Only in the final act does Claude Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes reveal its thriller conventions. Until this point, little indication of harm, violence or crime had even scratched the surface of the film. Rather than a jarring conclusion, the finale of Les bonnes femmes feels well earned; an ode to Chabrol’s mastering of the nervous side of human nature. Whereas a film centered on violence would typically reveal escalating notes of danger, Chabrol refocuses his attentions on nervous energies — unfulfilled lust, romantic insecurity and escalating paranoia. Everyday youthful passions and fears guide the film’s trajectory, which is ruled more by emotion than plot.
Centered on a group of four friends in search of love, Les bonnes femmes divides most of its time between work and nighttime antics. We get a sense of where the characters fall in their romantic development, as heartbreak leaves some jaded, while yearning leaves others frigid. The recurring male characters within the film do not inspire romantically, an interesting choice that serves to emphasize the girls’ boredom rather than hopefulness. Desirable male characters would ultimately have given the girls something to dream about, but instead we are left with empty vessels that merely fill time. However, there is a notable exception…
The girls’ free time — mostly nights — are brimming with excess and enthusiasm. However, rather than merely reveling in that joyful ribaldry, Chabrol offers many conflicting emotions to undercut their escapism. Humiliation is at the forefront, perhaps because aside from fear, no other emotion drives audience empathy stronger. This reaches its zenith, as Ginette (played by Chabrol’s wife Stéphane Audran) gives an unexpected stage performance under the pseudonym Angelo Torrini. Wearing a black wig and adopting a caricature of an Italian accent, she performs a clumsily burlesque version of a particularly obnoxious song. Unable to hit the right notes, her accent dominates the extended performance, which leaves both her friends and the audience in painful discomfort.
Whereas many of the early French New Wave filmmakers reveled in nostalgia and youth, Chabrol was constantly undercutting his characters’ opportunities for happiness and freedom. The beauty of his films come in the moments of intimacy — lonely moments often tinged with melancholy and pity. As often as lust dominates Chabrol’s work, yearning perhaps takes on a much stronger role, often leading his characters into desperate and dangerous scenarios. Les bonnes femmes pushes the boundaries of expectations, leaving the audience in a place of vulnerability. As a testament to Chabrol’s skills, the final act does not feel exploitative, but a tragic conclusion to misplaced desire. Lack of fulfillment is a driving force that dominates much of Chabrol’s work, whether it’s a precocious teen or an adult looking for a new lease on life. Inspiring some rather dark introspection on the behalf of his viewership, Claude Chabrol questions the value our own happiness at the expense of others.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.