La Rupture

La Rupture begins with a shocking scene of domestic violence.

Helène Regnier has just prepared breakfast for herself and her young son Michel in a heavy iron skillet. Her husband Charles is still asleep. Helène is exhausted: she works nights so that she can look after her son during the daytime, while her husband, a failed writer, does nothing. Charles wakes up and comes stumbling out of his bedroom with a dazed expression on his face. All at once, he seizes Helène and begins choking the life out of her.

Helène breaks free of his grip and urges him to calm down. She seems on the verge of succeeding when little Michel, terrified, comes running to her for protection. Before he can reach her, Charles grabs the child, swings him over his head, and throws him head-first into the furniture. When Helène sees her child lying broken and bleeding on the floor, she immediately rounds on Charles with the skillet, bludgeoning him into unconsciousness so that he won't hurt either of them any more.

Helène wraps the bleeding Michel in a blanket and runs to the neighbors. While Monsieur rushes in to check on Charles and to call the police, Madame drives Helène and Michel to the hospital. The camera begins a dizzying trip through the town as the opening credits start.

It's a hell of an opening for a very powerful film by the French director Claude Chabrol. Chabrol is sometimes referred to as "the French Hitchcock", partly because he did extensive studies of Hitchcock's work and partly because he came to specialize in films about murder... but then again, Dario Argento is sometimes referred to as the "Italian Hitchcock", and when you come right down to it, it would make as much (that is, as little) sense to call Chabrol the "French Argento". It's ridiculous: Chabrol is Chabrol, for better or worse... Chabrol, the co-founder of the French New Wave, has a style and political voice that are very distinct from Hitchcock. While he does not have that perfect surety of technique that puts Hitchcock among the greatest directors of all time, his best films have a raw, cold, shattering intensity about them.

Still, the nickname sticks, because Chabrol did indeed turn to commercially-successful genres after his art films failed to bring in enough money to continue. And like Hitchcock, he became best-known for (what are at least superficially) suspense movies. Chabrol has adapted novels by some of the most familiar names in 20th century crime fiction, giving each adaptation his own very personal stamp, and each film achieving a varied degree of success.

His intent is never simply to bring a detective story to the screen. In fact, some critics (particularly in France or inspired by the style of French criticism) go to great lengths to denigrate the source novels, especially when the movie didn't turn out very well. Take Ten Days' Wonder, based on the novel by Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). The film, starring Orson Welles and Anthony Perkins, is something of a mess; Chabrol apologists hasten to point out how much superior the film version is to the "mere" detective potboiler. This only serves to show the critics know little about Queen, whom Dorothy Parker placed "tall among the very highest-ups" of the mystery genre in an Esquire review. All Queen's novels and stories are superbly constructed puzzles, but many are also stylized and highly symbolic, with ambitions far beyond their modest appearances. The later Queen books frequently veer off into something like surreal fantasy or science fiction (genres which are also sneered at by those who should know better). Such is the case with "Ten Days' Wonder": most of the compelling details of Chabrol's film which the critics seize on are actually present in the book, complete with their disturbing psychological implications.

For a similar example, take Chabrol's Canadian-produced Blood Relations, starring Donald Sutherland, based on an "87th Precinct" novel by Ed McBain: the film is dreary and structurally odd -- but before I'll let the critics get in a disparaging word about McBain, I mutter "Kurosawa" under my breath, hoping their memories of High and Low will remind them that there is genius to be found in good, solid commercial work.

But on the other hand, La Rupture is based on a novel called "The Balloon Man", by Charlotte Armstrong. The first time I saw La Rupture, I was so impressed by it that I immediately wanted to locate the book (just as I re-read "Ten Days' Wonder" after seeing Chabrol's version). I found a copy in our local public library, but I was barely able to finish it: I thought it was awful. I was put off by the style of Armstrong's writing, to begin with; but even more disappointing to me was the fact that it was more of a romance novel than anything else. Perhaps I misremember, in which case I apologize; but as I recall, none of the things I'd found so fascinating about the film were to be found in the book.

