Les Cousins – Chabrol takes the French New Wave on a descent to Hell.
Backed with money inherited by his wife, Chabrol wrote, produced and directed Le Beau Serge in 1958, a film often cited as the first New Wave feature. Shot over nine weeks in Sardent, using natural light and real locations, the film portrays a detailed picture of working class life in a bleak provincial village. Reflecting the influence of both Rossellini and Hitchcock, the film plays on the theme of “the double”, with it’s two young protagonists, Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gerard Blain), mirror opposites locked in a power struggle. Le Beau Serge was well-received, winning an award at the Locarno film festival, and a lump sum of money from the Film Aid board, which enabled Chabrol to start production on his next film before the first had been released to the public.
Les Cousins (1959) again featured actors Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, as a pair of polar opposites, in a plot that effectively reverses the action of the earlier film. This time Blain plays the outsider, a visitor from the country to Paris, who struggles to find a place in his cousin’s social set, just as Brialy found it difficult to re-enter the closed world of the village in Le Beau Serge. One film is set in the country and the other in the city. One is about the almost backward nature of the immorality of country folk, while the other is about the über sophistication of the immorality of the city folk. Le Beau Serge carries with it that subtext about knowledge and morality being intrinsically linked, and it questions that assumption. LEs Cousins turns it on its head completely. Both are very dark films, and both show a terribly vicious way to live that consumes its moral heros voraciously.
Seen together there is a complete essay right there, but at the moment I want to talk about Les Cousins and the descent into Hell that Chabrol takes us on.
The story of Les Cousins revolves around two young men who are cousins and are university students in Paris. Charles is from a small French town and has been sent by his mother to live with his cousin, Paul, who has an apartment in the big city. Although the two of them immediately get on together, they couldn’t be more different. Charles is direct, sincere, guileless, and rather naive. Paul is a sophisticated poseur, unwilling to accept any responsibility and ready to adopt whatever role might amuse him for the moment. In short, Charles is a country boy, and Paul is a cosmopolitan playboy. When it comes to studying, Charles is earnest and dedicated, while Paul is a lackadaisical hedonist. This dichotomy is emphasized every step of the way through the film, and that may sound too simple-minded and static. But there is a inner movement in the mind of the protagonist, Charles, as his innocent world view molded from traditional values is challenged by the face of corruption.
For Chabrol – like Rhomer – characterisation and the direction of the human experience is the most important path to convey his message. he is completely expressionistic. The intense focus on character and motivation can make him look cynical and separate from his characters. Where Godard and Truffaut and even Rhomer to a degree show great warmth for all their characters, Chabrol is more at a distance, but this is primarily because the narrative takes places within the hearts and souls of his characters. I don’t get that he doesn’t like them. His approach is one of a universal, and his characters are chess pieces in the game we are all watching.
To support the decent into Hell theory (which is a common one – I didn’t invent it) the film can be seen as broken down into four main sections:
1. Charles arrival into Paris and wild French youth culture
Charles (played by Gérard Blain) arrives in Paris from the countryside at the home of Paul (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) and his unappealing companion Clovis. Paul has a small goatee and looks just like the devil. Clovis looks like a ‘normal’ man, but is secretive and sinister and has the name ‘Clovis’ which has its own satanic connotations (cloven hooves is one reference I read). The apartment is the epitome of decadence,. There is too much money around, too much drink and too much luxury. there are guns mounted on the wall that Paul playfully removes and fires at people throughout the film. You can pretty much guess from the start what will happen with the guns. Charles is deeply connected to his mother, to the point that she gets jealous of his girlfriends. Paul’s father is absent, and usually has been ion Paul’s life, which he laughs off.
Then something rather sinister and troubling happens. A young woman appears at the apartment. Paul confesses to Charles that the girl used to be his lover. Sure enough the girl is pregnant, and in a disturbing scene that will be repeated later in the film, Paul and Clovis work in perfect tandem to convince the girl to have an abortion completely against her will. Clovis, a man who claims he will do ‘Jobs’ for money – meaning pretty much anything – offers to help her ‘take care of it’ and Paul hands money over to her. This makes the ‘problem go away’ and establishes paul and Clovis as completely amoral creatures with no sense of empathy for others except to manipulate in order to get what they want. Later Paul takes Charles out on the town. He takes him to a social club that centres around the four main evils of girls, booze, gambling and (VERY much a sign of the times) pinball games. As Paul opens the door, he instructs Charles that he is welcoming him into hell. While there, Charles meets a woman named Florence, a modest and beautiful girl, to whom he is immediately attracted. Of course Charles is an innocent and Florence is in a place where nice girls don’t go. But Charles thinks of none of this and decides (almost on the spot) in a rush of sentimentality, that he is going to fall in love with Florence.
