"La Rupture" - Claude Chabrol (1970)

Claude Chabrol’s La Rupture (The Breach, aka The Breakup, 1970) is in my opinion his finest film, but it is a hard one to classify.  It can be considered to be a thriller, a film noir, a horror film, or a philosophical fantasy, but it seems to escape the boundaries of all of these genre types.  From any angle, the film turns out to be not what you would expect.  For this reason the film has been a puzzle to many viewers and has had a variety of critical responses [1,2,3,4,5,6]. 

Scripted and directed by Chabrol (Les Cousins, 1959), who was one of the original members of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), La Rupture was based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Balloon Man (1968).  The film featured excellent production values, particularly in connection with Jean Rabier’s skillfully restless cinematography and with Pierre Jansen’s eerie musical score.

The film features a virtuoso performance in the lead role on the part of Stéphane Audran, Claude Chabrol’s wife, whose portrayal of earnest, steadfast feminine authenticity represents a key narrative element to the story.  In fact we could say that a basic theme of the story is that of persistent innocence that is victimized and virtually engulfed by corrupt social elements.  But what makes this whole thing fascinating is the surreal and expressionistic way that this theme is presented. 

Indeed, the expressionistic element is an explicit feature here, inasmuch as Chabrol has remarked that La Rupture belonged to his Fritz Lang period – Lang having been a noted German Expressionist filmmaker [1].  However, Chabrol’s expressionistic presentation is different than the usual fare, which I have characterized by the following [7]:
“In their paintings, Munch and the German Expressionists presented a world that is distorted and coloured by the inner emotions evoked in the subjective viewer. This is a highly charged, emotional world vastly different from the photographic reality captured by a camera. The attempt is made to show that there is not so much a separation from the inner state of the subject and the external world as perceived by that subject. For example, when the subject is fear, every aspect of the physical world is shown to be nightmarishly oppressive and threatening.”
In other words, a distraught inner, mental world is usually portrayed in Expressionistic art by showing a distorted surrounding physical environment, often in film by means of dramatic camera angles and lighting.  But here in La Rupture it’s different – the presented physical world is entirely normal and seemingly objective.  Instead, the expressionistic elements in the film are constituted by the baroque characters that surround the main character, along with the eerie, surreal music sometimes present on the soundtrack. 

The opening title of the film offers a quotation by Jean Racine that foretells the impending atmosphere that will come to haunt the protagonist:

    “What utter darkness suddenly surrounds me.”

The film narrative proceeds through four segments.

1.  A Dramatic Marital Rupture
The film begins with a cheerful domestic scene showing Hélène Régnier (played by Stéphane Audran) happily serving breakfast to her four-year-old son Michel.  But then her husband, Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot), emerges from the bedroom with a disturbed look on his face – there is something clearly wrong with him.  Wordlessly, he throttles Hélène and then picks up his son and throws him down, giving the boy a severe concussion and breaking his leg.  Hélène manages to get up and knock her husband out with a frying pan.   Then she rushes her son to the hospital. 

Charles’s extremely wealthy parents, Ludovic (Michel Bouquet) and Emilie (Marguerite Cassan) Régnier, soon arrive and take their disturbed son to their home to tend to him.  In short order it is clear enough that both Charles’s parents and Hélène want an immediate divorce.  The only item at issue is who will get possession of the boy Michel.  The contest for the boy will constitute the driving narrative conflict for the film.

In terms of resources, the contest is between very unequal adversaries, and in this connection we are given some background concerning the marriage of Charles and Hélène.  Ludovic and Emilie never approved of their son’s marriage to Hélène, whom they disparagingly regard as lower class.  But Charles wanted to be a writer, and Hélène managed to find work as a stripteaser, and later as a barmaid, in order to support her unemployed and unsuccessful husband.  And of course this kind of work only made Ludovic and Emilie despise her even more and to the belief that Hélène ruined their son. 

Charles’s frustrations as an unpublished writer led him to taking drugs and eventually to mental illness.  With his latest outburst, Hélène now feels that even though she has loved her husband, it is no longer possible for her and Michel to live near him.  In the meantime she wants to live near the hospital where Michel is being treated so that she can see him as much as possible.  So on the advice of friendly Dr. Blanchard (Angelo Infanti), she rents a room in a boarding house directly across the street from the hospital.

2.  An Adversarial Agent is Hired
Ludovic Régnier discovers that the only way he can get legal possession of Michel is to prove that Hélène is unfit to be the boy’s mother.  So he hires the out-of-work son of a former business associate to dig up some dirt on Hélène.  This new hire, Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel), proves to be the direct adversarial agent of Hélène, and the rest of the story follows the tussle between the unscrupulous Paul and the innocent Hélène. 

