“The Bridesmaid” On-page and On-Screen: Rendell Begets Chabrol in a Filthy Basement

house driveway
Photo by Matt Jones

Today, I’d like to talk to you about The Bridesmaid.

No, not Bridesmaids. Not Revenge of the Bridesmaids.

La demoiselle d’honneur.

Of course, I’m referring to two versions of a story here: The original suspense novel in English by British author Ruth Rendell and its 2004 film adaptation by French New Wave director Claude Chabrol.

For a certain period, Chabrol’s work was one of two go-to movies I had permanently queued on Netflix for learning and practicing French, the other being Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr’s Chacun sa nuit, a steamy murder mystery filmed against a provincial backdrop that may in itself be more swoon-worthy than any of the cast’s nudity (NSFW, obs).

I told myself that both of these movies were great for watching over and over because they were interesting and plot-driven enough to hold my attention, but not so good that I would become distracted from the language itself.

In the case of Chacun sa nuit, that may have been more true, though to give that film its full due, it’s not as singularly trashy as you might expect from reading the summary.

I can now admit, however, that rather than my language learning being a reason to spend hours and hours watching the Chabrol film—something that I otherwise may not have been able to justify—it was more of an excuse to spend hours and hours perfecting my pronunciation with mild-mannered protagonist Phillippe (Benoît Magimel) and his nutjob girlfriend Senta (Laura Smet) in a creepy basement apartment as they walked around in their underwear sipping instant coffee and blithely misunderstanding each other.

It wasn’t just that I couldn’t have explained to myself why I wanted to watch an intriguing but dreary latter-day Chabrol more than 20 times over, it was that I couldn’t understand exactly why I did find it so intriguing. What was up with that?

Rainy days with Phillippe and Senta

La demoiselle d’honneur has the roughshod feel of a Nouvelle Vague film, without the bombast of some earlier such films like Godard’s À bout de souffle or Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and without the quiet, unshakable confidence of Rohmer’s Ma nuit chez Maud.

The Bridesmaid doesn’t seem set on appealing to any particular audience other than loyal Chabrol fans and lovers of pure suspense. It has a made-for-TV-movie quality about it, and this draws an appropriate background for the characters—Phillippe’s family, at least—who seem like the type of people who watch a lot of made-for-TV movies, or whatever happens to be on at the moment. In short, these seem like people who are comfortable in a consumerist society and willing to sit back and enjoy whatever cheap thrills are being served up, whether game shows or grisly news stories.

Photo by Frank Okay

Phillippe meets Senta, a relative of his soon-to-be brother-in law, when she appears at his sister’s wedding as a bridesmaid. The two of them are drawn to one another immediately and, that night, Senta shows up soaking wet (it admittedly is raining outside) at his family’s house and tumbles into bed with him. From that moment on, they are not just boyfriend and girlfriend but creepily joined at the proverbial hip. Senta believes they exist as superior souls, above the rest of humankind, and eventually says as much to Phillippe.

Phillippe is intrigued, amused and charmed. For whatever reason, he feels inclined to play along with Senta’s whims and to smile at the weirder, psycho-warning-label things she says. Despite the fact that the situation has BAD IDEA painted all over it for anyone who has seen any movies or lived…at all…ever, the intimate scenes between the two take their sweet time getting to the inevitable skeleton in the closet, and for a fictional nutjob, Senta is pretty chill.

The characters begin to take shape and grow together in ways that are set to go atypical despite the more “obvious” plot elements. There’s a subversive quality to how things do end up going that seems not unusual for a director of Chabrol’s background. Also trademark Chabrol is the soundtrack, which involves demented-sounding, string-based interludes that appear to mock the movie and the audience’s expectations, as well as a certain comical, one-dimensional sheen that falls over the cast in their sillier moments. These elements are restrained, but they exist for long enough to bring you out of things, to reinforce that what’s happening may not be what you think is happening.

