Criterion // 1959 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // September 29th, 2011
"A city rat did once invite a country rat in a manner most civil..."
Long a fixture on cinephile wish lists, Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins gets the Champagne treatment with a Special Edition Blu-ray release. Hold onto your bon bons, mes copains; Criterion is raising the curtain!
Cousins Charles and Paul Thomas are all set to study law together at University, while sharing their Uncle Henri's lavish penthouse apartment in an exclusive Paris suburb. The pair is a study in contrasts; Provincial Charles is seeing the city of light for the first time, goggle-eyed with wonder from the moment of his arrival. Writing a letter home that night, he gushes: "Paris is a marvelous town, and Paul seems right at home, like a fish in water."
These are prescient words, indeed, as Charles (and by extension, viewing audiences along with him) will increasingly come to suspect that this suave, almost messianic cousin of his is, if not amphibian, then at least too cold-blooded to qualify as human.
A study in contrasts? More like a bloody thesis in contrasts!
In fact, French New Wave cinema pioneer Chabrol has, with his second feature, done a complete 180 from his first, Le Beau Serge, wherein city dweller Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy, Claire's Knee) returns to his hometown in the provinces, seeking to reconnect with childhood pal Serge (Gérard Blain, The American Friend).
Continuing the theme of the old switcheroo, Chabrol employs the same actors in opposite capacities for Les Cousins, with Blain inhabiting the skin of rural transplant Charles, while Brialy suits up as the impeccably-tailored Paul, a foppish metropolitan with an otherworldly charm that ensures him an ever-present retinue of beautiful party people, ready to dance whenever and wherever he calls the tune.
Though their relationship seems loving and amiable, and their familial resemblance so apparently obvious, that Charles is compelled at one point to explain that he and Paul are "cousins, not twins." The two are polar opposites in temperament. Charles is the dewy-eyed romantic who composes love poems so intimate he cannot read them aloud, but only share them telepathically. Paul remains equally unruffled after seeing the damage revelers have wrought upon his living quarters and the parade of lovers who come and go like the date on each day's newspaper. In both cases, they are the by-product of a complete lack of feeling.
This thorough examination (and exploitation) of contrasts certainly owes a great deal to the pairing of the film's co-scripters, notoriously right-wing Paul Gégauff (Pleasure Party) and Chabrol, who once famously admitted to interviewer Roger Ebert..."I am a Communist, certainly, but that doesn't mean I have to make films about the wheat harvest."
In complete contrast to...well, contrast, is the consistency of quality in the audio and visual of Criterion's masterful restoration job. Though shot full-frame (1.33:1) in black and white, this presentation of Les Cousins beautifully renders the complex story's full palate of emotional hues and Cineramic ambitions (aspect ratio be damned, this film is anything but small, and bears repeated viewing).
Technophiles take note that, according to the accompanying booklet: "This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original camera negative," and "The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
Extras include the theatrical trailer and two satisfying essays, including the particularly illuminating "Brialy on Blain," actually an excerpt from Brialy's memoir, translated exclusively for this release by Nicholas Elliott.
There is also a "Timeline" feature, which can be manipulated through the menu or by pressing the red button of your remote. Additionally, the green and blue buttons of the remote allow for bookmarking and un-bookmarking. Once activated, "The Timeline" allows the viewer to track the progress of the film by time elapsed and chapters, while simultaneously providing index markers for an audio commentary track supplied by Australian film critic and historian Adrian Martin.
While this commentary track is undoubtedly considered "the biggie" of all extras featured here, I found it to be the package's biggest disappointment. Martin's credentials are inscrutable and he certainly knows his Chabrol, but rather than dealing with the film at hand, the essayist presents an overview of the filmmaker's entire career, which proves quite distracting with the film playing behind it (subtitled, no less!) Less definitely would have been more here, with a detailed concentration on Les Cousins a more logical choice.
What's more, Martin's forte (at least as demonstrated on this disc) is not spoken word. Though his text is informative, his vocal delivery is heavily clogged with "er" and "umm" punctuations, and furthermore, the critic is constantly bringing up points, only to promise "I'll be speaking more about that later." Well, what about NOW, Adrian?!
Unfortunately, this obviously well-intentioned feature only serves to demonstrate the difference between "bonus" and "extra" features. Although, in fairness, I wouldn't argue that much valuable information may be gleaned from said commentary, if one attempts to absorb it with eyes closed.
There are two things you need to know about Criterion releases: They're tops, and they don't stay on the market long. As for Les Cousins, get this masterpiece while it's still available at list price.
Review content copyright © 2011 P.S. Colbert; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated