While so many filmmakers of his generation—co-founders of the Nouvelle Vague—have passed on or wandered into cinematic narcissism, the prolific Claude Chabrol has soldiered on through the decades, producing a succession of mature, elegant pictures with tangy undercurrents constantly at work. Many of them have unhappily not found their way to these shores, but fortunately “A Girl Cut in Two”—which he wrote in collaboration with his stepdaughter—has, and while not one of the director’s best works, it’s a classy, sophisticated entertainment with a typically rich subtext.
The titular femme is a gorgeous young blonde weathercaster with the unlikely name of Gabrielle Deneige (translation: Gabrielle Snow, and played by Ludivine Sagnier), who might not be entirely pure but is as quietly driven—ambitious for both love and professional success—as anyone in her business. The daughter of a pleasant woman (Marie Bunel) who works at a bookstore, and with whom she lives, Gabrielle suddenly becomes the romantic target of two men. One is Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), a famous novelist far older than she is, who bumps into her when she comes to the station for an interview and later visits her mother’s shop for a book signing. He’s contently married to Dora (Valeria Cavalli) and closely guarded by his editor Capucine (Mathilda May), but when visiting town from his palatial country home he’s on his own hobnobbing with his coterie of jaded elder literati, and it’s not long before he and Gabrielle are having a steamy affair.
The second man is foppish, impossibly rich, extravagantly selfish Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), heir to a pharmaceutics empire and, by chance, a long-time enemy of Charles, whom he treats with open contempt at every public opportunity, much to the annoyance of his socially-conscious mother (Caroline Sihol). Paul meets Gabrielle at the same book signing and is immediately smitten. He pursues the girl, distressing his mother (and causing some extra work for his family “minder,” Franck—played by Jeremie Chaplain), though her continued fascination with Charles upsets him. Ultimately, however, she accepts Paul’s proposal when she feels that the older man has finished with her. It’s a decision that proves tragic in the end, though precisely how will not be revealed here. An acquaintance with a notorious turn-of-the-century case involving a celebrated New York architect will offer some hints, though.
Chabrol tells this story with his customary combination of no-frills efficiency and subtle but telling shifts of dramatic emphasis. His ability to generate an unsettling atmosphere through the most economical means is as satisfying as ever. And his cast is, as usual, beautifully chosen, with the lovely Sagnier maintaining an appropriately ambiguous mien and Berleand conveying a proper attitude of smug entitlement. But the most eye-catching turn is by Magimel, whose wonderfully over-the-top performance as the ostentatiously dressed, wildly gesticulating Paul is great fun without disrupting the coolly sharp atmosphere Chabrol so expertly fashions. And Sihol carries herself with superb hauteur as his mother, whose veneer of noblesse oblige comes ever so close to cracking under the stressful circumstances. Chabrol’s son Thomas makes an appearance as an attorney, and does nicely.
The crew support Chabrol expertly, with Francoise Benoit-Fresco’s production design, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography and Monique Fardoulis’ editing all entirely in tune with his crisp, understated vision. His son Mathieu’s score adds to the mood, too.
The film takes a magic-based turn at the end that brings the title closer to being literal. But even before that, there’s plenty of stylish directorial sleight-of-hand that will keep you wondering about how it’s being done so simply but so well.