Home Video Hovel: Le Beau Serge
Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge is often considered the inaugural film of the French New Wave, but is, curiously enough, just now finding its way onto a palatable format with Criterion Collection’s gorgeously packaged release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray. The movie itself, a superficially simple tale of self-reflection plagued with pitch-black regret, centers upon François (Jean-Claude Brialy), a self-satisfied city mouse who, in an unclearly-defined sickly state, descends upon his hometown in the French countryside with the intent of staying the winter to recoup. Therein he comes into contact with a host of once dear friends, namely the eponymous Serge (Gérard Blain), a promising architect upon François’s departure over a decade previous to the film’s opening, now an embittered alcoholic with a young, pregnant wife who he appears to detest. As the film unfolds, François and Serge come to terms with their disparateness, and get a taste of each other’s alien outlooks on life.
Le Beau Serge is a ruminative glance at one’s successes and transgressions, powered by an appropriately bittersweet tone. Any of the humor implemented by the characters has an explicitly conflicted aftertaste, nicely embodied by Chabrol’s characterization of his two leads—even the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray and the Main Menu screen Criterion designed for the disc furthers this motif, solidifying Le Beau as a movie that exists in such thorny crawlspaces in between emotions or tones, so much so that the viewer is allowed a little taste of both, a choice that poignantly speaks to the way in which Serge and François’s lifestyles, perspectives, values, and environments are all at stark odds with each other. A strong authorial focus on mirrors and frames (especially windows) communicates the feeling of these two, totally different worlds colliding, and yet concedes that perhaps these worlds still contain some overlap. As such, Chabrol’s is a cinematic language rife with visual duality.
The most prevalent force at work in Le Beau Serge, however, is that of appearance, and, further, internal and external deterioration, as well as the places and ways in which that deterioration manifests itself. Given that its title translates literally as “The Handsome Serge,” while also taking into account the character’s cynicism and despair, we can see that Chabrol is thrillingly obsessed with the way that, sometimes, aesthetic belies what lies beneath, and other times what you see is what you get, to implement a crude but apt turn of phrase. This fascination can also be traced to a key scene which begins with an establishing shot of Serge and his wife, Marie’s dilapidated homestead that then proceeds to cut to an extreme close-up of the latter’s sleeping, seemingly angelic visage. A shot or two later we’re privy to Marie tellingly adjusting the hands on the clock to deceive her unmotivated husband. Further still, a definite level of appearance-based distrust on Chabrol’s part is found in the movie’s own aesthetic, which itself deteriorates, growing steadily more impressionistic, fractured, and dazed as it wears on, reflecting the mindset of its characters, particularly that of François. Following this aesthetic path, the film only improves, beginning from a strong if slightly amateurish and unremarkable genesis to a truly incredible, more assured finale.
The director’s stunning 4:3 framing—rendered typically crystal-clear on this Criterion disc—is cramped, contained, and often claustrophobic, expressing the inescapably limited perspective offered by a human existence, colored in this particular case by nostalgia, desire, regret, and memory, among others. Though it struggles to find its voice completely on the outset, this, the debut film by the legendary Claude Chabrol, offers a varied, compelling, wise perspective on life indeed.
The special features provided on what is, at the end of the day, a very good transfer of Le Beau Serge are rich and informative, albeit fairly skimpy in number. Included is a commentary by Chabrol biographer Guy Austin, a documentary entitled Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film that follows the inception of the film, and, the real gem of the group, a 40-year-old episode of the French television series L’invité du dimanche, which finds Chabrol returning to his hometown of Sardent, which also happens to be the location at which Le Beau Serge was filmed.