2. The first party
The next day Paul throws a wild party that looks a lot like something Holly Golightly would host in her apartment. People drink like crazy and start making out everywhere. Drunks get aggressive and smash object d’art. Clovis is established as a pimp and a racist in this scene. This is an important scene because Charles stands out as so very different from everyone else that we can completely understand why Florence becomes charmed by him. But Florence is sophisticated and just listens patiently to Charles while he babbled like a school boy, believing he can recite a love poem in his head and she will hear it in her head and be able to respond. he is smitten and wants to fall in love. Paul meanwhile is putting on Wagner and trying to excite and rev everyone up. it is at the point we see Paul has a problem of some sort with Florence and Charles being interested in each other.
3. The Seduction of Florence
This is an absolutely chilling scene that is done almost perfectly. For a complete run down, shot by shot of how Chabrol is able to make this an almighty and potent scene Go here to see The Film Sufi’s excellent essay on this scene alone. I wont go into it here, but I strongly recommend you check it out.
In a very similar fashion to the way Paul and Clovis were able to convince the girl in the opening scenes to have an abortion, the two men work together to convince Florence she is not interested in Charles and that it is really Paul she wants.There is nothing but malevolence in this scene. They talk as if they are concerned that the pair are not right for each other, but if they merely wanted to protect Charles they would talk Florence out of the relationship and send her home. Instead, they convince her to stay in the apartment and make love to Paul while both men know Charles is waiting for her and she should be meeting him. Charles, of course, will come home to find that Florence and Paul have been having sex and that (bizarrely) they have decided to move in together. Which of course means Charles has to live with them as a couple. This is a profound act of cruelty Paul and Clovis inflict upon Charles and one that he simply can’t recover from. The shattering of his world is so profound, he simply won’t be able to bounce back again.
Interestingly, the seduction of Florence is about Charles even though he is not present. Charles is ‘felt’ in every moment that Clovis and Paul and seducing Florence. Clovis is stroking her skin and asking if Charles will do that for her. The men convince her she is made for sex, while Charles can only give her gifts of the mind. It is all about Charles, and he is everywhere and no where. Great great scene!
4. The second party
Charles, in order to cope with Florence and Paul acting like lovers around him all the time, decides to throw himself into his study. But he can’t ignore his feelings and he lives with the constant pain of Florence’s (and Paul’s) betrayal. Paul doesn’t study at all. Then paul takes his exam the day before Charles’ and by some miracle he passes. Charles, who has been warning him that he needs to study, is amazed. Paul throws a huge celebratory party in the apartment, that of course, interferes with Charles study. The next day, inevitably, Charles fails. And that is when he starts to see there is no coming back from how much his world has been destroyed. I wont go into the detail of the end, as there may be some readers who want to see the film.
Paul wins all through the film and Charles loses all through the film, even though Charles is the one with high principles who lives according to his own inner moral compass. But is it really his own? His attachment to his mother is a theme that never leaves the narrative. When she is not between Charles and ‘living’ he is at his desk writing to her. Charles is chained and Paul is chained, and each will find a way to destroy the other.
Throughout the film, Charles keeps reminding himself that his way – living according to the traditional values of civilization, good manners, and responsible actions – must be the right way in the long run. But his confidence and convictions are continually eroded by perpetual defeat. In the end he seems to be asking himself, “could the world be so constructed that I am bound to fail, no matter what? . . . Could the deck of cards of life be so stacked against me that I will be guaranteed to lose the game of Russian Roulette?” If so, then everything he had been taught would be worthless, and life would hold no hope. It doesn’t matter, in the end, how strong your moral code is. If it has been planted by another, then it is not your moral code.
Oh – and stay away from those pin-ball machines!
I’ll end this review with a quote from The Film Sufi:
One person full of confidence, though, was Claude Chabrol, himself. Though his aggressive mise-en-scène, he has presented the dystopic inverse of Charles’s idealistic world. Working with brilliant cameraman, Henri Decae, who was also the preferred cinematographer of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chabrol’s camera uninhibitedly moves about the room, promiscuously tracking everyone, and figuratively insinuating itself up close in order to get the best angle at every moment. Filmmakers sometimes seek an opportunity to include in their films a 360 degree camera pan, a showy effect that in the days when significant lighting stands were required, was difficult to pull off smoothly. In Les Cousins, Chabrol brashly executes this effect three times (in each of the three group get-togethers): once in Act 1, once in Act 2, and once in Act 4, the last one of which appears to be a double circle. These kinds of things are perhaps a bit overly conspicuous, but they reflect Chabrol’s emotionally expressive mise-en-scène.