Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless are often credited with kicking off the French New Wave, but the first of the Cahiers du Cinema critics to actually make a feature was Claude Chabrol — and he managed to get two of them into theaters before his friends Truffaut and Godard. Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins were made back to back (financed by an inheritance belonging to Chabrol’s then-wife) and established many of the characteristics that would become trademarks of the French New Wave: location shooting, extensive use of available light and portable cameras and a profound awareness of cinema history and the New Wave’s own context within it.
Yet Chabrol was quickly overlooked by audiences and critics in favor of his more demonstrative peers; he lacked the formal experimentation of Godard, and his chilly, precise style was easily overshadowed by Truffaut’s delirious romanticism. With subsequent films, Chabrol was pushed further to the sidelines of critical attention as declining finances forced him to accept a number of impersonal, for-hire jobs — though the assignments, ironically, linked him to the Hollywood craftsmen so beloved by the critics of Cahiers. It did not help that Chabrol’s politics placed him in opposition to just about everyone; as a satirist, he was merciless in his skewering of those on the left and right, and he could never resist playing the provocateur. Whenever charges of misogyny or misanthropy were leveled against him, he usually responded by making films that were even more vulnerable to such criticisms.
Yet now, a little more than a year after Chabrol’s death and more than 50 films since Le Beau Serge, it is clear that he was one of the giants of French cinema. His best films tended to come in bunches separated by several years: his initial burst of inspiration was matched again in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a series of Hitchcockian suspense films, after which he found success with some police procedurals in the 1980s; then, late in his career, he came roaring back with a group of ideologically complex, formally precise thrillers, including The Ceremony and The Flower of Evil. Along the way he found time for literary adaptations and period pieces, melodramas and television assignments, most of which he tackled with intelligence and subtlety. The circumstances that led him to take jobs that made him a hack in the eyes of some critics now seem to have been a great benefit as they inspired Chabrol to produce a wider range of work than peers Godard, Truffaut and Eric Rohmer.
Those three directors have long been represented by multiple DVD releases from the prestigious Criterion Collection, but Chabrol has been mysteriously absent from the company’s catalog — until now. Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins are now available as gorgeous Blu-rays, and one hopes that the good people at Criterion will continue to remaster and release his work as they have for his peers. For now, there is no better place to start thinking about Chabrol than these two features and no better way to watch them than Criterion’s flawless Blu-rays.
The two movies are essentially mirror images of each other, which is appropriate given the ongoing use of reflections in Chabrol’s compositions and his persistent obsession with man’s duality. In Le Beau Serge, city dweller Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) travels to the country and reunites with his old friend, Serge (Gerard Blain); in Les Cousins, country boy Charles (Blain) arrives in the city for a visit with his bohemian cousin, Paul (Brialy). In each case, the traveler finds himself unable to navigate the complex social codes of his new environment, and Chabrol dissects the ways issues of money, sex and politics affect the behavior of his characters.
A great deal of the films’ power emerges from their elegant-yet-unforced imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Henri Decae. As a documentarian during World War II and a director of photography on several Jean-Pierre Melville films, Decae had the experience with location shooting and natural light that Chabrol needed — his black-and-white photography in both Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins is remarkable in the way that it captures reality while simultaneously making it more beautiful and exposing physical details that underline the desperation of the characters’ circumstances. These films are all about the shifting morality of the characters, and Decae finds a visual corollary for this theme in a constantly evolving interplay between light and shadow on the actors’ faces and bodies. He would follow his remarkable work on these films with photography on The 400 Blows, thereby solidifying his credentials as a key figure of the French New Wave.
The attention to detail in Decae’s lighting is expertly presented on both Criterion restorations, which nicely recreate the brightness, contrast and grain of his cinematography with a total absence of scratches and other debris — the movies look like they were made yesterday, not more than 50 years ago. The sound is razor-sharp in its clarity, particularly in difficult scenes such as a party in Les Cousins that combines blasting classical music with conversations of varying intensity. Both discs contain theatrical trailers and informative audio commentaries (Chabrol biographer Guy Austin on Le Beau Serge, scholar and critic Adrian Martin on Les Cousins). Le Beau Serge also includes a superb 51-minute making-of documentary from 2003, along with a 10-minute segment from the 1969 TV series L’invité du dimanche, in which Chabrol discusses the film. Both discs are essential purchases for any serious cinephile and it is hoped a sign of things to come as far as domestic Chabrol Blu-ray releases are concerned.