Dirty Pretty Thing
2007 // Germany - France // Claude Chabrol // October 13, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - A Girl Cut in Two is a film that can only loosely be termed entertainment, unless you delight in the sight of self-absorbed twits driving one another to ruin. Admittedly, there is a certain fascination inherent in such a thing, and veteran French director Claude Chabrol manages to at least render his characters as engaging trifles. They are little more than wind-up figurines that jostle one another while bumbling through their crippling neuroses, and yet one can’t help but smirk a little at the tragic silliness of it. A Girl Cut in Two could have been an ugly, joyless film about ugly, joyless people, and it’s to Chabrol’s modest credit that it finds the space to provoke and ponder. The film’s character-poles—Charles the arrogant, graying, libertine intellectual and Paul the demented, anxious, foppish playboy—are deeply rotten men. Between these two cads ricochets Gabrielle, a gorgeous weather girl whose place in the film’s moral order is perpetually uncertain. Is she naïve or cunning? An ambitious manipulator or a pitiable victim? A liberated modern woman or a childish dimwit? The film’s sweeping ambiguity with respect to Gabrielle contrasts with its one certainty: she is the least loathsome vertex of the love triangle, and therefore our window into the dire and ludicrous events that unfold.
In the film’s early scenes, Charles (François Berléand) and Paul (Benoît Magimel) meet Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) during chance encounters at a television studio and bookstore, respectively. Both men develop obsessions with her cherubic blonde beauty, but each envisions a distinct personal victory in such a woman. (What she wants never seems to occur to them.) The older, domineering sensualist Charles spies a potential erotic conquest. He relishes exciting her with his celebrity, cleverness, and sexual experience. In the heat of the moment he confesses that he loves her, but his callous, cowardly actions suggest otherwise. Meanwhile, the nouveau riche bad boy Paul perceives in Gabrielle an opportunity to settle down with a perfect little companion, while thumbing his nose at his conservative family. Charm and sweetness come easy to Paul, but he also exhibits an erratic, violent side exacerbated by horrendous insecurity.
Gabrielle apparently sees aspects of both men that attract and repel her, although one has to squint a bit to glimpse the former. Joe Jackson springs to mind: Is She Really Going Out With Them? Gabrielle veers between the two men, alternately huffy, playful, waspish, and despairing. What does she want? Sagnier captures the broad strokes of Gabrielle’s vacillation, and yet at her best moments she also conveys a languid assurance, one that hints at her constant underestimation by those around her. (It helps that a short film of Sagnier reading the back of cereal box would, at minimum, be easy on the eyes.) However, the character as written undercuts the performer, as she is exasperating to point of distraction. She acquiesces eagerly to Charles’ demands for sexually demeaning antics, and shies meekly from Paul’s outrageous verbal abuse. Gabrielle’s moments of wit and sturdiness give way to a woman that seems overwhelmingly wobbly and foolish.
Chabrol follows Charles and Paul at times, but like his obsessed male characters, his gaze is fixed on Gabrielle. Evincing a chilly, bemused approach to his muse, the director seems ambivalent about probing any deeper than the fleeting emotions she dons and sheds like costumes from one scene to the next. Chabrol is interested in the fact of Gabrielle’s uncertainty, but not in understanding its source. In this, there is a troublesome tinge of sadism to A Girl Cut in Two. What is to be gleaned from watching Gabrielle suffer for the narcissistic whims of blackguards? Chabrol refrains from a simplistic framing of his heroine, plainly reluctant to portray her as either a virginal victim or a scheming temptress. From this vagueness, however, Gabrielle emerges as a mere Maltese falcon. She is the pebble that starts a chain reaction, eventually unleashing an avalanche that crushes the richly deserving creeps that surround her. It’s a ghastly spectacle, perhaps even a guilty pleasure, but it leaves us with the question: What are we to feel for the pebble?