Les bonnes femmes

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September 23, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

The opening scene of Les bonnes femmes, which stretches on for nearly ten minutes, takes us breathlessly through the Parisian nightlife, from the streets to the clubs. Everything pops and crackles with energy as Jane (Bernadette Lafont)—J.A.N.E., not J.E.A.N.N.E., she hates that—and Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) meet up with Marcel (Jean-Louise Maury) and Albert (Albert Dinian) when the two men eye them on the street and follow them in their car. The lean and exuberant Marcel jokes and charms, while the corpulent Albert sits back and coyly observes. Though reluctant, the two girls finally decide to join the boys. The quartet goes to a nightclub where a beautiful, alluring blonde stripper named Dolly Bell performs (a scene/character that would inspire Emir Kustirica’s film Do You Remember Dolly Bell?). The scene is alive with sound and images, laughter and fun, sexiness and sensuousness. Afterwards, Jacqueline goes home, while Jane returns to Marcel and Albert’s apartment.

The next day, the girls awake into the quiet day. They go off to work at a small shop selling various trinkets along with Ginette (Stéphane Audran), Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon), and the older cashier, Mme Louise (Ave Ninchi). Their working day couldn’t stand more in contrast to their nights. Here, silence replaces music, the sound of footsteps replaces dancing, stillness replaces movement, the flat light of the day replaces the chiaroscuro of the nightclubs, work clothes replace fashion, and idle chitchat replaces laughter. It’s Jacqueline’s first day and she meets her boss, a salacious, middle-aged man who speaks as if he’s singing recitatives in an opera. His overt and unwanted sexual advances replace the shared flirtations of the nightclub. For the group of “good time girls”, the day is the time to while away until the fun of the night.

Les bonnes femmes was the fourth film from pioneering French New Wave director Claude Chabrol. It was released the same year as Godard’s Breathless and a mere year after Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and as a result is one of the films that has gotten lost in the mix of that remarkable era. In many ways, it’s both typical and atypical of its era. The looseness of its narrative certainly seems to recall that of Breathless, as this is a film without a traditional cause-and-effect narrative, without any kind of consistent focus, tone, or theme. It feels more like a string of events tied together through its central cast of characters whose own sense of idle purposelessness seems to be reflected in the arbitrary nature of the film itself.

The film is atypical, however, in that Chabrol’s style is much more conservative than the experimental Godard, much less lyrical than that of Truffaut, and much less indebted to American cinema than any of the New Wave (Les bonnes femmes certainly isn’t a thriller in the vein of, say, Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows). Chabrol has a certain cool, distanced perspective that would serve him better in his later films that were more obviously indebted to Hitchcock. Here, it comes off as a bit awkward, and yet it adds a certain quirkiness to the proceedings as there seems to be a disjunction between the vitality of the film’s girls and Chabrol’s camera that never can indulge as deeply as they can.

If there is consistency in the film, it’s its repeated insistence that things are more than meet the eye. Jacqueline, who plays the more reserved romantic to Jane’s extroverted sexuality, has her own stalker, named Andre (Mario David) who follows her. She interprets this as romantic, and even tells the local delivery boy (who asks her out) that she’s in love with him. The elder of the girls, Louise, has a secret fetish that she hides from the girls, later revealing to Jacqueline (whom she sympathizes with because they’re both romantics looking for love above all else) that it’s the blood-soaked towel of a man who was hanged for strangling women to death. These two seemingly separate elements will connect in the film’s shocking penultimate scene. Rita is getting married to an upper-class man named Henri (Sacha Briquet) who is extremely nervous about having her meet his parents. This plays out in a scene where the other girls listen at another table in a restaurant and confront Rita about it the next day. Ginette is also leading a double life where she sings in a nightclub. One day, the other three girls go out with Henri to the club and Ginette is terrified about having them watch her perform and hopes that they won’t recognize her under the wig, but they do.

If Chabrol is indebted to Hitchcock here it’s more subtle than in his later “suspense thrillers” where even a layman could note the similarities. Here, Hitch can mostly be seen through the combination of sly sexuality and mysterious danger—its cast is a study in the allure of carnality as it relates to both sex and death. Rita has chosen the safe route, and Henri is a steadfast, if utterly boring, suitor. When she defends her choice all she can really say is that he’s well read, well educated, and comes from a good family. Jane wants something wilder, and in Marcel she has a man who’s leading a secret life—going out at nights to sleep with strange girls even though he’s married—but is still relatively harmless. But Jacqueline is the character who crosses the line, going out with the completely mysterious stalker, Andre.

Ultimately, Les bonnes femmes may be too scattershot to be considered a masterpiece of its era, but it’s also one of those films that has no right to work as well as it does. It’s difficult to pin down anything in the film as the tone, style, themes, story and characters are all over the place. Yet it may be precisely that unpredictability and unclassifiableness that gives Les bonnes femmes its compelling watchability. From its opening, which is constructed like a series of impressionistic scenes, it’s hard not to get sucked into a film who’s mystery seems to be inherent in the film’s structure and presentation more so than its narrative.

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