Les cousins

Les cousins
Director: Claude Chabrol
Adaptation: Claude Chabrol (dialogue by Paul Gégauff)
Stars: Gérard Blain (Charles), Jean-Claude Brialy (Paul Thomas), Juliette Mayniel (Florence), Claude Cerval (Clovis Dalbecque), Guy Decomble (Bookseller), Geneviève Cluny (Geneviève), Michèle Méritz (Yvonne), Corrado Guarducci (Italian Count Minerva), Stéphane Audran (Françoise), Paul Bisciglia (Marc), Jeanne Pérez (Cleaning lady), Françoise Vatel (Martine)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: France
Les cousins Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Les cousinsAlthough it was not intended, French New Wave director Claude Chabrol’s first two films--Le beau Serge and Les cousins--were released within weeks of each other in Paris, sometimes playing at cinemas that were only a few blocks apart, which only reinforced the notion that the films were two sides of the same coin, the same note played with different tones and much different outcomes. There was a formal symmetry between the films, as they both featured stories about diametrically opposed friends played by Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, although their roles were radically reversed, as was the spatial trajectory in each film between rural and urban life.

The connections between the two films run deeper, though, and in ways that are not readily apparent in the films themselves (which James Monaco, in his pioneering book on the French New Wave, insists must be read “in tandem”). Les cousins, while shot after Le beau Serge, was actually conceived first and technically should have been Chabrol’s debut. And for many it was his debut because Le beau Serge was not particularly well received at the box office, so for most French filmgoers the more commercially popular Les cousins was their introduction to Chabrol, who until that point had worked as a film critic writing primarily for Cahiers du cinéma and Art (he and fellow New Wave critic-turned-filmmaker Eric Rohmer had also recently published the first book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock). The credits lists for both films are similar, particularly the presence of cinematographer Henri Decaë, although one can immediately feel the influence of writer Paul Gégauff on Les Cousins. That film, which was the first of an eventual 17 collaborations between Chabrol and Gégauff, is a much harder and more cynical film than Le beau Serge, lending credence to Chabrol’s statement, “When I want cruelty, I go off and look for Gégauff.”

“Cruel” is a good word to describe Les cousins, which tells story of how a decent young man from the country comes to live in the city with his cousin to study law and is effectively destroyed by his experiences there. The earnest, naïve country cousin, Charles, is played by Gérard Blain, who played the bitter, angry alcoholic Serge in Le beau Serge, while the flamboyant, decadent city cousin, Paul Thomas, is played by Jean-Claude Brialy, who had earlier played the decent, tubercular François in the previous film. The switching of actors and roles would be a gimmick if Blain and Brialy weren’t so good; they disappear into their respective roles just as effectively here as they had in their diametrically opposed roles in Chabrol’s first film. Brialy, now sporting a perfectly trimmed goatee that looks like it might cut your finger if you touched it, embodies a kind of casual cruelty that is rooted in a deep sense of entitlement and egotism; when he seduces Florence (Juliette Mayniel), the bad-girl-trying-to-be-good on whom Charles has an unrequited crush, he acts as if he’s doing his cousin a favor. Paul’s maliciousness is inflamed by the regular presence of Clovis (Claude Cerval), an older friend whose winsome decadence and casual immorality provide a template for Charles’s life. As Charles, Blain retreats deep inside himself, immersed in the character’s introversion and relentless, yet oddly passionless, drive to prove himself. He is literally the country mouse in the big, bad city, and it is only a matter of time before he is squashed.

And that, in essence, is why Les cousins doesn’t work nearly as well as Le beau Serge, which tread on similar thematic ground, but felt more natural and lived-in--less written. Les cousins, on the other hand, is too programmed, too deterministic, and ultimately too cynical. Chabrol redeemed the despondent lives of his characters in Le beau Serge with a sense of grace and compassion that is studiously lacking in Les cousins, whose characters are fully realized, but never appealing and or particularly sympathetic. Paul certainly has his charms, but he is so explicitly associated with the fascistic impulses associated with wealthy, rightwing French students of the era (walls covered with guns, Wagner on the phonograph, the treatment of woman as disposable objects) that he becomes almost a cartoon (some critics have suggested that he is loosely based in Chabrol himself, who spent several years in Paris as a “professional” student). Similarly, Charles is so earnest and downtrodden in his doomed-to-fail pursuits (both academic and romantic) that it is hard to muster much sympathy for him, especially when he is so willing to endure humiliation by those around him (his response to Paul and Florence having suddenly decided to live together is weak to the point of being nonexistent).

It is not that Les cousins doesn’t have its moments of emotional intrigue. Quite the contrary, there are points where Chabrol dances expertly with the complicated interpersonal dynamics of friends who in no way understand each other and perhaps resent each other at a level that neither can actually admit, and the technical qualities of the film display a decided growth from Le beau Serge in terms of both technical polish and aesthetic dexterity (in his camera movements and tracking shots we can see in no uncertain terms that Chabrol was well on his way to becoming “the French Hitchcock”). Toward the end Charles starts to come alive, but it is only after his world has truly started to crash down around him, fulfilling the implied promise of destruction of the moral, but weak and the persistence of the immoral, but strong. Such a theme certainly has its place, but the manner in which Chabrol hammers it home in the final minutes is decidedly ham-handed, as it turns one of the weapons that symbolically adorned Paul’s walls into an instrument of finality. It is as if, given everything that happened during the film, someone has to die at the end for it to “mean” something.

Les cousins Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Les cousins is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioFrench PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty and excerpts from actor Jean-Claude Brialy’s memoir
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 20, 2011

    Appropriately, Criterion has released Les cousins simultaneously with Chabrol’s first film, Le beau Serge, 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.
    The supplements on this disc are a little light, consisting only of a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin, an associate professor at Monash University in Australia and co-editor with Jonathan Rosenbam of Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia . Martin is no stranger to audio commentaries, having recorded more than two-dozen of them, including several Criterion commentaries on Godard films. He is literate, well-spoken, and thoughtful, and while the first portion of the commentary weighs heavily on historical background, particularly about Chabrol’s career, he does give specific analysis to the film itself, which greatly enhanced my understanding of the film.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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