FilmJuice 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.
FilmJuice have my review of Claude Chabrol’s first film Le Beau Serge, which has just been re-released by Masters of Cinema.
Le Beau Serge tells of a young man who returns to his home town in order to recuperate from an extended period of illness. Upon arriving, he becomes obsessed with a childhood friend who, despite showing real signs of intelligence and potential as a child, has now fallen into drink and bitterness. Puzzled by this unexpected fall from grace, the young man sets about trying to solve the riddle of what happened to the handsome Serge of his youth:
While much of the initial narrative energy comes from François’s attempts to solve the mystery of le beau Serge, the second half of the film increasingly comes to focus upon why it is that François is so obsessed with saving first Serge, then Marie and then the entire village. Though Chabrol offers us no easy answers, the depth of François’s guilt is such that his attempts to protect Serge and his family eventually come to seem insane and messianic. Why doesn’t François leave? Why didn’t Serge leave? Why doesn’t anyone leave a life that is manifestly killing them?
Chabrol is a director with a somewhat misleading reputation for producing thrillers. Though many of his most famous films (including Le Boucher, This Beast Must Die and La Ceremonie) include a bloody murder and a good deal of psychological tension, the truth of the matter is that Chabrol is and always was a moralist. Not in the sense of lecturing people about right and wrong but rather exploring why it is that people make certain decisions and how they come by certain strange beliefs. Unlike Chabrol’s later films, which dressed the morality up in murder and tension, Le Beau Serge strips the core of the Chabrol experience right back to the very core and asks two very salient questions: Why did Serge turn to drink? Why is Francois obsessed with saving him? A truly wonderful film by a truly wonderful director.
Interestingly, Masters of Cinema have chosen to re-release Le Beau Serge on the same day as they re-release his second film Les Cousins. As I explain in my review of that film over at FilmJuice, the two films function as a pair: Complementing each other through their many differences and juxtapositions.
Morality takes as many forms as there are cultures to manifest it. For some people, it is a question of commandments. For others it is a question of ideals. For other groups it is a question of economics, minutely calibrated cost-benefit analyses. But for all of these systems and all of these cultures, morality always boils down to a series of dichotomies : Should I do X or should I do Y? Simple binaries that make the world. Works such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) encourage us to see our relationships in similar terms. Do we want a love filled with the peaks and valleys of passion, or do we want a pleasingly mild existence, an emotional even keel?
Claude Chabrol’s 2007 film La Fille Coupee En Deux seems to attack this vision of human relations. We expect to have to make a trade-off in our personal lives, but what happens if both of our options are bad ones? Chabrol hints at an answer. An answer which, like Chabrol’s great films of the late 60s and early 70s, depends upon a viciously cynical vision of the class system that continues to corrupt French life. But is this vision perhaps too cynical for its own good?
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Chabrol is a director whose best work is done in the margins of broad moral argument. The films of his so-called ‘Golden Period’ from the late 60s to the early 70s are a series of incendiary attacks upon an upper middle class morally corrupt enough to murder for the sake of social standing. In films such as Les Noces Rouges (1973), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969) and Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) wealthy people murder their way out of bad relationships and awkward situations. They do this, more often than not, because they simply lack the imagination to solve their problems any other way. And therein lies the strength of Chabrol’s vision.
Chabrol presents the bourgeoisie as morally corrupt but also deeply tragic figures. For all of their wealth and privilege, they are trapped inside a system that forces them to care about the wrong things. For example, in Les Noces Rouges, a couple find illicit love but when they are uncovered by the woman’s husband, they are shocked to discover that he does not mind their affair. If anything, he sees it as a positive development as it will keep his wife happy and ensure her lover’s loyalty to him. Incapable of understanding his cunning rejection and manipulation of bourgeois moral codes, the lovers murder him thereby sealing their fates. Similarly, in Que La Bete Meure, a man tracks down the killer of his child only to discover that the man’s entire family want him dead. They want him dead but they lack the courage to simply leave him or to denounce his many cruelties. As cowardly and morally corrupt these characters might appear, they are also the tragic victims of a twisted social order. An order that uses money and privilege to trap them in a situation whereby the characters are forced to deny their own feelings of unhappiness and claustrophobia.
