Nearly 50 years ago, Claude Chabrol – who died last weekend – wrote an essay, Big Subjects, Little Subjects, in which he set out an attitude to movies and a guide to his own career (which had only just begun). "You can make a film about the French Revolution, or a squabble with the next-door neighbour, the apocalypse of our time or how the barmaid became pregnant, the last hours of a hero of the Resistance, or the inquest on a murdered prostitute. It's all a question of personality."
If you wanted to demonstrate this theory in defence of modesty, you could point to Madame Bovary (1991), where despite the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the title role, Chabrol seems a little overawed or diffident with the material. If only it wasn't quite so famous a book, you feel him sighing. And the ideal contrast is Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), one of Chabrol's best films, in which the four shopgirls he observes are all versions of the Emma Bovary dream. It's a great movie just because the people seem so ordinary and their lives so trivial.
It's also a story about women and death, and while Chabrol liked to be regarded as versatile, those two topics kept coming back. This is a reminder that in 1957, he and Eric Rohmer collaborated on the first worthwhile book on Alfred Hitchcock, an analysis that identified the exchange of guilt, the way some characters saved others and the confusion of responsibility, which are palpable in a lot of Chabrol's work.
So Le Boucher (1969) is another of his modest, ambivalent pictures, the story of a serial killer who is provoked or prompted by the icy assurance of the local schoolteacher, someone he loves but cannot properly approach. Like any student of Hitchcock, Chabrol was intrigued by the wealth of reasons for and the emotional neediness in murder.
There was a tease in Chabrol and many signs of bourgeois respectability. He set himself up in film-making with money from his first marriage and for a while he was the benevolent producer of other people's films, seemingly not as committed to theory as Godard, not as passionate as Truffaut, not as dedicated to narrative as Rivette. He liked genre films – thrillers, dark comedies, murder stories – and he liked actresses. His second wife was the immaculate Stéphane Audran, who plays the teacher in Le Boucher. Later on, he worked often with Huppert, notably in Violette Nozière (1977) and Une Affaire de Femmes (1988). In the first, Huppert played a girl who poisons her parents, and in the second she was an abortionist in occupied France.
No one of that new wave generation made more films than Chabrol, or so many that were sardonic at best, routine at worst. He often resembled a genre director of the 30s and 40s, doing one thing after another as assignments, without too much introspection. Perhaps it was a matter of personality, and of a dark vision that turned to cynicism. But then, if you wanted to see Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Boucher and Violette Nozière on successive nights I think you'd feel certain that he was an authentic pessimist, a fatalist, someone afraid to feel too much for anyone. That's when you find yourself wondering how much of himself Chabrol had seen in Hitchcock.
He's the kind of figure who could be reclaimed after his death. From the early days, especially, there are some films that might look much better years later: Les Cousins (1959), A Double Tour (1959), La Femme Infidele (1968), La Rupture (1970) and Les Godelureaux (1960). In those years Chabrol had a writing partner, Paul Gégauff, a man with a Celinean vision who ended up being murdered by his wife (an actress he met on Les Bonnes Femmes). It's a subject for further research, as well as a reminder that over the years there have been some expert film-makers who never asserted themselves but left a body of work that outlasts more ambitious directors. Sometimes impersonality and self-effacement come through in the end.
The film director Claude Chabrol, who has died aged 80, created the first ripple of the French new wave with his first feature, Le Beau Serge (1958). Unlike some of his other critic colleagues on the influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma, who also became film-makers, Chabrol was perfectly happy in the mainstream. Along with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, he paid serious attention to Hollywood studio contract directors who retained their artistic personalities through good and bad films, thus formulating what came to be known as the "auteur theory".
In 1957, he and Rohmer wrote a short book on Alfred Hitchcock, whom they saw as a Catholic moralist. Hitchcock's black humour and fascination with guilt pervades the majority of Chabrol's films, most of which have murder at their heart. However, although Chabrol's thematic allegiance to Hitchcock remained intact, his stylistic mastery came close to matching the magnificently bleak geometry of Fritz Lang, another mentor.
