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The beginning of the French New Wave.
Facts of the Case
Francois Baillou (Jean-Claude Brialy, The Bride Wore Black) is a young man who has returned to his hometown after many years. He's suffered from TB in recent years, and decided to travel back to his simple, rural childhood home for some R&R. Francois is particularly excited about getting to meet up with his old pal Serge (Gerard Blain, Hatari), whom he remembers fondly and seems to care for a great deal. However, Serge isn't exactly in great shape these days: he's a surly, moody alcoholic who spends much of the time despairing over the fact that he's going to be a father soon. Francois attempts to intervene and find ways to make Serge's life better, but soon discovers that the problem is a deep-rooted one which extends through the entire town.
It was Jean-Luc Godard who said that, "the way to criticize a movie is to make another movie." A bold statement, but that's precisely what Godard and numerous other Cahiers de Cinema writers did. Many have suggested that the French New Wave was officially launched by critic-turned-filmmaker Claude Chabrol, whose film Le Beau Serge heralded the arrival of a flood of exciting, ambitious, groundbreaking new films. They were movies madly in love with movies; films which felt fresh yet which were steeped in the history of the genre. There's no question that Le Beau Serge is an important landmark, but it's certainly not one of the most critically-lauded films of the French New Wave. Is it a worthwhile endeavor, or simply a rough debut which just so happened to stumble across the finish line before some other significant efforts?
Fortunately, Le Beau Serge proves quite worthwhile, even if it doesn't quite stand up to the very best of Chabrol's work. The director claims to have been largely inspired by Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, which told the story of a sinister outsider coming into town and ingratiating himself with members of the community. Chabrol's freshman flick offers an inverted variation on that idea, in which a kind, good-hearted outsider comes into town and soon discovers that the entire community he's attempting to ingratiate himself with is rather sinister.
As the film proceeds, Chabrol peels back the layers of the town and reveals the toxic side effects of poverty and boredom. The people who live there have slowly begun to accept intense despair as part of everyday life; somehow permitting ugly barbarism to be classified as little more than bad manners. Sure, rape isn't exactly encouraged, but it's treated with the same casual head-shaking that might be offered when two schoolboys get into a scuffle during recess. Even a rape victim doesn't think much of the event; allowing her anguish to dissolve at an alarming speed. The villain of the film is a firmly-established mindset; it can't simply be punched in the face or foiled by some masterful trick. "Why don't you just leave?" Francois is told repeatedly. His healthy, sensible perspective on life causes the locals to view him as a little more than a misguided troublemaker.
The manner in which Chabrol ennobles Francois is curious and unexpected, as the story wanders down a refreshingly unconventional path. We've seen plenty of tales in which an audience surrogate wanders into unfamiliar territory and ends up learning a few valuable life lessons from the "simpler" people of the foreign society (think Dances With Wolves or, um, Avatar). However, Le Beau Serge runs closer to the innumerable horror movie variations on this idea, in which an audience surrogate finds himself way out of his element in terrifying fashion (think Straw Dogs or The Wicker Man). What's fascinating is that Francois isn't merely interested in self-preservation, but in making some kind of positive change (no matter how futile that endeavor may be). "Who do you think you are, Jesus Christ?" a priest asks him. Indeed, Francois's efforts are similarly noble; he will make this fractured town a better place (no matter to how small a degree) at any cost. For a film so drenched in thoughtful cynicism, the ending is defiantly major-key.
Chabrol's direction is crisp and naturalistic; the director demonstrates assured control of the medium and never indicates that it's his first time behind a camera. He draws fine performances from his cast, with Blain making the biggest impression as the moody Serge. Blain plays the role like James Dean with a stomach bug; the attractive "bad boy" demeanor constantly undercut by the manner in which Blain brings the character's inner sickness to the foreground. It's a terrific dissection of a then-popular archetype; perhaps the strongest piece of film criticism Chabrol offers in his effort. Brialy is a solid, appealing lead, though he's primarily tasked with looking terribly concerned about everything going on around him. Bernadette Lafont (The Mother and the Whore) also does strong work as a young woman named Marie, who so quickly allows mild interest to transform into sensuous desire.
Le Beau Serge arrives on Blu-ray sporting an attractive 1080p/1.33:1 transfer. For a relatively low-budget film from the late 1950s, the picture looks fantastic, completely free of scratches and flecks. The level of detail is quite impressive throughout; you can see every bit of stubble on Serge's face and every little pebble on the country paths Francois walks. Bright scenes look fantastic while darker scenes benefit from solid black levels. Audio is strong enough, though there's not a whole lot going on in that department. The score sounds robust and the dialogue is clean despite a few sequences which sound a shade distant (not really a problem for English-speaking folks reading subtitles). Sound design is minimal, but well-captured. Supplements include a tremendous audio commentary courtesy of Chabrol scholar Guy Austin, a 2003 documentary on the director's life entitled "Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film" (51 minutes), an archival interview with the director from 1969 (10 minutes), a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Terrence Rafferty.
Those with an interest in the French New Wave owe it to themselves to check out Le Beau Serge, an involving directorial debut which announced Chabrol as a director to be reckoned with. Criterion's Blu-ray release presents the film with a strong transfer and high-quality supplements.
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