Undoubtedly, the Gilded Age murder of Madison Square Garden architect Stanford White at the hands of his ex-mistress' husband has a lurid appeal. So too does Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, a French film set in contemporary Paris but loosely inspired by the White affair. The love-torn triangle is TV weather girl Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier); the much older, married, successful novelist Charles Saint Denis (François Berléand); and the emotionally unstable pharmaceutical scion Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel).
The central figure, Gabrielle, is deeply in love with Charles, with whom she is having a torrid affair that has more than a few sadomasochistic elements, though these are for the most part only hinted at. Simultaneously, she is being courted by the good-looking and youthful Paul, who is probably violent and may or may not be schizophrenic. When Charles unceremoniously disappears from Gabrielle's life, she marries Paul on the rebound but is unable to forget her former lover. Neither can Paul, who is now obsessed with Charles and awash in jealousy.
This flick is an intriguing character study impressively evoked by the three leads. Berléand is riveting as an aging intellectual, a notorious ladies' man and also a loving and committed husband. Equally compelling is Magimel's Paul, a simpering mama's boy given to eruptions of icy rage. He is most frightening when pouting like a frustrated infant, biting his nails, and feigning innocence. Sagnier has the most difficult role, as it is the least fleshed out and not wholly believable in these post-feminist times. Still, within the parameters of the part's limitations, Sagnier creates Gabrielle, a sievelike child-woman seemingly devoid of professional ambition or self-determination. Equally unaccounted for — at least to this viewer — is how Gabrielle summons the passions of not one man but two. Perhaps it's precisely her blankness, the vacancy of thought, that serves as the turn on.
Some of the smaller roles are noteworthy as well. Mathilda May is excellent as Charles' publisher and knowing confidante; so is Caroline Silhol as Paul's aristocratic mom, a woman haunted and angst-filled but nonetheless imperious, manipulative, and ultimately vicious. Valéria Cavalli fully inhabits the thankless role of Charles' trusting and loving wife, while Marie Bunel and Etienne Chicot bring to life Gabrielle's financially strapped and socially marginalized mother and uncle who care about the young woman but are out of their depths in dealing with the people in her world. Without leaning on it too heavily, Chabrol explores several socioeconomic classes and their troubled relations in Paris today. It's a jaundiced view.
Genre: Drama (French with English subtitles)
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
Written by: Cécile Maistre and Claude Chabrol
Starring: Ludivine Sagnier, François Berléand, Benoît Magimel