Le beau Serge: Homecomings

On Film / Essays — Sep 19, 2011

When Claude Chabrol’s first film, Le beau Serge, had its premiere at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival (out of competition), a fellow critic at Cahiers du cinéma, François Truffaut, wrote: “Technically, the film is as masterly as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with a camera.” The critical discourse of Cahiers, as practiced by Truffaut, Chabrol, and their colleagues, who included Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, tended toward hyperbole, but in this instance, Truffaut may actually have understated the case. Le beau Serge, completed when Chabrol was just twenty-seven, has the look and the temperament of a film made by someone twenty, even thirty years his senior. It’s a movie about the young by a director with a precociously old head.

Youth was, of course, the great subject of the filmmaking movement that came to be known as the nouvelle vague. After Le beau Serge came Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in 1959, Godard’s Breathless in 1960, Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us and Jacques Demy’s Lola in 1961, and many more, by those directors and others, in that initial exhilarating rush of cinematic freedom, when young French filmmakers seemed to be falling over one another in their haste to get their personal visions onto the screen. Before Chabrol’s movie, a few of the younger directors had made short films, and way back in 1954, Agnès Varda had managed to complete a feature, La Pointe Courte, that in many ways anticipated the aesthetic of the nouvelle vague. But the revolution began with Le beau Serge. In retrospect, it seems an unlikely film to have inaugurated this exuberant French New Wave. The tone of the movie is somber, earnest, contemplative; the action takes place in a gray provincial village in the Creuse region of central France; the spirits of the characters are, in general, distinctly on the low side; and Chabrol’s direction, while noticeably freer than that of the commercial French cinema of the time, is thoughtful and rather serene, with little of the ebullient spontaneity that marked The 400 Blows, which opened in Paris just a few months later. For the convenience of film history, Truffaut’s movie should probably have been the first nouvelle vague feature; The 400 Blows defined the movement in the public mind. But Le beau Serge holds forever the honor of having initiated it. History is rarely tidy, and life itself, as Chabrol demonstrates in this film, and in the fifty-plus others he directed over his long career, is never arranged for our convenience.

The main characters are a pair of twentysomething friends, François (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gérard Blain), who at the time the story begins haven’t seen each other for a while. François, who lived in the village as a boy, has returned there for what he thinks will be a spell of rest and quiet; he’s trying to recover from a serious illness (probably tuberculosis). Serge, who never left, is married, alcoholic, and fearsomely bitter about his unchanging life; he looks to the future and, even with the soft-focus blur that wine creates, can see no prospect of anything better, nothing but the dull provincial world he’s always known. His persistent, unshakable sense of defeat makes him a world-class self-pitier and a very mean drunk—the kind who tries to push everyone away, especially his long-suffering, pregnant wife (Michèle Méritz). François, poor soul, takes it upon himself to change his old friend’s life.

The story is simple and classically constructed, with strong religious overtones. (It comes as no surprise that François once thought of becoming a priest.) That simplicity was, in fact, the primary reason Chabrol chose to direct Le beau Serge as his first film, rather than another, more elaborate screenplay he had written at the same time, called Les cousins. He had a bit of luck in the form of an inheritance from his wife’s family, which allowed him to form a modest production company, AJYM Films; its first production, Le coup du berger (1956), was a short film directed by Rivette, from a script cowritten by Chabrol. When it came to making his own debut feature, Chabrol took his small cast and crew to Sardent, a town where he had lived during the occupation: familiar territory, no sets to build, and plenty of potential extras who wouldn’t need to be coached to look and sound as if they belonged there. And the fact that the film was a homecoming of sorts for the director as well as for his point-of-view character, François, gives the whole enterprise the kind of personal resonance that the Cahiers critics prized.

