Claude Chabrol is often called the French Hitchcock, but, to my mind, Chabrol is the far more provocative director, because of his brutal honesty about the hopelessness of human behaviour in a patriarchal world. Chabrol’s view of heterosexual relationships is decidedly unromantic, and far more caustic than Hitchcock. Chabrol dismantles the romanticism of heteronormativity at every opportunity. His films, no matter how light they may seem, almost always result in abrupt, bleak ambiguity, and Les bonnes femmes is no exception.
Chronicling the misadventures of four young women in Paris in 1960, the film contrasts moments of humour, romance and even comedy with a dark and inevitable ending, suggesting that while hopeless romantics might wish for a happy ending to all things, such dreams are elusive, if not childlike and dangerous. All four women work in an unappealingly dull appliance store, yet, because of their gender, they prove to be of less value than the whitegoods they sell. As unenlightened prey, they hold to silly heterotopic romantic dreams that they have absorbed from popular culture. Tedium and gender relations, along with childish romantic fantasies, are always deadly in Chabrol films. After hours, the women pursue very different paths, but, in a man’s world, they are ultimately as interchangeable as appliances.
Bernadette Lafont (so memorable as the protagonist of François Truffaut’s short masterpiece Les mistons [The Mischief Makers] in 1957) plays Jane, who has a number of male suitors, but seems to take very little seriously, and enjoys life with an air of youthful abandon. Though nominally engaged to a young soldier, Jane finds herself bored in his absence, and engages in a number of empty affairs with one man after another, in search of momentary excitement.
Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is also involved with a young man, Henri (Sacha Briquet), but after a disastrous dinner with his parents, during which he continually treats her like a child and dismisses her intellectual capacities, she realises that life with him – and his miserly parents – would just be more of the same dull existence she endures working at the appliance store.
Ginette (Stéphane Audran) has a secret night-time existence, singing in a run-down cabaret while wearing a black wig to disguise her identity, which allows her to momentarily escape from the drudgery of her day job. But, at length, the other three women learn of her “second life,” and Ginette admits that she hates her day job and will do anything to leave it – but that, for the moment, it seems the only way of making a living.
Lastly, Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano), the youngest and most naïve of the four women, becomes fascinated with a young man clad in a black motorcycle jacket, André (Mario David), who follows her throughout the film with obsessive interest, yet remaining always tantalisingly out of reach. Jacqueline has romantic fantasies of a liaison with the cyclist, until one day he invites her for lunch at a small restaurant in the country, an outing that suddenly takes an ominous turn.
One gets the distinct feeling that Chabrol’s sympathies lie with the women in the film rather than with the men, who are seen as dull, lecherous or dangerous. The four young women would obviously have much more to contribute to society if that society would only allow them to step out of the restrictive gender roles that have been assigned to them. To the world at large, they are pretty objects – prey.
Photographed with customary brilliance by the great cinematographer Henri Decaë, who also shot François Truffaut’s debut feature Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Les bonnes femmes is also a sort of love letter to Paris as it existed then, with most of the film shot on location in classic New Wave style, allowing the characters to exist in the real world rather than within the confines of the studio. The film was a commercial failure when first released in France, and didn’t have a theatrical screening in the United States until 1966, after Chabrol’s career had been long established; it is only now that the film is seen as a key work in his oeuvre.
Les bonnes femmes was Chabrol’s fourth feature as a director, and remained one of his personal favourites for the rest of his career, but there’s no denying that it is a dark film; as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “Les bonnes femmes is probably Chabrol’s most pessimistic work, harping relentlessly on vulgarity, boorishness, and cruelty … the film offers a definitive look at what [its protagonists] want from life and how poorly they fare in their aspirations.”1 Chabrol critiques the legitimacy of heteronormativity; indeed he critiques any kind of ‘normativity’ in a patriarchal world as a sort of living death.
Similarly, the store itself is a hostile workplace; for one thing, it seems that almost no-one ever comes in to buy anything, so the women have to occupy themselves with small talk while fending off the lecherous, predatory advances of their elderly, hypocritical boss, Monsieur Belin (Pierre Bertin). These scenes are deeply disturbing but refreshingly honest, elucidating Chabrol’s view of the predator–prey dynamic that often shapes the male–female relationships in his films.
The film’s conclusion is both brilliant and shattering; abandoning the four women who have been our sole focus of interest and empathy for the entire film, Chabrol abruptly cuts to a dingy dance hall where another young woman – someone we have never met – is waiting to meet the love of her life. At length, a young man comes over and asks her to dance, and she accepts, all the while staring at the camera with an impassive, inscrutable gaze. While the film ends on a chilling and unnervingly unresolved note of ambiguity, we expect that she will most probably come to a very bad end. As viewers, we feel a sense of complicity – a dreadful unease that cannot be shaken off.
Les bonnes femmes gestures towards Chabrol’s later – equally brilliant and pessimistic – films, such as Le boucher (1970), in which appearances are not always what they seem, and the drive for happiness and security is also depicted as a perilous quest in a cruel patriarchal world. Chabrol’s vision may be bleak, but his ability to boldly dismantle heteronormativity and expose anti-feminist and dated ‘romantic’ dreams as truly dangerous is perhaps unparalleled. The result is a film that is as existential as it is disturbingly feminist, lingering in the mind long after the final frame has faded from the screen.
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Les bonnes femmes (1960 France/Italy 100 min)
Prod Co: Paris Film, Panitalia Prod: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim Dir: Claude Chabrol Scr: Paul Gégauff, Claude Chabrol Phot: Henri Decaë Ed: Jacques Gaillard Prod Des: Jacques Mély Mus: Pierre Jansen, Paul Misraki
Cast: Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon, Pierre Bertin, Jean-Louis Maury
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Les bonnes femmes” in Film: The Critics’ Choice, Geoff Andrew, ed. (London: The Ivy Press Limited, 2001), p. 188, available at https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2000/12/les-bonnes-femmes-3/ ↩