Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Le Beau Serge (1958, Claude Chabrol)
Equal parts overbearing Catholic allegory and interesting, visually unadorned on-location examination of the inhabitants of French village Sardent, Claude Chabrol’s debut Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge), considered one of the opening salvos of the French New Wave, starts out strong and richly textured but eventually succumbs to an overly schematic and redemptive conclusion. Jean-Claude Brialy portrays Francois, a theology student returning to his native town after years away to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. It isn’t exactly how he left it, especially his childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain), now a drunk with a troubled past and marriage. With the town pastor having resigned to let the village spiritually crumble, Francois takes it upon himself to redeem his friend and oppose the corrosive and entangled influences of the other villagers. The bourgeois town hides an underbelly of mortal sins and squandered promise.
The film has an obvious narrative trajectory towards redemption, even if it is complicated by similarly religious stirrings of guilt and transference, modes that would play more decisive influences on Chabrol’s subsequent thrillers. Themes of incest, rape, and congenital deformity bring a sordid reality to bear on the film’s otherwise Catholic overtones, diluting the protagonist’s faith in human nature and transformation. Nineteen-year-old Bernadette Lafont played a two years younger sexpot, reflecting the distasteful possibilities that awaited Serge’s stillborn son and upcoming child, just as Serge and Francois are the same train running on separate, parallel tracks. This doubling, as well as some brutal violence between the former friends and a thorough investigation of the dark side of French village life, reveals Chabrol’s literary and cinematic debts to Hitchcock and such sturdy native genre directors as Clouzot and Duvivier.
What also separates this debut from the likes of Le Boucher or Les Biches ten years later is also what animates the other first films of Nouvelle Vague directors: a nod towards neorealism by respecting and utilizing personal, lived-in space and performers. Indeed, how less dynamic would The 400 Blows or Breathless be without their genuine locations? Serge’s bravura opening sequence of Francois’s arrival allows the viewer to effortless gain their bearings and to situate himself in the naturalistic milieu. Even if the narrative becomes overtly symbolic and a few of the performances are mannered, Chabrol stays true to the location’s obscuring simplicity and its constricting impact on the inhabitants’ worldviews.
Yet for all the efficient if superfluous camera movements, Le Beau Serge is resolutely a young novice’s film; wildly inappropriate music overtakes perfectly subtle moments, and the ending undeservedly concludes on a hopeful note, despite the undeniably nuanced and problematic interactions throughout the film, for the sake of bludgeoning thematic significance. Perhaps knowing what would come later forces me to underrate the work, for Chabrol would certainly develop as a screenwriter and filmmaker even if the technical skills were there. As it is, Serge remains a merely good film with great timing.