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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Co-Picks of the Week: Classic. Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins

Two by Claude Chabrol: Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins

France: Claude Chabrol, 1958/1959 (Criterion Collection)

Le Beau Serge (France: Claude Chabrol, 1958) (Four Stars) With Gerard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michele Meritz, Philippe De Broca, Jacques Rivette. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Les Cousins (France: Claude Chabrol, 1959) (Four Stars) With Gerard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michele Meritz. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Note: These films are sold separately.


By the time he died last year, at 80, with at least 80 directorial credits listed in imdb, Claude Chabrol had become the most prolific and, in some ways, the most successful of all the great directors/friends of the old French Nouvelle Vague (or “New Wave“) — those arrogant young cinematic firebrands, prodigies and know-it-alls who traded barbs, blurbs and bon mots in Parisian cafes in the ‘50s while they were mounting their assaults on the French film industry from the pages of the legendary film journal Cahiers du Cinema.

Chabrol, by the time of his death 2010, was still making movies and TV and had outstripped, in production and longevity, his famed compatriots Jean-Luc Godard (still alive, still working and almost as prolific as Claude but also a rebel who worked often outside the system and beyond the political mainstream), Eric Rohmer (almost as long-lived, but another uncompromising “art film” director who, like Godard, rarely courted the mass audience), Jacques Rivette (another great outsider, who made fewer if more ambitious movies than any of them), and Francois Truffaut (most popular New Waver of them all with audiences and critics, the most accepted by the studio establishments, and also very prolific, but an artist who died, helas, too young — of a brain tumor in 1984, almost three decades ago.)

In the ‘50s, before their directorial careers began, these five were called the Holy Family: out of envy perhaps, out of high regard maybe too. They all became famous and revered French cineastes. Godard made political parables and diatribes dense with literary and cinematic allusions, Euro-takes on American genres, and dramatic essays with a touch of noir. (Breathless, Bande a Part, Pierrot le Fou, Weekend, Prenom: Carmen). Rohmer made moral tales about beautiful young people and their very intellectual romances. (“The Six Moral Tales,”  “Comedies and Proverbs.”) Rivette made claustrophobic, sometimes long dramas that mixed art and paranoia. (Paris a nous Appartient, The Nun, L‘Amour Fou, La Belle Noiseuse.) And Truffaut, ah Truffaut! He made modern films in the classic genres in the classic yet modern manner — the same kind of movies, part of the French “tradition of quality,” that he had sometimes attacked virulently as a critic. Truffaut made romances and noirs and histories and elegant literary adaptations and films about film-making. (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Day for Night, The Last Metro.)

As for Claude Chabrol, the first of them all to make a feature film, the one who helped all the others when he did — well, he was even more of a specialist. Chabrol primarily made crime dramas, thrillers, film noirs. (Les Bonnes Femmes, La Femme Infidele, Le Boucher, Violette Noziere, La Ceremonie.) He made a great documentary about Vichy France’s moviemaking (Eye of Vichy), an extraordinary Vichy era drama about an abortionist (The Story of Women), a good adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. (The latter two films starred Isabelle Huppert). He adapted or was inspired by Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Ellery Queen, Stanley Ellin, Georges Simenon — mytery thriller specialists all.

Critics often called him the French Hitchcock, though, as Chabrol liked to point out, his own visual and dramatic style was far closer to yet another great crime movie specialist, Fritz Lang. A man who seemed himself a model of goodness and humanity, Chabrol understood evil very, very well. He once said that he couldn’t imagine making a script that didn’t have a murder in it, and he rarely did. (When there was no murder, there was something that felt like murder.)

Chabrol was a funny-looking, fun-loving little man, with glasses, a thick French accent and a frequent smile. He looked playful and professorial, and when I interviewed him once in New York City, he joked and laughed continuously. He seemed to work continuously too. Almost every year, like clockwork, out would come a new Chabrol film (or two). They were (almost) always good, always well and elegantly-crafted, always intelligent, often highly critical of the provincial or Parisian bourgeoisie, the classes in which Chabrol had grown up (the provinces) or later lived (Paris). And almost always, they had a murder (or two).

