Today: July 12, 2024

Le Beau Serge

Between the years of 1968 and 1978, the French director Claude Chabrol produced a series of films that came to define his career.

Between the years of 1968 and 1978, the French director Claude Chabrol
produced a series of films that came to define his career.
Filled with foul
murders and twisted psychologies, films like This Beast Must Die, The
Unfaithful Wife
and Le Boucher skewered
middle-class morality and earned Chabrol the somewhat misleading reputation of
being the French Alfred Hitchcock.
Widely heralded as the first film of the French Nouvelle Vague, Le Beau Serge lays bear the horrors of
village life and shows why it is that some people never quite manage to escape.

The film opens with the
city-educated François (Jean-Claude Brialy) returning to the village of his childhood in
order to recover from tuberculosis. Despite an incredibly warm welcome from
childhood friends and old acquaintances alike, François
seems unable to think of anyone other than his childhood friend Serge (Gerard Blain). Once a charismatic and
ambitious young man who dreamed of becoming an architect, Serge is now little
more than a wreck who spends all of his time drunk on cheap wine and
bitterness. Appalled and captivated in equal measure, François
sets about trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the beautiful Serge
of his youth.

François begins his
investigation by placing all of the blame on Serge’s wife Yvonne (Michèle Méritz). Unwilling to even
countenance the idea that his old friend might just be a mean and low down
drunk, François concocts a sort of misogynistic
conspiracy theory in which Serge wound up trapped in a loveless marriage with a
woman too frail to bear him any live children. However, when François
finally bothers to talk to Serge and Yvonne he finds that Yvonne is the person
holding Serge together and that he absolutely loves her for it.

Duly chastised, François
sets aside his worries and begins an affair with local beauty Marie (Bernadette Lafont). Initially, Chabrol
presents Marie as a sort of male fetish object: a wide-eyed country girl who
wants nothing more from life than copious amounts of sex. However, the more
time François spends with Marie, the more he
comes to realise that her home life is just as disturbed as that of Serge.
Indeed, Marie’s father turns out to be a hopeless and aimless drunk who could
almost be an older version of Serge. Now terrified for his friend’s future, François
becomes convinced that he alone can save the village but how can you save a
village when the village itself is the problem?

Chabrol and his
director of photography Jean Rabier
imbue the village with a stark skeletal beauty that fits perfectly with the
film’s central themes. As though trapped in the midst of some perpetual winter
dawn, the streets are forever bright, forever cold and forever empty. This sense
of a corpse picked clean of hope and life is particularly evident in the
wonderful sequence where François runs around like a child at play. Tellingly,
the only time we see groups of children is when they are being frog-marched
into church or when Serge is bellowing at them to flee in a moment of drunken
lucidity. This is a dead town.

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?

Lovingly restored by
Gaumont and released in the UK by the ever-wonderful Masters of Cinema, Le Beau Serge comes with a short film by Chabrol
and half of a feature-length documentary that looks back over his entire
career. Filled with fantastic interviews with not only Chabrol but also many of
the people who worked with him at the dawn of his career, this documentary does
an absolutely brilliant job of capturing not only the excitement of being there
at the birth of the Nouvelle Vague but also what it was about Chabrol that made
him produce the films he did. A magnificent suite of extras that is entirely
appropriate to a film as important, insightful and
significant as Le Beau Serge.

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