The prolific Chabrol – he made more than 60 films over 50 years – rang endless changes on the theme of infidelity leading to murder. His dissections of bourgeois marriage were spiced up by the presence of Stéphane Audran, his wife from 1964 to 1980, who played adulterous and/or betrayed wives in almost all of their films together, making it one of the most captivating husband-wife teams in all cinema. After their divorce, Chabrol explained: "My rapport with Stéphane as an actress is more agreeable now than when we were married. When you spend your days and nights with your wife and then you look through the camera and see her again, it's just too much."
Marriage, in Chabrol's films, must be defended by betrayed bourgeois spouses at any cost. But whatever is seething beneath the surface – guilt, jealousy or crime – the niceties of life must continue. In his ironic black comedies, large meals at home or in a restaurant are orchestrated into the action. For example, the two meals in La Femme Infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife, 1968) pointedly show the shift in the couple's relationship and the child's awareness of it. "The only love that can really exist in the bourgeois family is the love of parents for their children," Chabrol said. "I'm not against marriage or the family, only the bourgeois family." Here he resembled Luis Buñuel, although Buñuel attacked the bourgeoisie from without with a machete; Chabrol attacked them from within with a dinner fork. He uses his "evil eye", like the voyeuristic writer in L'Oeil du Malin (The Third Lover, 1962) who secretly photographs a wife (Audran) with her lover, thus exposing the sham of what appeared to be a happy marriage.
It amused Chabrol to present himself as a bon vivant, who made films mocking his own way of life. It is significant that in the omnibus film Paris Vu Par … (Six in Paris, 1964), Chabrol's episode takes place in the upmarket 16th arrondissement with Chabrol himself playing the self-satisfied père de famille.
Born in Paris into a comfortable middle-class family, he spent his adolescence during the German occupation at the family home in the village of Sardent in the Limousin region of central France. (Chabrol returned there to make Le Beau Serge, in which he depicted it as grey and unattractive.) The period always interested him, as evidenced by his documentary L'Oeil de Vichy (The Eye of Vichy, 1993), which consisted largely of newsreels made between 1940 and 1944 by the Vichy government. Chabrol's aim was to show how people could be brainwashed by images.
His parents, both of whom were in the resistance, disapproved of his early interest in films and encouraged him to study medicine and law at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, after marrying the heiress Agnès Goute in 1952 (they divorced 12 years later), he gave up his studies and spent his days watching movies at ciné-clubs, where he met Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, who got him to join them on Cahiers du Cinéma. In 1957, an inheritance from his wife enabled him to finance his debut feature, and to provide impetus to the French new wave by producing the first features by Rohmer, Rivette and Philippe de Broca, as well as being technical adviser on Godard's À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960).
Le Beau Serge, a rather schematic Christian metaphor of salvation, ending with a death and a birth, won the best director award at the Locarno film festival and proved it was possible for young directors to make their own films outside the studio system. His personal style emerged in his second film, Les Cousins (1959), with the same two young male leads as Le Beau Serge (Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy). It was a riveting and perverse study of decadent Parisian student life, the first of his many films in which Chabrol presents an opposition between a Dionysian character (often called Paul or Popaul) and an Apollonian one (often called Charles), the defender of the status quo.
Although Chabrol identified himself more with the latter, he was obviously attracted by the Paul characters: psychopathic serial killers such as the outwardly benign butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne) in Le Boucher (The Butcher, 1970), the mild hatter (Michel Serrault) in Les Fantômes du Chapelier (The Hatter's Ghost, 1982), Landru (Bluebeard, 1962) and the motorcyclist who brings love and death in Les Bonnes Femmes (1960).
The Charles-Paul dichotomy was echoed in the relationship between Chabrol and Paul Gégauff, scriptwriter of more than a dozen of the director's films from Les Cousins onwards. Chabrol was fascinated and repelled by his friend, as demonstrated in Une Partie de Plaisir (A Piece of Pleasure, 1975), in which Gégauff plays a monstrous husband forcibly subjecting his wife (played by his real ex-wife) to his will.
