DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Le Beau Serge

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Le Beau Serge

Le Beau Serge (1958) dir. Claude Chabrol
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Bernadette Lafont, Claude Chabrol, Philippe de Broca.


By Alan Bacchus

Though most people consider Francois Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows to be the first of the French New Wave, fellow Cahier Du Cinema writer Claude Chabrol beat him by a year with his melodramatic, angst-ridden, but no less moving feature about sibling rivalry in small town France. It’s a beautifully stark and moving character film that jump-started the Nouvelle Vague, and yet it feels more akin to the angst-ridden rebel films of the James Dean/Marlon Brando Hollywood era.

Francois is an erudite but sickly city slicker returning home to his humble rural roots for an extended vacation. It’s not exactly a homecoming for Francois, as he immediately searches out his brother Serge, who, by reputation, is now a drunk reeling over the stillborn death of his child. Even with a new baby on the way with his wife Yvonne, he’s still on a downward bender into oblivion.

The return of Francois certainly doesn’t improve Serge's recovery. The mere presence of Francois, quietly basking in success and throwing pity at his brother, is as transparent as his brother’s alcoholic coping mechanism. A love triangle emerges with Yvonne’s friend Marie, who once had a fling with Serge. Adding even more conflict into the small town shenanigans is Marie’s father, Goumand, a dangerous presence who resents Francois’ courtship of his daughter resulting in a heinous act of revenge.

Despite these narrative layers, La Beau Serge is anchored in the story of two brothers. It's a complex relationship, at once contradictory and violent, but also loyal and loving. Like all boys, Francois and Serge are quick to fight and quicker to make up - an unbroken and unspoken bond of brotherhood, warts and all.

There's a strong hint of 1950s method angst. In fact, Gerard Blain's anxious, disaffected look is often compared to that of James Dean. He's also ruggedly handsome like Marlon Brando, but even more self-destructive than Stanley Kowalski. Despite his perpetual drunken stupor and his characterization as a rural hick left behind by his ambitious brother, Serge is still able to analyze Francois and put him in his place. And if Serge is Dean or Brando then Francois is probably Karl Maldon, the moral conscience of the film, but considerably less angelic and saintly.

While A Streetcar Named Desire skirted sexual connotations delicately in Hollywood, Chabrol is more direct, helping to eschew these increasingly obsolete moral traditions. The rape of Marie by the man assumed to be her father is tragic and alarming. And the frank depiction of Yvonne’s pregnancy difficulties also feels modern.

Under the crisp Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment, Henri Decae’s cinematography is striking. The moody look with strongly contrasting light and dark creates a brooding, almost ‘Slavic’ sense of tragedy (think Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood or anything by Bela Tarr). The quaint town and use of real locations and non-actors lend invaluable neorealist credibility and poignancy. And by the end the film it reaches heights achieved by only a few in the New Wave. The triumphant finale is emotional, moving and poignant, reminiscent of any number of great John Ford pictures.

Le Beau Serge is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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