It’s a very long way to go for a punch line, but Claude Chabrol fearlessly meanders along for the two hours it takes him to get there with A WOMAN CUT IN TWO, based loosely and badly on the infamous early 20th century Thaw-White murder scandal at whose center was Evelyn Nesbitt, the so-called Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. There may or may not be a play on words in French that would help make sense of it, but in English, there isn’t. Nor is there a film quite riveting enough to make that look worth overlooking.
It takes just as long to get things going and to decide whom among the bevy of lovelies the eponymous girl is. The film concentrates first on the introduction of Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), a 50-something writer of some renown who has forsaken the bright lights of Paris for the less congested lights of Lyons. He lives a spoiled existence in a self-consciously designed country house (shades of Stanford White), pampered by the lovely wife (Valeria Cavalli) who adores him, and whom he calls a saint even as he strays from her. He is managed with equal adoration by his equally lovely publisher, Capucine (Mathilde May). The relationship of the three is somewhat ambiguous, with boundaries not clearly set about who is coupling with whom or if there is any coupling at all for that matter. This trio has sense of being a long-term thing, with few secrets and fewer surprises, but what that thing is remains in the mind of the viewer. Also in the mind of the viewer is what happens behind the closed doors and up the elegant staircase of a private club Charles frequents, though considering who is doing the traveling up and through leads to some obvious conclusions.
Into Charles’ ordered and happy if unconventional life comes Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), a delicate blonde 20-something, the weather girl on a Lyonnaise cable station. She catches his eye when he is cajoled into doing publicity for his latest novel, which includes being interviewed by the particularly inept host of the show that follows Gabrielle’s weather report. She catches his eye again at a book signing at what turns out to be her mother’s bookstore. And again as a soiree. She teases him by claiming to never read a book. He invites her to an auction. And somewhere in all this flirtation is Paul (Benoit Magimel), the disturbed scion of a wealthy family who made their money in pharmaceuticals. Ironic considering the twitching, nail-biting, and generally petulant personality Paul evinces, one that might benefit from a pharmaceutical other than the alcohol, expensive of course, he pours down his throat despite the minder his widowed, emotionally distant mother has hired to keep him out of trouble.
Paul takes a shine to Gabrielle. Gabrielle returns Charles’ shine, but goes to dinner with Paul. His blood is up and he takes it amiss when Charles and Gabrielle embark on what is purported to be a singularly depraved affair, one that starts with her apologizing for being clumsy in bed and his promise to be her teacher, and that ends with her wearing peacock feathers and climbing the stairs of that club that Charles frequents. Her mother, with whom Gabrielle lives, frets. Charles’ wife may or may not know what is going on, but is blithe either way, and Capucine, well, aside from a striking bathing suit and distinctive earrings, she is not much of a vivid character.
For a thriller that is all about sexual chemistry and jealousy, there is no heat onscreen. Sagnier nibbles on Berleand’s upper lip while making smacking sounds, but mostly they quarrel with as much passion as yesterday’s flambé. Sagnier and Magimel are a bit warmer, helped by his striking resemblance to a younger, blonder, and slightly prettier Robert DeNiro, but there is less nibbling and more quarreling and a general sense of neither of them being particularly happy. Sagnier’s urchin-esque sociopathology is not uninteresting, but is far sharper, more lurid even, in the scenes in which Paul fails to subsume his resentment towards his icily beautiful mother.
As a translation of the Thaw-White case, A GIRL CUT IN TWO misses the mark badly. For example, poor Evelyn was a lovely plaything with no career options beyond being an artist’s model and marrying well. Gabrielle, on the other hand, while negotiating the libidinous atmosphere of the front office, is carefully depicted as having a very bright future ahead of her career-wise. The thing lopes along as it tosses bits of human folly up on screen. There is no sense of people being pushed to the edge of endurance, but rather one of people fighting the ennui of existence without finding much in the way of relief, even with peacock feathers and spiffy earrings.