Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand, "The Comedy of Power," "Tell No One") is a wealthy older author living in a fabulous modern home in the French countryside with his 'saint' of a wife Dona (Valeria Cavalli, "Va Savoir," "Mother of Tears: The Third Mother") and frequent visits from his darker, equally beautiful editor Capucine (Mathilda May, 1997's "The Jackal"). When he's nudged into a book signing in Paris, he meets Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier, "Swimming Pool," "Love Songs"), a twentyish weather girl, and the sparks fly. Gabrielle is also being relentlessly pursued by the even wealthier pharmaceutical heir Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel, "The Piano Player," Chabrol's "The Bridesmaid"), and so becomes "A Girl Cut in Two."
With his 69th film cowritten with long time assistant Cécile Maistre, director Claude Chabrol ("La Cérémonie," "The Comedy of Power") updates the turn of the century scandal of architect Stanford White and his lover, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. All the Chabrolean elements are here - a pharmaceutical family, class divides, secrets and lies, great food and wine. The film intrigues throughout, although suffers from an opaque performance from Sagnier and a capper of such literal symbolism it blunts what came before it.
The duality of light and dark is presented in the film's first scene when Capucine arrives at the Saint-Denis's clad in black from head to toe. Called down from above by her husband, Dona Saint-Denis is all in white, an angel floating down from heaven. When Charles kisses Dona in a full body embrace, Capucine, the third party, protests from a couch that they are turning her on. This triangle is about to be overlapped with another, one in which Charles courts the innocent Deneige ('snow' in French) into perversity and decadence.
The dandyish Paul, who is clearly dealing with anger management issues at the very least, is outwardly more courtly in his pursuit, but his stated hatred of Saint-Denis gives one pause as to his motivations. His home life with chilly mother Geneviève (Caroline Silhol, "La Vie en Rose's" Marlene Dietrich) and two sisters is a contrast with Saint Denis's, and yet it is Paul who represents the savior vs. Denis's sinner. The angel is evoked for both Gabrielle's character (Charles's endearment) and Paul (Gabrielle presents him with the gift of an angel for looking after her).
Gabrielle lives with single mother Marie (Marie Bunel, "Les Choristes," "Arsène Lupin"), who works in a bookshop and delights in her daughter's escalating career (she is promoted from weather girl to emcee of talk show 'The Icing on the Cake,' another 'snowy' reference) while fretting about her obsession with her older, married lover. After Charles takes Gabrielle to his 'special' club as a 'surprise' for her birthday (unseen sexual activities are hinted at and Capuchine is present), she no longer hears from him and he changes the lock on his Parisian hideaway. Distraught over her daughter's depression, Marie contacts Paul to lift her spirits and Paul spirits her away to southern climes. When Gabrielle will not accept Paul as a lover, he threatens to leave. She in turn breaks down and says she will marry him. But this is not a marriage made in heaven.
Lyons provides an elegant backdrop for the world of Gabrielle's dueling lovers, one where fine food and wine is a constant pleasure (what I would give for an invite to a Chabrol film set luncheon). In a luxurious restaurant where Charles has taken Dona and Capucine for lunch, the Gaudens family arrives and Gabrielle's two lovers butt heads (Paul accuses Saint-Denis of appropriating his family's regular table and notes that the older man has a habit of stealing his things. In turn, Charles relates an old Gaudens scandal to Dona and Capucine, one which reflects his treatment of Gabrielle). Cinematography by Eduardo Serra ("Girl with a Pearl Earring," "The Comedy of Power") is lush and composed to capture Chabrol's themes without calling undue attention to them. Original music by Chabrol's son Matthieu ("La Cérémonie," "The Comedy of Power") provides an underlying beat of tension, a horn in the score preceding the tuneful bleat of Paul's sports car. (As with most recent Chabrol films, this is a family affair as son Thomas plays the Gaudens family lawyer and wife Aurore is script coordinator.)
François Berléand gives an effortless performance as a man who reveres his wife while acknowledging his pursuit of pleasure and Cavalli and May are a beautiful opposing pair, one open and sunny, the other knowing and sultry. Benoît Magimel pulls off an almost clownish interpretation of the idle rich, the eager dandy with a dark edge who retains sympathy with his desire to be loved. Sagnier, though, so good in similar circumstances in the musical "Love Songs," does not convince of her unquestioned, obsessive desire for Berléand. Her performance improves when her character's fate worsens, only to be cut short by the parlor trick of an epilogue.
The film would have benefited from a less teasing approach to its central betrayal, a bit more of a look at just what went down on Gabrielle's birthday, as the only sexual playacting we see beforehand is treated comically. One must journey back to 1995 to find Chabrol at his peak with "La Cérémonie," or even 2000's "Merci Pour la Chocolat," but if "A Girl Cut in Two" isn't top notch Chabrol it still has enough of his core elements to engage his audience's darker curiosities.
Claude Chabrol is an icon of French film and, while not always at top form, usually comes up with an interesting story. In “A Girl Cut in Two” he has a mix of intrigue, love, lust, betrayal and possession. The strong suite of the film is the rivalry between the two men who vie for weathergirl Gabrielle’s (Ludivine Sagnier) affection. Born-to-wealth Paul (Benoit Magimel), is a dandy who has never worked a day in his life and is used to getting whatever he wants. And, he wants Gabrielle. Charles (Francois Berleand) is a rich, older author who attracts Gabrielle with his worldly ways. The meat of “Girl…” is this rivalry as the two men battle to possess the beautiful young woman. Neither seems to care for Gabrielle and each more interested in owning her affections than loving her..
The weak point in “A Girl…” is the rather confused performance by Sagnier. Her reactions seem out of place to the events for example, in one scene where she changes her mind over leaving a book is played as a guilty reaction. I don’t know if it is the actress, the director or both at fault but Gabrielle is a blank cipher. The real draw is the battle of wills between the two male leads.
Still, watching a Claude Chabrol film is watching a master at work and this is an example of such. The filmmaker hits you over the head with the metaphor of the title, especially in the end, but this can be forgiven for the fine performances by Magimel and the great Francois Berleand. Their rivalry for Gabrielle’s affection is the showcase of the film. I give it a B-.
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