Claude Chabrol’s take on sexual ambiguity in 1968 is mischievous. Stéphane Audran plays the resplendent Frédérique, nouvelle vague’s colonialist of female lust and control. She’s the wealthy dominatrix who wants power over those she desires, and she pursues them with a hunter’s heart.
Frédérique is relentless. The first scene – at the start of the ‘Prologue’ – sees her approach the beautiful artist, named ‘Why’ (Jacqueline Sassard) on a bridge in Paris. ‘Why’ is minding her own business as she chalks a picture of a doe on the pavement. It’s a simple pick-up for Frédérique: she throws down 50 francs and invites her back to her apartment. There, Frédérique watches ‘Why’ takes a bath, listens to her complain about bad-tasting coffee and seduces her.
Soon afterwards, they head down to St. Tropez, where Frédérique keeps a pleasant villa overlooking the ocean. Residing in the house are a couple of buffoons called Robègue (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi) who Chabrol deploys to shine a light on the lunatic fringes of the so called ‘Rebels’ of the French cultural revolution of the 1960s.
Within the safety and glamour of Frédérique’s villa, Robègue and Riais’ blurt about revolt, play unusual percussive instruments (badly) and quote Finnish proverbs by the fire. Meanwhile Frédérique struts around, dazzlingly louche, rolling her eyes at their stupidity.
Chabrol treats us to some shining scenes in which we see her manipulate and grump with a pout. Everything’s a game to Frédérique: gloating over a lotto win in front of ‘Why’, coquettishly moving around the kitchen, moaning about what the housekeeper is preparing for dinner, and getting drunk with architect Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant), wanting him to touch her. There is little doubt Audran loves every moment of her performance, and she is fabulous.
Before long, ‘Why’ grows peevish and fed-up with bossy Frédérique. She fancies Paul too. Understandably so: Trintignant is irresistible in just the simple way he sits down on a sofa, crosses his legs, fixes his gaze and smiles a small smile. ‘Why’ and Paul spend a night together, and she is smitten. This turns the vice in Frédérique, sharpening the bitch in her biche, and she decides to seduce Paul. Unsurprisingly Trintignant, basking in the attention of two beautiful women, looks on: he is ineffectual, because Chabrol wants him to be little more than cotton-candy.
Overcome with a twisted sexual jealousy, ‘Why’ starts to behave strangely. The final scene, of course, is a Chabrol-style confession, surprising and dramatic. All Audran’s Frédérique can do is look ahead, stunned, a doe caught in the headlights; and we know, for sure, there’s little chance she’ll make it to the other side.
Claude Chabrol (1968)