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With: Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stephane Audran, Lucille Saint-Simon, Claude Berri
Written by: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff,
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 18/03/2013

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Old New Wave Made New Again

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Les Bonnes Femmes on DVD

I am a junkie for the French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave. To me it was the most exciting era of film to come along since Film Noir or even the invention of film itself. It encompassed a group of French film critics who learned the language of film not from Academy Award winners, but from true directors with a visual sense, turned pro, and began making films themselves. They learned the rules and then broke them. The five leaders of the New Wave were Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol (the recent The Swindle). Rohmer and Rivette didn't make a splash until much later, but Godard and Truffaut blew cinema as we knew it to shreds in 1959 and 1960 the former with Breathless, and the latter with The 400 Blows, and Shoot the Piano Player.

Chabrol also contributed to this explosion with his Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). But American audiences didn't hear that fourth shot from around the world. Les Bonnes Femmes was never released in America (except for a small tour of a couple of cities six years later in 1966). Now 40 years later, Les Bonnes Femmes is being officially released for the first time in a brand new print. And it truly belongs in the company of those other groundbreakers.

Les Bonnes Femmes more or less follows four shop girls in Paris over a few days' time. Chabrol shows us their banal existence, working long hours in a shop with nothing much to do, then going "out" and trying to have fun. Through these seemingly unimportant events, we can ascertain the true meaning of their existence. The act of simply passing the time becomes something as significant as an impassioned speech about freedom and love. One girl, Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged to a fussy young man and deludes herself that he's "the one". Another girl, Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is that care-free type we all have known, the one who is always go-go-going, but whose life seems empty. The third, Ginette (Stephane Audran), sneaks out at night to sing in a nightclub, but doesn't want the others to know about it. And the last girl, Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano), has a mystery man on a motorcycle following her (or, more appropriately, stalking her). She turns down a date with a nice delivery boy whom she knows in favor of the mystery man whom she doesn't. I don't want to give it away, but Chabrol ends the movie in a way that his mentor Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud of. It's startling, but it puts all the events in their place and sums everything up.

There's more than meets the eye to Les Bonnes Femmes. It may seem to be a pessimistic movie (even the fun "partying" scenes are shown to be thuddingly pointless and dull). In another scene, an older woman working at the shop reveals (after much prodding) her "fetish" (a secret keepsake) to Jacqueline. It turns out to be a handkerchief soaked with the blood of a condemned man. Chabrol, like Hitchcock, doesn't so much loathe the people in the world, but the world itself. He's fascinated with the people, as shown in the pool scene. Witness the many different personalities and conflicts that occur within that single scene, just through casual observation. Hence, Les Bonnes Femmes is presented in a "realistic" way that shows off the world at its most tiresome, and highlights the people who try to break free but ultimately succumb.

And yet, there is hope. A fifth girl appears in the final scene. She accepts a dance with an unseen man, and as she stares at us and the camera, we look into her eyes and we know that there is hope. Les Bonnes Femmes is a film that may benefit from multiple viewings, but it is only playing for a week at the Lumiere, so come on out to the movies while you have your chance. It's a true landmark of the cinema.

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