I once had lunch with Claude Chabrol. Having a meal with a film director is something hundreds of critics have done and not really an event to boast about. However, lunching with Chabrol was special because eating meals was an essential part of his oeuvre. In his ironic black comedies, large meals at home or in a restaurant are orchestrated into the action.
For example, the two meals in La Femme Infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife, 1968), pointedly show the shift in the couple’s relationship and the child’s awareness of it. Nor was I unaware that meals were often a prelude to murder in his films.
Chabrol once said that he was always annoyed when characters sat down for a meal and seldom ate anything. ‘I was determined that when I became a film director, I would show people actually eating. People eat as much as they work or make love.’
So I was particularly excited about having lunch with Chabrol, whom I had admired right from the beginning of his long career. It was on May 1st, 1992, in a small bistro near his office near the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris. I remember that it was May 1st because we exchanged sprigs of muguet (lily-of-the-valley), a tradition in France.
I had come to interview him for The Guardian about Madame Bovary, starring Isabelle Huppert, which was soon to be released in the UK.
I had another more personal reason to interview him. I was working on a biography of Anthony Perkins at the time and wanted Chabrol’s views on the American actor with whom he had made two films.
The restaurant was one of those unpretentious, old-fashioned places, which serve excellent food at reasonable prices, but which are slowly disappearing in Paris. I arrived first and sat awkwardly at the table reserved for Monsieur Chabrol, noticing, alarmingly, that it was set for six places. I was hoping for an intimate tete a tete. About ten minutes later, Chabrol arrived with his wife, his teenage daughter, and two colleagues, whose names I never caught.
It was obviously a restaurant that Chabrol frequented often, and he was greeted warmly by the patron and the waiters. I recall that he ordered a boeuf bourguignon which was the plat du jour, some mixed vegetables and a green salad. He also ordered two bottles of a red burgundy wine without consulting the wine list or us. I realised immediately that it would be impossible to interview him during the meal, so I left my small tape recorder in my bag. Food and wine took preference over everything. Like his idols Hitchcock and Renoir, Chabrol was a hedonist, who never let work interfere with play.
The conversation, in which he tried to include me, turned to politics, living in France and England and education. There was no way he was going to talk about Madame Bovary over lunch, because that would be work. Bravely, I think, I managed to bring the conversation around to Anthony Perkins of whom he was quite happy to talk, not realising that I had a professional interest in the subject.
On Le Scandale (The Champagne Murders, 1967), the director found Perkins very agreeable but a little tense to work with. But they became good friends mainly because of the link with Hitchcock and a shared enthusiasm for the mystery novels of John Dickson Carr – thrillers with titles such as Poison in Jest, Cut-Throat and The Dead Man’s Knock- and they would send each other his books across the Atlantic over the years.
Initially, he was going to make a film with Perkins in English for which the producer wanted a scene of a murder which takes place in a nudist camp. ‘I thought we’d have some fun in finding a place to hide the murder weapon,’ Chabrol joked.
A few years later, Chabrol cast Perkins again in La Decade Prodigieuse (Ten Day’s Wonder, 1971), with Orson Welles playing his adoptive father. ‘Tony told me he had to hide his sexuality less in France. We all knew about it, but we didn’t give a fuck,’ Chabrol said in English with a laugh. ‘He even brought a young American friend onto the set with him sometimes.’
After dessert, liqueur, a cigar and more general conversation, we all got up and walked over to his office. Once there, Chabrol still made jokes and laughed a lot. Waiting for us was the Guardian photographer, who got Chabrol to pose for a few minutes. After the session, Chabrol said he would like to photograph the photographer, which he did with his own camera. Finally, he sat down to be interviewed on Madame Bovary and allowed me to take out my tape recorder. But it was my lunch with Claude which I remember most vividly. For a man who said ‘I love murder, Chabrol was one of the most benign and witty men one could ever meet. Behind the owlish glasses were eyes that were alternatively penetrating and twinkling. They twinkled most when he was recounting a humorous anecdote, usually accompanied by a hearty laugh. I think of him with great affection.
Ronald Bergan, 13 September 2010, FEDEORA.eu
We also invite you to read the obituary published in The Guardian
by FEDEORA president Ronald Bergan