The One about Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge”

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When discussion is brought up among cinema peers of nouvelle vague (The French New Wave), its easy to think of names such as Francois Truffau, Jean-Luc Goard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette.  Individuals, colleagues and contemporaries who each worked for Cahiers du cinema before they became filmmakers.

But there is one man that was a colleague who may have not received the prestige as his contemporaries but is respected for his contribution towards cinema with his thrillers but also years of cinema as part of his oeuvre.  The man I am talking about is Claude Chabrol.

While debated of which film kicked off the French New Wave, many regard Chabrol’s 1958 film “Le Beau Serge” (Handsome Serge) as the film that began the Nouvelle Vague. Feature films created by contemporaries of Cahiers du Cinema that went on to become filmmakers.

In fact, Francois Truffaut had given Chabrol the biggest compliment in 1958 for his directorial debut on “Le Beau Serge” saying, “Technically the film is as masterful as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with the camera.  Here is an unusual and courageous film that will raise the level of French cinema”.

If there is one thing that can be said about Chabrol, although his name is not as well known as Truffaut or Godard in America, and while “Le Beau Serge” is a long awaited release for a Chabrol film from the Criterion Collection, he still remains the most prolific filmmaker among his contemporaries who nearly has released a film every year since 1958 starting with “Le Beau Serge” and ending in 2009 with “Bellamy”, a year before Chabrol passed away.

Hauntingly beautiful.  These are the two words that I describe Claude Chabrol’s debut film “Le Beau Serge”.

An incredible feat. for the Cahiers du Cinema critic who produced, wrote and directed the film and I don’t know if I can categorize the film as a psychological drama.

The late Francois Truffaut described the film as a chess game and perhaps if you see the film in that perspective, it does make sense.  You have Francois (Brialy) who once lived in a small village now from a big city who comes back into town.  Francois is actually a nice man, non-intrusive nor does he flaunt to anyone that he is better than them because he lives in the city.

But for the villagers, it’s a preconceived notion that because he was able to move away from the village, he thinks he is better than they are.

I put myself in the shoes of Francois, also coming from a small town and having lived in the city and I know there are moments when I was younger in which I have flaunted to friends in town about the fact that the city is fun for its close proximity to shopping, beaches and as a young man, there were a lot of women.   But looking back at it now, it was so trivial, so much of commodity fetishism in boosting one’s ego of the have’s to the have nots.

But I look at the situation that is presented in “Le Beau Serge”, he doesn’t flaunt but his presence in the village, wearing his nice clothing in front of those who are barely surviving and not so happy with life but have accepted their life in the village as final.

This is where I identify with Francois because when you go back, you want to help your friends, especially those you feel have so much potential to be something bigger.  In the case of Serge, he is a man that had so many dreams, wanted to leave the village like Francois but got a young woman pregnant and found himself married and stuck in the village he desperately wanted to leave.  He has kept this burden of having his first child dead at birth but knowing that the right thing to do is stick by your wife and living life to provide for one’s family but in his case, drowning all the sorrows away through drinking heavily.

I’ve known to many people like Serge in my life who live their life as is…miserable and unhappy inside but are traditional.  While Francois had left the city and his big advice to Serge, “to leave his wife”.  It may seem quite harsh but it is logical that if a man is unhappy with his marriage, you leave.

But with Serge, he knows with a baby along the way…he can’t leave.

But it’s the return of Francois that enhances Serge’s negative and jealous emotions.  You would think that there would be an ebullient sense of emotion but with each meeting between both Francois and Serge, you feel this ominous feeling that things are not right.

We see a scene with Serge wanting to tell Francoise of why he became a drunk.  Why he lives this lifestyle.  Why he is so miserable but if Francois only solution is for Serge to leave his pregnant wife, it’s unacceptable.

And for Francois, he had forgotten how things were in his village and many who see potential within him want him to leave because he is better off than being back at home where many men do not aspire to be bigger, they just live life as is, even if its a life of effete, a lack of vitality that one can not escape.  Life is what it is…you just live it, repeat it.

And of course, Francois seeing this…he wants to make a difference.  But can he?

“Le Beau Serge” is a magnificent feat. for Claude Chabrol as his debut film.  While his future in cinema may not have been as lucrative nor historic in comparison to his other contemporaries, the fact is Chabrol is a filmmaker who did things his way, his style and he continued to create films in 1958 with “Le Beau Serge” through 2009, a year before he died.

“Le Beau Serge” is a film that is mature but perhaps is also a film that brings Claude Chabrol back to his village of Sardent and is in someway a self-discovery of his present life and his past.  The film is not autobiographical but it’s a film that Chabrol was proactive in making sure the village of Sardent, what he saw in terms of life was captured onscreen.  And of course, the cinematography is quite beautiful and it helps to have one of the best cinematographer’s in French cinema at the time, Henri Decaë.

The film also has elements of Chabrol’s life as he also wanted to become a priest at one time and help people.    The film was raw in the way that Chabrol created a film with a small cast and worked in familiar territory, his hometown with a potential of many extras alongside him.

But through its visual beauty and its complex characters but accessible storyline, “Le Beau Serge” is a film that started the Nouvelle Vague era of film critics of Cahiers du Cinema taking up the mantle of becoming filmmakers.  He inspired his contemporaries because he was able to go through his own filmmaking route and create this film with his own personal vision without having to follow any big studio or producer.  It was his film, no ifs, ands or buts.

Surprisingly, “Le Beau Serge” while adored by film critics, it was delayed to the point that when it was released in theaters, his second film “Les Cousins” would be released a month later and it was his second film that would actually become the commercial hit.

While “Le Beau Serge” doesn’t break any new ground, nor is it remembered as a non-traditional film when compared to Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless”, in 1958, it’s the fact that he was a man who had creative freedom to do what he wanted and capture the raw feel of his village onscreen with beautiful lighting and awesome performances by Brialy and Blain that make “Le Beau Serge” worth watching.

Once again, I applaud the Criterion Collection for bringing Claude Chabrol films to their collection but also giving both “Le Beau Serge” and “Les cousins” the Blu-ray treatment.  The Blu-ray release looks fantastic and the addition of the documentary of Chabrol returning back to Sardent and watching these classic interviews is priceless!

Overall, if you are a Chabrol fan, a cinema fan or brand new to cinema and want important films in your cinema collection, then “Le Beau Serge”, the first film of the French New Wave is definitely recommended!

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Dennis A. Amith