Tuesday 9 April 2013

On DVD: "Le Beau Serge" and "Les Cousins"

Film by film, the remaining eddies and fluctuations of the French New Wave re-emerge. Claude Chabrol's debut Le Beau Serge - which, as released in early 1959, arguably constitutes film zero of this entire movement - contradicts the notion the nouvelle vague was an entirely urban phenomenon. Returning to his old stomping ground of Sardent in central France, Chabrol made of it a model of the kind of small provincial town in which bad things were to happen in his later work: a hotbed of resentment, frustration and quasi-incestuous desire. While far from blind to this community's values, its space and light - indeed, the film has a similar feel for this place's rhythms as Godard's films did for Parisian routines - it is a film that explains why a young man might want to move away, and what becomes of those left behind.

Besuited sophisticate François (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns home after several years away in the city, to find the place hasn't changed much, with the exception of Serge (Gérard Blain), an old friend and cohort in mischief-making, whose idea of fun now extends to ignoring his heavily pregnant wife and driving his delivery truck at full-pelt in François's general direction. "What's wrong with him?," our hero asks of Serge's erstwhile squeeze Marie (Bernadette Lafont, herself at the beginning of great things). "That's just what he's like," comes the response. Le Beau Serge doesn't do much to shake the idea this was a predominantly male movement: the female roles are absolutely those of mother and whore, and the actresses do well to impose themselves between the fisticuffs and handwringing. 

Yet already Chabrol is deeply compelled by his male antagonists' psychology. With his air of superciliousness, Brialy turns François into a terminal do-gooder, one who confesses he harbored brief hopes of becoming a priest, and still apparently feels the calling to save souls less enlightened than his own. Serge appears perfectly happy lying in the gutter in a state of drunken oblivion; shaken into consciousness by his boyhood friend, he suddenly realises he doesn't like what he sees, turning an unreliable individual into a dangerously unstable one. Chabrol sets it out with the crispness of a well-told short story, preserved by an outlook on human nature that proves chilly even before the final-reel snowfall: the implication of its tale seems to be that some people are simply beyond reach, and that no-one - not a doctor, nor a priest, nor a big city boy - can save them. Move on, the film cautions: leave them all behind.

By the time of the director's second film - released in France barely a month later - things were gathering apace. The Berlin Golden Bear-winner Les Cousins already appears to have strong ideas about what a New Wave film might be, and what might set it apart from that which had come before - namely, a new, exciting, spontaneous realism - even as it provides the yang to the previous film's yin. This time round, it's Blain playing a reasonable sort named Charles, heading into Paris to room with his playboy-flâneur cousin Paul (Brialy) in advance of a law exam both are scheduled to take. Again, though, it's a matter of irreconciliable differences: Paul would rather hit the town than any books, and his shrugging, comme-ci-comme-ça attitude to the opposite sex proves fatally incompatable with Charles's own quest for affection.

If Le Beau Serge was melancholy and reflective, its follow-up plays a good deal jazzier, simultaneously more relaxed and assured: its characters are allowed to rub up against one another in long, freeform scenes in cafes and at parties. Yes, there are the street sequences that would become a staple of this movement, but the bulk of the film forms an attempt to construct an entire universe in and around Paul's (stage-built) flat, presented to us with its own presiding angel (Guy Decomble as the bookseller who prescribes hard work and reading as a cure for Charles's broken heart) and resident devil (Claude Serval as an older, dead-eyed hedonist - by all accounts based on screenwriter Paul Gégauff - egging Paul on).

As elsewhere in this filmography, it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt - though the director regards the tragedy everybody's heading towards as hardly surprising in a world that forces the strong to co-habit with the weak, the lucky with the damned. These are vital clues in our interpretation of the Chabrol canon (the director's long-time muse Stéphane Audran turns up, peroxide-blonde and very chic, as one of Paul's playmates in Les Cousins), but they also serve to establish Brialy and Blain - very evidently representatives of the studious, concerned, sometimes self-righteous young men who were making and watching these films - as every bit as crucial to the formative stages of this movement as Belmondo or Seberg or Léaud or Moreau.

Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins are now available separately on DVD and Blu-Ray through Eureka's Masters of Cinema series.

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