France mourns Claude Chabrol, giant of cinema's New Wave

John Lichfield
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:36

The French film director Claude Chabrol, one of the creators of the New Wave movement of the 1950s and 1960s, died yesterday at the age of 80. Like his fellow nouvelle vague pioneer Eric Rohmer, who died in January, Chabrol worked almost to the end. His last movie, Bellamy, starring Gérard Depardieu, appeared last year.

Chabrol, perhaps best known for Le Beau Serge (1957) and Les Biches (1968), started as a cinema theorist and writer. Like other New Wave directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he wrote in the 1950s for the avant-garde film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema. His first film, Le Beau Serge, was regarded by many as the birth of the New Wave movement: a rejection of the earlier, florid French approach to film-making in favour of the more direct style of Hollywood greats such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

The New Wave argued, above all, that the director should be seen as the principal creator or "auteur" of a movie: not the writers or producers. Unlike several of his colleagues in the movement, however, Chabrol did not go in for obscurity or experimentalism. His more than 70 cinema and TV films, many of them thrillers, remained close to the classical movie style and especially that of Chabrol's great hero, Alfred Hitchcock.

Chabrol was also known for his gently malicious sense of humour and his great love – and knowledge – of food and wine. He admitted choosing locations for his films partly for the quality of the local restaurants. "If you have two possibilities, it would be cretinous not to choose the one where you eat best," he once said.

Chabrol's death was a "real shock," said Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival. "He was 80 years old but he continued to work, and the energy, feeling and joie de vivre that he always showed made you think he'd always be around. Claude Chabrol is part of our national patrimony ... for his films and also for his personality."

Chabrol was born into a well-off Parisian family on 24 June 1930. His father was a pharmacist. He originally studied law and was in the same university class as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who went on to found the Far Right party, the National Front. Many of Chabrol's films took a malicious pleasure in examining his own bourgeois background. He said that the bourgeois were "marvellous" film fodder because they were "always amusing but can also be very nasty".

Chabrol was married three times and had three sons. Paying tribute to him yesterday, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Claude Chabrol should be compared to some of France's greatest writers. "He had the finesse of Honoré de Balzac in his social portraits. He was like Rabelais in his humour and his truculence. Above all, he was himself, both in his films and in his life." The Socialist party leader, Martine Aubry, said: "Chabrol was part of my daily life. Like many French people, I waited eagerly for the annual 'Chabrol'."

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