Le Beau Serge (1958 France 97 mins) 35mm
Source: CNC Prod. Co: AJYM, CGCF Prod: Jean Cotet Dir, Scr: Claude Chabrol Phot: Henri Decäe Camera Op: Jean Rabier Ed: Jacques Gaillard Mus: Emile Delpierre Assist. Dir: Philippe de Broca, Charles Bitsch, Claude de Givray.
Cast: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont, Claude Chabrol, Philippe de Broca.
“New Wave? Old Wave? It’s all the same ocean.”
– Claude Chabrol (1)
As unceremonious as it may sound, Claude Chabrol started the New Wave in 1958 with the release of his first film, Le Beau Serge (2). They were heady times. Though it was inevitable that the handful of cineastes who had been re-shaping film criticism in France with their publication Cahiers du Cinéma since the early ’50s would have turned to filmmaking, it was probably just as inevitable that their first films would have turned French cinema, as it was then known, on its head. In the broadest terms, after 1959, the cinema would never be the same.
By now, when it is possible to see the accomplishments of the Nouvelle Vague in the broader context of French cinema, it is clear that what most of them were up to (with the possible exception of Godard) was principally a purification and revitalization of what had always been latent in past work. They (Chabrol and Truffaut in particular) knew what antecedents to reference in their own work, as well as what standards at which to aim. As Vernon Young saw in 1965, “What should seem obvious to any filmgoer who is old enough to have a memory is that the similarities between this generation of film-makers in France and the preceding ones are more numerous than the discrepancies. However exuberant, experimental, informal, or even disorderly the new contingent has insisted on being, with whatever degree of seriousness its members have tried out audacities of narration and cutting, it has been working for the most part in what might be called the classical tradition of French cinema. This is to say that the new young men have rarely abandoned the intellectual schemata available to them and they have seldom operated outside the milieux of their predecessors.” (3)
Le Beau Serge is, of course, an ironic title. Serge (Gérard Blain) turns out to be anything but beau when François (Jean-Claude Brialy), his old friend, returns from Paris to his hometown in France’s Creuse region (the actual village is called Sardent, whose citizens and authorities are thanked for their cooperation at the beginning of the film – another irony?). Quickly, François discovers that ten years have not been kind to the people he left behind. On his arrival – a splendid, prolonged opening sequence – he recognizes his old friend walking away from him and calls out his name. Serge turns, but shows no sign of recognition. “He never notices people when he’s drunk,” Michel (Michel Creuze), his guide, tells him.
François has come back to his native village to convalesce. He has been suffering a near-fatal illness and hopes to find some peace and quiet. That he finds neither is largely his own fault. The life of his friend has degenerated to a shocking degree. Serge is married to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), who adores him, but whom he treats with disdain since their first – stillborn – child was deformed. He drinks almost incessantly with an older man named Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp), who may or may not be the father of Marie, the local siren. As the proprietress of François’ pension tells him, Marie goes with a different man every day. That François turns out to be one of them is perhaps a happy accident in casting. Marie is played by Bernadette Lafont with a kind of predatory allure. She manages to be almost completely sexual, though her character is only aged seventeen. (Mlle Lafont herself was just nineteen during filming.)
François decides, thanks to Chabrol’s professed Catholicism, to make a difference in his friend’s life. Serge implores François to leave town. Even the local priest, somewhat less of a crusader than Bresson’s, advises him that he is probably doing mare harm than good.
One afternoon, Glomaud sees François in the hotel tavern. He tells him to buy him a drink, but François refuses. “You won’t drink with me, but you’ll sleep with my daughter?” Glomaud yells. All François can repeat in his defense is the unsubstantiated rumor that Marie is not his daughter. Glomaud calls witnesses to attest to François’ statement, then stumbles off to rape Marie, whom he has reputedly lusted after for three years. François, finding Marie in tears (“he entered like a serpent,” she tells him), chases down Glomaud who is trying to escape through the local cemetery and throws him to the ground. Bewildered, François flees to his hotel room. Serge visits him there and the following exchange occurs:
François: “Everything’s so different here.”
