In 1958, twenty-seven year old cahiers du cinema critic Claude Chabrol spent his wife’s inheritance money shooting his debut feature Le beau Serge, a Hitchcock influenced morality piece starring Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. The film, which earned the best director prize from the Locarno film festival, was Chabrol’s first directorial effort of any sort—unlike his fellow critics-turned-auteurs Godard and Truffaut he had made no prior shorts. It would come to be regarded as another first: the first film of the new wave.
Le beau Serge concerns a Parisian (Brialy) who returns to his home village (based on Chabrol’s own provincial home) to save the life of an old friend (Blain). Around the same time Chabrol wrote a companion piece, what he called the second part in a diptych—Les cousins. A narrative mirror image of Le beau Serge, Chabrol’s second film is set in Paris, and concerns an innocent provincial man (Blain) coming to the city to stay with his decadent cousin (Brialy) whilst they both study for their law exams. He christened his two lead characters Charles (Blain) and Paul (Brialy), names he would use again and again for various Apollonian and Dionysian characters throughout his career. The ambling narrative contrasts the dangerous hedonism of Paul and his questionable acquaintances with Charles’s moral innocence and optimism, focusing eventually on Charles’s romantic relationship with idealistic young city girl Florence (Juliette Mayniel), Paul’s sabotaging of their fledgling relationship, and Charles’s ultimate downfall.
The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, and marks the birth of Chabrol’s personal style, assisted by Henri Decae’s camerawork. But Chabrol’s ease with the camera is not matched by the screenplay, co-written by Paul Gegauff, who would go on to script more than a dozen of Chabrol’s subsequent works. Though much of the new wave’s enduring charm, and indeed (sporadic) brilliance, comes from the auteurs’ refusal to engage with typical narrative tropes, the texts in which this convention scoffing results in engaging cinema are truthfully outweighed by those that suffer from uneven storylines and a dearth of narrative propulsion.
Les cousins’s narrative is designed to highlight worrying chasms in bourgeois moralism, and on this point Chabrol is at least successful, even if the presentation of his hedonistic bourgeois city clique is rather clumsy and demonizing. The narrative is at its strongest when genuine threat exists—or more accurately, when suspense exists. Let it not be forgotten that both Le beau Serge and Les cousins emerged from Chabrol’s Hitchcock reverence. The most interesting narrative device Chabrol employs, and the most interesting visual symbol, is a collection of guns and other weaponry which adorn the walls of Paul’s chic Paris apartment, underscoring the hedonists’ glass smashing and promiscuity with a sense of impending doom. When the hedonists, who enjoy speaking German and listening to Wagner, embrace an Italian count as a guest of honor, and when that Italian count becomes drunk, sexually aggressive, and plucks one of the guns off the wall whilst the party-goers watch and laugh, it seems that Chabrol is onto something. Fourteen years after Vichy rule, the unthinking solipsism of these privileged urban party animals results in the rehabilitation of the fascists and sudden unforeseen dangers emerging where they live. But this brief moment of genuine jeopardy is quickly resolved, and the narrative instead shifts to focus on Charles’s relationship with Florence, his attempts to pass his law exams despite the many distractions that surround him, and a flimsy and ultimately unsatisfying contrast of character traits between himself and Paul. These conflicts result in nothing more disastrous for Charles than a poor showing at his exams and a slight feeling of displacement, until a melodramatic and clumsy climactic denoument spells out his ruin.
One scene, in which Paul and his devilish pal Clovis (Claude Cerval) seduce Florence and hence end her innocent relationship with Charles, turns this conflict into something dark, dangerous, and genuinely interesting. But before long the narrative concerns itself once again with Charles’s attempts to study in peace and Florence’s odd match with the cruel spirited Paul. The ultimate impression is more mundane than tense, eschewing the opportunity to create suspense and instead focusing on the kind of character conflicts and personal concerns which these days are more common in daytime serials than the cinema.
Lack of story-telling skill leading to a confused and uneven narrative is typically new wave. But whilst Godard got around his story-telling inability with stylistic dynamism and savage deconstructions of narrative, and Truffaut exhibited a progeny’s mastery when deploying non-standard narratives which satisfy in their ingenuity and lack of constraints, Chabrol instead presents a narrative which seems to grasp for tension and suspense without knowing quite how to sustain these precious cinematic commodities. His film shifts uneasily from incisive socio-political comment into mundanity, it loses momentum far too early, and focuses quite wrongly on a shallow, anti-love story whose admittedly dramatic climax fails to resonate.
Christopher Neilan is an author, screenwriter and critic. His first novel Abattoir Jack is available from Punked Books.
Les Cousins was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment as part of their “Masters of Cinema” series.