Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Les Cousins

Claude Chabrol's second feature, Les Cousins, is, like his first film Le beau Serge, a study of opposites and dichotomies: urban/rural, innocent/worldly, intellectual/physical, sheltered/experienced. In Chabrol's first film, a bookish young man returns home to the small town where he grew up and finds that his childhood friends have grown hard and mean in the years he's been gone. In this second film, the roles are reversed: Jean-Claude Brialy, who played the naïve intellectual of Chabrol's first film, now plays the decadent Paul, whose country cousin Charles (Gérard Blain, who played the tough, drunken Serge in the earlier film) is coming to visit. Charles' arrival in Paris, to go to school in preparation for a big exam, introduces him into Paul's wild, extravagant lifestyle. Paul first appears in a long dressing gown, gesturing boldly with a cane, delivering grand orations, with his older friend Clovis (Claude Cerval) hanging around nearby, seeming equally decadent and strange. The relationship between these two men initially seems homoerotic, and that doesn't entirely change when the orgiastic atmosphere of Paul's lifestyle becomes fully apparent. The unworldly Charles seems to have landed in the company of people whose pleasure-seeking approach to life is very different from his own stolid work ethic and dependability.

The true nature of Paul and Clovis is quickly revealed in an early scene in which one of Paul's former conquests shows up at the apartment, tearfully telling Paul that she's pregnant and has just confronted her parents with the revelation. Paul and Clovis cluster around the girl, one leering over each of her shoulders, and Chabrol's tight compositions position them as opposite voices perched like an angel and a devil on each shoulder. In fact, they're two devils, both of them pressuring her to get an abortion, with the confused girl looking back and forth between them, helpless, unable to resist their insistence. Paul, with his satanic beard and cool, suave manner, seems especially like a vision of the devil as a perpetual seducer, a conscience-negating voice whispering in one's ear, luring the unsuspecting into his lair. He's not content living a life of dionysiac excess himself; he's a kind of recruiter for the cause, and he's not satisfied unless everyone around him seems to be having as much fun as he is.

Maybe that's why Paul's parties seem so loud and desperate. Everyone's always shouting and screaming and laughing too loudly, there's always some grandiose entertainment (like a bare-chested escape artist who sings operatically throughout his act), and Paul himself struts around putting on Mozart and Wagner records or declaiming theatrically in German. Indeed, there's something Germanically shrill about Paul and his scene, and Paul's games of dress-up also flirt with fascism and militarism, which seem to fascinate him, as does the unloaded revolver that he likes to aim at people, clicking the trigger on its empty chambers. It's as though, if there isn't a constant din, if everyone isn't making noise at the tops of their lungs, then no one's having any fun. That's a problem for Charles, who just wants to be left alone to study in quiet. Charles has his own insecurities, and he doesn't seem to realize that Paul's flashy exterior hides the hollow emptiness that might be glaringly obvious at these parties if anyone would ever shut up for even a second.

At one of these parties, Charles meets his cousin's friend Florence (Juliette Mayniel) and falls immediately, passionately in love with her in his naïve way. She seems touched and charmed by his earnestness, his complete honesty and openness. When they walk outside, leaving behind one of Paul's frenetic parties, Charles spills his guts to her soon after their first meeting, telling her about his love for her, about his sheltered country life, about his insecurity and feelings of inferiority in comparison to his more outwardly confident, social cousin. Florence is obviously drawn to Charles, though, despite his clear difference from her own social scene. Chabrol captures her talking to him with shining eyes, smiling and reassuring him, both of them bathed in shadows in the night. It's a very romantic image, which is why it's so startling when, in the film's second half, Chabrol cruelly subverts and undermines this moody romanticism.

When Paul finds out how seriously his cousin has fallen for Florence, and how seriously she's taking this blossoming affair, he sets out to push them apart, apparently merely because this kind of seriousness has no place in his life of parties and casual dalliances and drink-fueled orgies. In one scene, Clovis uses his persuasive, insistent voice to push Florence and Paul towards one another, standing between them as they move closer and closer together, his words urging them towards one another, urging Florence to abandon her brief dream of forming a more stable romantic relationship with the kind, innocent Charles. Instead, she reaffirms her commitment to Paul's promiscuous lifestyle, briefly settling into an affair with Paul and then discarding him to move on to someone new. Lounging around the apartment with Paul, sunbathing in just her panties, Chabrol traps her between the metal bars of a railing that makes it look as though she's in prison. She's a vision of languid sexuality and sensuality, but she's in a cage.

All of these characters are. Chabrol's aesthetic is already developing into the subtly stylish, clinically observational style that characterizes his mature work, in which he examines the pretensions and follies of the bourgeoisie. His camera glides in slow, creeping circles around these characters, a predatory crawl that makes them seem hemmed in on all sides. At a key moment late in the film, when Charles is nearly overwhelmed by the conflicting pressures weighing down on him, the camera spins in a dizzy circle around his room, reflecting the ways in which his whole value system has been utterly disorientated. Despite the thematic continuity and casting overlap of Les Cousins with Chabrol's first film Le beau Serge, Les Cousins already feels like more of a proper Chabrol film. It's an unsentimental film that dissects both the freewheeling amorality of people like Paul and the working class optimism of Charles. The former squanders his bourgeoisie privilege and intelligence (he aces his exams without studying, while the harried and distracted Charles fails even after all his hard work) and the latter is unprepared for the cruel truths of a world that doesn't conform to his idealistic hopes.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Thsi was the very first Chabrol film I ever saw -- back in 1961. Incredibly vivid portrait of the left bank scene in the postwar period with a cynical cover not quite able to hide an underlying romanticism. Brialy is really incredible here. I can't think of another French actor of this period able to carry off the part of a preening showboat with a sympathetic streak just underneath.

This is inded a follow-up to Le Beau Serge and with a later Chabrol-Brialy film Les Godeleureaux form a loose trilogy.

Ed Howard said...

Good point about the mix of cynicism and romanticism, David. And Brialy really is fantastic, he's styled like a B-movie villain or a melodramatic ham, but his exaggerated bonhomie so obviously hides this yawning chasm within. His body language in the final shots is just perfect, and communicates so much without a word in the aftermath of the climax.

DavidEhrenstein said...

He's one of the great undersung actors in film history. Claire's Knee is probably his most famous role, and rightly celebrated role. But just look at these credits! He's quite teriffic in French TV move Le Hasard Fait Bein des Choses that's one of his last performances.

Sam Juliano said...

Another extraordinary review in your incomparable area of expertise, the Frecnh New Wave. I have not seen this particular Chabrol in quite a while, but I have seen it and recall its essence after this penetrating essay. It's certainly an ironic study with a powerful mise en scene, outstanding camera work by Henri Ducae and a memorable darkly humorous script that plays a reversal and undermines some rather superficial stereotypes. The evocation of the SS is unforgettable as is the portrait of student life that Chabrol paints. I recal the film's ending as it's weakest component. The two lead performances (as you and David rightly note) are tremendous and the characters themselves are fascinating.

Speaking of the French New Wave Ed, I am leaving the house in a short while with Lucille to attend a 10:00 P. M. showing of Rohmer's LE RAYON VERT (SUMMER) at the Film Forum, where it is running until Tuesday in a new print. I know you are a Rohmer master, and much appreciate this film.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, sounds like you remember this film pretty well, actually. I liked the ending a lot, though. It's a sudden turn to drama, but then it ends on a note of quiet resignation that's very haunting.

I'm sure The Green Ray was wonderful on the big screen. That's a great film!