While Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge is widely agreed to be the first film of the French Nouvelle Vague, his follow-up film Les Cousins provided the Nouvelle Vague with its first real commercial hit. Released only a few months after Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins feels like a calculated response and perversion of its predecessor: Where Le Beau Serge is about a town mouse visiting the country, Les Cousins is about a country mouse visiting the city. Where Le Beau Serge is heavy and cold, Les Cousins is light and hot. Where Le Beau Serge is about one man trying to save another, Les Cousins is about a young man trying to remain pure. While this list of thematic similarities means that Les Cousins is best experienced immediately after watching Le Beau Serge, this film remains powerful and compelling even when you haven’t seen its companion.
Charles (Gerard Blain) arrives in Paris only to discover that his fellow student and cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) has made himself at home in their uncle’sbachelor pad. Now completely adapted to life in the big city, Paul has reinvented himself as a sort of patrician party animal who somehow manages to place himself at the absolute centre of any social situation. Initially quite happy to rely upon Paul’s greater sophistication and social skills, Charles soon comes to realise that Paul is nothing more than an insufferably boring narcissist who will stop at absolutely nothing to keep the party going.
Tensions begin to form when Charles takes a shine to Florence (Juliette Mayniel), one of the many attractive young women who have found themselves pulled into Paul’s hideous orbit. Despite having at least one girlfriend at the time, Paul reacts to Charles and Florence’s flirtations with an eruption of mean-spirited jealousy that prompts him to deliver a terrible speech to Florence about how Charles just wants to settle down and fall in love and that such things are utterly beneath her. Taken in by his honeyed words and forceful demeanour, Florence leaps into bed with Paul only to find herself serving as the cousins’ cook and bottle-washer: The exact submissive state that Paul used to frighten Florence away from Charles. Horrified and ashamed by his cousin’s actions, Charles throws himself into his studies but this only seems to make Paul worse.
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?
Chabrol and his cinematographer Henri Decaë lend Les Cousins’ Parisian settings a dark and claustrophobic feel. When we first visit Paul’s apartment, it appears to have no windows but by the end Charles finds himself unable to work because he can see Paul and Florence frolicking through the walls. The party sequences are filled with the same sinister drunken energy as the house party in Jean Renoir’s classic La Regle du Jeu, a film that suggested links between the French aristocracy and fascism that Chabrol renews as part of his portrait of Paul.
Beautifully restored, this Masters of Cinema edition comes with a short film by Chabrol as well as the second half of the feature-length documentary that was included as part of the MOC re-release of Le Beau Serge. On one level, this type of thing is a little bit cheeky but having watched Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins back to back, it is perhaps unfortunate that the decision was made not to release them as a single two-film collection. Doubtless there is sound economic logic to explain why this did not happen but fans of Chabrol should definitely pick up both films as they complement each other in a way that series of films almost never do.
Despite being a director whose critical heyday was in the late 1960s, Claude Chabrol is actually quite well supported in this country as the four separate collections of his films testify. This means that people interested in getting to grips with Chabrol’s career now have a number of different paths. For example, people who begin with Arrow’s excellent two-volumeThe Claude Chabrol Collection will discover a mean and angry director who used elements of the thriller to critique bourgeois society. People who begin with Artificial Eye’s rather more hit-and-miss two-volume The Essential Claude Chabrol will find a director struggling to find new ways to represent the oddness of the human psyche. Now that Masters of Cinema have re-released le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, aspiring Chabrol fans will discover a perverse psychological moralist, which is precisely what he was all along.