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PARIS (Reuters) - Claude Chabrol, one of France's most eminent film directors and a pioneer of the influential New Wave style that revolutionized French cinema, died on Sunday at the age of 80.
Chabrol, a close friend of legendary New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who broke with French cinematic tradition, was a prolific film-maker with some 60 movies to his name, including "Hell" and "The Butcher."
News of Chabrol's death, just a year after he released his last feature film "Bellamy" with actor Gerard Depardieu, was greeted with outpourings of sorrow from France's cultural and political elite.
"The whole of French cinema and France has lost one of its giants," said Martine Aubry, leader of the opposition Socialist party. "Claude Chabrol's cinema was one of the works which constructed our society's vision of itself."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, describing Chabrol as a "great author and great film-maker," said: "I am sure that we are all going to miss him."
Born on 24 June 1930 in Paris where his parents owned a prosperous pharmacy, Chabrol enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood. He studied a bachelors of art at the Sorbonne and spent time discussing film with the young Godard and Truffaut.
The three young men later became film critics for the hugely influential Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, before launching careers as directors. They broke with French cinema's focus on historical costume dramas to introduce contemporary themes, ordinary protagonists and fragmented narrative structures.
Le Beau Serge, Chabrol's 1959 breakthrough film produced with his wife's inheritance, is often cited as the first feature film of the New Wave. The film tackled existential themes including the isolation and absurdity of modern life and the middle-class obsession with appearances.
"We have too often the tendency to emphasize the tragic side of life, but I look at the funny side. I believe strongly in human nature," Chabrol said in a 2005 interview.
New Wave films, which met with major international critical and commercial success in the late 1950s and early 1960s, exerted a major influence on Hollywood works, such as Arthur Penn's taboo-busting "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1967.
The New Hollywood directors -- including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma -- were inspired by Chabrol and his contemporaries, while Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino dedicated his 1992 movie "Reservoir Dogs" to Godard.
In the second half of the 1960s, Chabrol turned to a more conventional style of film-making, producing commercially successful films in France, many of them detective thrillers.
"I have at last come to appreciate that the public is always right .... Henceforth, my sole ambition is to satisfy the public," he said in an interview at this time.
However, throughout his career Chabrol's best films -- often working with well-known actresses like Emmanuelle Beart and Isabelle Huppert -- often peered behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability to discuss themes of jealousy, passion and betrayal with corruscating dark humor.
In 2005, he was awarded the Rene Clair prize for his body of work by the Academie Francaise.
"Each time that a director disappears, a particular way of looking at the world and an expression of our humanity is lost forever," France's Association of Film Directors said in a statement on Chabrol's passing.
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque; Editing by Mark Heinrich