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  • Ravi Swami

"Les Bonnes Femmes", Dir : Claude Chabrol, 1960

I generally avoid checking out a film's Wiki entry until after I have watched it, primarily because I want to view it unfiltered and to rely on my initial impressions. The entry for Claude Chabrol's 1960 film "Les Bonnes Femmes" (Eng: "Good Girls",) (Mubi Channel) starts by suggesting that it is a "comedic drama", which description, after watching it, I find hard to square up with the film itself.

After watching a number of films from the period that fall into the category of "neo-realist" cinema from various parts of Europe, what becomes very apparent is the number of films that feature women in central roles and that seek to highlight the difficulties women face in navigating an essentially male world.

I knew of Claude Chabrol as a director of the French New Wave but had not watched any of his films upon to this point, and he is often described as being influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and though an admirer of Hitchcock he himself cites the influence of directors like Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang.

"Les Bonnes Femmes" certainly reveals an understanding of the audience's psychology in much the same way that Hitchcock understood it, and without revealing a great deal of the character's underlying psychology - this is something left for the viewer to figure out and depends entirely on the viewers' prejudices and formed assumptions, in the same way as watching a crime drama unfold.

"Les Bonnes Femmes" opens on a Paris street at night outside a strip-club as punters emerge, furtively avoiding eye-contact with the commissionaire outside who calls out to passers by to advertise the club. A group of young men and women on a night out emerge from an adjacent building and are spotted by two men who have exited the club.

It's at this point that we are introduced to three of the film's central characters, made up of four women who all work together as shop-girls selling electrical household goods and where we get an impression of their individual characters, which Chabrol sketches out in an almost stereotypical fashion as if to deliberately tease out our own prejudices at the get-go.

"Jane" (Bernadette Lafont) is the outgoing free-spirit who flirts with men and is enjoying a relationship with a soldier who accompanies the group. "Rita" (Lucile Saint-Simon) is about to be engaged to her fiancé and while she enjoys a night out with the girls, she is more responsible and less inclined to flirt with random men. "Jacqueline" (Clotilde Joano) seems distant and not at ease with herself and when she sees a flashy American motorbike parked on the pavement outside the club, she stands in front of it wistfully while its' owner out of view to her, a suave leather jacketed man, loiters outside the club.

We are never sure what his intentions are and he seems disinterested in the club or the young women, though he watches them from a short distance away.

Rita leaves the group while Jane and Jacqueline walk to their respective homes together as the two men who had left the club talk conspiratorially and climb into a large American car determined to follow Jane and Jacqueline.

The two men appear to be a man in his 30's /40's and a much older man who is the owner of the big car. They curb crawl behind the two women and call out persistently which provokes Jane to react with anger while Jacqueline mutely ignores them.

Eventually the car stops as Jane stops to talk to Jacqueline and we hear her persuade Jacqueline that it might fun to join the two men and get them to drop them home after they have entertained them, to which Jacqueline reluctantly agrees. The journey continues as the two men crack suggestive jokes and we get the impression that Jane is more capable than Jacqueline in handling the increasingly awkward and uncomfortable situation.

The evening continues at a restaurant as the two men ply the women with alcohol and it seems as if the younger man is having more success with Jane than the older man is having with the quiet and reserved Jacqueline, though Jane is content to keep him at arms length.

The two men hope they have "pulled" after offering to continue on to their apartment following a riotous party in a nightclub featuring the real-life stripper "Dolly Bell", with the promise of more alcohol but Jacqueline opts out and they drop her near her home, leaving Jane to accompany them to their apartment where they try to get her more drunk and the younger man makes increasingly aggressive advances toward her while the older man eggs him on.

Chabrol ends the scene in an ambiguous fashion but we are left to assume that Jane has spent the night with the two men, though somewhat reluctantly, as she returns in the early hours to the flat she shares with the "Ginette" (Stephane Audran), the fourth woman central to the film.

