Le Beau Serge (1959): The New Wave Goes Provincial

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Claude Chabrol was looking to shoot his first film in Paris but for budgetary reasons, he decided to set his first picture in the village of Sardent where his mother grew up. Le Beau Serge could not occur in any other place.

True, the opening shots are universal. Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) riding the bus into town, there to be met by his relations, or actually someone who turns out to be a childhood friend, the amicable baker Michel (Michel Creuze). He’s seems made for a sleepy, humble town such as this — content with the life he has around him.

That this might be the beginning of the New Wave in the rural countryside is a curious conclusion. Because it’s true Chabrol was one of the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, soon followed up the more well-remembered works of Truffaut and Godard.

However, it’s also a timeless tale you might see out of any year if you were to pick it out of a hat. Because coming from a small town or returning to a place you haven’t seen in some time are touchstones many of us resonate with. I’ve never dug very much into Claude Chabrol’s filmography aside from a couple stray diversions like Les Biches. But it’s some comfort starting at the beginning.

The title gives us some minor inclination. Even as Francois and then Michel are introduced initially, we know Serge (Gerard Blain) is a person of great interest, and it’s true he represents something elemental to the story. He is plagued by demons Michel will never know. When we first get a glimpse of him, he’s quite royally soused, and it catches Francois off guard. He knows him from a different time and is worried about his boyhood chum.

What becomes evident are the themes of duality due to the character foils Chabrol posits. The one point of criticism is how the picture gets carried away with the mood music as if in his youth the director’s not brave enough to be still; he still needs some pulse going through the story. Although perhaps we must temper this because although cinematically you can witness some of the same verve of Truffaut — the type of energy that would come to define the Nouvelle Vague — this movie is generally quite reserved.

Still, it does have these latent vigours of youth on its side ready to be tapped into. There are brief moments where Blain gives off the angst and bellicose of James Dean even as Brially plays his prim and proper counterpart, Francois, who has returned to his childhood town to reclaim his health. He’s sickly and the country air is meant to do him good. In fact, it seems like every 10 or 20 minutes someone is inquiring yet again about his well-being.

But he’s also the last person Serge wants to see in his ignominy. He’s married out of guilt, a drunk, and an utter nobody. Instead of Jim Stark’s desks, he takes a slug at granite walls, driven by this same reckless, at times feeble, animal magnetism.

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It’s curious to note Chabrol takes on religion more in the bent of Eric Rohmer even as Francois makes a visitation of the local priest (Claude Cerval) and begins an ongoing dialogue on the state of the local community.

They are themes replayed in the likes of Winter Light and Calvary where the man of the cloth bemoans the fact the adolescent generation, who are still around, no longer believe in anything — even themselves, as Francois interjects. It’s yet another lens to put on not only Serge but possibly Francois and then Marie (Bernadette Lafont).

She’s the town’s harlot, slinking around with a new boyfriend on any given Sunday and reconnecting with Francois on his return. But she too is humanized by the peripheral presence of her alcoholic old man Gomaoud.

Meanwhile, Serge totters through the cemetery spouting off garbled exposition except, this isn’t what immediately stands out; there’s something engaging about the whole scenario. Chabrol does well throughout the entire film to utilize the real, honest contours of the entire town in a seamless manner, and it’s in a moment like this where it really comes to bear. The same cemetery plays into a confrontation between Francois and Glomoud when he accosts the old man for his behavior.

The personal comes to a head at the local dance hall — the most humble of spaces plucked out of a simpler age. Francois and Serge end up fighting over a girl at a party with Serge expressing the violence we always knew him capable of. It almost feels like he has left his friend for dead, whether or not that’s entirely the case.

This might have been the end, with Francois leaving on the same bus dejected, going back to the city, never to see his pal again. Yet he refuses to leave for some inexplicable reason. Soon their world is ensconced in a layer of snow, making for a gorgeous final act. It’s nature’s way of suggesting — and Chabrol’s too — maybe our sins can be wiped away or at the very least forgotten.

Francois is paid a visit by the local priest entreating him to leave for the sake of his health. But he’s resolved to stay — to be an example — and hopefully help his old friend find his way somehow. It’s the idealism shining through again, believing he can help, that he can be an answer and a savior in some sense.

Once more we must attribute these feelings to the bull-headedness and the pride of youth. It can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s what makes Serge resent his friend, and it’s why his friend thinks Serge still needs him. His act of charitability involves extending a hand of support to Serge’s stoic and increasingly pregnant wife Yvonne (Michele Mertiz). Francois can’t be Serge’s ultimate savior and maybe a newborn child cannot right his life, but in a human sense, it’s still a sign of hope just like new-fallen snow.

By the time Le Beau Serge is over, it’s elementary enough to realize why it’s been overshadowed by the freneticism of Breathless or even the exuberance of 400 Blows and Jules et Jim. In its own way, it’s a fine entry onto the cinematic stage for Chabrol. While it offers youth, it also supplies a deep, even surprising, thoughtfulness.

4/5 Stars

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