3rd 12 - 2014 | no comment »

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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8th 03 - 2013 | 7 comments »

Journey in Italy (Viaggio in Italia,1954)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps it is to be expected that following the great destruction of World War II, even the unflinching Neorealist Roberto Rossellini would do as many others around the world would do—retreat to private life, particularly as his private life included his wife and muse Ingrid Bergman. But, of course, private life can be a war zone as well, and Rossellini and Bergman suffered through a cold war of miscommunication during the eight years of their union. They made nine films together, with Journey in Italy coming right in the middle of their married years. The fissures were already starting to gape.

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In this domestic drama, Bergman and George Sanders play Katherine and Alex Joyce, a wealthy couple who have traveled in their Rolls Royce from England to Naples to sell a villa Alex’s uncle left to him in his will. Alex hopes for a quick sale, as he does not like being away from work. He particularly doesn’t seem to like having so much unstructured time with Katherine, who is driving the car in the opening scene, a tacit signal that this togetherness was her idea. Once the couple arrives at the villa, they get a quick tour (a sunlit sitting room “was your uncle’s favorite room”) and settle into separate bedrooms per the European custom.

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Both Alex and Katherine are made jealous by the apparent pleasure each takes in other people’s company. In the aristocratic circle of some of Alex’s relatives, Katherine makes a big hit, her gay abandon annoying Alex, who considers her no fun at all. Alex runs into a female friend who is in Naples with some friends, and his intimate conversation with her over a meal draws Katherine’s ire. Alex goes about his business of trying to sell the villa as Katherine heads off to the museums and the sulphur banks of Vesuvius. Eventually, Alex joins his friend and her group in Capri, as Katherine sits lonely and worried at the villa playing solitaire. With Katherine feeling like a lifeless appendage and Alex suffocated by Katherine’s duty-filled approach to life, divorce seems the only solution.

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Regardless of the intimacy of the story, Rossellini’s approach to filming Journey in Italy is to play it against the vast weight of Italian history. It is uncomfortable to watch Rossellini put Bergman in precarious positions like a mere speck in time. For example, when she visits the sulphur banks, her guide shows how exposing any of the vents to heat, even that of a cigarette, will cause the entire field to fill with plumes of gas. When Katherine tries it with the guide’s cigarette, they are enveloped, as though she had been swallowed up in hell. In another scene at an art museum, Katherine is unnerved by the painted eyes of the Roman sculptures, and Rossellini deliberately frames her being menaced by one of them or overshadowed by gargantuan men of marble. Her leopard coat made her look like a predator at the start of the film, but as the events of the film gradually unnerve her, her protective clothing gets thinner and thinner. Is she becoming less guarded with Alex, or is Rossellini just defanging her?

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Sanders is given much less direct focus, but his performance is interestingly vulnerable. He seems genuinely pained about his inability to reach through Katherine’s wall to her. Yet, it can’t be a coincidence that the man who didn’t like to work with actors chose one known for his oeuvre of cruel and cynical roles, especially Lord Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). I couldn’t help thinking that despite the suggestion of family wealth, Alex was a war profiteer, and the abundant images of death in the film—catacomb skulls, the leopard skin coat, the figures frozen at the moment of death at Pompeii, Vesuvius in the background of a relaxing Alex and Katherine—though signifiers of the death of a marriage, probably have more to do with the war and the Joyces’ filthy lucre. Giving the characters the surname of Joyce further alludes to death, as Katherine relates a memory of a young man pouring his love out to her in the driving rain that is more than reminiscent of Gretta Conroy’s similar memory in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

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The film feels like a very personal document for Rossellini, with Bergman and Sanders seeming to pick up threads of old arguments without provocation or context. Their bickering is intense, but you can feel each wound they inflict on each other. When we’re not entrapped in this hothouse of rancor, the filming becomes less precise. Scenes inside the Rolls appear to have been done as process shots, and scenes around Naples could be stock footage, hardly of the quality one expects from the Father of Neorealism. The film has a cheap, cobbled-together quality to it, perhaps the result of several different cuts that reportedly were made of the film.

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If I could accept this film as wholly personal, I would feel less acutely its very troubling subtext—that a marriage can exist only if the wife is broken. Alex becomes attracted to Marie (Maria Mauban), a young woman hobbled by a broken ankle, during his time on Capri. He holds her arm as she moves awkwardly with the assistance of a cane, and begins to declare his feelings when she says she has reconciled with her husband, who is to join her in Italy soon. He backs off, and briefly flirts with the idea of hiring a prostitute to assuage his disappointment. Instead, he returns to Katherine with instructions that he wishes to sleep late, setting up a situation for another argument the next day, as they tour Pompeii, when he will ask her for a divorce. As they drive back from the ruin, shaken by the sight of a couple lying side by side, hollow figures of ash preserved with plaster pumped into the cavities, they get stuck in a throng of people celebrating a holy day. Katherine exits the car and is swept up by the crowd. She yells to Alex for help, and he runs to her side. She declares she doesn’t want to lose him, and he says he loves her. Shaken by the thought of divorce and frightened by being torn into a mindlessly menacing crowd, Katherine capitulates. Her call to be rescued means victory for male domination, and their embrace, to me, tastes of the ashes that entombed the couple in Pompeii.

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Offering none of the usual assurances of all being right with the world now that the institution of marriage has been affirmed, indeed, revealing this illusion for what it is—a power struggle that in the 1950s meant that women had to lose—doomed this film at the box office. In 2013, the gender war has not yet ceased, but the conversation has moved forward to a higher level of awareness. From this vantage point, Rossellini and Bergman’s fearless, painfully raw collaboration looks to be the stuff of genius.


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