Famous Firsts: Le beau Serge (1958)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Claude Chabrol, director and screenwriter

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s not often that a film—especially a debut film—grabs me and pulls me into its orbit with the irresistible force of a black hole, but that’s exactly what happened to me and, impressively, the hubby, when we started watching Le beau Serge. I stipulate that I’m predisposed to like films by Claude Chabrol, one of my favorite filmmakers, but Shane is famously fidgety in the opening minutes of a film, wanting to know what is going to happen before the credits have even finished rolling. Running roughshod over the usual settling-in period, Le beau Serge grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck with an ominous energy and holds us tight to the bitter end—bitter being the operative word.

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1958 was an interesting year in cinematic and Gallic history. Just as the supposed end of the classic period of American film noir was reached with the release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the Cahiers du cinéma critics were gearing up to start making their noir-influenced independent films, with Chabrol being the first out of the blocks with Le beau Serge. This bleak film shot in Sardent, to which the Paris-born Chabrol was evacuated during World War II, has the kind of quasi-confessional aspects of personal remorse and social unease that were then being unleashed by the angry young men of the United Kingdom. A reference in the film to a townsman serving in Algeria prefigures the May coup attempt in that French-occupied country that would see a member of the old guard, Charles de Gaulle, return to power. Interestingly, Jacques Tati’s nostalgia for small town France got a big-screen airing in 1958 with the debut of Mon oncle; Le beau Serge is a radical counterpoint to that humorous fantasy.

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François (Jean-Claude Brialy), a handsome young man, returns to his home village after 10 years in Paris to rest and give his tubercular lungs a chance to heal. His family home has fallen into ruin, and he is forced to take a room at the local inn. His friend (Michel Creuze), who had no illusions that he would ever leave the village and become anything but the baker his father was, reaches to grab François’ suitcase from the bus driver on top of the bus. A discordant note is struck in the film score as two men are viewed on the opposite side of the bus. They are François’ great childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain) and Serge’s father-in-law Glaumod (Edmond Beauchamp). Both are drunk and belligerent, and seem oddly menacing. François tries to capture Serge’s attention, but fails. As he makes his way up the street to the inn, villagers greet him and have to remind him who they are. He doesn’t recognize anyone but Serge.

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Class resentment is Claude Chabrol’s thematic calling card, and he starts flashing it with this, his very first film. François has distanced himself from the villagers, his head stuck in books in a rented room with faux-brick wallpaper (Chabrol revels in tacky interiors) as a symbol of his outsider, intellectual status. He believes he can save the villagers from themselves, showing up the ineffectual priest (Claude Cerval) in the process in an echo of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). He especially wants to reform Serge, whom he tries to persuade to leave Yvonne (Michèle Méritz), the wife he took when he got her pregnant, only to be trapped in an apparently loveless marriage when their baby was stillborn. Yvonne is pregnant again, but that doesn’t seem to bother François, who wants Serge to join him in bourgeois striving. The urgency of François’ yearning to see Serge in the opening scenes of the film and his continued efforts to connect with Serge contain homoerotic overtones that the film’s title, which translates as Handsome Serge, tends to endorse. In fact, Serge, a Marlon Brando knock-off in his black leather jacket, is kind of a mess—often covered with mud from his delivery job and his drunken carousing. François is much more handsome and is targeted immediately by the promiscuous, 17-year-old Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Yvonne’s sister who lives at home with their father. While he’s perfectly happy to diddle Marie, it’s clear he thinks she is in no way good enough for him.

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While his films preponderantly critique the French bourgeoisie, Chabrol has always saved some contempt for the pettiness of the underclasses as well, allowing mere resentment or even boredom to burgeon into murder. With Le beau Serge, Chabrol highlights the self-delusions of the villagers as well. Serge seems to enjoy wallowing in his degradation and refuses to abandon Yvonne, claiming that he loves her. That may be a lie, but he certainly does need her to blame for his own lack of ambition and as an excuse to get drunk early and often. The townspeople also seem to have conspired in pretending that Marie is Glaumod’s daughter—Marie tells François she’s not—so that he can keep from jumping her bones. Glaumod all but forces François to tell him the truth about Marie, and then blames him when nature takes its course.

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Indeed, the entire film, which assumes François’ point of view, looks at the villagers as little better than animals, and incestuous ones at that. Although the village is poor, there is a real life in it, with meals and dances and daily work. But François’ dealings with Serge, Yvonne, Marie, and Glaumod reduce the environment to squalor in a manner that must have influenced Bertrand Tavernier’s dissipated look at French colonialists in Africa in Coup de torchon (1981). Serge literally starts sleeping his drunks off in chicken coops, and the final scene is the birth of Serge and Yvonne’s baby, a basic animal act if ever there was one.

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From the standpoint of filmcraft, Le beau Serge shows the influence of the Italian Neorealist movement. Like the Neorealists, he populates his frames with actual villagers and shoots from life, with natural lighting. A village dance looks and sounds quite like a similar dance in Luchino Visconti’s early Neorealist film Obsessione (1943). Yet, Chabrol includes a score by Émile Delpierre that telegraphs feeling in a very melodramatic way. Some have criticized the score, but it is part and parcel of Chabrol’s heightened sense of reality and wicked humor, a dark opposite to the light and urbane music of Tati.

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The final scene is shot through with arresting images—Yvonne’s martyred face looking all the world like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); François shining a flashlight into every stable and coop, his utterly black form contrasting with the light and making him seem like a human void; François sliding a passed-out Serge along the snowy ground like a sack of potatoes. Serge’s maniacal laughter at the birth of a son might mean a new start—or just another person to start blaming.

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