Posted by David Kalat on November 23, 2013
A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film. OK, so that didn’t work. But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due. Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.
As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found. For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.
OK—some backstory: Chabrol was one of several film critics working at the Cahiers du Cinema who had been taken up with the notion that a true film artist “writes” with a camera the way an author writes with a pen. They had been applying this theoretical construct to the analysis of other peoples’ films—all the while itching to get a chance to implement it in practice on their own. But writing about movies takes nothing more than opinions and some paper; making movies takes serious money. The existing film industry in France considered the Cahiers du Cinema crowd to be a bunch of insolent youngsters and had no interest in financing their experiments.
And at this critical moment in film history we need to introduce another key figure—one whose significance is belied by the fact that her name is barely remembered at all (it was Agnès Goute). She was Chabrol’s first wife, and while posterity has shown little interest in her name, she was important for suffering two successive tragedies. Agnès inherited a substantial sum of money from the first tragedy—which provided her soon to be ex-husband Claude with the means by which to become a film producer. The second tragedy was the death of their first child—which provided Claude with the subject matter for his first film. (You could say when Claude divorced her, she suffered a third tragedy, but then again maybe she was better off being rid of a guy who would selfishly exploit her this way).
Thanks to Agnès’ windfall, Claude established AJYM Films and financed early works by Philippe de Broca, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette—not to mention Le Beau Serge, the first feature-length work of the New Wave. A revolution had begun.
Le Beau Serge was both a popular and critical success, but as a “New Wave” film it marches to a different beat. The dour mood, somber pace, heavy-handed religious allegory, and provincial setting set it apart from the exuberant works by Godard and Truffaut that followed. For that matter, it seems a breed apart from Chabrol’s own later works.
The entire production was mounted in the French provincial village of Sardent, Chabrol’s hometown. And boy did he hate that place.
Le Beau Serge stars Jean-Claude Brialy as Françoise, a worldy student suffering from tuberculosis who has returned to his hometown to recuperate in the quiet countryside. To his mounting horror, he discovers that the place where he grew up is a festering cesspit of economic and moral decay. The place is so decrepit and demoralized, an act of incestuous rape is treated with a “ho hum” indifference by all concerned. Only Françoise sees the state of affairs as intolerable, and sets his mind to “fixing” things.
Specifically, his heroic attentions are focused on his childhood chum Serge, the handsome Serge of the title. Serge was forced into a shotgun wedding with a teenage girlfriend, only to face the premature death of their child. He is now underemployed and impoverished, not to mention haunted by nightmares of a dead child. His wife is now pregnant again, and Serge fears the new baby will be as retarded as the one that perished. He buries his anxiety in endless drinking—which isn’t what anyone could consider a long-term solution to his troubles.
Serge is played by Gérard Blain, in a sort of Frenchified James Dean mode. He doesn’t want Françoise’s help, and bitterly resents the intrusion of his old friend. That hostility doesn’t hold Françoise back—it merely pushes him into Christ-like excesses of self-sacrifice and holier-than-thou enthusiasm.
For a film as influential and successful as Le Beau Serge was, it had something to turn off just about anyone. Some were scandalized by the blunt treatments of sexual material, some were irked by the overt Catholic moralizing—and the town of Sardent was given almost nothing in which to take any pride, for that matter. But set this nit-picking aside—there is nothing else to be said but that Le Beau Serge is an astonishing debut. Francois Truffaut gushed at the film’s opening, “The film is as masterly as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with a camera.” Truffaut cannot be said to be an impartial critic, but still.
That being said, it does call for some cinematic archeology to uncover Chabrol’s future technique and obsessions in the interstices of Le Beau Serge, much as early films like The Pleasure Garden offer little insight into the artist Alfred Hitchcock was to become. The long takes, the neorealist emphasis on documenting small town life (allegedly the first cut of the film ran a full hour longer, and consisted of straight-forward documentary sequences), the unusually emotional and personal nature of the material—all of this stands out as atypical of the Chabrol-to-be.
We catch glimpses here and there—for example, in the opening sequence as Jean-Claude Brialy rides into town on a bus. The bus stops, and the camera rises up into the air for a birds-eye view of things, as an angry sting of music stabs into the scene. On second viewing, it can be discerned that the music is highlighting our first glimpse of Gérard Blain, drunk and insensate. The music is underscoring the central conflict of the drama—but it does so in anticipation of that understanding. If you’ve ever tried to watch for the first time a movie with a companion who’s seen it already, and who impatiently keeps nudging you “Hey pay attention here,” and “You’ll never guess what’s gonna happen next,” then you have an idea of what watching a Chabrol film can be like—his technique is self-consciously impatient with itself, desperate to move ahead, even while the pace is cold and deliberate. It can be an effect both disorienting and intoxicating.
Another wry Chabrolian touch occurs when an otherwise ordinary scene is interrupted for no apparent reason by Chabrol and Rivette, playing themselves, who wander into the movie to say hi to the characters. For an artist who seemed committed to maintaining a scrupulously naturalistic attitude towards his subject, it’s a strangely Monty Python-ish kind of gesture.
In the decades to come, Chabrol would come to have the courage of his convictions, and relish the greater joy to be found in defying conventions. For a first film by a young man venturing into a new medium, bereft of role models for how to do what he had in mind, Le Beau Serge is almost beyond criticism.
