Pros: Hypnotic and intriguing story, strong performance by Audran, interesting themes, moody musical score
Cons: Somewhat contrived ending
Lets clear something up right away. Youre probably looking at the French title of this French film and wondering whether Biches is the French version of that English word for female dogs and crabby women a word that the Epinions word-filter regurgitates. No, it is not. The straight English translation of Les Biches is The Does does as in multiple adult female deer. So now that were all on-board with the proper definitions, lets talk turkey or venison. Several different English versions of the film title have emerged over the years, including The Bad Girls (an unfortunate choice for an English title for the film, but the one Epinions uses), The Girlfriends, and The Darling Does. Les Biches is my first experience (Im ashamed to say) with a highly-regarded French director, Claude Chabrol more highly by some than others, of course, but isnt that almost always the case? Les Biches wont be my last Chabrol experience.
Historical Background: Chabrol was a prolific director. Some of his best known films include Le Beau Serge (1958), Les Bonnes Femmes (1958), Les Cousins (1959), Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1969), Story of Women (1988), Madame Bovary (1991), and The Color or Lies (1999). As one might imagine for a director with a career spanning more than forty years, Chabrol had his phases. Le Beau Serge, for example, is considered one of the first films of the French New Wave. Chabrol is best known for a later phase in which he produced mainly atmospheric mysteries and noir films in the general style of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, but with his own distinctive issues. Chabrols favorite themes included the decadence and perverseness of the French bourgeoisie, power elements in human relationships, bizarre geometries of passion, and intense human emotions including jealously, desire, obsession, and violence. Chabrol himself was from the working class but his first wife was haute bourgeoisie and he felt the distinction acutely, though not enough to refuse the use of her money to fund his first film. Chabrol sometimes had to compromise his artistic designs at certain points in his career in order to stabilize himself financially. Les Biches represented a welcome return for Chabrol to art films of significance that he favored whenever he could, after a number of films made mainly for their commercial value.
The Story: The lovely Frédérique (Stéphanie Audran) is a wealthy, sophisticated and beautiful bisexual woman part of the idle haute bourgeoisie. Her life focuses on playing games and exercising the dominance to which her wealth makes her privileged. During a trip to Paris, she picks up a young female street artist named Why (I know, its a strange name) by dropping a 500 franc note in her collection of donations. Why, a virgin and a struggling artist, draws does (female deer) on the sidewalk of a bridge in Paris. Frédérique wears a fur coat and chic slacks and boots suggestive of both her sexuality and her power. Whys first vision of Frédérique, in fact, as she draws a doe, is Frédériques black patent leather boots. Why is literally at the feet of this woman of class and wealth.
Frédérique and Why walk together along a Paris boulevard, chatting and stopping at a street booth that sells paintings. Frédérique displays how limited her understanding is of art when she confuses an original and a print. Frédérique invites Why to her apartment for coffee or tea. Why understands that Frédérique is trying to pick her up, but Why apparently has no domicile of her own and accepts on condition that she can use Frédériques bathroom to take a bath. Frédérique has obvious sexual interest in Why, commenting on her pleasing figure and staring at her in the tub. Later, there is a hint that some lesbian interaction takes place between the two, although the extent of it is not evident because the scene fades to black just as Frédérique caresses Whys midriff and unfastens the shiny top snap on her jeans.
Frédérique invites Why to join her at her St. Tropez villa in southern France for a period of rest and relaxation. Frédérique is, in effect, adding Why to her collection of human pets. At Frédériques estate, there are already a pair of rather clownish gay men named Robéque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi). These fellows provide the comic relief in this film. Their intemperate and uninhibited behavior contrasts starkly with the cool, sophisticated, impenetrable, and unflappable demeanor of the two female leads. When Frédérique arrives with her new protégé, Robéque and Riais are intent on checking the new gal out, but do so in a ridiculous manner. They follow closely behind Why, commenting aloud on various aspects of her appearance, mostly complements about her perfect balance and hair. Then one offers that hes not sure he likes her butt. She turns, offended, and says, Do you mind?, to which they respond, in mock offense, Youre listening? Thats not nice! Not polite! Later, as Frédérique and Why try to rest up from their excursion, Robéque and Riais are busy playing loud cacophonous music on a bizarre set of drums, hanging pans, and whistles. When the women give up on trying to sleep, the men inquire innocently, Youre not sleeping? On another occasion, when Why is in tears, Robéque and Riais try to engage her in a game of guess the animal, where the men alternate in making animals sounds a dog, a lamb, a hyena, and so forth. For viewers, these guys are a riot; for Why, mainly a nuisance.
