FILM / One hell of a laugh with Claude: Claude Chabrol made the 'second worst film ever'. One dud in 80 he can afford. As he tells Sheila Johnston

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He has been married, so far, three times. His regular screenwriter, Paul Gegauff, was stabbed to death by his own wife after making a movie, Une Partie de Plaisir, about the breakdown of that marriage. He has just finished a film called Hell, whose original director - Henri- Georges Clouzot - suffered a heart attack, or went bonkers, depending on your information. He is an avuncular man, full of bons mots and anecdotes, who had audiences eating out of his hand on a very rare recent visit to London's National Film Theatre.

'At one time I looked for an alternative title,' says Claude Chabrol of Hell (which the British distributor is doing its best to disguise by keeping it in French: L'Enfer). 'But then I told myself, 'Well, I'll have to take the bull by the horns, because that's what the film's about: the hell of jealousy.' And in the end we made the right decision because it didn't frighten film-goers away. People aren't afraid of hell any more, I'm persuaded of it.'

Au contraire: as the film's male lead peels off into an irrational, absurd spiral of jealousy, hell can be, that NFT audience discovered incredulously, a rather comic affair. 'Laughter, yes, I understand that. Me, I tend to laugh at everything, so it's easy for me to shoot scenes where mocking laughter, the laughter of distance, comes very quickly.' And yet this rotund joker, the man now mugging happily for his official Independent portrait, can be cruel, morbid, often bloody; could he be secretly, one wonders, a tortured soul? Chabrol shrugs off the question. 'Personally I'm incapable of any kind of violence, although I believe it to be an element of survival and one of the most fascinating things in human nature.'

Here is what Chabrol's producer, Marin Karmitz, has to say: 'I'm preparing our eighth film together, an adaptation of a novel by Ruth Rendell. So I think I know Claude very well. He's someone who hides enormously behind his image. He reminds me of Hitchcock, another man who seemed to be laughing or smiling, but who was an extremely serious director.' It is, Karmitz thinks, no coincidence that, before he became a film-maker, Chabrol wrote - along with Eric Rohmer - one of the first major book-length studies of Hitchcock in 1957.

He started out, in fact, as a critic: his first ever review was of Singin' in the Rain, which he found magnifique: 'It's a very optimistic article and, finally, rather like me: jokey, joyful.' And then he, with his fellow-contributors on the hugely influential French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema - Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette - went on to form the nucleus of the Nouvelle Vague. Chabrol, thanks to some money from his first wife, was first out of the gate with a feature. 'C'est scandaleux],' he chuckles unrepentently. 'But if the others had married well, they would have been first.' This film, Le Beau Serge and the next, Les Cousins, put him instantly on the map.

His reputation peaked with a stream of dazzling psychodramas starring his brittle, glamorous second wife Stephane Audran: Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidele (1968), Que la Bete Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1969) and La Rupture (1970). But there were dissenting voices, voices which spoke uneasily of Chabrol's ironic, highly controlled perspective, like the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder who called his characters 'insects in a glass cage'. And then a series of grand flops turned him into yesterday's man.

Chabrol, who has made over 80 films, including the - by his own assessment - second worst film ever made (The Twist, if anyone's interested), is pragmatic about their uneven quality. 'I decided very early on to make a lot of films, so I knew that some of them wouldn't work. There are two sorts: the ones you want to make and the ones you make to rub the public up the right way. It's all right, as long as you know what you're doing and don't deceive yourself.'

Karmitz has a theory to explain the neglect he has suffered of late (although L'Enfer has been generally viewed as an encouraging return to early form). 'What Chabrol doesn't have is a new Cahiers du Cinema. When Chabrol was at Cahiers, he and the other critics understood Hitchcock and were capable of interpreting his films seriously at a time when he was regarded as just another B- movie maker. Today there's no new Chabrol to decipher Claude's work and analyse it critically. No one to show the continuity and universality of his themes.

'But he's the one of the few great auteurs from the Nouvelle Vague. He has a whole body of work behind him: rich, diverse, with its highs and lows, a profusion that makes me think a little of Balzac. He can make duds, too. And he's not fashionable. But viewers like him; his films play well in France and they sell well abroad. That's true of fewer and fewer directors.'

'L'Enfer' is reviewed opposite. A number of Chabrol's earlier films, including 'La Femme Infidele', 'Le Boucher' and 'Les Biches' are released on video by Art House Productions (Photograph omitted)