I miss him. Even more, I miss that yearly new Chabrol film that would come out eventually. I miss that funny, sharp, brilliant mind and keen, unsparing eye he would train on infidelity and murder and corruption and wickedness. God, you think, why did the evil French provincial bourgeoisie — only good, it seems, for inspiring a great French noir cineaste like Chabrol or Clouzot — have to survive their most relentless and brilliant chronicler?

Well, c’est la vie. Like all prolific artists and workaholics (artoholics? cineholics?), Chabrol left us a lot. Here, for instance are his first two films, both gems in black and white: the riveting Le Beau Serge (1958) and the masterly Les Cousins (1959). Though released separately on DVDs by Criterion, they make a nice complementary package: two classic film noirs, with the same co-stars (suave Jean-Claude Brialy, feisty Gerard Blain) in the same kind of dark, chatty, stylishly made, psychologically complex drama — both about people unwittingly destroying themselves.In Le Beau Serge, set (and shot) in Chabrol’s home town of Sardent, Brialy, as Francois, plays a young intellectual who left Sardent for Paris, and now has come back, sick, to recuperate and also to revisit his old friend Serge (Blain) — or “Le Beau Serge,” a village beau who is now an alcoholic in an unhappy marriage. They spend much of their time in the local bar, drinking and talking. The two probably love each other, are attracted to the same women (Serge’s wife Michelle Meritz and her sister Bernadette Lafont) and seem to push each other to dissolution.

In  Les Cousins, set (and shot) in Paris, Blain, as shy country cousin Charles, travels to Paris to revisit his urbane and hedonistic city cousin Paul (Brialy), and to join him at law school — where Paul spends most of his time drinking and throwing decadent parties for decadent people, including some women (Michelle Meritz and Juliette Mayniel) whom they both like. (Stephane Audran, later Chabrol’s wife and frequent star, is a regular party guest.) Paul rarely studies, yet seems to know everything; Charles studies constantly, yet seems to forget it all. They also seem to love each other, somewhat, and one of them seems to be pushing the other toward dissolution.

The two movies, in other words, almost seem inversions of each other, with the Brialy/Blain team returning as different versions of the same characters. Not quite though. One of the main differences between the pictures, is that, though Chabrol wrote both screenplays, the dialogue for The Cousins was written by Paul Gegauff, a cynical right-wing hedonist and novelist who writes very good dialogue and who went on writing for Chabrol, and once starring for him (in Une Partie de Plaisir) until Gegauff was stabbed and killed by his wife in 1983. (Remember that when you watch Les Cousins, one of whose protagonists is named “Paul.”)

Both movies have beautiful and highly mobile, black and white cinematography by the superb Henri Decae — and, after seeing the pictures again, all I can say is that it makes you wish Chabrol had been able to shoot black and white always, or at least most of the time, and more often with Decae. Black and white fits him: this master of film noir et blanc.

Le Beau Serge failed with audiences and critics. Les Cousins succeeded with both, besides winning the Golden Bear (Grand Prize) at the Berlin Film Festival. Today, both pictures look just about equally good, both classics. In fact, I may like Le Beau Serge a little more, because it reveals more about Chabrol and is more moving. Les Cousins, an excellent film, is what we expect. Le Beau Serge is more of a surprise and a revelation.

The great thing about real artists is that they keep surprising us, whter they’re 28 or 80. Like Claude Chabrol, smiling scourge of the French bourgeoisie, the godfather of Brialy and Blain, The New Waver who only seemed mainstream, the laughing maker of Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins and all the rest.

Extras (Le Beau Serge): Commentary by Guy Austin; Claude Chabrol: My First Film (Francois Girod) (Three Stars), documentary on the making of Le Beau Serge; 1969 episode on French TV series “L’invite du dimanche,” devoted to Chabrol and Le Beau Serge, Trailer; Booklet with Terrence Rafferty essay.

Extras (Les Cousins): Commentary by Adrian Martin; Trailer; Booklet with another Terry Rafferty essay and a memoir on Gerard Blain from Jean-Claude Brialy.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon