The late director Claude Chabrol was something of an outlier in the French New Wave: every bit the industrious enthusiast as his colleagues François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette, but more committed over the long haul to making the kind of craftsmanlike genre films to which his fellows merely nodded. In his earliest films, though, Chabrol was very much the passionate young artist, looking to tell stories about real people in real places, while playing around with the tools and conventions of filmmaking. He’d move the camera or toss in a dissolve just for the sake of it, veering between Hollywood classicism and European neorealism. The difference was that even from the start, Chabrol was more controlled with his style than his peers, and preoccupied with exploring the motivations for and repercussions of crime—much like his idols Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang.
Ergo Le Beau Serge, Chabrol’s 1958 debut feature. Set in Chabrol’s boyhood village of Sardent, Le Beau Serge stars Jean-Claude Brialy as a young man who returns to the hometown he left more than a decade earlier. He immediately reconnects with his old friend Serge (played by Gérard Blain), who’s fallen on hard times since losing a child. Largely plotless, Le Beau Serge follows Brialy as he tries to turn Blain’s life around, while coming to realize that it’s not just Blain who’s miserable, but the whole community, which has been overwhelmed by an epidemic of lost faith, substance abuse, and sexual misconduct. As Brialy looks for ways to wake up his neighbors, Chabrol focuses on moments charged with emotion and drama: Brialy running around the town like an overgrown kid; Brialy’s wounded lover Bernadette Lafont extending her bare leg seductively; Brialy stalking a bully in the hills on the outskirts; and so on. Though by no means a thriller, Le Beau Serge builds to a climactic sequence where Brialy runs through the snow looking for help for Blain’s pregnant wife, and because of the way Chabrol has established the characters and the location, the hero’s desperate chase through town becomes masterfully suspenseful.
Almost as soon as he finished shooting Le Beau Serge, Chabrol started work on Les Cousins, which flips the script on his debut. This time, Blain plays an anxious, bookish country boy who comes to Paris to study law, and stays in a stunningly modern apartment with his extroverted playboy cousin Brialy. As Blain gets roped into Brialy’s decadent lifestyle, he loses sight of why he came to the big city in the first place. The situation worsens when Blain becomes smitten with the demure Juliette Mayniel, whom Brialy promptly steals for himself, just because he can. As with Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins renders everyday life in grand visual style, whether Chabrol’s applying striking edge-lighting to a romantic encounter or bobbing the camera up and down with Brialy as he cruelly warns Mayniel away from Blain. And though Les Cousins builds to a shocking act of physical violence, it’s emotional violence that pervades the film, as Blain is covertly and overtly mocked by the city folk. Les Cousins is darkly witty and tense, revealing the noir-ish undertones that dwell beneath even the most seemingly convivial of relationships.
Key features: Two short documentaries about the shooting of Le Beau Serge, plus a bio-heavy commentary track by Chabrol scholar Guy Austin on Le Beau Serge, and a cheerly analytical Adrian Martin commentary on Les Cousins.