I only met Claude Chabrol once, but our encounter was one of the most unique and pleasurable times I’ve ever spent with a filmmaker.
Chabrol, the most prolific of the great French New Wave directors, who died over the weekend at 80, was a hard man to track down because he never returned phone calls. Or at least so I was told. During the two years of the mid-2000s when I was shooting interviews for my documentary about the legendary French publicist/filmmaker/festival insider Pierre Rissient, I made incessant attempts to contact Chabrol, as he had known Pierre since the early 1950s, longer than just about anyone else. But no one was able to directly contact Chabrol on my behalf during that period. Even Godard was more reachable.
With my documentary, “Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient,” set to be shown at Cannes in 2007, I launched one last effort to track down Chabrol in case I could slip him in at the last minute. With the help of a succession of journalists, agents and publicists, the gears started slowly turning until, virtually on the eve of my film’s premiere in May, Chabrol responded that he would agree to be speak about Pierre, but on three conditions: The interview would take place at one of the best fish restaurants in France, it would last for three hours and several bottles of wine would be consumed. With great reluctance, I acquiesced to these punishing demands and arranged to meet him for lunch on May 28, the day after Cannes ended, after which I would cut the Chabrol footage into the film.
That morning I flew from Nice to Nantes, of Jacques Demy fame, where I met my old friend Dorna Khazeni, whom I’d invited to join me to translate if need be and operate the camera, as I had no idea how well I’d be able to film, eat, speak French and keep Chabrol amused for three hours on my own. Not only that, but I had a sense old Claude would respond favorably to having an attractive, smart and perfectly bilingual woman join us for lunch. Little did I know.
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To fulfill the first of Chabrol’s requirements, we hired a car in Nantes to take us to Le Croisic, a summer resort town on the southern Brittany coast near St. Nazaire. This was very near where Chabrol lived most of the time and also home to his restaurant of choice, L’Ocean, renowned throughout France for its seafood. Happily, after a 75-minute drive, we arrived right on time at 1 p.m. and spied Chabrol just pulling up as well, along with his dignified looking wife, who immediately departed after greeting us.
Short, affable and conservatively dressed in the manner of so many of his bourgeois characters, Chabrol was welcomed into the restaurant if he owned the place, and I later deduced that he ate his main meals there several times a week. Situated on the first floor of a hotel, L’Ocean is aptly named, not only for its bill of fare but because, were it not for the immense picture windows that rim the establishment, the Atlantic Ocean would come crashing in to flood the place. Led to a lovely round table overlooking the sea, we could observe the waves bombarding the rocks just a couple of yards away throughout our lunch. The drawback to this was that Chabrol sat down facing me with his back to the window, making it very difficult to get a good exposure of his face.
Deferring to Chabrol’s intimate knowledge of the restaurant and general expertise in such matters, we accepted his offer to order for the table and were rewarded with one of the great, if relatively simple, meals we’d ever had—a vast assortment of shellfish to start, followed by an exquisitely prepared whole white fish we all shared and accompanied by a constant but modest flow of superb white wine the name of which I’ve unfortunately lost.
With two of Chabrol’s three demands already met by the man himself, we embarked on our interview about Pierre which, of course, ended up traversing a hundred other topics as well. As I nervously futzed with the camera to make sure sound and picture were operating properly, Chabrol was obviously warming to the delightful Dorna and opening up in ways he very likely would not have without her presence.
His bug eyes popping beneath bushy eyebrows, his intelligence obvious at every moment and his frisky energy underlined by an irreverent impudence, Chabrol cut the figure of a naughty little boy inhabiting the body of a comfortable 76-year-old Frenchman. Even at his age, you could still imagine this fellow as a 10-year-old leaving a salacious note for a young girl just to watch her reaction or putting gum on a bully’s desk chair at school. He delighted in 50-year-old gossip as much as in serious film talk. When I asked him if he had known a Swiss starlet named Vega Vinci who had co-starred in late 1950s Vittorio Cottafavi peplum spectacles such as “Revolt of the Gladiators,” acted in Pierre’s two short films and had been involved with him, Chabrol’s eyebrows seemed to travel all the way up his forehead as he exclaimed, “Vega Vinci, oh, she was so sexy, we were all hot for her. We couldn’t believe that she was going with Pierre!”
In the early-to-mid-1950s, Chabrol presided over a sort of unofficial salon frequented by the future New Wave directors by virtue of his youthful job in the publicity department at the Paris office of 20th Century-Fox on the Champs-Elysees. This was where the action was in those days and there were open invitations for Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and the rest to stop by toward the end of the day and get the latest on what new American films were screening and who might be coming to town. Due to a substantial inheritance from his first wife, Chabrol was better off financially than his cohorts and one in-joke relating to early New Wave films concerns a huge white Cadillac convertible that appears in several of them—it belonged to Chabrol.
Speaking in French virtually the entire time—I think he was capable in English but found it too much of an effort—Chabrol was so entertaining a companion that I conceived a dream that one day, if I could create an ultimate DVD of “Man of Cinema,” I would include an extra called “Lunch With Claude,” an only minimally edited recording of our expansive repast that one would be required to eat and drink while watching. Maybe I’ll just post it online at some point.
I vividly remember one exchange, which began by my supposing that he and Orson Welles must have enjoyed some fine meals together while making “Ten Days Wonder” in 1970. Oh, yes, Chabrol confirmed. They were shooting in Alsace and the hotel where they were staying had a superb restaurant in which Chabrol and Welles dined every evening for the two weeks the American acted in the film. Welles brilliantly held forth, of course, but even a gourmand such as Chabrol was given pause by the extent of his companion’s appetite; each night, Chabrol recalled, Welles ordered and consumed exactly the same thing—two chateaubriands for two, accompanied by two bottles of red wine.
I fully intended to pay for the admittedly expensive lunch, but when I got out my credit card Chabrol gave me a mock-scornful look worthy of Kevin Kline that let me know I was an idiot for even making the attempt. We recovered quickly, however, as Chabrol motioned for the maitre’d to bring over a large guest book that I was then invited to sign. Opening it at random, I beheld a page bearing just one signature—Francois Mitterand. The Chabrolian naughty boy in me was compelled to at least pretend that I would go ahead and sign that page, but I then calmly continued browsing until I found a more suitably obscure spot on a back page.