As I remember, by the end of the novel the soon-to-be-divorced Helène Regnier (I've forgotten the character's name in the book) finds love with the handsome doctor who is looking after her son. This conclusion is completely at odds with Chabrol's version of the story. However, Chabrol provides a slight gesture towards the novel by having Helène collapse into the Doctor's arms when he first meets her. This Dr. Blanchard then takes Helène to his boarding house, where there is a temporary vacancy. The landlady, Mme. Pinelli, is a little suspicious of Helène, since she's groggy from the combined effects of exhaustion and the sedative given her at the hospital. She's also showing up on the armof the handsome Doctor, and Mme. Pinelli forbids cohabitation in her house. Having come so far with his suggestion of a link between Helène and the Doctor, Chabrol spends the rest of the film keeping the two as far apart as he can. This is not a romance with a happy ending: this is a character study that focuses on nothing less than the struggle between good and evil. What's more, those two hoary abstracts are presented in realistic forms that an audience can immediately relate to.

Helène has already been through all kinds of horror this morning. As if the attack and its consequences weren't enough, she's been grilled by the police in the hospital waiting room. The police aren't at all convinced that Helène didn't attack both her husband and her son. After all, she's nobody; she's only a woman, a bar maid at some local pub... while her husband apparently comes from a very wealthy family. And thinking of the wealthy family, who should come stalking into the hospital but her father-in-law himself: Ludovic Regnier, his crisp black coat and homburg stark against the bare white walls. Regnier glares at the injured child; glares at Helène; then stalks back out again without a word. Outside the room, he accuses Helène of having caused all this. But no more, he says, will Charles support her! Helène can't help but laugh at this absurdity, since it was always she who provided for the family. Regnier takes the laugh as a personal affront.

Ludovic Regnier is a wealthy bourgeois of the type that's filled the news in the last few years (think Enron gone Gallic). Right and wrong on his moral compass have been replaced by successful and unsuccessful. If you've got it and can keep it, you obviously deserve it, whatever methods you may have used to get it in the first place. Whereas, if you don't "have it"... you were obviously meant to be used and discarded. It needs to be stressed that Regnier genuinely believes that the lowly Helène is responsible for his son's misery and the injury to his grandson. She is not "one of them"; she is not a success, so she must be driven out and punished.

Eventually, we will learn that Charles had married Helène in Paris years ago, where she was earning a living at various menial jobs. She had even been a nude dancer for a short time, work she found miserable and very difficult. Charles had married her without ever going into detail about his family, and certainly not introducing them; and the two had tried to support themselves as best they could through Charles' writing. Then the Regniers had burst into the scene, and were appalled by the shabby conditions they found their son living in. Naturally, they'd blamed Helène.

When Charles and Helène had found themselves destitute, with Helène several months pregnant, Charles had at last found regular work. But his privileged upbringing had not prepared him for the stress of life in the Real World, and soon Charles became sick... probably psychosomatically. With nowhere else to turn, Helène had gone to the Regniers for help. The Regniers had put up at least a show of civility and taken them in. Poor, sick Charles had been attended by three doctors, while Helène, havily pregnant, had been left alone. After the child had been born, the Regneirs had virtually kidnapped him, hiding him behind a mass of servants and nurses and keeping him as far from his mother as possible. Finally, Helène had been unable to stand it any more, and had taken her child and left the Regniers' house. Charles had followed, but the tension of trying to live between the two worlds was too much for him. He'd turned to drugs, and while Helène struggled not to notice, the would-be writer turned into an incoherent, shambling sleepwalker. He even looks a little like Cesare, the murderous somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

As Charles begins to seem to us less and less of a menace, we might be forgiven for thinking that Ludovic Regnier is going to be the villain of the piece. Every action and its harrowing consequence in the film can be traced back directly to the hand of Regnier, and by implication to the social, political and economic environment that allows people like him to thrive. Certainly Regnier is the Bad Guy in a political sense, which is an important consideration to Chabrol. But if this film were merely a political allegory, it would hardly be as interesting as it is. Chabrol understands that we need to see these characters as more than stick figures and strawmen. Thus the Regnier he shows us is curiously pathetic. It's very clear that he believes what he's doing is right, and good, and just. He loves his family (his blood family, anyway) in his own terrible, stunted way; he's incapable of true humanity, but he is at least sincere.