Serge: “You’ve seen how they live, François.”
François: “Why are you like this?”
Serge: “Everyone’s like this.”
François: “That’s not true. You’re like animals, as though you had no reason for living.”
Serge: “We haven’t. How could we? The earth’s like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they’ve no choice.
Serge looks out of the hotel window at children being dismissed from school.
Serge: “Come and look. Miles to walk home, often in deep snow. Still, they want to learn. We’re animals, but who cares? Everyone can’t simply leave. You understand? It’s like a baby couldn’t walk if there were no one to show him how.”
Every event adds to François’ complete incomprehension of the villagers. At a local dance, he suddenly objects to Serge’s callous treatment of Yvonne. He follows Serge into the street and gets a beating for his troubles. The villagers watch, exhorting Serge to “teach the Parisian a lesson.” Stubbornly, François stays in the village to perform what he believes will be some transformative act.
It begins to snow. One night, with Serge unconscious in some “chicken run,” François hurries to the aid of Yvonne, who is in labor. He manages to locate the town doctor, who is nursing Glomaud through one of his withdrawal episodes. Marie is there to taunt François. Our last look at her, as the door closes, is of Marie, sitting beside the bedridden Glomaud, his hand on hers.
The doctor is pessimistic of the child’s survival. They get to Yvonne in time, but all she can do is cry out Serge’s name. Already coughing, apparently weakened by the cold, François goes out once more to locate Serge. Finally, he finds him in a barn and literally has to drag him through the snow. Once arrived, he awakens Serge with a handful of snow in his face, just as his son’s first cries break the silence. François, perhaps fainting (or collapsing?), utters his last words, “I believed.” Serge, hearing his healthy son’s cries, weeps from joy.
Chabrol made his first film in a raw, unadorned style, using real locations, a handful of professional actors and a multitude of “non-professionals.” With his cinematographer Henri Decae (and the camera operator Jean Rabier, who would soon become Chabrol’s third eye), he succeeded in capturing the detestable conditions of a particular backwater of regional France. We’ve all seen such places, even if it may seem we sometimes live in them: the squalor; the quite unbelievably casual attitude toward such imponderables as incest; the occluded horizons. Chabrol’s characteristic themes were already evident in Le Beau Serge. Clearly, he was another of those filmmakers who spent a long time thinking about films before he had a chance to make one. This explains the astonishing completeness of the New Wave’s first films. Whereas Antonioni and Bergman, to name just two of their generation, needed several years of apprentice work before finding their mature voices, Chabrol, Truffaut, Resnais, and Godard had, before they ever set foot behind a camera, arrived at an understanding of exactly where they wanted to go.
Le Beau Serge is also far less schematic than Chabrol’s later, “Hitchockian” work. Its allegorical levels are, consequently, far more accessible. And, unlike much of his work in the ’60s, one has the definite feeling that Chabrol actually cares for the people in his film, as much as he detests the village in which so many of them seem to be trapped. His subsequent work would show greater technical proficiency, at the expense of human content.
[A note to remind all of us of our respective ages: Gerard Blain, Serge in Chabrol’s film, died last December 17, after a long and lucrative film career. He was 70.]
- Quoted by Vernon Young in his 1965 essay “Some Obiter Dicta on Recent French Films,” from On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972), p. 253
- This fact is contested with nauseating frequency. Often, filmmakers quite peripheral to the movement such as Jean-Pierre Melville are put forth as the true originators. But with an official release date of January 10, 1959, Le Beau Serge predates the release of Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups by nearly four months, and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour by six. Godard’s A Bout du Souffle wasn’t released until March 1960.
- Vernon Young, On Film, pp. 253-254
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.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and DGA Quarterly.