Chabrol followed up his debut hit by negating it. Chabrol would later say that Les Cousins was actually the film he had in mind all along, but held off on making it until he was more financially secure, choosing to make Le Beau Serge first because it was “simpler.” This may well be true, but don’t take from that anecdote that Les Cousins is not also simple—a handful of characters, one (extraordinary) set, an enormous amount of interpersonal tension, and a loaded gun. What more does a movie need?
Where Le Beau Serge cast Jean-Claude Brialy as an intruder into Gérard Blain’s provincial world, the roles are here reversed. This is a country-mouse-visits-city-mouse story, with Gérard Blain the provincial mama’s boy who has come to stay with his sophisticated Parisian cousin Jean-Claude Brialy while he studies for his law exam. Blain plays Charles, Brialy plays Paul—and here we find the first of the irreducibly Chabrolian traits already in place.
Chabrol would later say that he never encapsulated his entire artistic vision in any one film—instead, each film was a component of a larger whole, a localized riff on themes developed differently in adjacent works. The entirety of the Chabrol canon is like a massive jazz fugue, cycling through familiar themes and ideas in fractal ways.
If you haven’t seen a bunch of Chabrol films, that concept may not register easily—so let’s take it in small doses: the Paul and Charles characters would “stick” for years to come. They would be played by different actors, and dropped into different contexts, but the basic character types would remain fixed. As would their names. Get used to Paul and Charles here—you’ll be seeing a lot of them over the next couple of decades.
For that matter, the Charles and Paul characters were based on Chabrol himself and his buddy Paul Gegauff, respectively. Charles was the earnest but parochial soul, vulnerable to the predations of a Paul. And Paul, just like the real Paul Gegauff, was a monstrous cynic and right selfish bastard. By the way, Gegauff co-wrote the screenplay to this, and remained Claude’s closest collaborator until Gegauff was murdered by his own wife on Christmas Eve. If you needed some evidence that he was a hard man to get along with, let that serve.
To be fair, the future iterations of Paul and Charles were triangulated against a third pole, named Hélène—and almost always played by Stephane Audran (until Chabrol moved away from the Charles/Paul/ Hélène triangle to explore just how many different psychotic weirdos Isabelle Huppert was capable of playing).
The Hélène character doesn’t really surface here—this is just Chabrol #2, mind you, out of a career that spanned from 1958 to 2010 without stopping for air—but Audran appears in a minor but memorable role. It’s essentially impossible to properly catalog how many roles she played for Chabrol over the years. We could tally up all of her screen appearances, but that’s too reductive, given the tumultuous and dramatic private life she and Claude shared. The roles she played offscreen in his life were at least as significant as the ones on.
While Audran gets to sparkle as one of the supporting players, the main female lead of Les Cousins is Juliette Mayniel. Both cousins pine for her, but what chance does a good-hearted, hard-working, intensely serious young man from the boondocks have in winning the heart of a girl when he’s up against a boorish reprobate who looks like Satan and spends his time throwing drunken orgies?
Charles doesn’t even get to first base with his girl before Paul steals her away. She moves in, and poor Charles has to struggle to block out the noise of their lovemaking so he can focus on his studies—and then Paul comes and steals that away from him. Paul passes the exam without once cracking a book (it is self-evident he bribed the examiners), but Charles fails the same test despite not once allowing himself a moment’s respite.
That’s a lot of tension to be boiling over in the confines of Paul’s Paris apartment—and just to make things interesting, Paul’s choice of interior décor is weapons. Swords line the walls, guns are out for the taking. Charles and Paul are both apt at any given moment to take a gun in hand, stroke it casually, use it to dial a telephone or make a rhetorical gesture. The only reason no one’s been shot dead yet is that Paul doesn’t keep the guns loaded. But he does keep the bullets close at hand.
Chabrol made Les Cousins just three years out from the brilliant Japanese teen drama Crazed Fruit, which inaugurated a Japanese New Wave much like the French one Chabrol launched. For that matter, if we take Chabrol at his word on when he first started scheming Les Cousins, he was putting the story together within a year of seeing Crazed Fruit, so the similarities are worth noting. Both involve a young rube coming to live with a slightly older but much more worldly relative, and falling into his decadent and selfish lifestyle. In both films, the younger man becomes smitten with a girl, deludes himself into seeing her as more pure than she really is, and becoming enraged when she chooses the brother/cousin instead. Both films escalate towards a tragic finale—but it is in that finale that Chabrol diverges.
There is bloodshed at the end of Les Cousins–I spoil nothing by admitting to that—but don’t assume you can see where the story is heading. Some tragedies are worse than others, and Les Cousins opts for the bleakest conclusion it can find.
Les Cousins took home the top prize at that year’s Berlin Film Festival, and was the first true box office smash of the New Wave—it outpaced ticket sales on Le Beau Serge six to one. Chabrol continued to evolve as an artist, but he did so in ways that the French audience wasn’t entirely ready to embrace, and for the next six or seven years he was perceived to be in a slump. In 1967, he effected a crucial “comeback” with Les Biches, more or less a gender-reversed remake of Les Cousins.
Like Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins managed to offend different groups for different reasons. Some were put off by his increasingly slick stylization—the Spartan neorealism has been jettisoned here in favor of a glossier and more Hollywoodish look. Others objected to his over-the-top depiction of decadent Parisian youth culture. Chabrol shrugged off such criticisms, noting that even the most excessive scenes were as documentary in nature as anything he did in his debut, and if anyone doubted that they needed to spend more time seeing how his friends spent their time. (And then he’d surreptitiously cast his eyes over towards Gegauff).
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