Les Cousins (1959)
French filmmaker Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) made his directorial debut with Le beau Serge (1958), one of the first films (some say the first) of the groundbreaking Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), a very loose film "movement" begun by former critics Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others. For his sophomore effort, he once again used the earlier film's stars Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, and Michèle Méritz in what has been described as a "sly moral fable" about a naïve young man from the provinces who comes to live with his more worldly decadent cousin in the city. What Chabrol crafts out of this set-up is a darkly humorous character study that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
The director intended to make this film his debut, but Le beau Serge, about a city man finding himself out of his element while visiting his small-town friend, proved to be the less expensive to undertake, so he started that project first completely outside the established French film system using money his wife had inherited. He was finally able to get funding to complete the first film on condition he begin a new project immediately after. As a result, even before Le beau Serge had been exhibited, he began production on Les cousins less than two months later. Essentially, he was using the same pot of money to complete both, with much the same cast and crew and similar themes. Even the two male leading roles were closely related, although Brialy and Blain would switch their basic characters for each story. Each movie stands perfectly well on its own, but a fascinating study can be made by watching them as companion pieces.
Le beau Serge won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo award and made a major mark as a new type of cinema. This follow-up project was even more successful, scoring big at the box office, especially among younger audiences who saw it as one of the year's hippest and most engaging releases. Opening in Paris three months before Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows (1959), Les cousins was the New Wave's first hit, selling six times the tickets of Chabrol's first film.
The film was also well received by critics. Godard, in his paradoxical way, called it "a deeply hollow and therefore profound film," and even the venerable, often stodgy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who initially found it to be "another morbid picture of the younger generation in France," had to admit it was "overwhelming" and "beautifully played."
With the two pictures, Chabrol assembled a team that would prove to have a remarkable track record. His second wife and later frequent muse Stéphane Audran plays a supporting role here. The editor of both first films, Jacques Gaillard, stayed with Chabrol through the mid 70s. Cinematographer Henri Decaë shot both and worked with Chabrol three more times. Along with Raoul Coutard, Decaë would become the director of photography most associated with the great French films of the 1950s and later, working with such notable directors of the period as Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le flambeur, 1956; Le samouraï, 1967), Louis Malle (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958), René Clément (Purple Noon, 1960), and Truffaut (The 400 Blows). The camera operator on this film, Jean Rabier, later replaced Decaë as Chabrol's regular cinematographer, working with the director on many major films through Madame Bovary (1991).
This is the first time Chabrol worked with Paul Gégauff, a notorious figure in French cinema, as widely slammed for his cynical, right-wing provocations as he was praised for his witty, razor-sharp dialogue. Gégauff proved to be a valuable partner in Chabrol's identification with Hitchcock; the writer had great skill in finding the dark underside of seemingly ordinary situations and creating a sense of dread and menace in scenes that were fairly innocuous on the surface.
Chabrol's success with his first two releases didn't last. His next several pictures bombed and by the mid 60s he would find himself reduced to hack work on spy stories. He regained his footing in the 1970s, making many types of films over the course of his career right up to his death in 2010 but best remembered for what writer Terrence Rafferty calls "a chilly, ironic, slow-building story of violent death in respectable bourgeois settings." In other words, something like Les cousins. Watch it, then, for its considerable value in its own right, but it's also a must-see for any enthusiast of French cinema and the Nouvelle Vague in particular, a place where, along with Le beau Serge, many great collaborations and careers began and a significant artistic point of view was established.
Director: Claude Chabrol
Producer: Claude Chabrol
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol (scenario), Paul Gégauff (dialogue)
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Editing: Jacques Gaillard
Production Design: Bernard Evein, Jacques Saulnier
Original Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Gérard Blain (Charles), Jean-Claude Brialy (Paul), Juliette Mayniel (Florence), Guy Decomble (Le libraire), Michèle Méritz (Yvonne), Stéphane Audran (Françoise)
By Rob Nixon