Review – Le Beau Serge (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1958)
Of the Cahiers du Cinema cohort, Chabrol was the first to make a film, which he wrote, shot and produced himself. The result is the startling complex Le Beau Serge, which inaugurated the French New Wave in 1958. In this first attempt, Chabrol introduces many of the themes he will continue to grapple with for the next 50 years or so. While the film has its share of awkward moments, it’s also filled with the kind of visual subtleties and intricate relationships that Chabrol would go on to refine throughout his prolific career.
In the film, Francois, played by Jean-Claude Brialy in his first leading role, returns to his childhood hometown to rest after he discovers he’s ill with something like tuberculosis. He also finds that things have changed significantly since he left. His former friend, Serge (Gerard Blain), has become an alcoholic after his first child was born with Down’s Syndrome and passed away. He and his wife are expecting a second baby, and fear the worst for this one, as well. Also central to the story is Marie (Bernadette Lafont), the coquettish 17-year-old girl who glides through the streets in a homemade frock, and with whom Serge has had an affair.
Everyone in the town seems plagued by some sort of addiction. Serge drinks; Marie seeks the attention of men. Now that Francois has returned, he develops an obsession with waking these individuals from their perceived stupor. Throughout the movie, Francois attempts to get Serge back on his feet, and Serge grows increasingly resentful of these efforts. Unfortunately, Francois won’t be deterred until he finds some way to “help” Serge, though even he has no idea how. Serge’s situation is not so abnormal in the area. The people there are poor; many have no hopes of ever leaving. Marie is stuck taking care of her drunkard father, Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp). When Glomaud eventually rapes her, the townspeople dismiss the event as though it’s normal, as though Marie were partially responsible, in fact.
Marie is the first of many impenetrable women that Chabrol will tackle throughout his oeuvre. She flirts overtly with Francois, sleeps with him, then quickly resumes her relationship with Serge after Francois rejects her. While Serge’s and Francois’ actions have obvious motives, it’s never clear what Marie wants. She appears momentarily unhinged by the rape, but soon returns to her habitual Mona Lisa smile, which effectively masks any real emotion. In Marie’s final scene, she is caring for Glomaud, who has become ill. When Francois comes to fetch the doctor away to Serge’s wife, who is in labor, the coldness in Marie’s face renders her almost unrecognizable. Glomaud tells the doctor to leave him alone with his daughter. In close up, he moves to place his hand on his daughter’s, and she touches it to her face. The camera briefly pans up to her face, which once more becomes inscrutable. The viewer is left to wonder what will become of her, though we aren’t destined to find out.
When Francois finds out about the rape, he angrily compares the people in the town to animals. To this outburst, Serge replies that when people have never seen someone walk, they don’t know how to use their legs. Unlike the seemingly bourgeois Francois, most of them have never believed they could have something better. The townspeople accept their lives – they drink, fight and fornicate, and desperation is the status quo. However, the animalistic comparison turns out to be fairly astute, as Serge soon begins sleeping in henhouses when he is too drunk to walk home. When Francois goes out to find him, he must cast his flashlight over chickens and cows before finding his friend passed out in the barn like a dog.
The final scene is visually striking, and also where the line between realism and melodrama is at its most porous. A heavy snow begins to fall and quickly accumulates on the ground, forcing Serge to trudge through it. For much of the sequence, the only light seems to come from Francois’ flashlight. In one remarkable shot, Chabrol keeps the falling snow in focus, as the blurred, dark figure of Francois stumbles off into the night. It’s a haunting image, and a clear omen of what’s coming. It also recalls the earlier image above, where Francois’ face is superimposed with the descending snow.
The film ends with the birth of Serge’s child, implying a sense of renewal. However, there is still the nagging feeling that nothing has really changed. The inspirational ending is undermined by the very subtle undercurrent of satire that runs through the realism in the film. Francois is just a little too selfless and Serge too despondent. As Serge’s wife gives birth, Francois dies trying to bring the baby safely into the world. The careful exaggeration of these characters their tribulations is reminiscent of a Douglas Sirk narrative.
In the final shot, framed in close-up, Serge laughs uncontrollably at the sight of his newborn baby (which the audience never sees, though we hear it crying). Perhaps he has finally realized there was no cause for his previous despair and he will change for the better. Perhaps Francois’ efforts have been in vain and Serge will continue to drink and abuse his wife. After all, there is something frightening about this laughter, as if he has teetered over the edge into mania. And while Francois was able to escape for a while, in the end, the town claims his life. Must he die so Serge can find happiness? Is this the change he has been seeking all along? Setting a precedent for most of his subsequent films, Chabrol leaves these questions unanswered.