Le Beau Serge (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Criterion Collection
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Of the hallowed group of Cahiers du cinéma critics turned filmmakers who would transform French film history, Claude Chabrol (Les bonnes femmes) was the first to direct his own feature. His stark and absorbing landmark debut, Le beau Serge, follows a successful yet sickly young man (A Woman Is a Woman’s Jean‑Claude Brialy) who returns home to the small village where he grew up. There, he finds himself at odds with his former close friend (Les cousins’s Gérard Blain)—now unhappily married and a wretched alcoholic—and the provincial life he represents. The remarkable and raw Le beau Serge heralded the arrival of a cinematic titan who would go on to craft provocative, entertaining films for five more decades.
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Secondly -- This picture seems like a companion piece / bookend to Chabrol's second feature, "Les Cousins", in which Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy are once again cast as the leads. However -- "Les Cousins" exhibits a big leap forward in Chabrol's style -- It offers up some verve in terms of its sophistication and polish. It is obvious that Chabrol learned a lot from "Le Beau Serge" and applied that knowledge to "Les Cousins". In closing: Besides the leads in "Le Beau Serge"-- Brialy (François Bayon) and Blain (Serge), both of whom are well-cast and outstanding in their roles -- There are other excellent performances in this film; notably Bernadette Lafont as Marie, the coquettish, seductive "stepdaughter" of Glomaud; and Edmond Beauchamp, a genuine character actor, who plays the "stepfather" Glomaud with serio-comic aplomb.
Stephen C. Bird, Author of "Any Resemblance To A Coincidence Is Accidental"
Truffaut and Godard's early works are full of an iconoclastic energy and hugely charismatic stars playing characters who seem to be reinventing life while Chabrol's early efforts are about the impossibility of escaping our connections to the past, in this case our provincial past.
In Le Beau Serge a young cosmopolitan named Francois returns to his country village after being away for ten years. Even though he finds that his old friend Serge and the locals do not really want him there he stays perhaps as much out of a sense of guilt as out of a sense of compassion for Serge and the other villagers who at least in Francois's view seem to have resigned themselves to fates that are somehow beneath them and this is precisely the kind of condescension that annoys everyone when Francois comes around. Even though at the beginning of the film we think this is going to be a story of Serge's redemption by storys end we see that it is a story of Francois' redemption as well. The fates of Francois and Serge seem to be intertwined in some not altogether explainable way.
In Les Cousins, Chabrols second film, a country boy ventures to the city to live with his more sophisticated cousin only to find that he'll never be able to escape the provincial world that formed him. But again the fates of the two cousins seem to be intertwined in some inexplicable way.
The fact that both of Chabrol's first two films star the same two actors in very similar symbiotic relationships reinforces the idea that these two films are to be viewed together.
This theme of symbiotically joined couples is one that Chabrol will revisit throughout his career and is the central theme of his last film, Inspector Bellamy.
These works are new wave only insofar as they dispense with the usual social and cinematic decorums. Godard's new wave was about razing cinema to raise political consciousness, Truffaut's about challenging oppressive (educational and cultural)traditions, but Chabrol's is about a sincere depiction of the social pressures and psychology of young men in competition with each other which can in moments so easily lead to sociopathology.
Later in his career, Chabrol will examine the sociopathology of the bourgeoisie in revolt against itself. And this revolt will more often than not take the form of adultery that ends in murder. But at this early stage Chabrol seems most interested in the sociology of status. Both of his first two films feature the passage or failure of exams as a deciding factor in how one views oneself and how the rest of one's life will play out. Early failure can be devastating, but, in Chabrol's world, so can early success.
The strange thing about Le Beau Serge, especially in comparison with Breathless or Jules et Jim, is its austere setting and themes. At this point Chabrol seems more spiritually akin to Bresson than to either of his new wave counterparts. Les Cousins is set in Paris but its themes are decidedly dark which seems to be the side of human nature Chabrol is most fascinated with. This fascination with the dark and pathological side of human nature remains a consistent theme throughout the rest of his career. What changes throughout the sixties is his attitude toward that dark side. By the late-sixites he develops a rather clinical approach to the recording of pathological behaviour; a clinical approach with a strange almost comic twist (the strange smile that forms on the directors face and your own being a reaction to the inevitability/unavoidability of the human folly that he records).
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His early directorial genius is lucky enough to have utilized the dazzling, acting abilities of the handsome...Read more
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