Le beau Serge

Director: Claude Chabrol
Adaptation: Claude Chabrol
Stars: Gérard Blain (Serge), Jean-Claude Brialy (François Baillou), Michèle Méritz (Yvonne), Bernadette Lafont (Marie), Claude Cerval (The priest), Jeanne Pérez (Madame Chaunier), Edmond Beauchamp (Glomaud), André Dino (Michel, the doctor), Michel Creuze (The baker), Claude Chabrol (La Truffe), Philippe de Broca (Jacques Rivette de la Chasuble)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: France
Le beau Serge Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Le beau SergeIt is often forgotten that Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge is technically the first film of the French New Wave--or at least the first feature-length film to be produced by one of the young film critics whose writings in Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s helped to reshape the parameters of French and eventually world cinema. Historically, Le beau Serge is often lost in the shadows of the more well known and revered early films such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1958) and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), both of which are more characteristically nouvelle vague in their narrative, tonal, and aesthetic rebelliousness and therefore make a more convenient starting point for the historical account.

Yet, despite its relatively low-key style and straightforward narrative, Le beau Serge bears many of the most important hallmarks of the New Wave, some of which were recognized at the time (in a laudatory review, Truffaut referred to it as a “turning point” in French cinema) even if the film itself was not given its proper due (it played out of competition at Cannes and had a hard time finding a distributor). An intimate and personally charged character study set against the backdrop of wintry provincial life in rural France, Le beau Serge was shot entirely on location in Sardent, a small village in central France where Chabrol’s mother had been born and where he had spent much of his childhood, including his early teenage years during World War II. The film’s general production approach, which included a small crew, location shooting, and a cast of mostly unknown actors and local villagers, as well as its narrative focus on ordinary characters in realistic situations reflects the influence of Italian neorealism in the mold of Vittorio de Sica, whom the Cahiers critics greatly admired. Chabrol, who was 27 years old at the time and had never made a film nor apprenticed in the industry, did not limit himself only to the neorealist palette, but instead incorporated aspects of expressionism and an obsession with the overwhelming nature of guilt, which for Chabrol was key to the films of Alfred Hitchcock (he and fellow Cahiers critic Eric Rohmer had recently published the first book-length study of Hitchcock’s films).

Like many of Chabrol’s later films, Le beau Serge is built around doubles, the primary one being the two main characters, twentysomethings François (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gérard Blain). When the story opens, François is returning to his hometown of Sardent after being away for many years living in Paris. Having suffered from what we can only surmise is tuberculosis, he is there to rest and recuperate. And, while he is received warmly, it is clear that his being away has made him somewhat alien to the longtime villagers, virtually all of whom have lived there their whole lives. Upon his return he learns that his best friend Serge, with whom he has not been in contact, has descended into an alcoholic stupor following his marriage to a local girl named Yvonne (Michèle Méritz) whose pregnancy (the catalyst for their marriage) resulted in a child with Down Syndrome who soon died. François and Serge are opposites in just about every way imaginable: While François is respectable but somewhat ordinary, a decent guy who is making his way through life, Serge is handsome and rebellious, a failed golden boy drinking his misery away.

François wants to help Serge, but like many who are in the pits of despair, Serge does not want to be helped. He is content drinking the days away with his father-in-law Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp), a bitter old man who represents Serge’s possible future self if he stays on his current course. François is also distracted by Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Yvonne’s seductive and flighty 17-year-old sister who stills lives with Glomaud, who rumor has it is not her biological father. Yvonne has already been romantically involved with Serge, so her presence always creates tension in an already fractured family dynamic. Her relationship with François only complicates things, as it raises the jealousy and ire of both Serge and Glomaud.

Shot by cinematographer Henri Decaë, who began his career with Jean-Pierre Melville and would go on to work with several other French New Wave directors, Le beau Serge is a stark, direct film that presents deeply complicated and flawed characters with a strong sense of compassion and grace. Chabrol does not soften the edges of Serge’s alcoholism or the monster it awakens inside him, as he acts abusively toward Yvonne, purposefully humiliating her in front of others, and rejects François’s earnest attempts to help him with a sense of contempt that borders on the pathological. Yet, Chabrol makes it clear that Serge is a suffering soul, and the film’s final moments offer him what could be interpreted as redemption--a second chance enabled by the creation of new life.

Cynics will say that the film’s final shot is decidedly open-ended, but the manner in which Chabrol builds to it and the overall tone of the film suggests otherwise to me. On a related side note, Le beau Serge has been described as both a Christian and an anti-Christian film: The former reading emphasizes the themes of grace and forgiveness, while the latter points to both the pathetic lives of desperation led by so many of the characters and the overt depiction of the village priest (Claude Cerval) as an ineffective presence ignored by the villagers. Given that the film was produced at a time when Chabrol was finding himself increasingly distant from Catholicism, it is probably best described as a film that embraces traditional Christian values while questioning how those values are embodied in organized religion.

In its best moments, Le beau Serge evokes a somber and deeply felt sense of shared humanity, as François tries to close the gap created between him and Serge in his absence and somehow heal the damage in his best friend’s life. It is tempting to see his actions as being driven primarily by guilt, and while that is certainly part of the mix, it is also clear that there is an overriding sense of love that compels him to keep trying even when everyone around him is telling him to leave. Jean-Claude Brialy gives François’s stubbornness a gentle quality that is easy to appreciate, even as we recognize it could lead to tragedy, just as Gérard Blain imbues Serge’s worst moments with an edge of sadness that makes him impossible to hate. At its best, Le beau Serge taps into and touches our inherent desire to see damage undone and sins redeemed. It is, at its heart, about being a better person.

Le beau Serge Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Le beau Serge is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Guy Austin
  • Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film documentary
  • Segment from a 1969 episode of L’invité du dimanche
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2011

    Appropriately, Criterion has released Le beau Serge simultaneously with Chabrol’s second film, Les cousins, both of which feature top-notch transfers (although the equipment listed in the liner notes for both the scanning and the restoring is different from what Criterion typically uses, which makes me think these transfers were outsourced or licensed). Nevertheless, the 2K 1080p transfers, both of which were made from the original camera negatives and digitally restored, look excellent. Both films boasts strong black levels, good black-and-white contrast, and a solid level of detail. Le beau Serge looks slightly better than Les cousins--just a tad sharper, which brings out the finer details and textures--but there is really little if anything to nitpick about. There is a healthy level of grain throughout the image, but very few signs of age or damage. The monaural soundtracks, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack print, are good for their age, with virtually no ambient hiss or aural artifacts to detract from the dialogue or the moments of silence.
    Having written books on modern French cinema, French movie stars, and the Claude Chabrol entry in Manchester University Press’s “French Film Directors” series, film scholar Guy Austin was an excellent choice for the screen-specific audio commentary on Le beau Serge. The Professor of French Studies at Newcastle University offers an informative and detailed study of this often neglected film, particularly as it relates to to Chabrol’s life and career and the French New Wave as a whole. Also on the disc are two archival pieces: First is Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film (2003), a 50-minute retrospective documentary by Francis Girod on the making of the film that features interviews with Chabrol and footage of actors Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont revisiting the locations in Sardent and talking with the locals who appears in the film (not surprisingly, it has changed very, very little). Second, we have a segment from a 1969 episode of the French television series L’invité du dimanche in which Chabrol revisits Sardent and talks about the film and his career. Also on the disc is a theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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