Tuesday, August 19, 2014

La Femme Infidèle (aka The Unfaithful Wife) (1969)

The opening scene showcases some extremely happy times in the garden of the Desvallées' plush home. The mother-in-law (Louise Rioton) of Charles Desvallées (Michel Bouquet) is visiting and they are all sharing light moments together. Charles and the others are all smiles, their rich country property brimming with an otherworldly satisfaction. Charles' mother-in-law and his beautiful wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran) discuss his weight pre and post their marriage, while their little son prances around. Only this display of cheerful bliss is ridiculously good to be true, and seems overdone with its immaculate perfection and saccharine sweetness. Perhaps it is a deliberate move on filmmaker Claude Chabrol's part to indicate that not all is as hunky dory as it seems on the surface.

Charles and Hélène have a real fine life, with all the luxuries in the world. But mere luxuries don't amount to complete happiness, as the rest of the plot of "La Femme Infidèle", this masterstroke of a film points out. A chance enquiry at a certain beauty parlour that Hélène usually visits, makes Charles aware that his wife has been lying to him about something; at least about where she goes during the day while he is at work. As it turns out and as the title of the film suggests, Hélène is having an affair with another man, unbeknownst to poor old Charles. This, of course, he finds out upon further scrutiny, and after hiring a private detective to follow her.

A disturbed but still, composed Charles decides to pay his competitor a visit. What follows later, forms the crux of this outstanding little drama penned and directed by the great Claude Chabrol. A regular Chabrol-esque plot that follows a bourgeois family, secrets, lies, deceit and even a murder as part of its proceedings proves to its audiences that despite the usual keywords, the film takes a shape that is anything but predictable.

So while you expect Charles to confront his wife upon the discovery of her fooling around with another man, such a thing never happens. He never takes it up with her, perhaps because he loves her way too much, or because he cares for their son, or because he feels he is better off not creating a scene about it. Chabrol's steady grip on his narrative only proves his prowess as a master storyteller, as the game-changing event in the film, the face to face meet of Charles and his wife's lover takes a rather intriguing turn.

This is the most crucial part of the film and it accentuates the nature of Charles as a person. It is very easy to empathize with this poor bloke who helplessly listens to the sordid tale of his wife's actions. Bouquet's performance here is a class act that knocks the ball right out of the park. He strikes a rather unusual conversation with his wife's lover, making him quite comfortable with their dialog. There are multiple emotions visible on Charles' visage; sadness, anger, shame, humiliation, embarrassment and loneliness. Bouquet pulls it all off so well, one can't help but stand up and applaud the amazing conviction he puts in into this performance. Your heart goes out to the overwrought Charles, as his voice quivers and softens in utter disappointment over his dark discovery.

Hélène's lover is Victor, played by Maurice Ronet, another fine actor, who unfortunately doesn't get much scenery to chew on, but pulls off his part remarkably well. The sense of comfort he exhibits in conversing with the husband of his lover and an awkwardness mixed with it is palpable, even as he offers his guest another drink of whiskey! Victor's charming, innocent face and gentlemanly behaviour and body language in fact makes the viewer take a liking for him rather than hate him for stealing another person's wife. His attitude seems to be somewhat nonchalant as well.

The final third of the film displays Chabrol's true writing genius. Most of what occurs in the middle portion of the film is left unsaid. There are certain consequences of these events and they affect the couple in different ways. Only neither party is vocal about their feelings or thoughts and such a scenario is equally frustrating and delightfully realistic for the viewing audience. Despite a lack of verbal communication or confrontation, a lot ends up being conveyed anyway! As with most Chabrol dramas, there is an inherent moral complexity associated with "La Femme Infidèle". It is really difficult to take sides here and on the flip side, you find yourself empathizing with what's universally accepted as morally wrong!

It is Chabrol's command on the script that ensures that a tragedy of such an epic proportion, afflicting a happy family, keeps itself from turning into a weepy soap opera and remains firmly grounded. The subtlety and the silence triumphs, and any chance of the account of the tough times in the life of the Desvallées' succumbing to melodramatic conflicts and heightened moments, is quite gracefully avoided. The second half the film is overflowing with suspense and intrigue. Every minute is tense, and every move of each character demands the viewer's full attention. It is honestly, very difficult to look away as one waits with bated breath throughout. It is the build-up that is more nail-biting than the anticipation of the outcome!

"La Femme Infidèle" was remade by Adrian Lyne in the 2002 American film "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere which was a decent film at best. Later, the Lyne film was unofficially and shamelessly ripped off and remade into at least three, very tacky, Indian B-films. Nevertheless, the original source film, not surprisingly towers as a masterwork and proves itself to be one of the greatest French thrillers out there.

Score: 9/10

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