The next morning they rush to their jobs at the electrical goods store where they greet the stores' cashier, "Louise" (Ave Ninchi) whose leg they pull over a mysterious lucky charm in her handbag that she examines from time to time. The elderly store owner M.Belin (Pierre Bertin) runs a tight ship and expects his staff to be on time, reprimanding them if they arrive even a few minutes late and which he uses as a pretext to call them into his office and submit to his lecherous advances, prompting the women to speculate that Ginette may be having an affair with the much older man since she seems very tight-lipped about her life outside work and rarely participates in their group after-work activities.

Again, Chabrol invites us to assume that Ginette is a stereotypical man-hater (for reasons that are never made clear), so rounding off the group as representative not of individual characters, but of "types" of women.

The women are bored with their job and the footfall of customers is low and they each seek an escape from its' monotony and their lecherous employer, but feel trapped with prospects for the future limited by virtue of being women and continually prey to men, and marriage the only option available to them as a way out.

Assorted people wander into the store such as the delivery boy on a rickety bicycle who clearly has his eye on the Jacqueline, which the other women tease him about.

As the store clock reaches lunchtime the women escape the store for lunch and Rita reveals that she has a lunch appointment with her fiancé and his parents. By coincidence Jane and Jacqueline choose the same restaurant and when they spot Rita, Jane suggests they sit in the banquette right behind her to eavesdrop and t0 make her feel uncomfortable for a bit of fun.

The meeting with her fiancé's parents is awkward - they are clearly educated and wealthy and Rita begins to doubt that she will fit in and fears that they will make negative assumptions about her even though her fiancé has instructed her beforehand not to mention that she works behind the counter of an electrical goods store.

Throughout the course of the film's plot, the mysterious suave motorbike rider is a presence from the very beginning as he follows the American car of the two men with Jane and Jacqueline and we are invited to imagine that he is concerned for their safety, and later as he seems to take a particular interest in the shy Jacqueline, who for her part imagines that this stranger is romantically attracted to her, so much so that when the store delivery boy turns up to ask her out, she declines even though she likes him, by saying that there is someone else.

The women return to their dreary job on the store after lunch and count the minutes to closing time, during which Jacqueline manages to persuade the cashier Louise to reveal her secret good luck charm in the hope that it may bring the mysterious bike rider to her. It turns out to be a macabre keepsake of a handkerchief stained with the blood of a murderer and sadist who preyed on young women and was sent to the guillotine for his crimes, an execution witnessed by Louise as a child, and is a curious and unsettling detail that Chabrol inserts provocatively almost in anticipation of something that we are not sure of at this point.

As the day draws to a close the women rush home and Ginette, who shares a flat with Jane, disappears to some evening assignation that she never reveals to Jane and which turns out to be a spot as a singer in a music hall, something she does to express her stifled artistic nature and which she strenuously hides from her work colleagues to avoid being judged.

However, on one particular evening they happen to be in the music hall and she refuses to go on stage as a result, but her boss insists and there follows a rather strained performance during which Rita recognises her.

Her secret out in the open, Ginette is resigned to the fact her hoped-for destiny is fated to be thwarted one way or another.

This sense of the randomness of things pervades the film and the women appear aimless and at the mercy of circumstances around them. At one point they decide to go swimming at a local pool and by coincidence the two men who had picked up Jane and Jacqueline earlier turn up and make a beeline for the group and then proceed to make a nuisance of themselves, with the younger man aggressively pursuing Jane and then dunking the women in the water while Ginette screams at their behaviour from the sidelines.

The older of the two men then proceeds to dunk Jacqueline in the water repeatedly, almost out of revenge for spurning him earlier until, almost out of nowhere, the mysterious bike rider appears and saves her further humiliation. He introduces himself to the group, which includes Rita's fiancé, and appears to be a thoroughly decent person and it is clear that the shy, innocent Jacqueline is both grateful and smitten.

The random nature of the plot is reinforced by a scene involving the soldier boyfriend of Jane in his barracks discussing the monotony of army life using the example of a shadow he watches creeping across a wall on a daily basis and Chabrol seems to be hinting that we give random associations meaning and significance - in this case the shadow appears to be the face of an elderly man to the soldier at one point and at other moments something else, as it changes throughout the day.

A later scene at a zoological garden (I'd resist calling it a zoo since the animals seem penned in and restricted) features the group and the soldier on a day off work where they poke fun at the animals and any significance to the plot is difficult to ascertain apart from offering a fascinating snapshot of the Paris of 1960, which is the other aspect of the film worth noting.