It is the off-season at St. Tropez (on the Riviera) and life is reduced to endless games of poker, boules, dice, and seductions. Frédérique frequently asks (tells) Why to get her a drink or put on some music, thereby reinforcing her dominance and Whys dependent status. Frédérique is, after all, putting Why up for free and sharing her clothes, jewelry, and makeup with her young protégé. Whys only power is her youth and beauty. Even when Frédérique gently strokes Whys hair, it looks much as one might stroke a pet cat.
The dynamic between Frédérique and Why is further complicated when a successful and handsome architech, Paul Thomas (Jean-Louis Trintignant) shows up at one of Frédériques poker parties. Paul is the man-object in this film, by Chabrols own characterization of the role. Paul takes an immediate interest in the pretty, young Why. She notes his frequent glances at her and meets him outside at the end of the evening. Frédérique, more out of curiosity and boredom than jealousy, sends Robéque and Riais to follow them and report back to her what transpires. They are almost immediately noticed by Why and Paul, who kiss and snuggle for their benefit. Why later allows herself to be seduced by Paul at his apartment.
Their romance lasts just long enough for Paul to deflower Why. The next afternoon, Frédérique goes to Pauls place of work. They soon mutually seduce one another as the idle bourgeois are wont to do. Paul discovers that he has a lot more in common with Frédérique than the young and innocent Why. Frédérique is of the same social class (if not a bit higher). Frédérique breaks the news to Why that she and Paul are in love (You know, when I suggested going with him two Paris, he immediately said yes), but Why is neither surprised nor visibly angry: Of course! What man wouldnt!
Paul and Frédérique continue to see one another, sometimes leaving Why alone when they are together. Why, in the meantime, spends time in Frédériques room, trying on her clothes and jewelry, fixing her hair and makeup to look like Frédériques. There is a spooky degree of similarity in Whys appearance and that of Frédérique when Why is made up in this way. She even practices Frédériques manner of speaking and haughty bourgeois attitude. Just like those paintings in Paris, it seems virtually impossible to tell the copy from the original.
Paul, Frédérique and Why spend a warm evening together as a threesome in front of the fireplace. Frédérique cuddles sometimes with Paul and at other times caresses Why. They are all semi-intoxicated. Paul comments on how lovely they both look and it is evident that he would be more than happy to continue the lovely evening as a threesome in the bedroom. Why comments how she loves them both so much. They walk together toward Paul and Frédériques bedroom but at the last moment, Frédérique says goodnight to Why and closes her out. Later, Why gets up from her bed and sits on the floor outside Frédérique and Pauls bedroom, eavesdropping on the sounds of their lovemaking.
SPOILER ALERT: SKIP THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILER
Why discovers a note the next morning informing her that Paul and Frédérique have gone to Paris for a few days and that the house is hers, she should help herself to any money she needs, and not to get too bored. Why packs up her things, calls a taxi, and heads to Paris for a confrontation. She meets Frédérique in her room, mumbles incoherently about voices in her head, and stabs Frédérique in the back with a knife. She makes herself up to look exactly like Frédérique and assumes her identity. She calls Paul on the phone to arrange a tryst.
Themes: Les Biches was made in the late 1960s during an era characterized by free love, sexual experimentation, and, especially, experimentation with bisexuality and polyamorous (or what we called in the Boston area, multilateral) relationships. I was a young adult during this time period and all of my friends were reading the books of Robert Rimmer, such as The Harrad Experiment and The Rebellion of Yale Marratt. My first wife and I lived for a while in a community of six adults and four children and later married another couple, as strange as that may sound. Our circle of acquaintances included some other folks who had experimented with group marriages and one who researched and wrote books on the subject.
