Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Live by the Pen, Die by the Knife

Over the weekend, which was one of gorgeous late spring weather in New York City, warm but not quite hot, sunny, cloudless, with no humidity, I got it into my head to watch Rene Clement's 1960 film, Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon, again. It's based, of course, on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Delon playing the Ripley character, and I think the reason I had a yen to watch it is because so much of it takes place under a cloudless, sunny sky like the one we had over the weekend in New York.

When I saw the film's credits, I realized I'd forgotten that the screenplay adaptation was co-written (along with director Clement) by Paul Gegauff. He and Clement, in fact, received an Edgar Award for their script for the film. But Gegauff is probably best known for the 14 films he collaborated on as screenwriter with director Claude Chabrol, who is often referred to as the French Hitchcock for the large number of twisty thrillers he made over the course of his long (1958-2009) career. 

A prime example of Gegauff's work is the script to the Chabrol-directed Une partie de plasir, from 1975. In it Gegauff, an actor, not to mention a novelist as well as a screenwriter, stars opposite his former, then divorced, wife, Danielle Gegauff. The story has them playing a married couple living a fairly happy, middle-class life with their young daughter until the husband says they should add a charge to their marriage by going to bed with other people and then describing their sexual escapades to each other. This is the 1970s, after all. It's not a shock that things go quickly wrong with their adventures, primarily because the husband can't deal with them and gets extremely jealous over the pleasure his wife derives from the extra-marital couplings. In the end, tragedy results, and the once solid bourgeoise family is destroyed. How much of this is based on actual experiences the Gegauffs may have had is not known, though it should be noted that their real-life daughter, Clemence, plays the daughter in the movie. 

Gegauff was a talented guy, no question, but all the stories about him make clear that while he had a strong and colorful personality that made quite an impression on his French New Wave director friends -- Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and company, besides Chabrol -- he was also an inveterate womanizer and just all-around son-of-a-bitch. He drank a lot and apparently never held women in high regard; it's safe to call him an obnoxious and misogynistic personality.  As his frequent collaborator Claude Chabrol said, "When I want cruelty, I go off and look for G├ęgauff. Paul is very good at gingering things up…He can make a character look absolutely ridiculous and hateful in two seconds flat.” This was a guy who was a bastard in real life and could write them well in fiction.

With all that said, Gegauff did get the death he deserved and perhaps craved. In the year 1983, he was living with his second wife, a woman much younger than him named Coco Ducados, from Norway. They had met in 1979.  By 1983, Gegauff's drinking had only increased, and there must have been a considerable amount of tension between them. For Christmas, the two were in a cabin in Norway, and one of their arguments broke out. Whatever else was said, Gegauff threw in the lines, "Kill me if you want, but stop bothering me"  To which Coco obliged, stabbing him three times with a knife.  That marked the end of Paul Gegauff, on Christmas Eve 1983, to be exact.

Gegauff's list of screenwriting credits working with many directors is long and very impressive. He was the superb writer as quintessential toxic force, though in this case what you might describe as just desserts was served to him. And it was served extremely cold, through a sharp blade, with no more meals, or anything else, required for him to indulge in ever again.

Addendum: I can't seem to find out whether Coco Ducados ever went to prison for killing Gegauff, but she did go on to work, in Norway, as a screenwriter and dramatist.



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