Les bonnes femmes (France-Italy 1960)

From left: Bernadette Lafont (Jane) Stephane Audran (Ginette) and Jacqueline (Clothilde Joano) in a publicity shot.

Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, Les bonnes femmes, was released in Paris when he was approaching his 30th birthday. Not a success at the time, it now has a high reputation as one of his finest works and one of the very best of the early New Wave films. Outside France the critics were unkind and hampered by the conventions of the time. In some ways the film suffered like Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste in the same year. Both directors risked comedy mixed with tragedy and a combination of the street location photography with more stylised interiors. Chabrol was blessed with great performances by the four women playing the shopgirls at the centre of the narrative.

An indication of the problems the film faced came with the translations of the title. In some cases the English language title was ‘The Good Time Girls’ which gives the wrong impression. Sometimes it has been simply ‘The Girls’ which is OK, but perhaps a bit too open. I’m not sure the title translates, but if so, ‘The Good Girls’ is at least provocative without misleading.

Ginette and Jane in the shop with Mme Louise (Ave Ninchi)

The four young women work in an old-fashioned electrical goods shop in Central Paris, each standing at their own counter, watched over by an older Italian woman as the cashier and, in the back room, the proprietor, one of several peculiar men in the film who in this case seems to have strayed out of a German Expressionism film complete with pince-nez. His admonishment of Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) when she is 5 minutes late for work in her first week is very disturbing. There never seem to be any customers in the shop and the four shopgirls have to find ways of wasting time before they are allowed out for lunch. The narrative starts one night when the four women leave work and two of them are picked up by two older men who take them out on the town. This episode mainly features Jane (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont) and this sets the pattern in the film whereby each of the four has an episode in which they take the lead/become the focus of the action. Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Paul Gégauff have produced a highly structured film with alternating sequences inside and outside the shop. In the transitions from shop to cafe/zoo/music hall etc. inserts of almost documentary footage remind us of urban Paris. Jane is the comic character and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) the sensible one already engaged to the most boring shopkeeper imaginable, Pierre. Ginette is the enigmatic one who shares a flat with Jane but disappears each evening and Jacqueline is the young woman with the most romantic notions of what a relationship might be. She’s the one who will suffer for her lack of awareness that she is a character in a Chabrol film – and one of his most Hitchcockian to boot.

Albert Dinon and Jean-Louis Maury as Albert and Marcel on their night out with Jane and Jacqueline

Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) with her fiancé Henri (Sacha Briquet)

The main criticism of the film at the time was that Chabrol was a cynical artist would lead the audience on and then produce the awful tragedy. Following the pattern of ‘oppositions’, the tragic scene follows on swiftly from a highly romantic sequence. I’ve seen criticisms that the film doesn’t have much plot but this is mainly a comment on the unconventional structure. We learn something about each of the young women and in one case what we learn becomes a completed narrative. The action is limited to around 30 hours from, one night to the next, followed by a daytime sequence which is presumably the next day. Finally, there is a coda which features a fifth young woman who we’ve never seen before, but who possibly appears to be repeating one of the stories of the other four. As several commentators have noted, the four young women do perhaps represent a composite of what faces young working-class women in France in 1960 – although it must be said that these are four uncommonly attractive women in different ways. The men they meet are all silly, repulsive or dangerous apart from the two ‘realist’ characters, the ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle who regularly visits the shop and Jane’s boyfriend on leave from his army service. The film is a satire of sorts on the ambitions of young women and the dark urban world that is Paris. For me the delight in the film is in the performances. Bernadette Lafont is funny, sexy and so alive, but in a way the real star is Clotilde Joano whose career did not flourish like Lafont’s and Audran’s and who sadly died aged 42 in 1974. Lucille Saint-Simon stopped appearing in films a few years later after a number of low-budget horror films that took her to the UK, Spain and Italy. I’ve a feeling there is a research topic for a French film student in her career.

Jacqueline often seems somewhere else as she has her romantic dreams

Ginette is afraid that her secret will be exposed to the others

Stéphane Audran is relatively low-key in this film, but she would become Chabrol’s ‘muse’ and then his wife, appearing in significant films in Chabrol’s productive period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Saint-Simon and Joano, Audran was 28 in 1960, whereas Lafont was only 22 – but she had already appeared in Truffaut’s short Les mistons at 15 and in two of Chabrol’s earlier films as well as for Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another Cahiers critic turned director.

One of the long shots catches André, the mysterious motorcyclist who is often lurking at the edge of the frame

The look of the film is terrific with marvellous compositions and framings by the great Henri Decaë who worked several times for Jean-Pierre Melville and Truffaut as well as Chabrol. I also enjoyed the music score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki which seems to match the shifting moods of the narrative very well. I was too young to catch Les bonnes femmes in cinemas and it now seems very difficult to find on DVD in the UK. I watched it again on an old videotape of A Channel 4 screening in the 1980s. I think it may now be available on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. I did see several of Chabrol’s later 1960s and 1970s films in the cinema and perhaps the most evocative image in Les bonnes femmes is a long shot of a woodland scene with a priest leading a crocodile of small children through the trees. I knew immediately that something terrible would happen and I remembered a similar moment in Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970). Chabrol is an acquired taste perhaps, but I think I like his films best out of the Cahiers crowd. It also occurs to me now that, along with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les bonnes femmes is a rare French New Wave film with four female leads – and shopgirls as central characters.

In the clip below, Rita is waiting to meet her future in-laws:

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