The film shifts abruptly to the mysterious motorbike rider and Jacqueline riding pillion into the French countryside - they chat amiably and the rider declares his love for Jacqueline, whom he admits he has been spying on for sometime. Later they are having lunch in a restaurant which at first seems to be going well until he starts to perform childish magic tricks to entertain and amuse Jacqueline that ends when he makes a rude noise that startles the other diners.

Following the meal they go for a leisurely walk by a river and into the woods during which the bike rider, "Mario" (André Lapierre) asks Jacqueline if she loves him and then casts doubt on his own feelings, questioning if it really is love or lust, though for Jacqueline it is the former, or she sincerely and deeply hopes that it is.

Mario leads Jacqueline deeper into the woodland and to a clearing where he makes her lie down and what follows is truly horrific and disturbing as he cold-bloodedly strangles her - Jacqueline offers no struggle during this and it would suggest that she has surrendered to the meaningless random nature of her life up to that point, or, worse was "asking for it", in the minds of the audience, even though she appears the most conservative of the group and is not dressed especially provocatively or has acted like the out-going Jane.

Chabrol deliberately cheats the possible audience expectation that it is the "bad girl" Jane who will come to a tragic end and so challenges audience prejudices, something implicit in the title of the film.

The sequence echoes a similar scene in Fellini's "Nights Of Cabiria" that has a similar tragic outcome, though in that, Cabiria, a prostitute, manages to escape with her life.

Chabrol moves away from the scene to show a group of boy scouts singing and marching through the woods past Marios' motorbike and one of the boys stops to look at it out of curiosity before being ushered on by the scout master. As they exit shot Mario returns to the bike in panic and races off and as he disappears, Jacqueline's handbag falls off the rear of the bike.

Chabrol completely avoids a follow up to the crime though from a forensic point of view leaves enough clues behind and many unanswered questions for the audience, instead shifting to scene in a dance hall where a woman sits alone at a table with a drink waiting to be asked to dance with any stranger. This soon happens and we see her facing camera and staring right at the audience, her expression a curious mixture of happiness and accusation as if challenging the viewer to make an assumption about her, and this is how the film ends.

After watching the film I reflected on the scene at the start where Jacqueline is transfixed by Marios' motorbike and it occurred to me how we try to make sense and give significance to what at the time seem like random, meaningless situations.

Chabrol seems to be provoking the viewer into making assumptions about Jacqueline with the tragic outcome an inevitability in the same way that we try and piece together "evidence" in a crime scene or in fact any situation and where much depends on our own prejudices, here most markedly in the attitudes of men towards women.

Jacqueline is the slightly foolish and innocent young woman whose head is filled with romantic notions of true love and so her fate is sealed even if up to the point where she is murdered we still hope and believe that there will be a happy ending and that Mario is her knight in shining armour, which only serves to reinforce the horror of what happens.

We are left feeling foolish that we didn't "read" Mario's intentions at the outset, though on returning to those scenes it could seem obvious, but of course it isn't.

You could for example delve into the psychology of Mario - perhaps he has been spurned by women to the extent that he has become a lone predator like the caged tiger in the zoological gardens, luring his unfortunate victims with promises of love and fidelity after staking them out as he had done with Jacqueline, but none of this really justifies his behaviour in a society that dehumanizes women to the extent that they are reduced to being playthings or being disposable, which is Chabrol's central theme.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I'd really struggle to call this film "comedic" at all - it has wry, darkly comedic observations for sure of the prevalent attitudes of men toward women and objectification, such as the scene with the stripper, but it is also quite dark and disturbing from the very start when Jane and Jacqueline agree to join the two men in their car, through to the scenes where the women are interrogated individually by their lecherous employer and finally to the truly unsettling ending.

The posters above are in line with the then prevalent marketing strategies for selling films and attracting audiences by focussing on the female stars of the film and on its' release it was not a commercial success though it is clear that it is a tour de force of film making that deserves a wider audience and reappraisal.

"Les Bonnes Femmes", Dir "Claude Chabrol, 1960

Mubi Channel


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