At first glance, Claude Chabrol‘s latest seems yet another in his long line of slow-boiling thrillers, set mostly amongst the upper classes, in which the sinister bobs up above a seemingly placid surface — compulsively watchable and strangely unsettling, sure, but par for the course for the erstwhile New Waver. Yet while “A Girl Cut in Two” treads in waters made murky with mysterious allusions to disreputable pasts and intimations of impending murder, the filmmaker intriguingly muddies the generic proceedings by probing his characters’ ingrained sexism; it’s an approach that deepens what could have been just another true crime story.
The title is instructional, and not just in its obvious nod to the love triangle that structures the story: Even before meeting the starring girl, we begin to sense a split in the film’s conception of the feminine via the two leading women in heralded novelist Charles Saint-Denis’s (Francois Berleand) life — his publisher, Capucine (Mathilda May), and wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli). The former fairly seethes with hearty sexuality, as the casual physical intimacy and arch repartee she shares with her client demonstrates, while the latter, frequently referred to as a “saint” by her husband, conveys a far more modest aspect as she lounges by the pool in a simple white swimsuit (Capucine’s is black and suggestive). So from the moment fresh-faced Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) enters, her character vacillates between both ends of the spectrum represented by the two older females in that most traditional of binary oppositions: virgin and whore.
Serving as both subject and object of “A Girl Cut in Two,” Gabrielle is a deliberately confusing amalgam of striking dualities. A TV weathergirl, she’s self-assured in the currency of her charms but also possesses an unexpected guilelessness; a keen intelligence, at odds with her blonde beauty, manifests itself in clever comebacks. Her allure — contrasting with the overtly sultry Sagnier of crossover breakthrough “Swimming Pool” — resides in an unaffected manner: Often dressed in jeans and loose-fitting sweater (when not required by her job, or a man, to wear something else), hair gathered up in a ponytail, Gabrielle exudes the unthreatening sensuality of the blossoming girl-next-door more than that of a siren. But despite her unassuming appearance and personality — or, rather, because of — she successfully navigates men with delicate egos. Each of her interested parties — her boss, who keeps dangling the promise of promotion in front of her; the libertine Charles, with whom she begins a May-December affair and quickly falls in love; and foppish admirer Paul (Benoit Magimel), a spoiled and clearly unhinged heir to old money — is her superior in one form or another (professional, intellectual, social). She asserts herself in the relationships even as she remains malleable and somewhat powerless.
The appeal Gabrielle holds for Charles and Paul in particular is symbolized in the shorthand of her last name: Snow. Attracted foremost to her youth and naivete — signifiers of virtue — the competing suitors often affectionately describe her as either “innocent” or an “angel.” This self-canceling desire — in which lust springs from the perceived sexual purity of the conquest — can only lead to disaster, of course, and the untenable tension is perhaps best encapsulated in the title of a book of erotica Charles purchases for Gabrielle entitled “Handbook of Behavior for Little Girls.” Serving to further underline the twofold position the girl in question is made to occupy — virgin and later, after she’s slept with both men, whore — the color scheme of the set and costume design alternates between shades of lily-white and an overpowering red, which carries classic connotations of rapture. Chabrol ingeniously suggests that the inability of the men to accept her complexity results in a reductive worldview that inexorably leads to a violent ending.
Although Chabrol deals explicitly with the carnal in “A Girl Cut in Two,” he remains purposefully prudish, eliding entire scenes in order to short-circuit titillation; as usual, he invites contemplation instead. If the film doesn’t quite cohere emotionally (the alleged love between Charles and Gabrielle peaks too quickly, without enough foreplay, so to speak) or intellectually (at times the narrative and characterizations work more on a cerebral than dramatic level) the imperfections can be forgiven as the acceptable flaws of an otherwise fascinating work of moral inquiry.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shotstaff writer.]