The first two features from journalist-turned-director Claude Chabrol may have ushered in the French New Wave, but for all their iconoclasm, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959) are morality plays as old as a medieval cathedral.
Each film follows the relationship between two young men, in both cases played by Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy: childhood friends from the same village in Le Beau Serge, cousins in the film of that name. In Le Beau Serge, François (Brialy) returns to Sardent, the village where he grew up, to convalesce after an illness, and discovers that his old friend Serge (Blain) is a bitter drunk. Finding no good in the town and no solace from its weak priest, François casts himself as Christ in his own parable of redemption. He proceeds to sacrifice his dignity and his health to restore Serge to happiness.
In Les Cousins, Naïve momma’s boy Charles (Blain) comes to Paris to live with his swingin’ cousin Paul (Brialy) while he studies—and Paul plays at studying—law. Charles endures Paul’s self-indulgent, manipulative, at times abusive behavior, and suffers romantic and academic disappointments. These developments turn deadly.
The two films share a basic plot trajectory. Each begins with an arrival—François comes to Sardent via bus, Charles to Paris by train—and ends with a more permanent departure. Both films have ‘bad girls’ who tempt the new arrivals—François has a dalliance with teenager Marie (Bernadette Lafont), while Charles falls for party girl Florence (Juliette Mayniel). And in both films, the actions of a third man pit the two leads against each other: Marie’s father Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp) and Clovis, an older hanger-on of Paul’s (Claude Cerval, who also plays the priest in Le Beau Serge).
François and Serge share a much stronger bond than the connection between the two relatives in Les Cousins. When Serge finally sobers up enough to recognize his old friend, he throws his arms around François and sobs into his shoulder. It’s a rare unguarded moment. Abashed by his current state—François managed to escape Sardent while Serge’s own hopes to study architecture were dashed—Serge mostly lashes out. “Poor François, always eager to do a good deed”, he mocks.
It’s a bluff. Alone in the Sardent cemetery, a desperate Serge addresses his absent friend, pleading with him to “Do something. Help me.” He does, and François’s actions, if only for the closing frames of the film, seem to have worked the miracle he (and unbeknownst to him, Serge) hoped for.
Le Beau Serge
Les Cousins tells the darker story, even though it was the more popular of the two films. Chabrol had difficulty putting Le Beau Serge in theatres, because distributors and festivals (Cannes, for one) balked at its harsh depiction of rural French life, including an instance of incest. (Interviews with inhabitants of Sardent from a documentary DVD extra reveal a range of opinions on the accuracy of the town’s portrayal in the film.)
By contrast, the ultra-modern décor of Paul’s Paris digs, where much of Les Cousins takes place, and the jazz-filled score by Paul Misraki, lend Chabrol’s second film a surface flash that must have pleased audiences eager to see a young, affluent France.
Hi-fis and cocktail shakers notwithstanding, there is no redemption, however fleeting or circumscribed, for the two relatives. Charles is disillusioned and broken, betrayed by his cousin, who remains unmoved by the consequences of his behavior.
The trappings of the pad tell the tale. Paul has a collection of toy soldiers and weaponry that reflect an interest in warfare that runs to things German, evidenced by his fondness for playing Wagner at parties and wearing what appears to be a Nazi officer’s cap. That, and his habit of calling Charles by the Latin equivalent of his given name, Carolus, not to mention his friend Jean’s nickname Clovis (the sixth-century Frankish king), mark Paul’s version of playacting—a less altruistic pursuit than the one that occupies François in Le Beau Serge. Terrence Rafferty, who contributes excellent essays to the DVD booklets for both films, calls Paul’s treatment of his cousin, and the production of the film as well, an experiment.
Despite his arsenal and manipulative ways, Paul proves to be no match for the wily Clovis in their twisted morality play. Marie refers to Glomaud as a serpent in Le Beau Serge, and Clovis takes on the equivalent diabolic role in Les Cousins. He convinces Paul and Florence to take up together in Paul’s flat. Their ménage torments Charles, undermines his study regimen, and leads to the film’s somber climax.
In a style that would come to define the New Wave, the camera records the action in both films with a cool, documentary thoroughness. Le Beau Serge (shot entirely on location in Sardent, Chabrol’s home during the war) opens with a scene that captures the empty countryside until the bus carrying François rolls into view. A 360-degree pan from the hillside near Marie and Glomaud’s house starts and ends with François. Both shots subordinate the young man’s efforts to the beautiful, but harsh landscape that dictates the rhythms of village life. In a scene in Serge’s house, as his wife reprimands François for troubling Serge, the camera slowly zooms out from her face and through the door, as if filming the scene has amounted to an intrusion.
Les Cousins displays the same inquisitive camera and occasional arresting shots: another 360-degree pan, around Charles’ bedroom/study, as claustrophobic as the aforementioned shot is sublime; a shot of a party from behind an interior frosted glass partition, complete with muffled sound; the final extended take that captures the film’s aftermath.
With director, both leads, a supporting actor, editor (Jacques Gaillard), and cinematographer (Henri Decaë) in common, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins seem like two installments of a karmic cycle, with Charles/Serge and Paul/François souls destined to clash in various settings, until they get it right. Judging from their ill success, Chabrol and company could have spun this series out for many more films.
Of the two DVDs, released simultaneously, Le Beau Serge offers the best extras: a short 1969 program from French television that follows Chabrol as he returns to Sardent, and an hour-long documentary from 2003—Claude Chabrol: Mon Premier Film, by Francis Girod—that brings Chabrol, Brialy, and Lafont back to the village for a reunion with the surviving inhabitants who were involved in production of the film.
Brialy and Lafont are particularly engaging in the latter documentary, at one point returning to the house that served as the set for Glomaud and Marie’s house. The pair flop down on the bed and watch the scene in which François and Marie make love, as it plays on a bedside television.
A number of townsfolk who made up the supporting cast to the film, enjoying what appears to be quite hale old age, reminisce with the director and cast. Matching shots from the film and present day Sardent show how little has changed for many of the film’s settings.
In his essay “Homecomings”, from the Le Beau Serge companion booklet, Rafferty places Chabrol’s first film in the context of the French New Wave. “The Nature of the Beast”, included in the booklet to Les Cousins, explores the second film through comparison to the first. That booklet also offers excerpts from Brialy’s memoir, in which he movingly and frankly discusses his long friendship with the conflicted Blain.