A Girl Cut in Two opens Friday in select theaters
Does anyone remember the murder of Beaux Arts architect and hedonist Stanford White? It was probably the first crime of the 20th century, in the sense of the Crime of the Century—a title that would pass to the likes of Fatty Arbuckle, Bruno Hauptmann and O.J. Simpson.
The venerable French filmmaker Claude Chabrol also remembers Stanford White. His new film, the vividly titled A Girl Cut in Two, aims to retell the story of White, his teenaged mistress, Evelyn Nesbit, and her rich, insane husband, Harry Thaw—himself a scion of a railroad fortune.
It was a parable of Gilded Age decadence, but seemingly not much more than that. Nesbit was a woman of low birth, blessed only with a startling beauty that White availed himself of beginning when she was about 16 (the essential prop in White's boudoir was a red velvet swing). A Girl Cut in Two, however, is set in present-day Lyon, France, which presents the film with its first big problem. So much of the world of White, Thaw and Nesbit is lost to us: The idle rich today pretend to work for their money, for example, and in our day there's relatively little shame in being a low-born trophy wife with a questionable past. Also, today's equivalents of chorus girls have a few more options for self-advancement than Nesbit had.
Seemingly unconcerned with the problem of anachronism, Chabrol and screenwriter Cécile Maistre recreate the love triangle of 1906 with three unconvincing—and often unpleasant—substitutes. Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand) is the White figure, a famous 60-ish novelist who pretends to humble, monkish habits that he doesn't possess: In addition to his happily pliant wife, he has a sexy literary agent, Capucine (Mathilda May), who seems to spend as much time with him as his wife.
Charles' appointment with death is fixed the day he meets young Gabrielle Snow (Ludivine Sagnier). The subtitles tip us off to the symbolism of the name: If you listen to the spoken French, her surname is actually Deneige, which means "of snow." (Elsewhere, a character helpfully tells us that she's "pure as the driven snow.") Unlike her historical inspiration, Gabrielle is in her 20s and is the product of an educated, if not prosperous, Lyons family. And unlike many French (or, for that matter, American) women of the 21st century, and at complete odds with her character's cosmopolitan sexiness, Gabrielle is enough of a newbie at sex that she asks for tutelage from her middle-aged lover.
Not content with this frankly unbelievable couple, the filmmakers give us their modern-day version of Harry Thaw: a wastrel heir to a pharmaceutical fortune named Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel). Gaudens is an unconvincing sketch of a present-day fop—the literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries is full of this character type, in an age when the rich felt honest work was beneath them and pointedly indulged in conspicuous displays of leisure. In the present-day context of this film, however, Paul comes off as a jarringly surreal presence that would be more comfortable in a David Lynch film.
These failings of character could be redeemed if the story made more sense. But it doesn't. The early scenes are almost incomprehensible, with bucketloads of unnecessary expository information, over-emphatic production design and clumsy, static blocking of actors. Chabrol, who has been making films for 50 years, is the sort of anti-bourgeoisie artist who is on very familiar terms with that class of society: It's part of what makes his cinematic eviscerations of the rich so reliably entertaining. Here, however, it's unclear for much of the film what on earth is going on: Are we watching an exceedingly subtle satire, a very slowly burning thriller, a straight historically inspired drama? We have no clue.
All the same, the film's final scene is strange enough—in the manner of Luis Buñuel—that it's almost worth sitting through the film to see it. It's not fair to describe what it is—let's just say that it's a startling, perhaps symbolic, ending to an unsatisfying film.