La Rupture (a.k.a. the Break-up, based upon Charlotte Armstrong’s 1968 novel The Balloon Man) is, at first glance, not Chabrol’s most subtle film. It summons up Chabrol’s typically louche and corrupt bourgeoisie but makes it appear all the more monstrous and deranged for the fact that it is attacking an almost saintly working class woman. As horrors and injustices are melodramatically heaped upon her, it seems as though there can be no excusing or forgiving such behaviour. But, once the film ends, you realise that the character responsible for all of these terrible crimes might have been different. He might have been free. La Rupture is a film about the breaking of a picaroon upon the wheel of modern capitalism.
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It was never going to be easy for Claude Chabrol to move on from his most productive period. Between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Chabrol produced a series of films that would not only secure his reputation to the present day, but also leave an indelible mark upon what comes to mind when one thinks of French cinema. Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidele (1969), Que La Bete Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), Juste Avant La Nuit (1971) and Les Noces Rouges (1973) were shot almost on top of each other with a similar cast of actors who almost came to resemble a repertory company performing only the works of Claude Chabrol. A company of actors who knew exactly what was expected of them in a series of films that positively simmered with anger and resentment at the provincial bourgeoisie who ran the country and defended the status quo while angry young men such as Chabrol climbed the barricades in the hope of creating a better world.
However, watching the films of this period, it strikes me that Chabrol and revolutionary politics were never going to be a perfect fit. Chabrol’s vision of the world is deeply morally complex. When he looks out the window he sees shades of grey rather than the stark black and white demanded by revolutionaries willing to use force to change the world. In fact, while films such as La Femme Infidele, Que La Bete Meure and Les Noces Rouges did a brilliant job of critiquing the middle classes by suggesting a world of sex, passion, drink and self-destruction beneath the mannered politeness and brass-buttons, these criticisms also humanised them. There is something almost comical and easy to empathise with about the husband in La Femme Infidele who kills his wife’s lover but never mentions it to her or the man in Que La Bete Meure who tracks down his son’s killer only to discover that the man’s entire family are hoping that someone will kill him for them. These are not the kinds of people you simply put up against a wall… these are weak, pitiful and ultimately on some level sympathetic creatures. They are victims of the system just like everyone else. Given the general timbre of Chabrol’s work during the late 60s and early 70s, Chabrol’s political history and the political climate of the French cinema scene at the time (Cahiers du Cinema was run by a Maoist collective during the mid-70s) it was clear that something had to give and the result was Nada, a satirical comedy-thriller based upon a noir novel by the influential French writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, that sees Chabrol turning his ire from the bourgeoisie to the functionaries of the state and the radical Leftists who would overthrow them.
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When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism. Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert. He is begging for ignorance. Cursing his intellectual nature. Wishing for simplicity. This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.
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It is surprising how much contemporary French cinema owes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (1944). One of Sartre’s more accessible pieces, No Exit is set in hell and features three utterly hateful and narcissistic characters slowly coming to realise that the ultimate torment is not only to be stuck in an unhappy relationship but to be stuck in that relationship because one lacks the ability to either leave it or change it for the better. The worst hells imaginable, suggests Sartre, are the ones that we create for ourselves out of our failings and cowardice. Since the New Wave, French cinema has been dominated by what is sometimes called the “film d’appartement”, a film that is character driven and relationship-focused and which draws its drama from putting a bunch of people into a closed space and allowing them to work out their problems. Claude Chabrol is no enemy to the ‘Film d’Appartement’ sub-genre. In fact, you could say that he is one of the masters of the form. His mastery comes from his willingness to not only put incredibly strange characters into his apartment, but also to allow his relationships to work themselves out naturally, regardless of how bizarre or brutal the eventual denouement. Wedding in Blood is an excellent example of Chabrol’s approach to script-writing as it is not only funny and fascinating, but also merciless in its desire to turn a cinematic social experiment into a work of satire.
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