Innocence and experience alike are corrupted by the destructive power of love in this elegant and compelling early masterpiece from French director Claude Chabrol. Although he owed much of his later fame to slow-burning thrillers, this is more of a three-hander drama with a twist and it says much for his skill that we sympathize in turn with each of these amoral characters.
Wealthy stylish Frederique (Stephane Audran), in an iconic hat, picks up younger pavement artist, the artistically named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) in Paris. They decamp to St Tropez where Audran keeps a rather discordant house, indulging the antics of two avant-garde house-guests. Sassard loses her virginity to architect Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who soon abandons her in favor of Frederique. Each is guilty of betrayal and although a menage a trois might have been one solution instead the lovers dance from one to another with Frederique apparently in control, in one scene stroking Why’s hair with her hand and caressing Paul’s face with her foot. In an attempt to win the man back, Why dresses like her rival down to hairstyle, make-up and even the older woman’s beauty spot.
At no point is there angry confrontation, nor does Frederique simply dismiss Why from the household, but the story works out in more subtle insinuation, Frderique clearly expecting either that Why makes herself scarce or, alternatively, make herself available for whenever the bisexual Frederique tires of male companionship. The movie’s focus is the baffled Why. When the older pair disappear to Paris, the camera follows Why through off-season St Tropez, chilly weather replacing glorious sunshine. Frederique and Paul are the sophisticates who expect Why to know how to play the game. The younger woman has wiles enough to see off the avant-garde irritants.
It looks for a while as if it might be a coming-of-age tale or of young love thwarted but every time Frederique enters the picture her dominance is such that proceedings, no matter how deftly controlled, have an edge and so it becomes a study of something else entirely. At one point, each has power over the other. What appears on the surface, how each character is initially represented, disguises their interior lives. If Why has learned anything it is restraint, so the movie never descends to tempestuous passion. She also learns, in a sense, to submit, since the impoverished can never compete with the rich. In the end her revolt takes the only other option available, against which even the wealthy have no defense.
Not that it makes much difference unless you were going to analyse the picture to the extreme but clearly the names have significance. Frederique is a feminization of a male name, Paul Thomas is two male names (perhaps indicating alpha male) while Why is obviously not a real name, and either meant to represent anonymity or intrigue. Luckily, the acting is of such a high standard we are not left only in thrall to the intricacies of naming characters.
Jean-Louise Trintignant was the best known of the stars following the international success of A Man and a Woman (1966). Stephane Audran, wife of the director, had been in movies for a decade, this her best part to date. Jacqueline Sassard had broken through with Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967). Claude Chabrol, a driving force behind the French New Wave, had enjoyed conspicuously less success than compatriots Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut until finding his metier in crime thrillers The Champagne Murders (1967) and The Road to Corinth (1967) but it was Les Biches that marked him out as a sensational talent.