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