Monday, October 20, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two

A Girl Cut in Two

Claude Chabrol, the director of A Girl Cut in Two, is the master of bourgeois evil and mystery. The dark secrets and dirty habits harbored by the wealthy propel his plots calmly through their twists and turns.

A Girl Cut in Two stars Ludivine Sagnier, a woman whose depth as an actor has continued to be revealed since she starred in The Swimming Pool, and more recently in our generation’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a lovely musical about young love and sex, called Love Songs. Sagnier’s character, Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (translated as Gabrielle Snow), is an attractive weatherwoman who is ogled by all men she meets. She is first presented to us in close-up, with heavy make up, smiling a fake smile, and charming her television audience with news of sun and clouds. While her on -stage persona is not that of her real life, to the audience, she nonetheless exists in contrast to all who surround her. She is young, they are old. She is impulsive, they are calculating. She moves like water, they, like vodka from the freezer.

The central conflict is Gabrielle’s affair with the sexually liberated, bourgeoisie novelist, Charles Saint Denis, and her jealous, filthy rich suitor, Paul Andre Claude Gaudens. It is no coincidence that Gabrielle’s name evokes both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for she is the heroine in this modern day, dystopian fairy tale. Gaudens is the prince, seeking to sweep her off her feet and away to the family castle. Gabrielle is the reluctant princess; average in status but beautiful. Gaudens’ mother functions as the bad witch, and Gabrielle’s mother is the benevolent queen. All these conventions are turned upside-down in modern day. Princes are heirs to pharmaceutical fortunes instead of kingdoms, and they are perverted and jealous instead of noble and chivalrous. The virginal princess is everything but, actually eager to sleep with a married man, and occasionally, to do it in front of his friends. Furthermore, there is no archetype in the fairytale for Charles Saint Denis’ character, and because he has no place in the formula he spoils the happy ending before the story even starts. Needless to say, Gabrielle’s affair goes horribly wrong and then get worse, leaving the poor girl to pick up the pieces.

Through all of the insincerity and betrayals, the story remains interesting, but never crosses over into territory we haven’t seen before.

However, the final moments of the film are unlike any that proceed it, and I was left wondering whether the last scene was a gesture of brilliance or an inability to self edit. Eventually, I decided it didn’t matter. In his review of the new movie Blindness, A. O. Scott cited this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into a picture-language, which is itself nothing but an abstraction from objects of the senses.” At Scott’s prompting, this got me wondering if all films are allegories because they necessarily speak in the picture-language.

In the last scene of the film, Gabrielle is her uncle’s lovely assistant in his magic act. During the performance, Gabrielle lies down on a table with a large circular saw overhead. What follows is nothing if not Coleridge’s definition of allegory: Gabrielle is literally cut in two. The abstract notion of being torn in opposite directions is translated into the picture-language.

I asked myself why Chabrol would make such a literal and obvious gesture. Here is a possible explanation. The allegory is complicated by the fact that when Gabrielle is cut in half, the bisection is a performance and an illusion. All good allegories should allow the reader or the audience to look at the thing the allegory represents with a new perspective. When the final scene is applied retroactively to the film, the title is revealed to be misleading. In order to be metaphorically “cut in two”, a person must be conflicted. At no point in the story is Gabrielle conflicted. When she wants Charles over Paul, she acts on it. When Charles makes himself unavailable, she settles for Paul, not because she is unsure of what she wants, but because she knows exactly what must be done. All the while she harbors feelings for Charles, saying definitively that he is “the only man she will ever love.” This is an expression of conviction, not conflict. She experiences no moral dilemma and no crisis of conscience. She is never tortured by the incongruity of her own desires, only the incongruity between hers and Charles’.

Ultimately, that Gabrielle is whole is no great revolution. Along the way, she has garnered some undeserved pity from the audience. Finally, she exists as she was first presented, on display. After the magic trick is over, Gabrielle stands alone on stage to bow to the audience. The credits role over a frozen image of her face, smiling proudly. Like Antoine Doinel’s face at the end of 400 Blows, the frame carries false significance. The audience searches for resolution because it the ultimate moment, but the ending is arbitrary. The story has another life outside of the picture, but the information stops here.


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