Jean Baudrillard once said, when evaluating today’s zeitgeist, “All that remains is the fascination for desert-like and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us.” His position asserts that we have lost something in the modern age; our ability to be original, radical and provocative is falling into banality. This lethargy is the exact fear that stimulated auteurs such as Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard and Truffaut into action in the 1950s. Cahiers du Cinéma allowed these directors to establish their political and academic voices, later the French Nouvelle Vague, and to eulogise the great filmmakers of the early 20th century.
It’s intriguing to revisit Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959) after almost 45 years, rereleased here in crystal 1080p by Masters of Cinema. At the time, they were two very distinct works that envisioned diverse aesthetics and moods – Le Beau Serge far darker and more distressing, Les Cousins playfully sardonic and rebellious. It was almost as if Chabrol felt obliged to debut with a serious film, to demonstrate his sincerity and to exorcise some personal demons, before venturing into wittier territory. Tracking Chabrol and the kind of films he has made however, it’s now easier to see these as two quietly profound, yet deeply connected, morality tales.
Le Beau Serge takes place in the small French commune of Sardent and follows François (Jean-Claude Brialy) as he returns to his hometown after many years away. He finds his old friend Serge (Gérard Blain) who has grown angry and hateful because of the idle life he has led, and the despondency after the death of his stillborn child. In Les Cousins, a role reversal occurs in which Brialy plays a reckless Parisian bohemian, Paul, who is visited by his cousin Charles (Blain) during their student years. Chabrol’s morality comes in the form of a more traditional good vs. evil conquest. To be pure and principled is constantly locked in battle with power, greed, tragedy and self-destruction.
In Le Beau Serge, the eponymous lead has been corrupted by misfortune and François feels superciliously compelled to provide salvation. In Les Cousins, Paul is obsessed with the concepts of danger and supremacy while Charles confesses his timidity. The genius of Chabrol is how he brings such emotionally and psychologically opposing characters together and counterbalances their inequality. The needs and duties of his characters are entangled, a skill Chabrol had all but perfected even at this preliminary stage. What’s more, we are rewarded with an insight into how Chabrol prompted the New Wave.
Two hour-long featurettes on either disc reveal how closely the screenwriters, directors, cinematographers and actors worked during the 50s and 60s, contemplating the significance of collaborating with friends and like-minded artists. To be surrounded by fanatical film buffs was a means of truly experimenting, with the hubristic notion of deliverance in Le Beau Serge and the volatility of the bourgeoisie in Les Cousins. Most exhilarating of all is that Chabrol’s first two features have aged beautifully with time; they resonate in the trashy, ultra-commercial film market of today in the same way they exploded convention in the 50s.