[What follows contains what some might consider spoilers for Le Beau Serge and, especially, Les Cousins. Proceed with caution, and sorry this warning went up a bit late...]
Claude Chabrol was one of a handful of filmmakers who made up the French New Wave, and like the others -- Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, etc. -- began his career in film as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema. All would become actual filmmakers, of world-spanning importance and influence, except less so in the case of Chabrol. There's Godardian, but there's no Chabrolian. Yet Chabrol was the first of the group actually make a film, 1958's Le Beau Serge, which, along with his 1959 follow up, Les Cousins, is being released on DVD tomorrow by Criterion. So the man who actually, concretely and physically began the French New Wave is almost forgotten, or at least the length and breadth of his career and achievements seem to routinely get short-changed.
In his commentary track for the Les Cousins DVD, Adrian Martin chalks up Chabrol's status as the New Wave's odd man out to the inconsistent nature of his career, as well as his essentially straightfoward approach to cinematic storytelling when compared to Godard and Rivette's more radical burrowing underneath the nature of film. But it might also be a genre thing, as Chabrol worked extensively, though not exclusively, in the crime genre, which, yes, also interested Godard and Truffaut and so on, but they seemed more interested in taking it apart or pushing it off a cliff. This is probably why Chabrol's my own favorite among the New Wave directors, given my own proclivities, but the films themselves back me up. Has there ever been a greater depiction of the short, shocking road from every-day asshole to self-justifying murderer than Chabrol's deeply troubling Pleasure Party? Chabrol's interest was focused far more on the dark psychology of crime and violence than on any element of cops and criminals procedure, and in this way his source for literary adaptation tended towards complimentary writers, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. La Ceremonie, Chabrol's adaptation of Rendell's A Judgment in Stone, proved that both artists shared a removed interest in and cold fascination with human disaster.
But you don't see a lot of that in Le Beau Serge or Les Cousins, or at least not in the way you would in years to come. Written at around the same time and, due to the earlier film's delayed release, arriving in theaters about a month apart, Chabrol's first two films do show a kind of transition from a more traditional, life-as-it-is-lived arthouse story in Le Beau Serge to the more dark and murderous realm Chabrol's work would eventually inhabit. They are companion films, self consciously so -- Le Beau Serge stars Jean-Claude Brialy as Francois, a city dweller returning to his small, rural hometown to rest up after an illness, where he rekindles, sort of, his friendship with Serge (Gerard Blain), who has become a near-hopeless alcoholic and abusive, uncaring husband to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), who he married because he'd gotten her pregnant, though their child was stillborn. Meanwhile, over in Les Cousins, you have Gerard Blain playing Charles, a small-town kid travelling to Paris to attend college. He lodges with his cousin Paul, played by Jean-Claude Brialy, also a student, as well as a Mephistophelean sybarite. So the country does all the boozing in one film, the city in the other -- taken together, this might seem to make the two films seem schematic, but in fact this sort of thing is just the tip of the iceberg.
In "The Nature of the Beast", his Criterion essay for Les Cousins, Terrence Rafferty describes that film as being "both lighter and infinitely darker" than Le Beau Serge, and to paraphrase Larry Miller in Waiting for Guffman, he's not wrong. Le Beau Serge is a bit of a wallow in Serge's deeply off-putting drinking and general awfulness, but he does have Francois there to take it upon himself provide an "example" of proper living. A priest (Claude Cerval) takes Francois to task for being terribly prideful, and he, too, is not wrong, but Francois at least is motivated, for whatever reasons you might wish to ascribe to him, to do good, and some sort of good, however ambiguous, is actually achieved. But Les Cousins is one of those situations where all the carousing is fun and free and enviable, right up until the point where it isn't, at which time it becomes not merely unhappy, but sinister.
As in Le Beau Serge, a turning point of sorts is reached in Les Cousins after a woman behaves in a certain way. That "certain way" is not really the same in either film, nor are the women, nor, for that matter, is the turning point. Strangely enough, there's a whiff of femme fatale, and even a strong dose of perversity, in Le Beau Serge's version of these events, but Les Cousins, where things are altogether more lazy and casual, is the one with the gun in it. If one were to break the two films down along these lines, Les Cousins, at the level of its premise, feels like something Patricia Highsmith might have come up with, while Le Beau Serge is more like Simenon (perhaps because there are cities everywhere, but only one French countryside), but Chabrol only followed this view of the world in his second film. Le Beau Serge does feel a bit unformed, its ending a little false. Les Cousins -- which has an interesting scene involving a bookshop owner (Guy Decomble) bemoaning the popularity of detective fiction -- strikes me as complete and much more clean, despite the shambles with which we're ultimately left. There's a sense that the ending to Les Cousins, as unlikely as it may seem, was, like many great crime stories, which Les Cousins isn't but also sort of is, inevitable.
The central performances of the two films must not be ignored, of course. Interestingly, Jean-Claude Brialy maintains a certain throughline between the films. He's not rambunctious as the desperately helpful Francois, but he's just as smug as Paul. Again, though, until he isn't, and his performance in Les Cousins' final minutes is as effective a portrayal of shock as I've seen, which I say while not being all that sure Brialy does anything in particular. Context may be everything, but then again I can tell you right now, I couldn't do it. More impressive, and frankly maybe a bit more clearly actorly, is Gerard Blain's dual roles as a country boy either angry and dissolute, or fresh-faced and innocent, just waiting for the dissolute people around him to take him down. "Waiting" probably being the key here, because I don't care how gracefully one wishes to bow out, having the woman you've given up, and the man you've just given her up to, taking a shower right behind you while you're trying to study seems to me like it might be regarded as a little bit much. You'd really like Charles to snap, in other words, and the fact that he doesn't, in a way that most would see as natural, probably contributes to the unnatural way he does finally choose to snap. So try not to bottle this shit up, is what Chabrol is trying to say.
Anyway, both films are entirely worth your time, Les Cousins being worth it and then some. Go forth and seek them out.