3 July 2010 | Bunuel1976
WISE GUYS (Claude Chabrol, 1961) ***1/2
The movies Claude Chabrol made in the first ten years of his career are vastly underrated nowadays with the film under review being, arguably, the most obscure of the lot; admittedly, LES GODELUREAUX – an unwieldy single-word title if ever there was one (literally meaning "the popinjays") – could not have endeared it much to audiences. Consequently, it seems rather hard now to believe that Chabrol's more renowned colleague at the "Cahiers Du Cinema", Jean-Luc Godard, once named it among "The Top Six French Films made since the Liberation"(!) alongside Robert Bresson's PICKPOCKET, Jean Cocteau's LE TESTAMENT D'ORPHEE' and Jean Renoir's LE TESTAMENT DU DOCTEUR CORDELIER (all 1959)!!
Thematically, the film is basically Bresson/Cocteau's masterful LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE (1945) reworked for the "New Wave" set – though the revenge this time around is triggered by a petty incident between strangers, making the whole scheme an even more cynical one. Apart from the director himself, the film also finds some choice performers at somewhere near their best, notably the two leads: Jean-Claude Brialy (genuinely Mephistophelean, he displays a remarkable flair for melodrama throughout) and an entrancing Bernadette Lafont (peerlessly epitomizing earthy sensuality) – though some, like the reviewer of the "Films De France" website, actually felt their characters to be caricatures! Equally imperative to the success of the film is Jean Rabier's glossy black-and-white camera-work, a typically fine score by Pierre Jansen and also a clever use of overlapping sound (actually one of the revolutionary cinematic techniques characteristic of the French "Nouvelle Vague" movement).
The plot – oozing with the hedonistic/nihilistic outlook of Chabrol's regular scribe Paul Gegauff – sees the seemingly bisexual bourgeois fop Brialy sending out coquettish seductress Lafont to attract the attention of a young man (well-played by virtual unknown and future director Charles Belmont) who had spited him at the very start of the film. Subsequently, the newly-minted trio becomes virtually inseparable ensuring an invasion of the latter's domestic life (which embarrasses him no end, since he is still in the custody of a strict and wealthy uncle) – as much as they force him into their own private chaos (which involves not only an omnipresent homosexual valet by Brialy's side but a nerdy soon-to-be-wed cousin whom Lafont has no qualms about seducing in front of her current boyfriend, Belmont)!
Although at one point a ménage-a'-trois between the three leads is implied, some of their shenanigans are fairly harmless – such as disrupting an art exhibition with the dissemination of sneezing powder, or an upper-class soiree' by incorporating into the program both a sultry dance (performed by none other than a dark-haired Stephane Audran!) and an eccentric ditty sung by a pathetic ex-vaudevillian lady. However, the bacchanal in the style of Ancient Rome, togas and all – held at Belmont's house, having charged Lafont with its upkeep while he is away on business (in the same vein, Luis Bunuel's contemporaneous VIRIDIANA , would feature a famously blasphemous parody of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper") – has more severe repercussions; this sequence is cleverly, and amusingly, cross-cut by Chabrol with the most formal of restaurant dinners being consumed by the oblivious Belmont and his uncle!
Eventually, the schemer feels vindicated and confesses to having taken the young man 'for a ride' and that Lafont (whom the boy had genuinely fallen for and was even planning to marry) had been his tormentor's mistress all along. However, in keeping with the film's darkly humorous tone (boasting a couple of bona-fide howlers along the way), the coda shows that, though obviously broken-hearted at first, Belmont has picked himself up by the time we next see him a year later and is consoling himself with a plain-looking girl; in fact, running by chance into Lafont on a pier, it is rather the latter who is unable to mature – being seemingly involved in yet another romantic scam (with a high-ranking Naval officer, no less)