Much of the suspense element centers around how much of what Senta tells Phillippe is actual fact: For example, she leads him to believe she’s an almost-famous actress (though she insists on being called “acteur” rather than “actrice,” like her masculine counterparts), yet she’s living in a hole and doesn’t seem to have any serious prospects for the future. So when she gets stuck on the idea that they should each kill someone to prove their love for the other, he’s eventually led to take it as a romantic notion of hers that she doesn’t intend to fully play out. By reaching a place of comfort with what he thinks are her fantasies, he becomes willing to indulge her in pretending to go along with them.

Again, at this point, a three-year-old child, if somehow allowed to view this horribly age-inappropriate film, could tell you that this is a terrible idea.

What’s really interesting, though, is the question of what makes Phillippe tick. Does he honestly believe Senta is just mildly, harmlessly insane, or is he deceiving himself as well? Is he so in love with her that he doesn’t even care what the truth is, or doesn’t want to know? It’s not likely that someone in his position would go to the lengths he does just for rainy-day basement sex, so there must be feelings involved, but what are these feelings based on? We’re led to believe they have something to do with his mother, a rather silly woman whose own romantic situations and status seem to weigh heavily on his mind. Does Senta offer him an escape from his mother, from everyday life? Do her superficial, crazy ideas about humanity remind him of the crude, shallow values his family shares but serve them up in a way that appeals to him?

Phillippe is such a regular, by-the-book kind of guy that it’s amusing to watch how quickly he lets himself be pulled into the relationship, and at the same time it makes perfect sense that someone like him would be especially vulnerable to the moves Senta plays. He has no defense against her offense. Her danger doesn’t compute. Yet this could be just another way of saying that in a demented, inhuman sort of way, they’re perfect for each other.

These types of reflections—along with Chabrol’s meta-comic background that exaggerates the trope of “regular dude meets crazy woman who shakes up his life but is trouble!“—create a distraction from the plot, allowing time to watch the dreary scenery drift by.

Since, as mentioned, the story is slow-moving, presenting itself at a jerky yet leisurely pace, we’re moved to become acquainted with the characters themselves and what their relationships say about them while the film prepares for its next lunging reveal.

The fact that it’s often raining adds to the feeling of being stuck indoors with these people, a terrifying prospect in real life but a guilty pleasure through the fourth wall.

I feel it would be missing the point to either read this particular work as a simple poke at bourgeois values or as a simple thriller through and through. The dark humor is nuanced, and that’s why I was able to enjoy watching it so many times, despite or because of the fact that I thought of it as only kind of a good film: Because it plays with so many elements of not-good films and doesn’t lay its intentions right at the viewer’s feet, it creates multiple alleyways for even the idle mind to wander down.

What I do like is when, in a scene that’s very serious and dramatic, a small detail throws everything out of kilter and makes the audience wonder, “Is that funny or isn’t it?” – Claude Chabrol (translated from the “making of” documentary Haut les Coeurs !)

Now, I was aware almost immediately after having discovered La demoiselle d’honneur that it was based on Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid. Apparently, mining Rendell’s work for inspiration has even become something of a trend for French directors. I went a long time without specifically seeking out Rendell’s original, I think partially because I wasn’t sure whether Chabrol’s film might be an ironic twist on it, and also maybe because, well…what happens in the basement in the rain should stay in the basement in the rain, you know?

Rendell makes a worthy match

Eventually, though, curiosity won out, and I recently read Rendell’s original The Bridesmaid. If I wind up having less to say about the book in this post, that shouldn’t suggest that it’s any less good than Chabrol’s adaptation. In fact, I’d say that objectively, it’s more solid, but until I’ve read it another 20+ times, it will, for me personally, pale by comparison to the film that holds eternal war buddy status in my life.

Also for that reason, while I can entirely accept it as a whole and separate entity, it’s hard for me to talk about this particular book without comparing it to the film. Much of the suspense for me was in guessing how similar the two endings would be.

