way to an eventual desperate love (though she’s painted as being somewhat fickle in her choices, one would think she’d have more of a head on her shoulders than to crumple into misery when he stops calling her after what seems like a few dates), Sagnier does nearly miraculous work with the vaguely sketched character. As in her films with François Ozon, Sagnier never settles to be either busty, blonde bombshell or wispy, fragile beauty, disallowing her attractiveness to overtake her individuality, and retaining her dignity even when Charles literally pushes her head underneath his desk for a quick suck-off while he types away at his laptop or when she crawls across the floor after the post-middle-age writer adorns her with furry lingerie and peacock plumes.

Berléand, meanwhile, nicely complicates Charles, who gradually grows into the film’s most inscrutable character, a grayed cynic given to bouts of romantic longing that selfishly satisfy his lust while alienating his complacent wife. With his sleekly surfaced, ultramodern home in the woods, Charles comes across as a quintessentially stubborn writer, bemoaning contemporary frivolities and ensuring all he can to avoid doing publicity for his latest book. While Berléand initially makes one believe that his affair with 40-years-younger Gabrielle might be truly regenerative (their bedroom scenes attain a convincing, momentary intimacy), Chabrol’s constant narrative ellipses, marked by fades to black, conspire otherwise, revealing his essential callousness, so unwavering and set in its ways as to deny the viewers’ emotional involvement and a forward momentum—in the relationship and narrative itself.

Sagnier runs to Berléand with glee when summoned, and is crushed when he retreats—this leaves an open door for the initially rejected Paul. Yet when his insidious mama’s boy theatrics make themselves known (he has a finely honed puppy-dog stare when imploring attention, and a proclivity to bite his nails with nervous, self-conscious energy), Gabrielle’s mistakes become clear, paving the way for a final Harry Thaw/Stanford White–esque showdown between the two men. The film’s final events seem utterly telegraphed, and the director’s clinical mordancy only reiterates the sense that things are merely falling into place as opposed to sprouting from the characters’ needs and desires.

Yet Chabrol has some lovely wonders in store as he reaches his story’s end, especially in the performance of Caroline Sihol as Paul’s mother Geneviève, an icy pearl-clutcher who gives a climactic monologue meant to elicit sympathy for her son yet which simply reveals the family’s tragic amorality as more deeply rooted than we believed. Geneviève’s tale becomes a shivery prologue for a life of gin-and-tonic detachment, a tragedy opportunistically trotted out with manufactured grace. Gabrielle’s only possibility for extrication from this vipers’ nest, the film assumes, as in the end of Chabrol’s classic 1970 film La Rupture, is entry into a world of illusion—the abrupt depiction of which falls somewhat flat. Yet these final images still provide memorable release from the film’s otherwise programmatic nature.