In many ways, the Nouvelle Vague began with Claude Chabrol. Not only was he instrumental in assisting his Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues’ early productions, and his own Le beau serge (1958) the first full-length film by the magazine’s “Young Turks”1 to be released, but his follow-up work, Les cousins (1959), was also the movement’s second feature, premiering only a couple of months before Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959) and a full year before À bout de soufflé (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). Already, in this second feature, the signs of what was to follow from Chabrol and the French New Wave were evident: the film won the Golden Bear at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival and, directly and indirectly, helped usher in a tide of new cinema.
Shot by Henri Decaë, who also served as director of photography for Le beau serge, Les cousins’ camerawork provides a key link to the emerging movement. Decaë, a favourite of New Wave progenitor Jean-Pierre Melville, shot films for many directors of the era, including Louis Malle (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows, 1958] and Les amants [The Lovers, 1958]), (Les Amants), Roger Vadim (La ronde ) and Truffaut (The 400 Blows). Les cousins’ cinematography, reminiscent of Decaë’s work on Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956) in its handheld style, minimal lighting and real locations, would become characteristic of the burgeoning movement. Chabrol’s film also shares that film’s cynical tone, established from its opening titles, rolling over a neon-lit district in Paris.
Like Le beau serge, Les cousins also stars Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain; but where, in the earlier film, Brialy played a meek city slicker and Blain an alcoholic ruffian, here, Brialy is Paul, a playboy par excellence visited by reserved country boy Charles (Blain). But they are not merely swapping roles; rather, Paul and Charles are a representation of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s key themes, the ‘double’ motif, in that they’re complete, polar opposites. Charles feels guilty when gifted books by a shopkeeper (Guy Decomble), and when he buries himself in his work yet fails; he’s isolated, virginal and moralistic. He confesses to Florence (Juliette Mayniel) his inner feelings. When Florence later gives herself to him, he can’t take her up. Hedonistic enfant terrible Paul, on the other hand, is amorous, doesn’t study, washes his hands of his own abortion, has a large group around him, passes his exams and plucks Florence from Charles effortlessly.
Chabrol had already co-written a book with colleague Éric Rohmer on Hitchcock in 1957, and his later fondness for Hitchcockian themes in his own work is already apparent in Les cousins. The sexual jealousy in Paul and Charles’ fatal triangle with Florence mirrors the envy and revenge fuelling the triangle between devious Ronald (Brialy), unassuming Arthur (Charles Belmont) and their shared romantic interest Ambroisine (Le beau serge’s Bernadette Lafont) in his Les godelureaux (Wise Guys, Chabrol 1961); while Chabrol would again return to similar ideas of murder and carnal desire in L’oeil du malin (The Third Lover, 1962), casting Stéphane Audran as a conflicted, bored housewife caught between a young, infatuated journalist, Albin (Jacques Charrier), and her husband, Andreas (Walther Reyer). In Les cousins’ experimental fable of moral ambiguity, tainted with irony and death, one can see Chabrol developing his fascination with emotionally crippled characters caught up in murder – no wonder that he would soon be dubbed “The French Hitchcock.”
However, far from being in thrall to the Master of Suspense, Chabrol discovered his voice through the self-consciousness and subversion of convention and genre that were key to the Nouvelle Vague. As he wrote, tellingly, as a prelude to his review of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954),
“I do not want to concentrate on an element that is all too clear already: the culpability of the central character, a voyeur in the worst sense of the word. Rather I want to engage in drawing out certain elements that are less obvious, but even more interesting.”2
The proof is here. Far from a conventional thriller, Les cousins slowly rises and charges on the underlying contrast between the grotesque Paul and the angelic Charles, the film seeking out “the most disturbing undertones in apparently ordinary, nothing-much-happening scenes,” as film scholar Terrence Rafferty has noted.3 Charles lets Paul take Florence. He pretends not to care. He studies. But the compositions become more claustrophobic; the gatherings, louder, smokier, more hellacious. Yet the inversely ebullient pans of the apartment, the lack of conflict and Paul’s ostentation build up the chasm, and accelerates Charles’ implosion further. Like the shot of Florence behind bars, Charles is locked in Paul’s torturous world. Chabrol, preferring small stories that he could build on over “big subjects,”4 showcases here the slow-burn, anxious progression that would become his stock-in-trade.
“I’m as happy as a bird in a cage,” Charles says, a bon mot that sets up the inevitable conclusion, in which the younger, inert cousin – a prototype of the Chabrolian naïf found in many future efforts – utilises the gun introduced in Act 1 in an attempt to finally redress his grievances. It is here that Charles, the film and its director find their true nature – not in the “threadbare and lacklustre” conventions that Chabrol and his generation had vehemently critiqued,5 but in a deliberate, subversive, cynically subterranean character study that slowly reveals its intentions, its morality, its bitter, final irony, in the tradition of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939).
Les Cousins sold six times as many tickets as Le beau serge. The 400 Blows would open in Paris two months later. Chabrol would produce Rohmer’s feature debut, Le signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962), and co-produce Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961). Other groundbreaking works such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Georges Franju’s La tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall) would open the same year as Les cousins. The tide had turned.
Alexandre Astruc portended Chabrol and his generation’s attitude to filmmaking as one of the “camera-stylo” – or “camera-pen” – representing “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel.”6 In Les cousins, it is an approach one could see beginning in Chabrol’s work – it’s the film in which Chabrol slowly learnt his obsessions.
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Les cousins (1959 France 112 mins)
Prod Co: Ajym Films, Société Française du Cinéma pour la Jeunesse Prod: Claude Chabrol, Roland Nonin Dir: Claude Chabrol Scr: Paul Gégauff, Claude Chabrol Phot: Henri Decaë Ed: Jacques Gaillard Prod Des: Bernard Evein, Jacques Saulnier Ass Dir: Philippe de Broca Mus: Paul Misraki
Cast: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Juliette Mayniel, Guy Decomble, Geneviève Cluny, Michèle Méritz, Stéphane Audran
- As described by film critic and Cahiers du Cinéma co-founder André Bazin. ↩
- Claude Chabrol, “Les Choses sérieuses,” Cahiers du Cinéma 46 (April 1955), reprinted and translated in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s – Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, Jim Hillier, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 136. ↩
- Terrence Rafferty, “Les cousins: The Nature of the Beast,” The Criterion Collection, 19 September 2011, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1989-les-cousins-the-nature-of-the-beast ↩
- See Claude Chabrol, “Les petits sujets,” Cahiers du Cinéma 100 (October 1959), reprinted and translated in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, Peter John Graham, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 73. ↩
- See Claude Chabrol, “Evolution du film policier,” Cahiers du Cinéma 54 (Christmas 1955), reprinted and translated in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, op. cit., p. 163. ↩
- Alexandre Astruc, “Du Stylo à la caméra et de la caméra au stylo,” L’Écran française, 30 March 1948, translated and reprinted in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, op. cit., p. 17, available at http://www.newwavefilm.com/about/camera-stylo-astruc.shtml ↩