In Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, a French libertine tells his middle-aged peers, "Women don't care about your age. Your experience is all." Sometimes that sentiment seems like a subliminal message encoded in every other French film that reaches our shores. French filmmakers dig on May-December romances the way Hollywood loves explosions and shopping montages.
A Girl Cut in Two at least acknowledges an opposing viewpoint to France's cinematic celebrations of match-ups between male graybeards and nubile females. The same hedonist in the scene mentioned above confesses discomfort when his 23-year-old daughter brought home an "old man" of 50 as her boyfriend. But relationships between couples of the same age (would those be "May-May romances?") fare little better in A Girl Cut in Two, suggesting that men might be untrustworthy at any age.
The "girl" of the title is Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a perky blond weathercaster with sunny career prospects at a Lyon television station. At the station she meets Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand, a dead ringer for Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai), a literary lion who flirts with her in the dressing room and at one of his book signings despite being married.
Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), the spoiled heir to a chemical fortune who carries a bitter grudge against Charles, also makes Gabrielle the object of his pursuit. The unstable young dandy continues to court Gabrielle even after she falls passionately in love with Charles. Chabrol and co-writer Cécile Maistre took inspiration for the tempestuous triangle from a 1906 American scandal involving architect Stanford White and entertainer Evelyn Nesbit, dramatized in the book, movie and musical Ragtime.
Sagnier has been one of France's "it girls" since her inhibited breakthrough role in François Ozon's Swimming Pool. Her porcelain-pale skin seems to glow from within, and she infuses her role with enough passion that the character doesn't come across as merely naïve. Magimel offers a more overtly comic performance as Paul, who's so petulant and clownish that he's hard to take seriously.
Charles emerges as the most intriguing and increasingly repugnant character. In an interview with a vapid TV personality, he claims to be fascinated with modern society's trajectory toward "Puritanism vs. decadence" and says that he lives a remote, "nun-like" daily life. In reality, he frequents an upper-class sex club, although Chabrol never spells out what goes on in the rooms upstairs. And while Charles seems genuinely smitten with Gabrielle at first, he can prove shockingly callous toward her. After their first tryst, she says, "I must have seemed clumsy to you." He replies, "I'll teach you." (Gee, thanks Gramps.)
It's hard to pigeonhole A Girl Cut in Two. Chabrol made his reputation as "the French Alfred Hitchcock" for suspense thrillers such as The Butcher, and the 78-year-old filmmaker keeps some plot points mysterious before taking a melodramatic turn in the last act. For most of its running time, however, it plays like a low-key comedy, with whimsical music trailing Paul like cheap cologne. When one character mentions a Woody Allen anecdote, the film's intentions snap into focus. Like Allen's recent films, A Girl Cut in Two involves intellectuals who find their good intentions at war with their desires. A Girl Cut in Two features a coda involving a bit of stage magic that seems like an outtake from an Allen film. Chabrol's movie feels more relaxed than Allen's serious work, even though his themes prove surprisingly modest.
Even more than Allen's films, A Girl Cut in Two features a strong supporting cast of older women, particularly Mathilda May as Paul's publisher. No less a swinging sensualist than Paul, May shows off her cleavage and exudes such sexual confidence that we simply assume she and Paul have had a casual affair – the script doesn't even need to drop hints. May provides such a memorable personality that she almost puts Sagnier in the shade. Maybe French filmmakers' esteem for seasoned actresses explains how they get away with their adoration of "leetle girls."