DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Les Cousins

Saturday 22 October 2011

Les Cousins

Les Cousins (1959) dir. Claude Chabrol
Starring: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy and Juliette Mayniel


By Alan Bacchus

It’s appropriate that this film gets its Blu-ray debut via The Criterion Collection at the same time as Chabrol's previous film, La Beau Serge. Both films represent an inverse of each other, a cinematic yin and yang of sorts.

While Serge features Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy as brothers - Brialy from the city returning to meet Blain from the country - in Les Cousins, it’s Blain still playing the country boy coming to Paris to stay with his bohemian cousin played by Brialy. Tonally, La Beau Serge played like a rebellious and angst-ridden James Dean film. Les Cousins is a playful though quietly disturbing satire on family rivalry.

Here Blain plays Charles, a quiet and humble boy from the country arriving in the big adventurous city of Paris to study law with his cousin. His cousin, Paul (Brialy), is the opposite - a brash, cocky bohemian who struts around his garishly hip apartment leading a pack of other hipster minions and hangers-on. While there’s some warmth and congeniality between the two, at every turn Brialy engages in a series of mental games, passive aggressive behaviour and backhanded compliments to exert his authority.

At stake here are their education and their women. In their studies, Charles as the responsible one is careful not to lose sight of his goal, while Paul shrugs off the shackles of academics in favour of a carefree way of living. When Paul notices Charles’ attraction to one of Paul’s frequent guests, Florence (Mayniel), he aggressively goes after her in order to subjugate his cousin.

For most of the film’s nearly two-hour running time Chabrol plays these mental games without much conflict or threat. From the outset, it’s clear that Charles’ responsibility and studiousness will eventually get the better of Paul. As such, it’s a playful tone, as loose and easy-going as Paul’s lifestyle. Some exhaustion and repetitiveness sets in late in the picture, as we are unsure where this is all going. But Chabrol pulls a wicked trump card out of his back pocket by engineering an intense third act and denouement, which pays off the unfocused pacing.

With this picture I suspect Martin Scorsese may have found some influence in Taxi Driver and a number of his other pictures. Chabrol’s meandering camera moves with the same kind of precision as Scorsese’s, and at times it moves on its own motivated by the character's emotions as opposed to physical movements. Chabrol’s key set piece, Paul's attempted subversion of Charles on the night before his exam, set to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyres has the same kind of slow brewing intensity as some of Scorsese’s celebrated sequences.

Florence’s seduction of Charles during his desperate attempt to cram for his exam the next day is a nail-biting scene and echoes Robert De Niro's seduction of Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. By now, knowing that Paul has passed his exam, Charles is set up to be completely humiliated for Paul’s sadistic enjoyment. And in the denouement Chabrol again turns the table for the dark, pessimistic finale, turning the film completely upside down from where it started two hours prior.

Les Cousins is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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