Those of you who have been married understand how complicated it can be, at times, simply making a bilateral marriage relationship work. Multilateral relationships are far more difficult and complex. The difficulty with each added person increased geometrically rather than arithmetically. In a marriage of four people, for example, there are eleven different relationships six bilateral relationships, four trilateral ones, and the single quatralateral relationship. All of these relationships have to operate at least decently well for the arrangement to hold together. My personal opinion, after extensive experience with the concept, is that whatever the theoretical appeal of multilateral relationships, it is next to impossible for them to hold together for very long.
The love triangle in Les Biches is not a conventional love triangle. Usually when we speak of a love triangle, the so-called triangle actually only has two sides. One person is in the middle and the other two are competing for that one persons love. The triangle in Les Biches is the full three-sided kind, with links and sexual tension between each pair of persons. Obviously that kind of triangle can only exist when at least two of the persons in the triangle are bisexual (or if all three persons are the same gender and homosexual).
The lesbian relationship in Les Biches is a source of controversy for the film not simply because it exists but because of its treatment of lesbian sexuality. Until very recently, almost all depictions of homosexuals male or female in films portrayed relationships emphasizing only casual sex. Furthermore, homosexuals died off in films with remarkable frequency, as if to suggest that the inevitable price of this moral deviancy was death. The romantic elements between Frédérique and Why seem aimed mainly at the prurient interests of male heterosexual viewers, who, as we all know, enjoy watching lady-love. The objection, however, is not so much that prurient interests are being catered to (most people have one kind of prurient interest or another) but that film depictions of lesbian relationships rarely reach any deeper than prurient interests. Most early films depict lesbian relationships as shallow, sordid and without romantic underpinnings. Thats not to say that there are no lesbian relationships that are shallow and sordid, but merely that the casual, promiscuous, and prurient ones are the only kind of lesbian relationships that early films ever depicted.
Although I led this discussion of the themes of Les Biches with the romance and sexuality theme, it really is the secondary theme. The primary theme is the issue of the pernicious influence of power differential in relationships. Chabrol condemns the bourgeoisie, first, for using their wealth for frivolous pursuits and, second, for using it to maintain dominance over those less well-heeled. I commented already on how complex multilateral relationships can be and how fraught with risk of explosions of emotion. Even when the power status of each participant is equal, such relationships are difficult but all the more so if there is a marked imbalance in power among the participants. Frédérique had the power, in effect, to decide precisely when Why would and would not be included in the threesome. Why seized that power for herself.
Production Values: Chabrols script for Les Biches is a very sophisticated one. Its greatness lies in how it intentionally maintains ambiguity through the opaqueness of motivations of the principals. This challenges each viewer to interpret what transpires in accordance with their own perspective and leads to divergent accounts on the part of various critics. If you watch this film multiple times, you many even change your view of the meaning of certain events from one time to another.
One factor contributing to the ambiguity is a sparseness of dialogue. Viewers are forced to watch the facial expressions of the characters closely and read between the lines. Youll find yourself trying to figure out just what is happening and whats most important. The pace of the film is languorous, resulting in a film that is haunting, mysterious, and intense. This is a kind of mystery film, but its psychological mystery.
Audrans performance as Frédérique is the highlight of the film and simply marvelous. She possesses a cool nonchalance that is utterly chilling. She was Chabrols wife and appeared in twenty-four of his films over the years. Her serenity is implacable. Stephane Audrans film credits include Le Boucher (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Coup de Torchon (1981), and Babettes Feast (1987). Sassard does a pretty good job as well, though she is less talented than Audran. Sassards most noteworthy other film appearance was in Accident (1967). Jean-Louis Trintignant appeared in And God Created Woman (1956), The Sleeping Car Murder (1965), A Man and a Woman (1966), Z (1969), The Conformist (1970), La Nuit de Varennes (1982), and Red (1994) (See Three Colors.)
The score of Les Biches is really quite outstanding. It features piano and strings. It sets and/or captures the mood of every scene. Sometimes serene, sometimes ominous, it guides the level of tension throughout.
My biggest reservation about the film is that the resolution introduces a sudden and hokey new factor in Whys psychology for which there is no earlier preparation. Abrupt character developments are usually an indication of a script failing and it has that feel in this case.
Bottom-Line: Les Biches is a hynotic mystery film. It has a feel about it that is quite different from most films. Ill have to hold in abeyance whether it resembles other Chabrol films until Ive experienced some of his other works. The Bad Girls is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 100 minutes.