The boarding house where Hélène now stays turns out to be a bizarre theater of the absurd, featuring a number of baroque, symbolic tenants who provide the key expressionistic backdrop to the tale.  These people are
  • Mme. Pinelli (Annie Cordy) is the landlady of the boarding house and is a strict, but well-meaning, moralist.
  • Elise (Katia Romanoff) is the Pinelli’s mentally retarded teenage daughter.  She is perpetually cheerful and represents pure, unsuspecting innocence.
  • Henri Pinelli (Jean Carmet) is Mme. Pinelli’s husband and is a hopeless alcoholic and almost perpetually inebriated.  He symbolizes human frailty.
  • The Three Fates – Mme Humbert (Margo Lion), Mme. Claire (Louise Chevalier), and Mme. Marineau (Maria Michi) are three gossipy old ladies who are perpetually playing games of tarot cards in the boarding house parlor.  Together, these three ladies explicitly symbolize the Three Fates (Parcae), the mythical feminine personifications of destiny, who in ancient times famously controlled the fateful outcomes of people and gods.
  • Gerard Mostelle (Mario David) is an outrageously histrionic theater actor, who, curiously enough, ultimately symbolizes truth and authenticity.  It is he who staunchly refuses to be bought out for materialistic gain.
  • Dr. Blanchard (Angelo Infanti) is a very handsome and conscientious doctor who is seemingly cut out to be a heroic rescue figure in this story.  The fact that he lives at the boarding house suggests he is single and a potential romantic partner for Hélène.  But he proves to be a narrative red herring and is always too busy to be around when Hélène needs his help.
Into this mix enters Paul Thomas, who, claiming he is suffering from cancer and needs every-other-day treatment at the hospital, secures a room in Mme. Pinelli’s boarding house in order to falsely befriend Hélène and carry out his nefarious plans.  Another outrageously expressionistic character, but one who doesn’t live in the boarding house, is Paul’s sexy girlfriend, Sonia.  Sonia is an almost hysterical nymphomaniac, who is constantly demanding sex and is almost always seen naked in the film.

All of these bizarre figures suggest that when Hélène has come to live in the boarding house, she has entered into an expressionistic dreamworld from which there is no escape.  As a part of this surreal theme, there is a long shot of Hélène walking in the park and encountering a man selling balloons (recall that the title of Charlotte Armstrong’s novel is The Balloon Man [8]).  The balloons here may suggest mysterious, ungraspable dreams that float in the sky.

Anyway, during this segment of the story, Paul tries a number of tactics to ruin Hélène’s reputation, but he is unsuccessful.  All of Hélène’s associates stand by her and affirm her basic virtue.

3.  A Nasty Plan
So Paul hatches a malicious plan to sexually corrupt the innocent Elise and have it all blamed on Hélène by staging a drug-fueled automobile accident.  This is a complicated scheme, and it involves getting Mme. Pinelli, the Three Fates, and  Hélène to leave the boarding house for an extended period of time under various false pretenses.  Then he has to ply Henri Pinelli with liquor until the man is stupefyingly drunk so that he can whisk Elise over to Sonia’s apartment so that she can gleefully sexually molest the young girl. 

Moreover, in order to blame everything on Hélène, Paul ultimately has to drug her, too, and this part of his scheme fails.  So Paul has to quickly deposit the sedated Elise back in her own bedroom.

4.  The Unraveling
Meanwhile Hélène goes to the plush Régnier family home to see Charles.  There, in a moving and adroitly performed shot of 3:30 duration, Hélène explains to the still mentally disturbed Charles that, while she still loves him, she can never again live with him and that she and Michel must leave their city and move to Paris.  Then she returns to the boarding house. 
At the boarding house, lunch is served in the dining room, and Paul spikes Hélène’s orange juice with a narcotic.  But then Elise wakes up and reveals to others that she wasn’t so oblivious, after all, to what Sonia was doing to her as Paul and Sonia had supposed.  Paul’s evil plot is clearly coming undone.

Now Hélène, dazed by Paul’s narcotic drug, goes outside into the park, accompanied by the Three Fates, who want to protect her.  Then Charles, unwilling to give up on Hélène, arrives in a rush at the boarding house.  Alarmed by the crazed look in Charles’s eyes, Paul knifes Charles to death.  Although he is hoping to pass this killing off as self-defense, the whole murderous act was witnessed by Hélène and the Three Fates, thereby assuring Paul’s guilt and the end to his story.
In the final scene, Hélène, still dazed, goes outside again in search of Michel, and we are still with her in her dreamworld.  She sees the balloon man releasing his helium-filled balloons, and, deliriously, she watches them floating up heavenward into the sky as the film ends.

La Rupture ends ambiguously and with several elements unresolved.  Paul and Charles are finished, but what will happen to Hélène?  And what about Michel?  Instead of addressing these questions, we are left in another space – Hélène’s dreamworld.  And this is where Chabrol presumably wanted us to be.  In some ways, as the world around Hélène progressed relentlessly towards ever more malicious lunacy, this is the only place we could end up at. 

This cinematic descent into existential bewilderment is masterfully orchestrated by director Claude  Chabrol.  Some naive viewers, though. might consider the extravagant performances on the part of some of the actors to be simply cases of overacting, but this is not the case here.  Those performances are essential pieces of the expressionistic tapestry that Chabrol has woven for us.  In some ways, though, the most important artistic contribution to the film comes from the beautiful Stéphane Audran in the role of Hélène Régnier.  Her performance is soulful and mesmerizing as the perfect embodiment of feminine authenticity.

  1. Vincent Canby, “Screen: 'La Rupture':Chabrol's Melodrama Shown at Festival The Cast”, The New York Times, (5 October 1973).   
  2.  Dave Kehr, “La rupture”, Chicago Reader, (n.d.).   
  3. Andrew Pragasam, “Rupture, La”, The Spinning Image, (n.d.).   
  4. James Travers, “La Rupture (1970)”, French Films .org, (2008).   
  5. Ed Howard, “La rupture”, Only the Cinema, (30 June 2008).   
  6. Ian Jane, “La Rupture”, Rock! Shock! Pop!, (30 April 2011).   
  7. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  8. When Charlotte Armstrong’s novel The Balloon Man was translated into French, its French title was  Le Jour des Parques, i.e. The Day of the Fates.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I agree, "La Rupture" is his finest film.