Le Beau Serge/Les Cousins
Director - Claude Chabrol
Cast - Jean-Claude Brialy, Gerald Blain
Country of Origin - France
Discs - 1/1
MSRP - $39.95
Distributor - Criterion
Reviewer - Scott MacDonald
The Films (4.5/5)
In the pantheon of French New Wave filmmakers Claude Chabrol's career may have been the strangest. He came from the same Cahiers du Cinema background as his contemporaries Eric Rohmer, Jean Luc-Godard, and Francois Truffaut. Both films released by Criterion this month Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins make up the debut 2 features by Chabrol, and actually constitute the first 2 films of the French New Wave movement beating out the Cannes screening of Truffaut's 400 Blows by well over a year (Les Beau Serge was shot in 1957, and released one month prior to Les Cousins in 1958).
For the purpose of this review I am going to review both of these films together, not simply because of their chronologically appearance in the director's oeuvre, but because of their thematic links, and use of the same 2 principal actors. It is my feeling that Chabrol intended for these films to be viewed as cinematic companions, and as such that is how I will review them.
Le Beau Serge (4/5)
Le Beau Serge is the debut feature from director Claude Chabrol, and is a simple small town story with a lot of depth. A lot of this depth comes from the performances of the primary cast, which is anchored by the pair of excellent leads that play the lead roles in both films of this set.
Very few directors come out of the gate which not only such mature material, but such an assured hand for said material, and Chabrol handles this material so well you would assume he'd been directing for years at the time this was made. Le Beau Serge is a film of contrast, a film that walks the tight rope between serious drama, and light comedy. A film that is both gritty and realistic, and at times possesses an almost fairy tale like quality to it. It is a film that takes 2 characters of very opposite spectrums, shows their likenesses, and exposes their differences for the world.
This is a film whose very message is you can't go home again.
The film stars Jean Claude Brialy as Francois, a young man who has just survived a near fatal bought with tuberculosis, and is now recovering in the provincial hometown that he spent much time in as a boy before moving to the city. He is welcomed back immediately, but the differences between himself, and the townspeople soon start becoming apparent. This difference is especially notable between himself, and longtime friend Serge (Gerard Blain), a once promising young man who has fallen into some problem times including a marriage that he does not want, and an unwanted pregnancy.
Francois tries not only to integrate himself into the local culture, but to influence and improve upon it. What he refuses to realize is that some people are beyond the redemption he seeks to impart upon them, and prefer to dwell in their misery even if their actions appear to say the contrary.
Le Beau Serge is a seriously wonderful film. I personally love small town films, especially ones such as this where the townspeople all feel 3 dimensional, and it feels like everyone has known each other forever. It gives a certain unstated backstory to the proceedeings. These are people that grew up together, that know what each is going through, that look at the school children lining up on the streets, and know full well that they are about to experience, and what the future holds for them.
Les Cousins (5/5)
I have to admit I watched these films out of chronologically sequence. Reading the synopses of both, I thought I would enjoy Les Cousins much more than Les Beau Serge. They are both excellent films, but I was correct in my assessment. Having seen both films at this point it feels like this (which was written at the same time as Le Beau Serge) film is more closely related to the style Chabrol would develop throughout his career (when he was not working as a director-for-hire). The performances from Brialy and Blain are essentially the opposite of the roles they played in the last film with Blain playing the fish out of water to Brialy's suave urban student playboy.
The film introduces Blain as Charles, a young man from the provinces who has convinced his over bearing Mother to allow him to attend college, and live with his cousin Paul in Paris. Charles, is a naive innocent young man who is more concerned with his studies than the lavish sleazy life of parties and decadence that he is met with when he moves in with Paul. This is despite Paul's best attempts to introduce him to his lifestyle.
Charles being the innocent is a believer in love at first sight, and falls prey to this phenomena soon after arriving in Paris with a friend of Paul's named Florence. She doesn't quite believe in his love, but attempts to show it in kind, as she would like to be a true gentlemen for once. This, however, is quickly sidetracked as Paul and his friend Clovis convince her that Charles is absolute the wrong man for her, and to overcome this slight hiccup she should sleep with, and move in with Paul.
Rather than being heartbroken over the revelation, he takes the advice of a kindly bookseller, and begins to throw himself into his studies. He is determined that his hard work will lead him to success, women, and will help him overcome the situation he finds himself in with Paul and Florence.
The film like much of Chabrol's work does have it's tragic elements, and definitely feels more in line with his later works than Le Beau Serge. The interesting thing about these films is how much each works to counterpoint the themes of the other film, while never quite covering the exact same territory.
Although this has been said elsewhere I should note that the role reversal experienced between Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins actually works quite well, and brings each actor to a character more fitting to each of them. Blain plays the innocent fish out of water, with ever growing frustrations Charles, much better than he did the drunken falling apart at the seams Serge. Similarly, Brialy plays the sleazy urban playboy in a much more convinving manner than he does the kind hearted urbanite in a country village setting.
Both films are directed with a fluid hand by first time director Chabrol, who keeps an excellent pace going, keeping the narrative interesting, while giving the actors time to flesh out their roles. The film is photographed by New Wave legend Henri Decae (400 Blows, Le Samourai), with very crisp beautiful black and white cinematography that brings the most of the 2 settings, and really shows off the detail present in the locations.
What Criterion has released here are 2 French New Waves classics that opened the floodgates for what was to come just a few scant years later. It is astonishing that these releases are the first time either of these films have been released to DVD in the U.S., because they need to be seen by the avid film fan.
Criterion has presented Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge in their original 1:33:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Since neither film has been released stateside on DVD before I have no point of comparison on either, however this DVD release (Also on Blu-ray) is simply stunning. Henri Decae's black and white cinematography really shines. Both films feature a nice healthy grain structure, excellent detail, which is most obvious in close ups. The image contrast is nice, and there isn't too much in the way of brightness issues. Overall, both films look absolutely fantastic on DVD (and probably much better on the Blu).
Both films are presented with one audio option a French LPCM 1.0 Mono track with optional English subtitles. These tracks are excellent, very clear throughout with dialogue, music, and effects mixed well. There are no audio imperfections that I could hear anywhere on either track.
Extras (4/5, 2.5/5)
Criterion has offered a nice slate of extras for Le Beau Serge, and a slim but informative set for Les Cousins. The set kicks off with Claude Chabrol: Mon Premier film a 53 minute documentary about the town of Sardent which is the primary location for Le Beau Serge, and is also the town where Chabrol grew up, and was exposed to the cinema. It features interviews with the Chabrol, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Bernadette LaFont. This is followed up by a segment of the French TV L'invite du dimanche which has Chabrol vistiing Sardent in 1969 11 years after filming Le Beau Serge there. We then have a commentary by film Professor Guy Austin, the films original trailer, and a booklet with an essay by Terrance Rafferty.
The extras on Les Cousins fall on the slim side of Criterions release pattern. I'm happy there's something, and it's informative, but I feel there could have been a little more considering what was available for Le Beau Serge. Anyway, what we have here is a commentary by author Adrian Martin, the films original trailer, and a booklet of liner notes including a passage from Jean-Claude Brialy's memoir called Brialy on Blain. There is also Terrance Rafferty's essay. Nature of the Beast
The French New Wave begins here, with these 2 excellent Claude Chabrol releases from the almighty Criterion Collection. Both films are excellent, and show not only the beginnings of a film movement, but the beginning of a career that would span 50 years, and 60 movies, and a multitude of genres. The transfer are gorgeous, the extras are informative, these DVD's (Blu-ray's if you can get them) are Highly Recommended.