Dir: Claude Chabrol France 2007. 115 mins tbc
It's cynical business as usual for Claude Chabrol, who offers plentiful style and psychological finesse, if few surprises, in his latest jaundiced and sophisticated entertainment. The story of a young woman caught between two rivalrous and highly unsuitable admirers, A Girl Cut In Two has the typical trappings of a Chabrol thriller, although it would be more accurate to call this a melodrama of manners with a dark streak of social satire.
Strong performances by the increasingly confident Ludivine Sagnier and the ever-dependable Francois Berleand - plus a flamboyant, somewhat less believable one from Benoit Magimel - should give the film a strong domestic presence on its August 8 release, while overall elegance and a gently salacious undertow will boost exports of this accessible mainstream product. Admirers, however, may feel that the old master, following a run of strong recent features, is treading water here.
The eponymous heroine, played by Sagnier, is Camille Deneige - her surname suggesting that she's pure as the driven snow, though she's anything but. Camille is an independent, ambitious TV weathergirl who finds herself courted by two men whose rivalrous antipathy goes way back. One is Charles Saint-Denis (Berleand), an elderly, highly successful novelist whose marriage to artist wife Genevieve (Sihol) - whom he terms a 'saint' - allows him time and space to dabble in more sinnerly pursuits, in collusion, it's implied, with his vampish publisher Capucine (May).
Running into Camille at a TV studio, Charles pursues her, and the young woman finds herself falling head over heels in love with this greying literary lion. Camille allows Charles to initiate her into the shady delights of the upstairs room at his exclusive club, but it's not long before he dumps her, leaving the way clear for her other admirer to make his move. He is infantile, spoiled and somewhat deranged Paul Gaudens (Magimel), playboy son of a pharmaceutical tycoon. Camille marries Paul, and is uneasily absorbed into Paul's snobbish clan, but Paul's volatile jealousy is not easily stilled.
Chabrol is on familiar ground here, not least because of the casting: Berleand appeared in his last film A Comedy of Power, and Magimel starred in his 2004 Ruth Rendell adaptation The Bridesmaid. Power and snobbery have always been consistent subjects for Chabrol's moral scrutiny, and his new film adds little to his recent explorations of the topic, notably in Merci pour le chocolat (2000). The scenes depicting the chilly stiffness and barely-repressed perversity of Paul's family have an awkward, stereotypical ring to them. Far more successful is the film's analysis of fame and its noxious effects, with Berleand - who's cornered the French market in cerebral ageing roues - masterfully evoking suavely respectable corruption.
The scenes at his club - where old-school libertinage happens strictly out of range of the camera - are artfully handled. May, as Charles's long-standing partner in crime, contributes a superbly louche, feline presence to the film, in strong contrast to Sagnier's energetic, bubbly but ultimately resilient ingenue.
The weak spot, however, is Magimel, whose troubled, and foppishly-coiffed Paul is a little too strident a routine, with his penchant for loud suits and matching behavior. Literary references, not least to the Marquis de Sade, imply that the story is an update on those 18th-century French novels of sensations, in which virtuous ingenues are debauched and ruined by world-weary libertines. However, the story is most effective when referring most directly to the contemporary media world.
Actor Edouard Baer contributes a cheerfully buffoonish cameo playing himself as a TV chat show guest. A bizarre coda, in which Camille teams up with her conjurer uncle, puts an unexpectedly literal spin on the title, but ends the film on a jarring shift of tone.