Chabrol's "The Bridesmaid"

There is an understandable tendency in film criticism to reduce a filmmaker to a sort of thematic shorthand. For someone writing on deadline for a readership that may not be film-savvy, it's often an unavoidable if regrettable necessity. And if you are loathe to divulge plot twists, it may be the only way to convey anything of the content or style of a movie.

This shorthand usually reduces Claude Chabrol to a Gallic version of Hitchcock, a Catholic student of guilt who delights in putting a kink in the tails of the bourgeosie.

Which is certainly true, on the most simplistic level. But a guy who has made over 50 feature films has surely staked out an identity of his own. Looking at Chabrol's perversely delicious The Bridesmaid, which opened this weekend in New York City, one is reminded forceably that his book on Hitchcock (co-authored improbably with Eric Rohmer -- he's a Hitchcockian, too but not in the ways you'd expect) was published nearly a half-century ago. The influence of Hitchcock in The Bridesmaid isn't that hard to find, if you are looking for it; the final sequence of the film is an archly clever reinvention of and homage to Psycho.

But one might just as easily cite Lang, Bunuel and Sirk in cataloguing the film's forebears. In short, it's a Chabrol film, not just an inventory of auteurist favorites. What sets this film -- and most of Chabrol's filmography -- apart from the predecessors he tacitly acknowledges is the density of psychological and sociological detail that replaces the technics of suspense. The Bridesmaid derives a lot of its power from the quotidian detail of petit bourgeois life that permeates the film and the strange psychosexual tensions that are rife in the family on which the film centers.

Philippe (Benoit Magimel) is a salesman for a home fixtures firm, a promising young man who will be offered a partnership before the film is over. He lives with his mother (Aurore Clement), who is a hairdresser working out of the family home, and his two sisters, Sophie (Solene Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea), who seem not to work at all. Sophie is about to get married, and at the wedding Philippe meets and is enchanted by one of the bridesmaids, the enigmatic Senta (Laura Smet). Or is her name Stephanie? She lives in the basement of a vast and decrepit mansion with a woman who may be her mother, her stepmother or some sort of family friend, a professional tango dancer.

As this synopsis suggests, Senta is a bundle of mysteries and as Philippe falls in love with her, the film seems to be turning into a "Had-I-But-Known" thriller with genders reversed. But Chabrol keeps throwing these nagging tensions from the family at you. Philippe's relationships with his mother and his younger sister are both simmering with incestuous undercurrents. Patricia seems to have a serious problem -- drugs? -- that will cause her fate to intersect with that of her brother's lover in a completely unforeseen way.

Chabrol isn't interested in pulling all these plot threads together neatly, which is where he departs radically from the old models. His focus on an amour fou that never becomes a folie a deux. In an odd way, one senses that Chabrol's sympathies lie with Senta's deluded love rather than Philippe's pragmatic emotional distance. As a result, we come to see Philippe as being as painfully deluded, in his way, as Senta; The Bridesmaid isn't a "had-I-but-known," but a "had I not convinced myself that I didn't know."

Perhaps by its very nature, the film never achieves the delirium of Chabrol's best work. It fits rather nicely with the chilly perfections of Merci Pour le Chocolat and Fleurs du Mal, its two immediate predecessors (in terms of American release), rather than the white-hot madness of La Ceremonie, but it's still one of the best films of the summer.