Before I review these two French New Wave cornerstones, I must stress that Eureka aren't packaging the two films together, they are individual releases. I'm just reviewing them in one go because of their obvious links and identical release dates. Plus I feel they complement each other very nicely.
I've had a turbulent relationship with French cinema and the New Wave in general. I can remember watching a handful of Truffaut films when I was a teenager because they were deemed 'important' and I kind of liked them, but didn't quite understand their significance enough to love them. I was a massive Jeunet and Caro fan in the 90's, but I was put off by the more 'worthy' intellectual/mature art house fare coming out of France so shunned a lot of what the country had to offer, including the New Wave which I still hadn't quite got my head around. I became a bit of a film racist I guess.
Over the years I became more open minded though and more recently I've started to venture back to our friends across the channel and check out the notable films I skipped over in the past. The turbulence didn't end though. I've watched a few of Godard's films recently and admired and enjoyed aspects of them, but have still been put off by the academic nature of much of it and the lack of heart and soul to latch onto. I downright hated his Rolling Stones film, Sympathy For the Devil. I think the French idea of 'cool' doesn't click with me, so some of the charm of the more stylish experiments of the New Wave are lost on me.
A couple of years ago, not long after his death in late 2010, I saw my first Claude Chabrol film though, Les Biches. I wouldn't say I was blown away by it, but its style was something I could tap into. There was a sense of dread and tension without the need for an elaborate thriller plot, the characters were interesting to watch even if they weren't particularly likeable and there wasn't the preoccupation with being 'cool' or overtly experimental in style that often distracted me and got a bit tiresome in the works of Goddard (which is strange as I love a fair few films purely for their style).
Fast forward a couple of years and Eureka contacted me to see if I would review their new re-releases of Chabrol's first two films, the first of which many deem to have been the very first feature of the New Wave. So, I crossed my fingers and dove right in, hoping to find renewed faith in the well respected film movement which I often struggle to get to grips with.
Le Beau Serge
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michèle Méritz, Bernadette Lafont
Producer: Claude Chabrol
Running Time: 99 min
First up of course is Le Beau Serge, the film which kickstarted the New Wave and set one of the bold young critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma onto the path to become one of France's most celebrated and certainly prolific directors (he directed over 60 films – 73 if you count all of the TV series and shorts). The film opens with François (Jean-Claude Brialy) arriving in Sardent, a rural village in the centre of France, where he grew up (as did Chabrol himself), but had left to study for a few years in the city. Greeted by an old friend, he spots another, Serge (Gérard Blain), who has become an aggressive alcoholic. Discovering that Serge is in this state largely due to the death of his first child just after birth (it was born severely disabled) and his wife is expecting another which he is convinced won't survive either, François is determined to help his friend and set him back on the straight and narrow. Added to the mix is Serge's sister in law Marie (Bernadette Lafont) who instantly falls for François, but their relationship becomes a peculiar one as the city boy struggles to understand the way things work in a rural village.
I had to look up the definition of what is considered a 'French New Wave' film after watching this as it didn't fit my poorly judged opinion. I think I've seen more spoofs and 'homages' to the movement than films themselves, so I came to expect ponderous voiceovers, abstract editing styles and a playful disregard for traditional narrative. Well there are slight elements of what I expected in here, but generally this a much more grounded and mature-feeling film than I predicted. However, in reminding myself of what year this was made and the styles of films that were released at the time in the West, it is clear to see how groundbreaking Le Beau Serge was. A year before Cassavetes' similarly respected and influential Shadows, here was a film that already used cheaper, light-weight camera equipment to bring more naturalism to the screen through making great use of real locations. It's also a film that looked at the lives and issues of the youth of the day from their perspective rather than an imposed and bombastic view of youth rebellion as chronicled in the Hollywood 'teen movies' of the 50's.
And the film remains as natural and compelling as ever. This is helped hugely by the lead actors Brialy and Blain, who have an intensity which is brilliantly controlled and captured by Chabrol. Here are two complex characters that the film has to rely on greatly as there isn't a huge amount of plot to speak of. There are moments of high drama in the latter half when Marie is raped and in the snowy climax, but largely this is a character piece which looks at the rot that can set in when young people aren't allowed to explore the world and truly find themselves.
It's a little slow until the last half an hour and the Christ allegory that builds throughout is heavy handed, but this remains a film that is as measured and poignant as it is important and groundbreaking.
