Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier) is blonde, friendly, smart but not shrewd or sophisticated. She's a weather presenter on a local television station. Her mother manages a bookstore. Charles Saint-Denis is a famous man of letters, winner of the Prix Goncourt. He's three decades her senior, wealthy, charming, aging and a rake. His wife loves him. Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel) is spoiled, arrogant, the young heir to the Gaudens chemical millions and seems to need a keeper to smooth over the trouble he causes for others and himself. His father is dead. His mother is elegant and icy. Both men become fixated on Gabrielle. Saint-Dennis, because she gives him youth and sex, because she is a malleable bit of female clay he can instruct in the worldly ways of sexual dissolution. Gaudens, because she doesn't fall over for him, yet treats him as the attractive man he thinks himself to be. Both men detest each other. Both would be fine catches for any ambitious young woman. Please note that elements of the plot are discussed..
Gabrielle falls in love with Saint-Denis, and is even willing to climb the carved, wooden, circular staircase with him in the elegant rake's club he takes her to, introducing her to his fellow aging, wealthy libertines. Charles wants her, has her, then doesn't want the entanglements, then wants her, then doesn't want the bother of leaving his wife, then wants her. Paul wants her, is furious with Charles for having her, wants her, wants her, wants her. And Gabrielle? The best description of her situation comes from Roger Ebert: "The three central characters are in an emotional fencing match, and Gabrielle lacks a mask." That she survives, and don't ask about the other two, makes a fine story that has not a trace of melodrama. We see what's going on, how the characters change, how Gabrielle changes, with all the usual impending unease that Claude Chabrol brings to his films. We know Gabrielle's situation cannot continue, but Chabrol keeps us guessing about his intentions and her fate. Towards the end, I was almost sure we were going to have one of those sad and ambiguous endings that usually drive me crazy. Then Chabrol wraps up his story about Gabrielle, the girl cut in two, with a final set-up that is amusing and satisfying, and a little surreal.
Chabrol has given us a fine movie. He's 78 now, and is a wonder. For those who may be fond of Ludivine Sagnier, three movies come to mind to show her range (not to mention her body): 8 Women, where at 23 she plays a pig-tailed tomboy about 15; Swimming Pool, where a year later she plays a sex pot given to nude swims; and this one. For Francois Berleand, compare his self-assurance here with the high-ranking official Isabelle Huppert turns to sniveling impotence in Chabrol's cynical and satisfying A Comedy of Power.