And this brings us to the real villain of the piece. Regnier calls in the young Paul Thomas, the son of a former business partner that Regnier had sold out and destroyed. Paul is destitute, and Regnier knows it. But Regnier bites back his contempt for the moment: he has an offer for Paul. As Regnier sits beneath a statue of Justice (or, more accurately, L'Égalité), he tells Paul that he will give him a lucrative honorary position with his firm. All Paul has to do is find the evidence that will prove Helène is unfit to take custody of Michel.

Paul immediately wants to know if this means he needs to "arrange" something, but Regnier is convinced that the evidence is already there. All it will take is some discreet investigation to prove it. After all, she is from the Lower Classes, and had been a stripper! Paul doesn't seem sure if he should take the old man at his word. Is this just his way of suggesting that if the evidence isn't there. he should... create it? As the discussion draws to a close, Chabrol's camera slides ironically over to the statue of Liberté conquérante behind Paul's chair.

Paul discusses the first steps of his plan with his silly slut of a girlfriend: he will first call a list of Helène's friends and acquaintances (provided by M. Regnier), and place poisonous suggestions about Helène in their minds. Thus, he reasons, when she breaks down and calls on them for help, they'll suspect her and turn her away. She'll be alone, he says; and when you're alone, you make mistakes.

And so Paul begins his campaign against Helène. First, he calls her relatives, her employer, anyone in a position to help her, and murmurs black suggestions about her character. Ironically, he does this while fondling his naked girlfriend. Next, posing as a very sick man, Paul waylays Helène at the hospital. He feigns sympathy to gain her trust, and even gets her to suggest he find lodgings with Mme. Pinelli. Soon Paul is living in the same house with his quarry, and dreaming up all kinds of ways to drag her down.

Paul's trouble is that he quickly realizes that the evidence he needs simply isn't there. It's clear Regnier will not accept this answer: Regnier knows that his daughter-in-law is debased, and nothing anyone says will convince him otherwise. But Paul wants desperately what Regnier has offered him: the chance to be a rich bourgeois like him, or at least get a foot up in the process. Paul, having seen his own father hounded to death, assumes the world works according to the rules set by Regnier and his like, and so he starts to put in place a ruthless plan to discredit Helène for good.

As part of his plan, Paul intends to involve the other members of the Pinelli household. Mme. Pinelli is distraught because her boarding house is about to be pulled down to make room for some new apartmnts; so Paul suggests to her that his old friend M. Regnier would be delighted to put her in charge of one of his properties. He neglects to bring up the fact that it is one of Regnier's companies that is actually demolishing the Pinelli house! Paul then wonders aloud why Mme. Regnier, the great man's daughter-in-law, would not have suggested this herself... M. Pinelli, in the meantime, has a weakness for drink. Paul surreptitiously supplies him with alcohol, while suggesting that Helène shares his love of the bottle. When the Pinellis' mentally handicapped young daughter, Elise, shows a trusting fondness for Helène, Paul suggests to her inebriated father that these have been whispers that Helène is overly fond of young girls, and that this is one of the reasons she's become estranged from her wealthy in-laws.

Also in the Pinelli house, in addition to the regularly-absent Dr. Blanchard, are an unemployed actor and three old ladies, whom the actor refers to half-jokingly as the Fates. Paul dismisses the flamboyant actor as useless and harmless to him -- bad move, Paul -- while he attempts to ingratiate himself with the Fates. Helène had tried to make friends with the old ladies early on, and had had little success. Paul, however, turns on the charm for them, even sitting down to join them in their endless game of cards (which they play using a Tarot deck). Perhaps he forgot that one of the best ways to read a man's character is to play cards with him. In any case, he forgot how unwise it is to gamble with the Fates.

Then, just as everything is starting to fall into place for Paul, he gets the unwelcome news that the divorce proceedings have been advanced. He now has only a single day to complete his mission. So Paul goes into action with his plan.

The plan -- which I do not intend to reveal -- is both chilling and absurd. It's chilling because it reveals what depths Paul is willing to sink to. The character he wishes to thrust on Helène comes out of the worst part of himself, out of reserves of evil so black even he doesn't recognize them in himself. "Imagine me killing someone," he jokes to his girlfriend at one point; yet by the movie's end, murder is the least of the horrible things he's done. Paul's depraved imagination makes cartoon baddies like Freddy Krueger look silly by comparison, because you can actually imagine someone -- someone young and charming like Paul -- being as cheerfully amoral as he is, and probably getting away with it.