Director: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Juliette Mayniel
Producer: Claude Chabrol
Running Time: 112 min
Chabrol's follow up to Le Beau Serge was Les Cousins, a film which plays out like a sort of mirror image of his debut. Where the first had its protagonist come to the country from the city and find himself struggling to understand the values and actions of the backwards inhabitants of a small village, the second follows a wholesome country boy who is corrupted when he moves to the city and struggles to fit in with the 'hip' young crowd there. Charles (Blain) moves in with his popular, party-throwing, hipster cousin Paul (Brialy) whilst he studies for his exams in Paris. At first he is enthralled by the extravagant soirees and wild and wonderful friends that surround Paul, but when he falls in love with the promiscuous young Florence (Juliette Mayniel), Charles discovers a darker side to this decadent and 'free' lifestyle.
I think Chabrol really wanted to prove himself with this film. In interviews he has expressed a disappointment in his debut work and I believe that is why he did such a 180 degree turn. One of the most obvious examples of this, beyond the setting, is the casting. Chabrol brings back the two leads from Le Beau Serge, but couldn't give them more different characters. Where Blain was all passion and explosive anger in the earlier film, here he is clean cut, restrained and much more inwardly troubled. Where Brialy was previously the straight guy out to do good for the world, here he is an incredibly flamboyant character with a viscous edge. Both actors handle the change effortlessly. Blain broods extremely well with a simmering anger which never quite reveals itself and Brialy is intoxicating to watch, imbuing his character with all of the necessary charisma and sex appeal needed for such a figure.
And Chabrol is on top form too. Les Cousins has a greater energy than Le Beau Serge, with more camera movement and the occasional fast-cutting sequence. There's a lull in the middle, but there's always enough to chew on to keep you engaged. Like Le Beau Serge, the narrative is fairly sparse and the film focuses more on the characters and their interactions. As before, what Chabrol does well is keep such a situation tense and entrancing through a firm understanding of cinematic technique without blinding the viewer with tricks or gimmicks.
The twists Chabrol did with Les Cousins didn't necessarily make it a better experience for me though, just a different one. As well as the slow patch mentioned earlier, the inherent nastiness of the characters and cynical nature of the film itself make it difficult to truly love, but like Le Beau Serge, it's still a masterful piece of filmmaking from a director that truly hit the ground running.
Chabrol is often called the 'French Hitchcock' (he was a huge fan of the director) and at first this is difficult to see in his films. The thriller elements are often very mild – in Les Cousins there are just a few dramatic turns at the end that might place it in that genre. What Chabrol was more interested in though was the psychology behind Hitchcock's work. He probed the hidden depths of what really made the greats such as Vertigo and Rear Window tick, without pandering to the audience with the surface thrills those often contained. He maybe did this more clearly in his later work, but these two films are still a great place to start if you haven't already given Chabrol a try.
Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins are out on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I was fortunate enough to be sent Blu-Ray copies of both of them and the remastered transfers are incredible. The films look and sound as fresh as they would have done on their premieres back in the late 50's thanks to the incredible work of Gaumont on the restorations.
Equally as impressive are the extra features – you don't get a lot, but what you do get is of the highest calibre. Spread across the two releases is 'Chabrol Launches the Wave', a documentary made about the two films and the birth of the New Wave, split into two parts. The first focuses on the early days of the young critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma and the production of Le Beau Serge and the second looks at what Chabrol did next and what he changed moving into Les Cousins. This French-produced piece, which runs at around 1 hour 40 mins, is intelligent, well produced and refreshingly honest, with Chabrol expressing his dislike of his early work despite how respected it remains.
Added to this wonderful documentary are two short films (both around 20 minutes with one on each disc). These are both films Chabrol directed as part of omnibus/anthology films made in the 60's. Included with Le Beau Serge is L'Avarice, a playful but dark tale of a group of young actors that compete for a night with a beautiful but pricey hooker. With Les Cousins you get L'Homme Qui Vendit La Tour Eiffel, a fairly silly film about a German Francophile who is duped into thinking he is bidding to buy the Eiffel Tower. Both films are worth a watch, especially L'Avarice which I rather enjoyed.
On top of those you get the customary trailers and ever reliable booklets containing interviews, essays and behind the scenes looks at the films.