This week marked the re-release of Le Beau Serge & Les Cousins, the first two films from one of the master’s of French cinema, Claude Chabrol. Chabrol went on to make some of the best known and best made thrillers in French history, often gaining comparison to Alfred Hitchcock. His first two films, are very intimate affairs, concentrating on characters rather than narrative. Both films star Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain, but they both play completely different characters from one film to the other. Many have suggested that Le Beau Serge is the the first film of the French New Wave (“nouvelle vague”), which is a term used to describe a group of French films from 1958 until 1964, and also includes Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960).
Briefly, the nouvelle vague saw filmmakers actively engage in their films with the social and political tensions of the time, making radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative. They wanted their films to take a break from the conservative tradition of filmmaking. Using portable equipment and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave presented a documentary style, which became a much more intimate cinema for the audience.
Le Beau Serge
After a long time away from his small, and unimportant village, the educated and intelligent François (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns for a break from his metropolitan life. Whilst back he finds himself with a growing interest into the life of his childhood friend, the eponymous Serge (Gérard Blain) who has married Yvonne, a woman who doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Their marriage is marred by the death of their stillborn baby, which has taken place before the events of the film and because of it, has caused Serge to develop a nasty alcohol problem, where he drinks with his father in law and, which fuels his temper against his wife, those in the village and society in general.
Serge’s bitterness is somewhat reminiscent of James Dean in A Rebel Without A Cause, as he reveals to François that he refuses to face reality, his responsibility as a husband and his life as an adult. When François returns to the village, he finds that Yvonne is pregnant once again, but Serge has taken to fluctuating between verbally abusing his wife and ignoring her completely, which causes François to question what he can do to help his friend.
The film is beautifully shot in the small village of Sardent, where time doesn’t ever seem to pass. Despite the film being released in 1958, the setting seems even further backward, and is probably completely different to the world, which François has come from and become accustomed to. There are several different elements at work in Le Beau Serge; which includes a sense of anger about the way in which the world has left Serge with nothing. He is both economically and emotionally empty, and is a very interesting character for the time where politics was changing the world. The youth were taking to the streets to see a change in their community, but Serge seems uninterested in helping aid this change, and instead wallows in the bottom of a bottle.
There is a sense of neo-realism in this film, where Chabrol is concentrating far more on the small, intimate stories of our characters, which could be used a microcosm for what was going on in society. The stories of Serge and Yvonne mirror that of François and Yvonne’s sister, Marie. The latter couple are very physical and secretive in this relationship, they represent the youth, where they aren’t thinking too much about the future, but rather what their bodies want right now. Whereas Serge is broken on so many levels, that he finds himself not being able to be touched.
Le Beau Serge is a hugely interesting character study, which admires it’s location and delves deeply into the lives of those it follows. It doesn’t judge or offer any answers to the questions; both political and emotional but it does provide a clear sense of the tension and derailment that was happening at the time.
On watching Les Cousins, the mastery of Chabrol’s cinema was made clear to me. This film, found Brialy and Blain in a switch of roles from Le Beau Serge. Instead, in this picture, Blain plays Charles, a slightly naive but intellectual student from outside the city. He has left home and has come to live with his cousin, Paul (Brialy), in his ultra modern and stylish apartment in Paris. The reason for moving to Paris, is so that he can find time to revise for his law exams, which are happening at the same time as exams, which the self indulgent Paul also has to do.
Whilst in Paris, Charles watches his cousin partake in parties, where frivolity and decadence take reign. There is a free flow of alcohol and sexuality, and the boundaries blur between this party lifestyle and the reality of the exams. Charles also meets Florence, a friend of Paul’s, with whom he falls in love with. But as Paul learns, things aren’t so easy for the young living this lifestyle, and if he is going to keep it up, something else is going to fall by the wayside.
Les Cousins touches on slightly different themes to Le Beau Serge, where in the earlier picture, their relationship was based upon respect and true affection, in Les Cousins, it is more about what isn’t said rather than what is. Their friendship feels forced and removed from any reality we may partake in, and the gaps are filled with jibes about their family members and the feelings and opinions each have about the other’s closest relations. But because of this relationship, there is far more room for comedic sarcasm and lighter moments than in the earlier movie.
Whilst Charles is trying his hardest to revise for the exams, Paul does all he can to stop him from working; is this on purpose, to try and stop him from doing well or does he not want Charles to have something in his life, which he doesn’t have or want?
This leads naturally onto the relationship the men have with Florence. She is sexy and fancy free, but she holds her emotions close to her chest and does not give anything away. As soon as she starts to show some sort of feeling towards Charles, Paul swoops in and reminds her that she is (for all purposes of the word), a slut and this will not change. His control over her is mysterious, and a little scary to watch, especially as she wants to keep this from Charles. But during the course of this power play, Florence starts to become sexually attracted to Paul and they start a relationship under the same roof as the man who really does love her.
For some, this may feel a little pre-Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1953) and although I can see some of the connections, for me it was much more intense. Truffaut finds the men fighting it out for the affections of Catherine but in Les Cousins, both Florence and Charles are under the control of Paul.
Both actors shone through in Les Cousins, playing characters that suited them much more than the previous picture. Blain as Charles was sexy but misguided, socially aware but also caught between the fight in society and the world he wants to take part within. Brialy takes a much more manipulative role in Paul, who fights emotionally with everyone around him because he doesn’t want to get too close to anyone; he is less aware of the tensions in society, and finds himself immersing in Right Bank politics and artistic circles, where sexual boundaries do not exist.
Les Cousins is also a far more succinct and well made film, where Chabrol fully utilises the settings and locations. He takes advantage of the city of Paris, with all it’s connotations of sex and romance, and places them heavily upon the characters. Furthermore, he shoots a much more stunning and intimate film. Everything is placed for a reason, to provoke the audience to feel something. For example, there is a sequence where Florence is laying on the balcony sunbathing and talking to Charles through the bars; she looks as if she is caught in a prison cell. This is used to signify both her separation from Charles and what they both could have had together, but also how she feels caught and constrained in the web that Paul has sprung for her. There are many more instances of this throughout the film.
Les Cousins feels stronger, more beautiful and more aware of what it is trying to say, especially shown in the incredible finale of the film, which left me emotionally shattered after watching. The acting is some of the best I have possibly ever seen and it really feels as if a new era of filmmaking was coming in and making itself known.
These editions of both films include an exciting array of extras including new documentaries about the makings of, short films, new booklets about the films and the original trailers.