Claude Chabrol On Blu-ray – Adam Batty
With this pair of reissues comes the opportunity for Claude Chabrol to be reconsidered as a part of the Nouvelle Vague. The accompanying marketing material informs the reader that Le Beau Serge is the “first feature film of the French New Wave, one year before Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows”, which is a contentious statement at the very least. While it’s true that Chabrol was the first filmmaker associated with Cahiers du Cinéma to see produce a feature-length picture, that association alone doesn’t necessarily make it the supposed “first feature film of the French New Wave”, much in the same way that a recent film like Éloge de l’amour would unfairly be labeled a work of the Nouvelle Vague by virtue of being a film by Jean-Luc Godard.
That isn’t to say that Le Beau Serge isn’t an interesting movie. Presented here alongside Chabrol’s sophomore effort, and perfect counterpart, Les Cousins, the earlier film is an entertaining, and enlightening effort that presents a pretty good Cliff Notes on the state of the French cinema in the months before the New Wave touched shore. Sharing much in common with other pre-Wavers Jean-Pierre Melville, Julien Duvivier and Georges Franju, Chabrol, in part at least, carves his tales in the real, relying upon naturalistic locations and lightly staged scenarios forthcoming. While not the free-for-all of freewheeling that the later New Wave pictures be known for, there is an air of the unrestrained in large portions, especially in Le Beau Serge, which uses the village of Sardent to great effect. The filmmakers seemingly had the run of the town, with the geography of the space as much of a character as Serge or François. The town even gets it’s own special credit as the film begins. Sardent’s cemetery is the tonal center-point of the whole film, a place of death that renews faith, and the unlikely site of rebirth.
With the exception of the sense of realism and the discovery of a number of key figures from within the New Wave repertoire, there’s little else that ties Le Beau Serge specifically to the films that would follow from his colleagues at the Cahier du cinéma. Les Cousins on the other hand features a number of the tropes that would follow, yet somehow lacks the elements featured in the earlier film. Youth culture is examined carefully, albeit in a heightened, inauthentic way, while the realism offered by the location shoot of Le Beau Serge is all but lost in an apartment block setting that could be anywhere, and bears a closer resemblance to traditional Hollywood mise en scène than the equivalent interiors of The 400 Blows, Le Mépris and À bout de souffle. As does the stylistic emphasis, so shifts the performances too. Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy star in both films, with Blain the eponymous Serge in the earlier film, and Brialy the sensitive, naïve François, while the roles are reversed in Les Cousins, with Brialy the overt, imposing and influential Paul, while Blain is the fish out of water, the hard out of luck and innocent Charles. This intertextual reliance upon the repertory makes for a neat commentary, and certainly presents the illusion of a groundswell of talent coming together to create something new and fresh.
Les Cousins is the most successful of the two films as a piece of narrative cinema, with it’s tale of two hereditary connected, yet emotionally disparate figures, the dandy and the bookworm, an emotionally affecting piece of cinema. The plight of Charles is genuinely moving. Chabrol’s film verges on the Shakespearean by picture’s end, with the literary works cited within the film itself, Dostoevsky and Balzac, amongst others, apt companions.
These early two features would seem to be at odds with the main section of Chabrol’s career; defined as Hitchcock riffing, thriller-convention driven dramas. Some, such as Jacques Siclier, actually went as far to suggest that Chabrol had “exhausted with his first two films everything personal he had to say“ as early as 1961, when, when placed next to Godard, Truffaut and Rivette, the workmanlike, Hollywood-esque New Wave era pictures of Chabrol appeared dull and old-fashioned and anti-innovation, immediately placing the filmmaker at odds with the cinema of the period. It was a similar fate bestowed upon Chabrol’s fellow pre-Nouvelle Vague trailblazers, with the kind of subversion of technique hailed just years earlier deemed old hat. Of course, Chabrol went on to have a lengthy and illustrious career, and it’s hard to imagine a New Wave at all without the filmmaker’s innovative approach to film financing* paving the way for his Cahiers colleagues.
As one comes to expect of Eureka Entertainment’s marvelous boutique imprint, The Masters Of Cinema Series supplementary material is extensive and well thought through. A two-part documentary straddles both discs, with 110 minutes worth of insight spread out across the two titles. The first part of the feature-length examination of the director’s early career is the most satisfying, and serves as a legacy protective piece which offers a welcome insight in to the lesser known figures of the period; Jacques Doniol-Valcroze takes precedent over André Bazin, while Jean-Luc Godard isn’t mentioned for 21 minutes. Appropriately, for a film about Chabrol, it plays out like a secret or alternative history of the Nouvelle Vague.
Accompanying the lengthy documentary is a short on each disc, L’Avarice and The Man Who Stole The Eiffel Tower, as well as trailers (the one for Le Beau Serge is particularly worthwhile, in which Chabrol lays out his Nicholas Ray aping intentions in note-perfect fashion.
* For Le Beau Serge, a film concerned with an Alcoholic protagonist, Chabrol sought funding by way of donations from an alcohol charity, amongst other channels.