To Go Where Film Noir Does Not: Les Bonnes Femmes

This is an old essay from a film class, that may only make sense if you’ve seen the 57-year-old movie. It also spoils the movie. It’s a good essay though, I promise.

Critics and audiences are occasionally divided over Claude Chabrol’s 1960 film Les Bonnes Femmes. The film is not the easiest to watch: it is the story of four women who work in the same shop, and while that premise may seem innocuous, the events and tone of the film cannot help but make the viewer unsettled, perhaps even perturbed. But while the tone of this story is disconcerting, it is the final event that sets the film apart: the murder of one of the four main characters, Jacqueline. It is the murder that ends the movie, and it is the murder that is the most shocking event of the story—it feels anomalous, like it belongs in a different movie, a thriller or a noir. If the film is a comedy or a drama, its ending (at least) does not belong. However, if the film is truly a thriller, then its ending belongs but the thriller’s customary trademarks have been interchanged for different antecedents. It is as if Chabrol has taken the beginning of a typical noir plot—a woman is strangled in a park, her boyfriend the prime suspect—and instead of following a hard-bitten policeman solving the case, chose to film the preceding events, giving just as much importance to the murder victim’s friends as to her. Chabrol would argue that this shift in focus is an “enrichment” of the thriller genre, according to his essay “Evolution of the Thriller.” Chabrol would say he is bringing new depth to the standard themes of the thriller with his unconventional style and narrative structure.

Chabrol ends that essay by mentioning that themes are “what auteurs make of them.” If Les Bonnes Femmes is, at heart, a thriller whose focus has merely shifted, its themes are most similar to a film noir mystery. Film noir is noted for its dark visuals married with its dark emotional tone—a pessimistic, cynical worldview, in which the corrupt systems of the world seem to conspire against the protagonist, floods many of the film noir classics. And the world certainly conspires against the main characters of Les Bonnes Femmes. The four women, Jane, Rita, Ginette, and Jacqueline, each have their own episodes in the story (albeit Rita’s is given much less emphasis), and in each of their stories, they come into conflict with men. Jane is (somewhat ambiguously, by the standards of 1960) taken advantage of by Marcel and Albert. Rita meets her fiancée’s parents, who terrify their son so much that he constantly reprimands Rita’s uncultured, “common” ways. Ginette tries to hide her singing career from her coworkers, but her male manager persuades her to perform anyway. The male characters are consistently portrayed (with one exception, the unimportant delivery boy) as not just more powerful than the females, but directly menacing to them. The women are hemmed in by society, constrained by their roles and limited choices—as the scene discussing their “ambitions” makes clear, their only hope to escape the ennui of the shop is to find love, but finding love means finding a man, and men do not seem particularly inviting here.

This kind of a noir story would not have gotten made in Hollywood. The Hollywood version would have begun after Les Bonnes Femmes ended, with the aforementioned hard-bitten policeman hearing of Jacqueline’s murder. He would have journeyed first to the scene of the crime, where he would have found the telltale motorcycle cover that André dropped as he fled. Presumably, André would have gotten out of town, and since Jacqueline’s friends knew almost nothing about him, the policeman would have very little to go on. He would have either shot André dead, or the whole thing would have escalated until the policeman came tantalizingly close to catching André, only to be eluded, leaving the hard-bitten noir hero to ruminate on the evil that remained in the world despite his best efforts. This hypothetical film, like a negative image, reveals the stakes of Les Bonnes Femmes: the detective in a conventional film fears that he won’t get his man, that justice won’t be done, but Chabrol’s characters have to fear the crime itself, as they, not the detective, will be the victims.

And it must be Jacqueline who is the victim in Les Bonnes Femmes because she is the most naïve, the most trusting of the group. Innocents tend to get the short end of the stick in noir stories, and she is no exception. Chabrol mentions Philip Marlowe in his essay and the multiple noir films he appears in, and it is worth noting that at the end of most Marlowe movies, he is still alive, but has witnessed some kind of sickening sordid story, frequently resulting in an innocent’s death. The one part of the story that noir never seems to give much screen time to is the first part—the original murder. That’s the way the world is, the genre seems to say, and it hardly ever even explores the victim’s point of view, much less the way society can trap them into their role. Hollywood noir films are much more interested in the struggles of the detective, the man of action who has to put all the pieces together, but no detective exists in Les Bonnes Femmes because Chabrol isn’t interested in the man of action. He has taken a noir film and thrown out its usual protagonist, choosing to look instead at the women who typically populate the story in the background: the pure, loving innocent, the wild partygoer, the neurotic singer, the put-upon wife. And nowhere is this shift in focus more obvious than in the final scene.

The final scene of the film can be mystifying for first-time viewers. Les Bonnes Femmes seems to be over—André has fled, Jacqueline is dead, and André riding off into the horizon would seem to be a solid shot for the movie to end on. Instead, the audience gets one last sequence, in which a lonely, unnamed woman dances with man whose face is never shown. As they dance, the camera sways with them from one fixed perspective, looking over the man’s shoulder at the woman’s face. The woman stares straight into the lens as Chabrol occasionally cuts to a disco ball spinning. This might be confusing at first, but it makes perfect sense framed within this discussion of Chabrol’s interests. This is a film that looks at the women in the story, not the men. The women of Les Bonnes Femmes are the focus, though the film does acknowledge the male presence, the man’s role in confining the woman. The man in the scene takes up the left border of the shot, literally framing the woman, boxing her in to her part of the image. Chabrol could have composed this shot so that it omitted the man’s body, but that wouldn’t have been true to these women’s existence: these female characters do not exist in a vacuum by themselves: at every point, they are darkened by the shadow of a man.

Coupled with the murder that precedes it, this woman’s glance is haunting. She stares at the camera with an ambiguous smile, and after seeing what other mysterious men have done in this film, the viewer wants to shout at her to get away from this one. A typical Hollywood noir would end with its male protagonist contemplating the corrupt nature of the world, but Chabrol chooses a different way to exemplify this theme: instead it is the viewer who must think about the unsympathetic world these women inhabit, this world that kills and exploits them. He achieved this by turning the camera on the women, instead of the male detective—by “diluting” this part of the standard noir story, he enriches the genre, adding a new, much-needed perspective on the theme and making the oft-overlooked point that for every male-centric noir film to be born, an innocent must die.

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