Film Notes: Wise Guys (1961) by Claude Chabrol

One of Claude Chabrol’s lesser-known films was outright rejected both critically and commercially, yet it features in Godard’s list of ‘Six Best French films since the Liberation’ and cheekily delivers a subtle impression about the elites.

3 out of 4 stars

The Wise Mr. Brialy

Arthur (Charles Belmont) is an aimless naive young man who spends a lavish life from his uncle’s allowance. He is a student but seldom studies. Most of the time, he spends with his friends in the renowned cafes of Paris. One fine day, Arthur sees that another car has been parked in his reserved space. It is the same feeling that the characters of Friends must have felt when they entered Central Perk and saw other people sitting in that large couch. Naturally, Arthur gets offended and plays a practical joke. In comes Roland (Jean-Claude Brialy), who is at the receiving end of this humiliation. Roland takes it personally and swears vengeance.

Roland assigns Ambroisine (Bernadette Lafont), a young woman, to capture Arthur’s affection. Ambroisine understands the rules of the game very well. She succeeds in her job with flying colors and takes her new lover to meet Roland. Thus begins a cat and mouse game where love plays the central role. An unlikely friendship soon develops between Arthur and Roland. But Arthur also hates Roland because he smells that he and Ambroisine might be something more. We know that Roland has designed something that will break Arthur’s heart. It is now simply about how and when.

These sequences of anticipation are naughty and energetic. Chabrol constantly maintains a sense of movement that evokes visual dynamism. But they are also exhaustive since after a point the characters stop developing. That is when Jean-Claude Brialy anchors the proceedings. He talks to a bird, wears a Greek robe, and yet is utterly magnetic. Much of the uncertainty of the film arises from his eyes, as the viewer keeps guessing what his next move might be.

Style and Substance

Chabrol had once said that the smaller a theme is, the grander its treatment can be. This particular work was one of Chabrol’s lesser-known films. It was a big commercial and critical failure. In fact, many critics did not understand what the film actually is about. Going by the concept of the Cahiers directors that the style and form are equally or even more important than the message of the film, Wise Guys can simply be defined as a film about the way the rich have their fun. On one hand, we have the aimless Arthur, who spends most of his time either having fun or romancing. On the other, there is Roland, whose sense of social criticism is absolutely misdirected. Arthur is a product of the bourgeois, whose naivety proves his social blindness. Roland is a self-defined Left Bank philosopher, whose self-indulgence has overshadowed his moral objectivity.

In between these two are the women, who get the job done, but do not receive their due reverence. Ambroisine’s position is summarized by the close-up of the frustrated lady who sits through the mania when Roland and his friends destroy Arthur’s uncle’s house. Perhaps this theme is defined perfectly in that scene with the painter, who paints his canvas using two women as his brush. He gropes the breasts of the women while putting paint on them. The women then stick themselves to the canvas and slide around to put the paint attached to their bodies. This cheeky scene defines the lack of direction due to the materialistic blindness of the intellectuals. In the end, both Roland and Arthur remain unsatisfied because the pleasures they seek are essentially seductive voids.

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