50 Years Ago This Week – Claude Chabrol’s The Line of Demarcation
Fifty years ago this week, Mid Century Cinema favorite Claude Chabrol released The Line of Demarcation, an occupation/resistance drama that unfolds in a provincial French town straddling the river marking the frontiers of formal German administration of French territory. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Chabrol made somewhere between fifty and sixty feature films over his long career – not counting shorts, documentaries, and television work – and Demarcation is among the least well known of them. It was made during Chabrol’s first period in the wilderness, interludes when he fell on commercial or critical (or sometimes both) hard times.
Chabrol originally burst on the scene as the first New-Waver out of the starting blocks with Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959)—and the success of those films helped secure the production of the debut efforts of many of his friends. But Chabrol was out of favor (and financing) by 1963, and was reduced to – gasp – working as a director for hire. Unwilling to pout or pose, he preferred to work as he could, if at the expense of his cache as an art-house favorite. Much to the surprise of the guardians of good taste, within a few years Chabrol rose from those ashes and from 1968 to 1975 made a dozen mostly-dazzling films (including what remains my favorite Chabrol, Just Before Nightfall), before fading again (though still, always, working), only to pull off an even less expected and more remarkable late career resurgence in the mid-1980s and beyond.
Most of the six films Chabrol directed from 1964 to 1967 are forgettable, but The Line of Demarcation (not easy to track down), is an exception. It is not a great movie (the definitive resistance picture remains Jean-Pierre Melville’s astonishing Army of Shadows), but it is a very fine film. Critic Michael Wood had it right: “If something less than a masterpiece, La Ligne de demarcation is clearly the work of a master: the craftsmanship is unfailing, the touch consistently sure . . . every camera movement, every set-up, every grouping, is there to express something.” The film also reflects the reliable talents of Chabrol’s usual collaborators (cinematographer Jean Rabier, editor Jacques Gaillard, composer Pierre Jansen) and works effectively as a thoughtful and well-paced thriller.
And Line of Demarcation does break some new ground. The story, which centers around two couples (Jean Seaberg and Maurice Ronet, Daniel Gelin and Stephane Audran—uniformly excellent) and their varied levels of participation in efforts to help stranded allied agents slip through Nazi dragnets, peels back (without lecture or easy oversimplification) the then-prevalent French national myth of widespread heroic resistance. These comforting fables would a few years later be comprehensively shattered on screen by Marcel Ophuls in The Sorrow and the Pity and Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien, but in 1966, displays of collaboration, resignation, and half-hearted acquiesence were provocations.
Mary (Jean Seaberg) monitors the BBC; Pierre (Maurice Ronet) has given up
Jacques (Daniel Gelin), cornered, shares a look . . .
. . . with his wife (Stephane Audran), as the Gestapo looms in the background
Something more than a confession
The best laid plans
Do the Nazis see through them?