It was, after all, the studied impersonality of the work of France’s established filmmakers—the so-called Tradition of Quality—that generated the scorn of Chabrol and his fellow revolutionaries, and their resolve to find another way. The story of Le beau Serge is one that could perhaps have been filmed by an old-school director like Jean Delannoy or René Clément, or even the much-reviled Claude Autant-Lara. But any of those filmmakers would have required bigger stars than Brialy and Blain, some buffing up of production values to render the provincial setting more conventionally picturesque, and probably a stronger romance than the rather desultory fling enjoyed by François and Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Serge’s fickle sister-in-law. And that wouldn’t have been Le beau Serge at all. In a way, maybe it’s fortunate that the first true New Wave film was a relatively traditional sort of French movie story, because unlike The 400 Blows and Breathless—films whose subject matter feels inseparable from their jaunty, youthful style—Le beau Serge is a picture that can be imagined otherwise, as a far more conventional, and much less affecting, work. Somehow, the profound differences between the Tradition of Quality manner and Chabrol’s approach to his material seem especially striking from this perspective: if the principles of the nouvelle vague could transform this rural drama so decisively, then they were capable of anything.

The big difference—so often the case in movie history—is the light. Chabrol hired a cinematographer, Henri Decaë, who had shown in his work for Jean-Pierre Melville (particularly 1956’s Bob le flambeur) that he knew how to capture natural light, in nonstudio settings. Everything that happens in Le beau Serge, indoors and out, happens in the real town of Sardent, and Chabrol, who had spent a good chunk of his boyhood there, wanted those familiar streets and rooms and country lanes to look as they did in life—as they had looked to him. The light in this movie is soft but clear, romanticizing nothing yet revealing, as studio lighting rarely does, the subtle contours and textures of things, both the ravages and the beauties of age in a very old place. And this expressive light has an important dramatic function in the story because a large part of what Le beau Serge is about is its young characters’ awareness of their own mortality: in a village like Sardent, the inevitability of aging and decline is all around you, seeping into your bones like a damp chill. The way the light looks in this movie, the viewer feels the chill too.

Chabrol, as if to reinforce that uneasy feeling, allows his camera to linger sometimes on objects and people that aren’t really essential to the story he’s telling, in particular the pointless games of children in the streets—streets that are otherwise, for the most part, eerily empty. The presence of these kids seems casual at first, just a bit of documentary realism, but as the film progresses, these scenes resonate more and more strongly. We begin to see the mostly anonymous children as reminders to the older characters of their lost youth, of a time when they didn’t know or care what was in store for them. The slow, almost subliminal accretion of apparently insignificant realistic detail would become an important element of New Wave style, a way to create meaning organically, without recourse to literary or theatrical devices. The performances work like that too. Brialy, Blain, Lafont, and the other professional actors in Le beau Serge are low-key, unhistrionic, often seeming to be doing almost nothing, until at a certain point, you realize that you’ve come to know these people very, very well.

A filmmaker can’t operate that way without, for lack of a better term, faith in his medium. The Cahiers du cinéma critics, who became the nouvelle vague, shared a nearly religious belief in the power of cinema, a sense that the act of pointing the camera at something, anything, was to transform that thing—to ennoble it with the intensity of one’s attention. Whether you agree with that lofty view or not, it’s indisputable that these filmmakers, beginning with Claude Chabrol, practiced what they preached, and beyond argument, too, that they changed how movies were made, not only in France but around the world. It would be convenient to be able to say that Le beau Serge created a sensation when it opened, but it did not. The film, after a delayed release, did middlingly well at the box office, recouping its (extremely low) costs. The Tradition of Quality would not be vanquished overnight. Chabrol’s second film, Les cousins (1959)—also starring Brialy and Blain—opened in Paris just a month later, and was a solid commercial hit, though, and not long after that, The 400 Blows made the movie world take notice that something new was happening on French screens. Le beau Serge was not a storming of the Bastille sort of event; Chabrol was not, and never would be, that kind of filmmaker. For the next half century, the scale of his movies remained, for the most part, small, and he never shied away from established forms—especially the thriller genre, of which he became a master. In his debut film, he did what he would always do best, observing the aging world and the people in it and trying, by example, to encourage us to pay more attention—to see as he did. The nouvelle vague’s first feature is no manifesto, but it embodies the movement’s spirit as fully as any film of its time. It’s a quiet but unmistakable call to arms.