La Cheval d'orgueil
(The Horse of Pride) (1980)
Based on Pierre-Jakez Hélias’s 1975 autobiographical novel of peasant life in early 20th-century Brittany, Claude Chabrol’s very uncharacteristic feature forgoes his usual preoccupation with the contemporary French bourgeoisie for a calm, serene portraiture of a culture now faded in the nation’s memory. Possessing no plot in the traditional sense, the film primarily centers on the childhood of a son (played at different ages by Ronan and Armel Hubert) born to a poor couple (Bernadette Le Saché and a young François Cluzet), occasionally diverging from its casual depiction of Breton communal life into folkloric interludes and tall tales. Chabrol’s controlled and distant aesthetic, previously and subsequently utilized to provide sharp commentary on characters’ relationships in films like La femme infidèle (1969) and La cérémonie (1995), here functions more as a respectful reverence for Breton customs, as if Chabrol is cautious to not contaminate the culture’s singular traditions with his own commentary. In this sense Chabrol’s remoteness differs from that of a period film like Barry Lyndon (1975), where Kubrick’s detached sensibility turns all of his characters into bizarre curiosities rather than the human, if still slightly eccentric, populace observed in Chabrol’s film (Jacques Dufilho, playing the protagonist’s grandfather, is especially memorable).
Of course, the irony is that by shooting the entire film in French language rather than Hélias’s original Breton, Chabrol automatically contaminates the production with his own culture anyway. Perhaps due to this linguistic anachronism, Chabrol understandably skips over the majority of Hélias’s extensive and fascinating discussion of learning French in his novel—an omission that perhaps is for the best anyway, given the topic’s relation to the literary form over the cinematic. Indeed, Chabrol’s use of French language in his adaptation adds a significant thematic layer to the film, anticipating the manner in which French laws and the economy would eventually force Brittany to discontinue its national language. Chabrol explicitly illustrates the country’s cultural assimilation, both into France and into the world as a whole, near the end of his film, when cinema is introduced to the Breton community in the form a silent gangster serial (causing one woman to pull down the projection blanket out of fright). On a more formal level, Chabrol at one instance evokes Brittany’s gradual global awareness by cutting to black-and-white stock footage of World War I—a startling, interruptive explication of modern technology that contrasts to the antiquary age referenced by Chabrol’s cutaway to Georges de La Tour’s Le Nouveau-né at a much earlier point in the film. Anticipating Jia Zhangke’s similar documentation of cultural shift in Platform (2000), Chabrol’s film humbly admits France’s gradual absorption of Brittany, an act essentially compounded in Chabrol’s literal attempt to capture the reality of a bypassed period through the artificially modern process of filmmaking.
In spite of the national tensions that Le Cheval d’orgueil inevitably alludes to and even intentionally references (catalyzing in an encounter between the protagonist’s grandfather and his employer, which is one of the few scenes that is recognizably Chabrolian in its absurd actorly mannerisms, sparse interior location, and biting critique of class), one shouldn’t dismiss the tranquil, pastoral beauty that Chabrol achieves for the majority of the film. Heightened by Jean Rabier’s lush photography, the film’s painterly mise en scène often resembles the landscape works of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. More than a series of pretty pictures, however, Chabrol also does wonderful things with movement, both within the frame (such as the complementary rhythms of washing and hoeing, not to mention the effects of the wind on fields and strung wooden shoes) as well as through the frame (some of the tracking shots, particularly in the film’s opening wedding ceremony, are marvelously composed). Perhaps most significant of all is Chabrol’s ability to depict the Breton people in a way that does not sentimentalize (and thus condescends) them, thereby steering clear from the bourgeois tendency, as commented on by Hélias in his novel, to view the lives of the lower class as “bad melodrama.” This may not only be Chabrol’s greatest film in terms of visual and aural composition, but it’s also one that reveals, in its deference for an older culture and its Truffaut-like playfulness, a compassionate and tender sensibility beneath the director’s normally cold exterior.
This short piece was written for Flickhead's ongoing Claude Chabrol Blogathon.