Directed by Claude Chabrol
Written by Claude Chabrol
Imagine the perfect life. If you were Charles Desvallees (Michel Bouquet), you’d imagine that you had a placid, undemanding office job. You’d also imagine that your secretary was a young, bubbly ingénue in a mini skirt.
After work, you’d imagine to drive home to a lavish, spacious mansion, filled with beautiful furniture and a dutiful housemaid to clean both. Waiting for you inside is your wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran), graceful and meek. Alongside Hélène is your son, a precocious young boy that likes to read and gets top marks.
Imagine if, that night, you take your wife out to dinner with friends. Joking, laughing and jovial, you take her dancing afterwards, and when you come home, you two make love. Imagine if you lived that life, but imagine if that life is not as perfect as described. If you can, then you just imagined Claude Chabrol’s romantic tragedy, La Femme infidèle.
In English, the title is actually The Unfaithful Wife, and that pretty much encapsulates what the story is about. To Charles’ knowledge, Hélène spends her time shopping, getting beauty treatments and going to the pictures. Or, at least, that’s what she claims to do all day.
In reality, these are just excuses for her to get out of the house and to have an illicit dalliance with a man named Victor Pegala, played by Maurice Ronet from Elevator to the Gallows. Like in Mad Men, one can extract some kind of social critique from her motives, attacking the sedentary lifestyle that was systematically imposed on the housewives of heretofore.
Charles eventually picks up on his wife’s strange habits and employs a private detective to investigate, only to confirm his suspicions of her affaire de Coeur. Undeterred, yet still shell-shocked, he ascertains Victor’s address to confront him and to demand answers.
Their encounter is fairly polite and courteous, following the initial bewilderment that stems naturally from their strange predicament, but it isn’t until he sees a giant Zippo lighter on Victor’s dresser does Charles begins to lose his cool.
Originally given to him as a gift, Hélène, quite prophetically, assumed that he would not notice its absence after she gave it to Victor. As a metaphor, this couldn’t be more cogent. It represents the lost spark between Hélène and Charles, a spark that she’s since passed on to Victor, as simply as if it were the Olympic torch. Charles recognizes this, causing a fiery eruption of anger that leads him to kill Victor in hot-blood (the scene in question, and its immediate aftermath, is a long, ornate homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).
Although it centers on a crime of passion, La Femme infidèle is not, strictly speaking, a crime thriller. Instead, it documents the tragedy of a marriage, the failure of a family. Charles and Hélène may superficially look like the perfect couple, but their interactions within the film point to the contrary.
They will often talk at each other, but not with. They will hear what each other are saying, but never listen. To quote Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” They don’t really know each other in any other way than in a biblical sense, so when Charles finds out about the affair, he lets his emotions overcome him. Because his relationship with Hélène is purely rudimentary, he reacts with a primal response, a deadly mix of jealousy and rage.
His judgment clouded, Charles actually goes to ask Victor why his wife is having an affair with him, instead of the other way around. If he simply talked to his wife upon learning about her infidelity, as any sane and rational person would, he would’ve avoided a visit to Victor’s house, wouldn’t have seen the lighter, wouldn’t have become enraged, and wouldn’t have killed him. The fact that he did all of the aforementioned, simply because he couldn’t talk to his wife or express his true feelings to her in anyway, is the true tragedy. In a sordid kind of way, he does tell her how he feels by the mere fact that he goes to such extremes to keep her, something Hélène finds out in the last act of the film.
The legacy of La Femme infidèle is largely due to the timeless subject of its storytelling but it’s also remembered as a deft and subtle piece of cinema. The acting and camerawork is thoughtful and entrancing, and it’s no surprise that Adrian Lyne, a director obsessed with infidelity (Fatal Attraction, Lolita), adapted the film for the 2002 Unfaithful. With the focus put more predominantly on Diane Lane’s strong performance and more sexually charged photography, Mr. Lyne’s movie is actually a quite serviceable adulation of Mr. Chabrol’s original.
A Hollywood remake does justice to its French inspiration? Imagine that.
– Justin Li
La Femme infidèle is a part of TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Summer in France’. For more information and tickets, please visit the official website