Les Cousins (1959): Chabrol Takes on Paris

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“A girl and an exam aren’t the end of the world.”

Most anyone can probably tell you Les Cousins is a fine companion piece to follow-up Le Beau Serge, and it’s true. It features much the same cast — specifically Jean-Claude Brially and Gerard Blane, in a kind of role reversal. However, instead of pervasive talk about Brialy’s health, this picture is occupied with their familial connection. Otherwise, the action has been transported from the rural onto the jazzy street corners of Paris.

Regardless, it doesn’t play like your typical or atypical Nouvelle Vague film, but that’s not to say it’s conventional. Instead, there’s a crispness to it and a composure to the filmmaking.  Truffaut arguably didn’t get there until The Soft Skin, and I don’t know if Godard ever aspired to that. What connects them truly is Cahiers du Cinema and the shared affinity for a new form to upend the preferred traditions of their contemporary French cinema.

Paul is a flamboyant prodigal who, with his goatee, might have been a beatnik if France was lucky to have the craze. They certainly have soiree and cafe culture, and he might as be their elder statesman because he’s not one to fritter his time away on anything so insignificant as studying.

The other primary player, Charles, is a square milquetoast with commendable tact, both proper and reticent, eyes often flooded with shy embarrassment. Whereas Brially gets to fill up every scene and fly all over the place with hyperbole and a clever line to enter and exit every conversation he throws himself into, Blain easily acquiesces to the story. Somehow the dynamic seems to favor Le Beau Serge and yet there is some mode of fascination to see the roles reversed in a new environment.

Because it’s true Paul’s flat is quite the bachelor pad, laden with a cluttering of artwork and frequented by the gregarious creep Clovis, a sly reprobate who likes a good party, a pretty face, and stirring up trouble. We get a mild suggestion of what might be afoot when a girl from last winter is mentioned to be on the way up. It’s very serious — very cryptic — but when Paul slips her the wad of money, and she slips out again rarely to be seen, it says more than enough.

But it’s quickly lost among the new stimuli and if we are to share the place of Charles, naivete clouds his perceptions. Taking to the streets in the real world as it were, Les Cousins momentarily taps into the New Wave’s invigorating on-location energy. Certainly, the jump cuts of Breathless happened on the streets of Paris, and here we have two fellows taking to the streets and sightseeing with a flurry of abandon.

Next on the agenda, Paul takes his cousin to the local hangout, what is jokingly referred to as “the bowels of hell.” Whatever it is, the tavern is a lively place frequented by people who all seem to know Paul on a friendly basis. The one who sticks out to Charles is Florence; he grows impetuous, immediately taken with the girl.

Between classes, he wanders into a bookstore where the proprietor bemoans the modern generation’s reading habits. They’ve given up Balzac and Dostoevsky for detective fiction and racier fare. Reading is relaxation and nothing more. He effectively acts as a barometer for Paul and his ilk.

That same evening, they hold quite the gathering effectively, playing as the complete antithesis to the humble dance thrown together in Le Beau Serge. This is livelier, full of bubbles, and glamour. Eventually, it devolves into a raucous affair driven by alcohol and the frisky amorousness in the air — a superficial portrait of the debauchery of the idle bourgeoisie. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is not too far off albeit with an influx of Parisian youthfulness.

The scenes of two lovers on the street are a gorgeous fixture within the picture, looking sleek and stylish in the patchwork of shadows and moonbeams. Again, it’s an obvious compliment, although it seems to set it apart from some of its Nouvelle Vague brethren.

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It’s the beginning of something we can’t quite judge right off. She’s somehow taken with the idea of trying to love him; this at least is genuine enough. Whether it’s his utter devotion — the lovestruck sincerity of his words — or some idealized vision of her own min,d we can’t be sure.

Her friends think it’s a lark and a laugh attempting to serve her with their idea of a reality check. After all, she’s a girl who’s slept around. Why try and play at something inauthentic to who she already is? She and Charles are not from the same walk of life nor the same standards — moral or otherwise. It’s the same old story and as an impressionable girl of 20, she seems to believe them easily enough.

Soon the two young men are warring for the affections of the same girl. Their arrangement is verging on a menage a trois, though they remain admittedly good-natured on the surface. One suspects heartbreak lies dormant. In the follow-up gathering, there’s something more tenuous in the air as Wagner’s “Valkyrie” begins to pick up.

Paul sombers up in a curious change in mood as the movie somehow switches gears. Even as the merriment commences outside, Charles castigates Florence for getting in the way of his studies. He spends the entire evening in the adjoining room feverishly attempting to work in preparation for his impending exam.  Based on my own proclivities, it’s easy to empathize with him and in this roundabout way, it has a pulse on much of the college experience.

However, the most curious of the melodramatic crescendos ramps up out of nothing. This darkly cynical undercurrent begins to exert itself rather insidiously, but it enters in too late to really gel with everything Chabrol has crafted thus far. It feels like an incongruity in its final act — the progression is illogical and at the same time too cleanly resolved. Florence all but dissolves from the story like a phantom as Paul listens to the empty chambers of his gun click, utterly dumbfounded. I’ve let something slip here, but I will leave you to consider the results.

Les Cousins plays as a weaker, less whizz-bang rendition of Jules et Jim, nor can it quite justify its ending. But at this earlier juncture, it feels as if Chabrol already has a better grasp of traditional filmmaking compared to his compatriots, while injecting the picture with mood and artistic flourishes that feel far from conventional. He’s tapping into some still-to-be-exploited reservoirs and even if it doesn’t quite land the finish, Les Cousins offers up something with prolonged interludes of intrigue. This would be a springboard for a prolific career ahead.

4/5 Stars

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