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REVIEW – Les Cousins (1959)

April 10, 2013

LesCousinsFilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s second film Les Cousins, which has just been re-released by the ever-excellent Masters of Cinema.

Les Cousins tells of a young man who moves to the city in order to study law. Sharing his uncle’s place with his far more sophisticated and extroverted cousin, the young man finds himself being sucked into his cousin’s glamorous lifestyle filled with parties, girls and dubious European noblemen. Initially, this relationship works quite well as the cousin likes to be the centre of attention and the young man’s inexperience makes him feel like an older brother and a community leader. However, when the young man attempts to become romantically involved with a young lady in his cousin’s entourage, the cousin takes umbrage and decides to assert his supremacy. Disgusted both with his cousin’s behaviour and his own loss of focus, the young man throws himself into his studies but this only provokes his cousin into more frequent and louder parties:

Things come to ahead when Charles is trying to study for his finals but Paul keeps having loud parties. Charles pleads with his cousin to do some revision but Paul’s confidence is absolute… he knows what he is doing and revision is an absolute waste of time. As with Le Beau Serge, Chabrol presents the tension between the two boys as being social and psychological in nature but in truth their disagreement is a moral one: Charles writes endless letters home to his mother promising that he will succeed in his studies and suggesting that his desire to work is born of a sense of duty to do right by his parents. By not only refusing to study but also making it harder for Charles to study, Paul is challenging the moral order of Charles’s universe. In Charles’s mind, Paul is doomed to failure because the universe does not reward provocative layabouts. This means that when Paul does pass his exams with flying colours, Charles is forced to examine not only his faith in the moral nature of the universe but also his conviction that his duty to his parents obliged him to study: What if the best way to succeed really was to wear a smart suit and hang-out with dubious Italian aristocrats?

I mention Le Beau Serge as Les Cousins can be read as a response to that earlier film. Where Le Beau Serge is rural, Les Cousins is urban. Where Le Beau Serge is about a town-mouse visiting a familiar countryside, Les Cousins is about a country-mouse visiting an alien city. Where Le Beau Serge is about taking responsibility for the actions of another, Les Cousins is about remaining true to yourself.

Somewhat handily, Masters of Cinema have decided to time their re-release of Les Cousins with a parallel re-release of Le Beau Serge (that I also reviewed for FilmJuice). While both films work beautifully on their own, many of their subtleties only become apparent when viewed one after the other.

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