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Sabby Sagall


Madness with a meaning


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dir: Claude Chabrol

In the late 1950s Claude Chabrol was one of the founders of the ‘New Wave’ in French cinema. His films have been cool, cynical studies of individuals and relationships that cut through conventional perceptions of social life, highlighting the grotesque and uncovering the violence lurking beneath the surface.

L’Enfer (Hell) is a study of pathological jealousy. Two newly weds embark on an apparently idyllic marriage. Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) and Paul (François Cluzet) own a small hotel in the French countryside, sharing responsibility for running it and for bringing up their young son. But the dream of married bliss turns sour. At first, Nelly is flattered by Paul’s petty jealousies, seeing them as evidence of his love. Soon, however, he becomes convinced that she is having an affair and is obsessively jealous of every man that comes near her. Tormented by his paranoid jealousy, Paul is propelled into a vortex of suspicion, self destruction and violence.

Chabrol has constructed a paradoxical tale whose twists are at times reminiscent of Hitchcock. With great visual flair, he reveals the possessiveness of relationships in our society, each partner seeing the other as a commodity they own. He conveys forcefully the feeling of madness, from both the point of view of the sufferer and of those at the receiving end. Nelly’s youth and sexuality are portrayed in such a way as to make his jealousy at times credible.

However, at other times the narrative lacks credibility. Given the clear descent into madness, one cannot understand why no one refers Paul for psychiatric treatment. The film lacks depth. Chabrol makes no attempt to explore madness as a phenomenon woven into the very fabric of our society, rooted in its most cherished institutions such as the family.

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