Many of the differences in the plot and setup are obvious, as they’re either cultural or medium-based: In the original, the main character is Phillip rather than Phillippe, and the book takes place in London rather than northern France (either works for lots of rain). Unlike the 2004 adaptation, which seems to take place around the time it was filmed, the book is dated within a different narrow time frame due to the casual mention of a cassette tape and the absence of cell phones.

Another difference is that Phillip is younger in the book (22) than Magimel looks in the movie. This changed my perception of the character somewhat because it’s easier to imagine a college-aged kid being entranced by a silly femme fatale. With Magimel looking to be in his late twenties (The New York Times agrees with me, plus he really was around 29 at the time), Phillippe’s infatuation with Senta seems much funnier and at the same time much more serious.

Smet appears more ageless, and that seems appropriate—in both versions of the story, P. is struck by Senta’s resemblance to a piece of classical sculpture belonging to his mother (in the movie, a bust; in the book, a small statue).

However, despite his actual age, Phillip is treated by everyone in the book as very much an adult. He has a full-time job and contributes a large portion of his income to help support his mother—a significant part of the plot hinges on this. In both versions of the story, P.’s innocence vs. his outward responsible-adult appearance seems to play a big role in what happens, but in the book, both the medium and his age allow Rendell to paint vivid, shimmering depictions of late-adolescent sensations. These colorful reflections—of his feelings while and after being around Senta—speak to an entirely age-appropriate experience and on the other hand to a kind of perverse longing and repression.

If Senta and Phillip are, to a certain extent, a normal young couple—or if they even embody any general characteristics of young people in love—the perverse part of their attraction seems to be that it exists in a vacuum, or that they both want it to. This concept is also very much present in the Chabrol despite the age differences, and it seems more universally applicable: People who are younger may experience love as more of an intense shock, but they aren’t necessarily more or less screwed-up in their pursuit of said love than their elders.

While it doesn’t go at all in the same direction, this story did make me think of Othello, but not for what that work is most well-known for, i.e., being a study of jealousy. In The Bridesmaid, envy exists as a theoretical thing of the past, but it’s beside the point. Suspicion, however, takes center stage as P. watches Senta’s every move to try to decipher her level of honesty. The fact that she may lie, even about terrible things, doesn’t—unlike in Othello’s obsessions about Desdemona—ultimately bother him: He just wants to know if and when she’s telling the truth.

In Rendell’s novel, Senta fears that Phillip may be jealous of a past love of hers, when he actually couldn’t care less. But another similarity to Othello rears its head by way of the more subtle theme of innocence. In both versions of the story, as in Othello, a man makes a woman a focal point of his own view of innocence—he not only believes in that innocence, but needs to believe in it in order for the world to appear right to him. And in establishing that need and the woman as the vessel for it, he exposes himself as being the naive one, the one whose innocence must be protected.

If Chabrol’s ending comes as a complete surprise to some, and it probably does, Rendell uses her words to wind down to a slow and subtly satisfying stop. (For me, of course. I’m sure some people have found it infuriating.)

The endings of the book and the movie are more or less the same, but since they’re more cerebral than action-based, they’re necessarily presented in two very different ways. In both cases, the surprise is not in a sudden twist, or even in the dramatic revelation of details that bring the plot full circle, but in the quietude following the big reveal.

In other words, while the two endings are similar, the reveal and the ending are not the same in either case.

I was really impressed with how Chabrol managed to adapt the details of Rendell’s story into something different that was still quite faithful to the spirit of the thing.

It’s rare that I feel like making a point of experiencing both a book and a movie adaptation is important in itself, but I think these two pair to become more than the sum of their parts. The cross-cultural and cross-artform elements make them distinct, but Chabrol’s film maintains the feeling of “talking” to Rendell’s novel, which enhances both works.

Even if you do it backwards, like I did.

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