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Claude Chabrol (and here and here,) one of the founders of French New Wave Cinema and director of some 50 films, died last week at the age of 80. He left a legacy of filmic inquiries into the French middle-class, their good manners, polite exchanges, well furnished homes and the injury burbling just below the surface, seeping out or erupting in violence, plots undertaken, deeds done, family ties revealed as nooses. Many had fine, tight plots of mystery and tension bringing to Chabrol the title “The French Hitchcock.”

Thanks for the Chocolate, (2002)” is a delicious little gem of such a film, available on DVD and worth an evening. Two families are brought together when the 18 year old daughter (Anna Mouglalis as Jeanne) of a divorced chemist (Isabelle Huppert as “Mika”) hears that on the morning after her birth a momentary confusion between herself and a baby boy had occurred. According to the story, told by a Chabrol favorite, the compulsively informative middle aged woman, it all worked out properly and the two infants went home with their proper parents. Jeanne is curious though and boldly introduces herself to the other couple — actually to the father (Jacques Dutronc as Andre), since the mother had died 8 years earlier and he has remarried. That he is a famous pianist and she herself is about to play in an important competition, which he begins to prepare her for, adds to everyone’s suspicions that something is being hidden. And then there’s the new wife. As the tension gets wound up it is quite marvelous how the piano practices of the “father” and “daughter” act as the sound track. We learn to hear Franz Liszt’s Marche funèbre while doors opening and closing, cars driving through the night, become more freighted and ominous.

But it is not his mysteries or family skeletons which brought me to notice Chabrol here. Instead it is his 1993 documentary, “The Eye of Vichy,” a compilation, almost without commentary, of newsreels — in chronological order– and other propagandistic films prepared and watched in Vichy France during the Nazi Occupation and Marshal Pétain’s “National Revolution. For those of us who know more or less that the Vichy government was that which acquiesced to German occupation and handled most of the administrative matters, the extent of participation and fervor for the Nazis –army and ideology– by government functionaries but also by wide sectors of the population will be eye opening.

Film clips of French voices explaining why Jews must be rounded up, as images of swarming rats are shown, are truly unsettling. Pictures of enthusiastic young French summer campers wearing Nazi insignia, of the swooning adoration shown to Frenchmen volunteering to fight on Germany’s eastern front, of the frequent speeches and fervent belief in proudly joining Germany to fight the “Bolshevik scourge,” may not be entirely new to us but seeing them as the French saw them from June of 1940 to May of 1945 is quite a history –and human–  lesson.

As soon as it had been established, Pétain’s government took measures against the so-called “undesirables”: Jews, métèques (immigrants), Freemasons, Communists – inspired by Charles Maurras‘ conception of the “Anti-France”, or “internal foreigners”, which Maurras defined as the “four confederate states of Protestants, Jews, Freemasons and foreigners” — but also Gypsies, homosexuals, and, in a general way, any left-wing activist. Vichy imitated the racial policies of the Third Reich and also engaged in natalist policies aimed at reviving the “French race”… (Wikipedia)

The Sorrow and The Pity, Marcel Ophuls 1972 epic, is of course the touchstone for all films about Vichy France. It broke the post-war false pride in nationwide resistance to the Nazis and invited people to consider what had really happened. It asked all of us young non-French viewers, after the turmoil and fervor of the 60’s, to consider how we each might have reacted and lived our lives in the face of real, cruel and overwhelming military force.

Other interesting French Resistance/Occupation films are Chabrol’s Story of Women (Actually, better translated as Women’s Work,) Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, and The Silence of the Sea.