The title of Claude Chabrol’s 2007 black comic morality tale — La fille coupée en deux — serves as a playful reminder of the role women usually play on the screen: an object of desire to be edited into whatever configurations best suit the director’s whims. This being Chabrol, you have to wonder whether the metaphor will be made literal by the end of the movie, which is droll, ruthless, and the kind of high-quality perversity the director has been grinding out at will for more than half a century.
The girl in this instance, Gabrielle Snow (a luminous but inert Ludivine Sagnier), makes a fetching eyeful when she does the weather reports on a provincial TV station, an attraction not lost on crapulous roué Charles Saint-Denis (François Berleánd), famous novelist, spoiled celebrity, and small-town de Sade at the inevitable local S&M enclave. Competing for Gabrielle’s attention is idle rich boy and nutjob Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel, a cross between Jude Law and the Little Prince), who also wants a piece of the action. Gabrielle gets badly used (what does she see in these guys?), though in his typically sardonic manner Chabrol grants her rueful vindication.
Not before, however, she undergoes a series of Story of O–style degradations at the behest of the grampus-like Charles, to whom she’s devoted because he’s the “teacher” who will help her shed her innocence and stop being “a little kid.” The lessons include visits to the tony private club mentioned above, where he treats her to a birthday “surprise” by leading her up a spiral staircase to . . . whatever you might imagine. Unlike Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut, Chabrol knows that the bare facts of decadence and depravity more often arouse laughter than lust.
Despite her desire for experience, Gabrielle is not much of a heroine. But the film concerns itself less with her willing victimization than with the thoroughly rotten and self-pleased society (a sniping nest of vulgarians and mediocrities plucked from the pages of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses or Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu) that crushes her and any other glimmer of purity, originality, or idealism. The list of victims might also include Charles and Paul, for both mention in passing instances of sexual abuse as a child. Yet both have found roles — artist and madman — by which they can prevail in such a discontented society. The irony is that only the girl cut in two manages to escape. French | 115 minutes | Kendall Square