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The very first film of the The French New Wave is neither a daring exercise in technique nor a manifesto against traditional narrative styles. Claude Chabrol was another writer for Cahiers du Cinema itching to metamorphose from critic to filmmaker; as the first pioneer he didn't have the help of adventurous producers such as Georges de Beauregard, who financed some of the early work of Godard, Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy and Eric Rohmer. Chabrol's wife came into an inheritance and fronted most of the budget for Le beau Serge with the proviso that he not allow his confrères at the magazine to get too deeply involved.
True to his nature, Claude Chabrol's story is interested not in overturning cinematic forms but in investigating the mystery of human relationships. François Baillou (Jean-Claude Brialy) has done well financially in Paris; after an absence of several years he returns to his home village in the Creuse district to rest and recover from a chest infection. He finds his birthplace economically stagnant and populated only with older people and younger folk with problems. François becomes immediately caught up in the plight of his old friend Serge (Gérard Blain), once an aspiring architect and now a miserable alcoholic who gives his poor wife Yvonne (Michéle Mèritz) no end of grief. Yvonne is pregnant but Serge is convinced that all will turn out bad and believes that his life is doomed. François investigates and finds that even the local priest has given up on the town and has no advice for Serge, who starts drinking as soon as the day begins. While trying to formulate a plan to help his friend, François carries on an affair with Yvonne's promiscuous sister Marie (Bernadette Lafont). Marie has also slept with Serge, a situation that the town and Yvonne seem to accept, as if nothing matters any more. When François tries to assert himself on Serge's behalf, the affair with Marie becomes a very real stumbling block. Something is very wrong with the girl's relationship with her own father, another alcoholic with shocking ideas about family relations.
Le beau Serge has drawn heat from people expecting a stylistic gauntlet or something provocative. Instead we have a carefully observed drama on a personal plane, with the balanced François running into invisible social barriers as he tries to "help" the fellow who was once his closest friend. Serge avoids François on their first passing, a gesture explained by another local as embarrassment. François seems to feel responsible for the goings-on in town, but not in the way that the local priest would like him to. He sees the poor children walking miles to school and is told that they'll keep doing it when the snows come. François can't hide his surprise and shock at finding Serge a near-hopeless failure, who drives a furniture truck for an hour or two per day and spends the rest of his time drinking. His intervention is somewhat reckless, when he mistakenly feels that Yvonne is 'holding Serge back' and advises that Serge desert her. François doesn't mind taking the easy sex offered by the provocative Marie, yet is shocked when he realizes that the locals have accepted what to him is unacceptable behavior. Things come to a head at a modest dance social, when Serge gets fed up and beats François practically unconscious. Only after other revelations will François determine what is necessary to steer Serge in the right direction.
Weirdly enough, the film Le beau Serge most resembles is Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. François isn't a masochist and he hasn't a Christ complex, but he is the fish out of water in a rural backwater that doesn't subscribe to his big-city beliefs. François is sufficiently naïve to enter a highly visible affair with Marie, without realizing that she's available to any handsome guy who can help her overcome boredom. Like Bresson's priest François suffers, and we're concerned that he might have a relapse of his bronchial infection. He's certainly not getting any rest. But Serge, the bright fellow once considered "sure to succeed" is like a fallen twin that François must save. Without resorting to the conventions of melodrama, Le beau Serge takes its flawed hero to the completion of his mission.
The great cameraman Henri Decaë gives Chabrol's film an impressive B&W texture. The aged and run-down village has streets of stone and dirt, and buildings that are cracked and unpainted. We see it all on long walks on overcast days. Chabrol creates an atmosphere were everybody knows everybody else's business. François is treated warmly at first, but by the time Serge beats him up at the dance, nobody will come to his aid. The outsider can't come home again; everybody has either left or changed.
The show has more than Claude Chabrol's signature to make it part of La nouvelle vague; it feels less scripted and more improvised than a standard French drama of the time. It's neither a thriller nor an overheated soap opera. Not all of Chabrol's characters "display their dramatic silhouettes" through dialogue; who Marie and Yvonne are is very much determined by the actresses that play them. Yvonne sees little need to explain herself, especially when François' attitude assumes too much about her character and her feelings. We can tell that Marie is a little troublemaker right from the start, and she's never fully honest with François. But she's the most interesting and enigmatic character in the show, a young woman whose motives remain unknowable.
Both Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain give remarkable performances. We only slowly begin to side with the alcoholic Serge, and the drama seems to grow in stature as we come to respect the reasons why he never left the village. Claude Chabrol followed up this story about a city mouse coming to the country, with his complementary and slightly better known Les cousins, which Criterion is releasing concurrently.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Le Beau Serge is a near-flawless encoding that reproduces the delicate textures of the original B&W cinematography. The disc comes with a full array of extras: a commentary by Chabrol biographer Guy Austin, a full documentary on the making of the film that takes some of the actors back to Sardent (Chabrol's own hometown); Chabrol's own revisit of the location for a 1969 TV show; an original trailer and an insert booklet essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.
We expect inside stories and even in-jokes in New Wave films but Le beau Serge refrains from such tricks... except for one sly character named "Jacques Rivette", named after another notable New Wave writer and director. He's played by Chabrol's assistant director Philippe de Broca, soon to become a highly successful director in his own right. The almost unrecognizably thin Chabrol plays a small role as well, placing three aspiring directors on screen simultaneously.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Le beau Serge Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.