Bonne Femmes, Les (1960): Chabrol’s Chillingly Ironic Tale of Four Parisian Women

Les Bonnes Femmes (“Girls”), Claude Chabrol’s third film, was a critical and commercial failure upon its initial release in France, in 1960. It wasn’t shown theatrically in the U.S. until 1966, and even then only in big cities.

Fortunately, over the years, the film has been subjected to critical reevaluation by auteurist critics and directors. It is now regarded as an early highlight of Chabrol’s lengthy career. and a quintessential work of the French New Wave, fluently shot and effortlessly experimental in its tonal mixture of melodrama, absurd comedy, and ultimately tragedy.

Femme-driven, the tale centers on four young working-class Parisian women, detailing their domestic, occupational, and romantic encounters over the course of three days.

The girls work as sales assistants in a light fixture and appliance store, owned by an older boss–a male despot (Pierre Bertin).  Bored by their mundane jobs, they serve, chat, applying their makeup in the reflection of the store’s blank TV screens.  Above all, they keep looking at the clock, desperately waiting for 7pm, when they believe their “real” lives begin.

All four feel that their lives are trivial and wasteful. They are yearning for self-expression and love, though they are willing to settle for any excitement that would pull them out of their mundane existence.

In the course of the tale, they all are pursued by Parisian men in either serious or comic, but always sexist, manner.  The men, who are of varying degrees of honesty and nonchalance, are in the periphery and subject to Chabrol’s critical eye.

As constructed by Chabrol and his co-writer, Paul Gégauff, the girls do not represent social types.  Each girl bears her own distinctive look and personality.

Jane (Bernadette Lafont), attractive and sexy, comes across as flirtatious, happy go lucky, a bit ditzy.

Ginette (Stéphane Audran) moonlights at night as a singer in a shabby club, but she does know want her friends to know of her fantasy to become a real entertainer.

Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged to Henri (Sacha Briquet), but during dinner with her fiancé’s parents, she realizes that there is no genuine rapport between them, and that he shows no regard for her as an intelligent independent woman.

Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is pursued throughout the film by a mysterious man on a motorcycle. She is attracted to him, to the point of turning down other men, even though they had never met.  Early on, she touches his motorcycle in a semi-erotic, semi-fetishistic manner, and she is not shy to look back when she spots him.

After the two finally meet, they proclaim their love for each other, and the man takes the Jacqueline to the forest. In the film’s most shocking act, he strangles her, and then flees the scene of the crime on his motorcycle, leaving her corpse behind.

But there is a ray of hope.  In the last scene, set in a club, a girl (a fifth one) is asked to dance by a man (who remain faceless).  She then lifts her eyes and stares directly at the camera, suggesting that life goes on.

The story is loose and episodic, but it is full of rich detail, conveyed through Chabrol fluent naturalism and technical mastery.  The tale unfolds as a multi-nuanced study of four characters, placing them in their immediate surrounding of Parisian life, day and night. Significantly, Chabrol shows a rather vacuous and grim Paris, lacking the charm and romantic image that the city is associated with.

Shot smoothly and elegantly in black-and-white by Henri Decae, Bonnes Femmes demonstrates one of the basic tenets of the New Wave, that the telling is more important than the tale, that great acting and fluid direction can elevate the most melodramatic, and occasionally dreary and banal, material.

Two of the four actresses, Bernadette Lafont and Stephane Audran, went on to become major figures of French and international cinema.  Audran, who was married to director Chabrol, collaborated with him on many other films.

Like other Chabrol films, Bonnes Femmes is emotionally affecting, but laced with ironic tone and witty observation of ordinary human foibles.  While showing empathy for each member of the quartet, Chabrol avoids judgment of any kind. Even the unexpected murder in the last reel, chillingly dark and heartbreaking as it is, is depicted in a non-sentimental manner.

The women in Bonnes Femmes know that they exist in a male-dominated (sexist) milieu, and while some of them embrace that ideology by simply trying to survive or fit in, others are trying to break away by taking the kinds of risks and adventures not expected of “good girls” by their bourgeois society.

Seen from today’s perspective, Bonnes Femmes offers an even more scathing indictment of a patriarchal society that actively suppresses any genuine expression of a distinctly female spirit.  

Decades after it was made, Bonnes Femmes continues to impress, largely due to the fresh performances of the entire ensemble and the immediacy of the on-location shooting.

Cast
Bernadette Lafont — Jane
Clotilde Joano — Jacqueline
Stéphane Audran — Ginette
Lucile Saint-Simon — Rita
Mario David — Andre Lapierre (the motorcyclist)
Pierre Bertin — Belin (the shop owner)
Ave Ninchi — Madame Louise
Jean-Louis Maury — Marcel
Albert Dinan — Albert
Sacha Briquet — Henri
Claude Berri — Jane’s boyfriend

Credits

Directed by Claude Chabrol
Produced by Raymond Hakim and Robert Hakim
Written by Claude Chabrol and Paul Gégauff
Music by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Running time: 100 minutes

Note:

I am grateful to the late critic Andrew Sarris, who had consistently shown Bonnes Femmes in film classes at Columbia University (where I first saw it as a student).  In 2011, when he became ill, I was honored to take over his course  and discuss that film with a younger generation of film students.