But his plan is absurd as well, because he has forgotten to take a number of things into consideration. Like the hero of Fassbinder's Despair, Paul has built his plan on a set of assumptions that we in the audience quickly recognize as faulty. Paul's early remark about the vulnerability of being alone applies as much to him as to Helène. He's assumed 1.) that everyone is as motivated by personal gain as he is; 2.) that Regnier will not try to get directly involved with the Pinelli household once he learns that Helène is staying there; 3.) that Helène will continue to take him at face value; 4.) that a genuinely good person is, by definition, a foolish or naïve person... and the list goes on. The final form which Paul's plan takes is both so vile and so destined for disaster that you can only sit back and wait for the horrors to unfold.

La Rupture is an excellent alternative to those stupid movies whose heros are "good" only because they're not as theatrically "bad" as the bad guys. In Helène, we have an unselfconscious heroine who has genuine integrity. In the Regniers, we have a movingly humane study of a family destined to destroy itself, because of its reliance on convention and its disconnection with real human values. And in Paul, we're given a truly terrifying villain: he sees himself as a normal guy, certainly not the kind of person to do anything really evil... and yet his actions show that he is a monster. The last glimpse we get of Paul is his reflection in a mirror, fading into darkness... but he's not looking into that mirror, as though he is still unable to come face-to-face with what he is, and what he's really capable of.

If we look at La Rupture as a political film, it comes off facile and one-dimensional: the lower-class Helène and the various denizens of Mme. Pinelli's house are all virtuous and good, while the money-mad bourgeois are all irredeemably bad. Fortunately, it's easy these days to look past the politics on display. What makes La Rupture so refreshing is its insistence that people can be genuinely good at heart. Even the most apparently superficial of its characters is given a chance to show that he or she has much greater depth than we have been led to believe. Take the melodramatic actor, for instance: he's given the opportunity to do what Paul has done, that is, attempt to advance his career by betraying Helène. He refuses. Of course, he then runs to tell Helène all about it, with typical self-aggrandizement... but the gesture is pure, in spite of the theatrics. "People aren't kind to each other any more!" he cries, and with that unguarded remark he suddenly ceases to be a caricature. We can see the real peson buried beneath the bombast. Even old Mme. Regnier, Charles' mother, is treated with some dignity. At first, she seems to be a nonentity, just a reflection of her husband. Later, when we see her reading bedtime stories to the comatose Charles, she starts to take on a sinister cast, as the Mother that eats her young. But even old Mme. Regnier is given a moment of real humanity toward the end of the film, when she realizes that no matter what she may have thought of Helène, Charles really did love her as much as he was capable of loving anyone or anything.

As for Ludovic Regnier himself, it's precisely because he's given no such humanising moments that we can't come to loathe him as thoroughly as we loathe Paul. His character stands out by contrast to the essential humanity of everybody else -- even the ghastly Paul, who is none the less understandable for being a monster. Curiously, it's Regnier who suffers more than anyone else from the terrible things that happen -- the things he has caused to happen -- and consequently, he comes to assume a position both tragic and ridiculous. But it's not so easy to hate him as much as we probably should.

Perhaps you're wondering why I'm reviewing this film. Perhaps it doesn't seem like a horror movie to you. If it doesn't, I suggest you find the movie and watch it at once, and then see what you think. You can keep your Freddies and Jasons and Menacing Shapes... all they want to do is kill people in colorful ways. I don't find them particularly frightening. I'm given nightmares by villains like Paul Thomas. Everybody, including himself, thinks he's a charming and personable fellow. In reality, there is nothing so horrible that he will not do it, simply to get what he wants. He doesn't think of the cost to anyone else; and when he's pressed, the scheme he comes up with is every bit as unlikely... as convoluted... as impossible as any Dario Argento murder trap. And yet the terrible difference between Paul and your typical black-gloved assassin is this: you can easily imagine a real person doing something as foul as what Paul does, and sleeping well at night.

The only thing that makes the movie bearable is the knowledge that Paul is counting on his quarry to be as compromised as he is. He accepts the view of the world that everyone is essentially corrupt, and everybody will move to cover their own asses when suspicion is thrown on them. And Chabrol -- bless him for this uncharacteristic warmth -- has given us a film that lets us hope Paul is wrong.

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