Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes is a valentine written in poisoned ink—the cinematic equivalent of Tough Love. It sinks its teeth down to the acrid core of its characters, yet chews them with real affection. A critical and popular misfire in France in 1960, Femmes wasn’t even shown in the United States until 1966, by which time it was already overshadowed by the French New Wave’s more famous efforts. Now revived by Kino International, it leaves one wondering how so many people could have gotten it so, so wrong.
Les Bonnes Femmes covers three days in the lives of four Parisian shopgirls, following them through a night’s debauch, a long, drab day on the job, another night of celebration, and part of the following day. The women are in no way remarkable, but they’re types we’ve lived beside all our lives: a party girl; a mouse who’s ready to sacrifice what little identity she has in order to secure a husband; an aspiring singer whose insecurity causes her to hide her ambitions from her friends; and a daydreamer yearning for the white knight who will rescue her from her dead-end existence. The women live in a world that mocks them, uses them, heartlessly exposes their hopes as desperate fantasies. Worse yet, they’ve been so pulverized by longing that they don’t even have each other to cling to; they’re all too busy drowning to think of saving one another.
The keynote is struck during the opening titles as scores of vehicles race through a traffic concourse in a million different directions yet somehow just manage to avoid hitting each other. The film’s sequences haven’t been formed to reach a point-making climax; rather, they start, and then just go on until they stop. These women (and their men) act out their lives with a maximum of movement and noise, until we realize that their behavior is a direct if grotesque outgrowth of their brittle emotional lives. Amongst themselves they are always fretting, laughing, banging on tables; they grow quiet only when fully engaged in their dreams or when their anxieties have deflated them.
Femmes turns the world into a nightmarish expression of what the women suspect is the truth of their own existence. Their would-be swains are funhouse-mirror caricatures whose enfeebled notions of masculinity are reflected in their clown disguises and beanie-style bathing caps, in the way they grovel before their mothers or gracelessly press their hands into a woman’s skirt, in their poses as wimps and louts and outsized pranksters. But the men’s very absurdity calls into question the women’s appearance as well. When we look at the women, we only see an idealized version of themselves, their collective dream; everything else in the movie is their collective nightmare. Even the climactic act of violence swims into the movie like a daydream grown inexorably sour.
All four stars—Bernadette Lafont, Clothilde Joano, Stephane Audran, and Lucile Saint-Simon—fill out their roles, but Lafont and Joano linger in the mind afterwards. As Jane, the adolescent caught in a body that’s bursting with sexuality, the eye-popping Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) nails a sensibility that can’t be calmed down. Not even at dawn, when her carryings-on have left her just enough time to slap some perfume into her armpits before heading off to work, does Jane have any inkling of the toll her lifestyle is taking on her. Joano, as the diehard romantic who’s being pursued by a mysterious stranger, shows how Jacqueline’s yearning has put her into a walking coma. Near the end, when her dream lover has miraculously materialized, she lights to earth in bodily form; for the only time in the movie, we see one of the characters as she truly is, undistorted by fear or desire.
Claude Chabrol sometimes thought about his material so much that it reached the screen a little flattened by the process, but in Femmes he blazed a shortcut between his brain and what he actually got onto film. Its images are raw and undigested—they haven’t had the chaos polished out of them. The great cinematographer Henri Decae (Bob le Flambeur, Plein Soleil), working in a dingy black and white, turns the French capital into a maze of shadowy streets that extend in every direction. More than most movies Femmes is a vivid reflection of its time, giving us a precious insider’s view of the decor and manners of mid-century Paris.
Les Bonnes Femmes has its moments of irritation and excess, but it also contains bursts of filmmaking as vibrant and satisfying as anything produced by the New Wave. The strip-club sequence, a freewheeling montage of faces and bodies inflamed by lust and alcohol, appears to have influenced the best scenes in films as different as Lenny and Schindler’s List. A quiet, searching conversation in a restaurant uses as its background music the carefully modulated tinkling of the customers’ silverware. And the film’s final five minutes are a masterful blend of choreographed camera movements and impeccably controlled sound effects, culminating in an image that puts a universal face on these lives of noisy desperation.