La Rupture is one of Claude Chabrol’s most bonkers and brilliant thrillers. In place of his usual slow-building suspense, things kick off with an horrific burst of domestic violence. Drug-addled Charles Régnier brutally attacks his wife and son, and batters the little boy against the wall. Wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran) bashes Charles’ head with a frying pan and, after rushing her son to the hospital, files for divorce. But her father-in-law, Ludovic Regnier (Michel Bouquet) is a wealthy and powerful man. Having long disapproved of Charles marrying a former striptease dancer, Ludovic is determined to destroy Hélène’s reputation so he can gain custody of his grandson.
Hélène rents a room across the road from her son’s hospital, in a boarding house full of eccentric tenants including a trio of gossipy old ladies. It is run by the strict Madame Pinelli (Annie Cordy) whose husband (Jean Carmet) is a good-natured, but weak-willed alcoholic while their gawky and childlike daughter Elise (Katia Romanoff) is mentally handicapped. Meanwhile, Ludovic hires an oily acquaintance named Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who deviously inveigles his way into Hélène’s life and tries to turn the other tenants against her. When Hélène’s lawyer (Michel Duchaussoy) speeds up the divorce proceedings, Paul hurriedly schemes to frame her for sexually molesting Elise and then dope her into a fatal car crash using a bag of drug-laced candy.
Grippingly surreal and unsettling from start to finish, yet laced with a streak of cracked comedy, this marvellous movie is based on The Balloon Man, a novel by Charlotte Armstrong whose book The Chocolate Web became the basis for a later Chabrol mystery-thriller: Merci pour le chocolat (2000). Typically, Chabrol fashions the genteel, elderly yet ruthlessly manipulative Regnier family into another scathing portrayal of the corrupt and corrupting bourgeoisie, yet tweaks the subtext still further into a cockeyed contemplation of what it means to play God. For while Ludovic Regnier (with the brilliant Michel Bouquet almost unrecognisable from the previous year’s La Femme Infidèle (1969)) leaves the dirty work to Paul and never sullies his own hands, he remains a monster whose tentacles reach everywhere and whose dislike of Hélène stems solely from class. Ludovic’s conscienceless meddling results in trauma and tragedy befalling an array of innocent (and notably mostly working class) parties, including his own son.
That said, as expertly played by Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Thomas emerges as one of the most odious of all Chabrol villains. Aided by his perpetually naked and horny girlfriend Sonia (an unforgettably delicious Catherine Rouvel), Paul reaches an all-time low when he kidnaps and drugs Elise. Subjected to a Satanic themed girl-on-girl 8mm porno reel, Elise is seduced by sexy Sonia in a scene that is more gleefully over the top black comedy than sordid - especially given that Elise reacts in a way counter to Paul's expectations. With an eerie ambience assisted by Pierre Jansen’s Theremin-enhanced score, this almost qualifies as a horror movie but Chabrol weaves in a considerable amount of pathos and humour thanks to the oddball supporting characters: genial and handsome Doctor Blanchard (Angelo Infanti) who seems a potential hero but always arrives to late to do anything except say hello; overly theatrical and self-aggrandizing actor Gerard Mostelle (Mario David) who actually turns out to be the most morally upstanding tenant; and those three twittering old dears who come good near the end and rush to Hélène’s aid out of a sense of sisterhood, while the villains’ carefully laid plans unravel in delicious fashion.
At the other end of the moral spectrum we have Chabrol’s wife and muse, Stéphane Audran, who is sublime as Hélène. The embodiment of goodness in a disordered universe, despite the haute bourgeoisie characters attempts to label her a harlot or a gold-digger, she remains stoic and incorruptible, even amidst the memorably drug-addled, hallucinatory climax.
A renowned director of French thrillers, he was one of the originators of the French New Wave of the fifties and sixties, often concentrating on middle class characters going through crises that led to murder, and made around fifty of these films in his long career. Starting with Le Beau Serge in 1958, he went on to direct such respected efforts as Les Cousins, The Champagne Murders, Les Biches, This Man Must Die, Le Boucher, Blood Relatives, Poulet au Vinaigre, a version of Madame Bovary with frequent star Isabelle Huppert, L'enfer, La Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two with Ludivine Sagnier, and his final work for the cinema, Bellamy with Gerard Depardieu.