Unlike Chabrol, who claimed to be a Marxist – "It's visceral. I'm on the left because I'm not on the right. It's that simple" – Gégauff was a man of the right, but they shared a taste for the comedy of ill manners. Paul (Brialy) in Les Cousins, wearing a Nazi cap, sadistically wakes up his Jewish friend by shining a torch into his eyes and shouting obscenities in German. Jean-Paul Belmondo disrupts a conventional household in À Double Tour (Web of Passion, 1959) by playing inane practical jokes and completely disregarding table manners. Brialy's way of attacking the middle-classes in Les Godelureaux (Wise Guys, 1960) is by throwing stink bombs at an art exhibition and popping a paper bag at a Beethoven concert. "I'm a farceur. You have to avoid taking oneself too seriously," Chabrol once admitted.
His early masterpiece Les Bonnes Femmes, about four shopgirls who long to escape their monotonous existence, offered a gallery of grotesques and macabre and farcical humour, but also poetry and tenderness. The mixture of compassion for the girls and contempt for their dreams in this biting comedy created an ironic structure that disturbed the majority of critics when it first appeared. Chabrol's Jekyll and Hyde characters (including his own, hovering between the bourgeois and the anti-bourgeois), and his uneven output, continued to disturb critics.
It is easier to come to terms with the consistency of Rohmer's moral tales, Truffaut's efforts to win friends, and Godard's to influence people than Chabrol's ambiguity. But his is a perfectly legible oeuvre. Its stylistic and thematic unity has been achieved by the same team – cinematographer Jean Rabier (1960-91), editor Jacques Gaillard (1958-75), composers Pierre Jansen (1960-82) and the director's son Matthieu (1982 onwards), writers Gégauff (1958-76) and Odile Barski (1978-2009), and a faithful company of players supporting Audran and subsequently Isabelle Huppert. Huppert began in the title role in Violette Nozière (1977), in which she played Audran's promiscuous homicidal teenage daughter. After the hostile reception to Les Bonnes Femmes, Chabrol was forced to make a series of potboilers until he was given the chance to direct Les Biches (The Does, 1968), a cool, callous and witty menage à trois tale, which put him firmly back on the "art cinema" circuit.
This led to the Hélène cycle, in which Audran as Hélène played a wife: adulterous in La Femme Infidèle and Les Noces Rouges (Wedding in Blood, 1973), put upon in La Rupture (1970) and betrayed in Juste Avant la Nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971). In the final scene of the latter, Charles, the unfaithful husband (Michel Bouquet), uses the word "juste" 17 times in different ways. Chabrol the moralist recognises the beast in all of us and that justice has more than one interpretation.
This was analysed in an equally masterful manner in Que La Bête Meure (The Beast Must Die, 1969) and Le Boucher, both featuring Yanne as, respectively, a nouveau-riche lout who kills a child in a hit-and-run accident, and an emotionally disturbed man who pays court to an equally lonely and repressed schoolmistress (Audran). On the surface a thriller in the Hitchcock mode, like many Chabrol films, Le Boucher is a subtle, compassionate study of sexual frustration.
Chabrol's need to constantly make films and his passion for American cinema led him into several misconceived ventures – including Madame Bovary with Huppert in 1991 – but he continued to build on an already major oeuvre. In some of her best films for the director, Huppert played an abortionist during the occupation in Une Affaire de Femmes (Story of Women, 1988), a dangerous, working-class hellion in the brilliantly unnerving La Cérémonie (1995), the bitter centre of Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000), one of Chabrol's tastiest morsels, and a tough investigative magistrate out to nail a corrupt president of a national corporation in L'Ivresse du Pouvoir (A Comedy of Power, 2006).
Chabrol's last two films, La Fille Coupée en Deux (A Girl Cut in Two, 2007) and Bellamy (2009), both mordant crime thrillers with a valedictory nod to Hitchcock, showed him to be as spry as ever.
For a man who said "I love murder", Chabrol was one of the most benign and witty men one could ever meet. Behind the owlish glasses were eyes that were alternatively penetrating and twinkling. They twinkled most when he was recounting a humorous anecdote, usually accompanied by a hearty laugh.
He is survived by his third wife, Aurore, whom he married in the 1980s, and their daughter; by two sons from his first marriage; and by one son from his second marriage.
•Claude Chabrol, film director, born 24 June 1930; died 12 September 2010