Les Biches Review
This disc is also available as part of The Claude Chabrol Collection alongside La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, Le Boucher, Juste avant la nuit, Les Noces rouges, Nada and Madame Bovary.
Les Biches is a film which unsettles from the outset. The opening credits play over some slightly off-kilter scoring by Pierre Jansen which suggests both ‘serious’ drama to come and Hitchcockian thriller. Meanwhile the presence of Stéphane Audran brings a continuation with many of Chabrol’s previous ventures and the different paths they had thus far taken. On the one hand these had encompassed the pure nouvelle vague stylings of early ventures Les Cousins and Les Bonnes femmes; on the other there were those glossy murder mysteries such as The Champagne Murders. And then there were also those which sat somewhere in-between, the ones which were less easy to pin down so quickly such as Landru and La Ligne de demarcation.
Indeed, Les Biches too is difficult to pin down, although it is undoubtedly different. The plotting shifts repeatedly from drama to psychodrama to potential thriller without ever quite settling down. Audran’s rich thirtysomething picks up the much younger Jacqueline Sassard and whisks her away to a St. Tropez pad shared by various artistic/revolutionary types. The relationship is uneasy from the off, courtesy of a particularly brittle seduction scene, and is then further complicated by the arrival of Jean-Louis Trintignant. From hereon in the power games move up a gear and the relationship continually switch as we move into the territory of infidelity and the ménage à trois. The motivations of the three become increasingly elusive and the name of Sassard’s character – Why – is particularly telling: seemingly Chabrol has predicated his entire film on a central enigma.
Stylistically, however, the director is more than precise. Chabrol has Les Biches kept to a strict structure having shaped the film into a prologue, epilogue and two distinct parts, one titled ‘Frédérique’ (after Audran’s character), the other ‘Why’. That said, it tends to suggest strictness and control rather than the real thing; certainly the performances cannot be faulted on this front – Audran winning the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for her efforts – yet Chabrol’s efforts feel generally flabby. There’s an unwelcome comic dimension courtesy of Henri Attal and Dominique Zardi’s revolutionary (and presumably gay) pairing which not only sits awkwardly, but also distracts from the main event. Ultimately, it feels all rather insignificant beyond its opportunity to provide a few cheap shots.
In fact, these feeling of insignificance spreads out elsewhere. Time and again we’re faced with underwritten or undeveloped aspects which never quite work. It’s hard not to get the impression that Chabrol has a number of riffs and ideas with which he wished to toy, but never quite had the time to bring them together in a satisfactory manner. Certainly, within the context of his career Les Biches is a film which provokes interest and, purely on the basis on its performances, as a stand alone piece too. Yet it also feels incomplete somehow, as though we’re getting a work-in-progress perhaps rather than the finished article.
Disappointingly, Arrow’s Region 0 handling is none too special. Completely devoid of extras, Les Biches also comes with a so-so transfer and burnt-in English subtitles. Image-wise we have to suffer through continual edge enhancement and artefacting, whilst a number of shots come across as unnaturally grainy. Furthermore, we also have intermittent damage (in form of various scratches of differing size) to contend with, though at least we get the film in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1) and anamorphically enhanced. As for the soundtrack, here we find the original French mono recording in merely okay condition. Though never less than audible, it also never really impresses. Ultimately it’s serviceable, although those burnt-in subtitles let it down further.