Les Cousins was only Claude Chabrol’s second film, and, fittingly, it is among the first of his to enter The Criterion Collection (his first film, Le beau Serge, came out the same day). In it, a country boy, Charles (Gerard Blain), comes to live with his cousin, Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), in Paris, where they will both study law and, in that very French New Wave fashion, fall for the same girl (Juliette Mayniel). Chabrol tells this slight story of morals with the cutting eye of Hitchcock and an unforgiving, relentlessly bleak worldview.
Almost anyone even slightly familiar with Chabrol knows he was a Hitchcock enthusiast, but you might be (as I was) surprised to see the way that is expressed in Les Cousins. Rather than take the master’s convoluted suspense plots that take hold of an otherwise innocent person, Chabrol, remarkably enough, takes the type of characters one would see in a Hitchcock movie and places them in a domestic drama. We have the innocent pushed towards transgression in Charles, the corrupted woman in Florence, and the theatrical sinner in Paul and his friends. Many of the themes are familiar – the sexual subtext of Rope is all over this, as is the trope of everyday people stepping outside the bounds of the law or accepted behavior – but they are explored from within rather than as a result of some outside force bearing down.
Chabrol, by this point, still seemed to be learning his way with actors. A few, particularly Gerard Blain, come off very well, and all of the central characters get a great moment or two, but there’s a stiff unease to many of the scenes. On his commentary track, Adrian Martin tells us that unlike many in the French New Wave, Chabrol never made a short film or worked under an established director before diving into features. He simply used his wife’s inheritance and started making movies. While one can’t help but be impressed by his eye, and particularly the way he moves his camera, a better understanding of acting would’ve done much for the film.
Criterion’s visual presentation of the film on Blu-Ray is nice without being astounding. There’s a fine grain over the picture, lending it a film-like look yet nearly free from damage, it’s mostly sharp (though some shots are a little on the soft side, and not in a way that looked inherent to the print), and they handle some trickier moments of contrast very well. Near the end of the film, Charles walks past a cafe late at night, and the shimmering whites stand out nicely against the deep blacks of the night without one overwhelming the other. It’s odd, but we’ve gotten to the stage in which a very good Blu-Ray transfer can feel like a run-of-the-mill release, neither exceptional nor abominable, but simply clean and well-suited to the film it’s presenting. Naturally, it’s in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The audio is quite spectacular – I noticed no artifacts, hissing, echoing, or any of the other problems that plague old soundtracks. It’s not the most dynamic track, both technologically (Criterion gives us the original mono) and creatively (mostly dialogue and an unobtrusive score), but it’s clear and crisp.
The disc is very light on extras, giving us only a commentary track and a trailer. Adrian Martin talks at length about Chabrol’s career, and how Les Cousins fits into both that and the burgeoning French New Wave (it came out months before The 400 Blows and the year before Breathless). He unfortunately doesn’t get into much analysis of the film itself, though he offers some nice comments about Chabrol’s use of interiors, but Chabrol turns out to be an interesting enough character in his own right. He also spends some time on the screenwriter, Paul Gegauff, who collaborated with Chabrol on 14 films and also wrote for Rene Clement and Eric Rohmer, among others. His particular attitude and worldview (particularly when it came to women) fascinated Chabrol, who was quick to capitalize on the man’s depravity. The commentary track was recorded before Chabrol’s death last year, so you’ll forgive it if it’s slightly out-of-date, but it’s still a solid introduction, though it hardly makes up for the otherwise barren disc.
Criterion does provide a booklet, including an essay by Terrence Rafferty who, it’s fair to say, sees much more in the film than I did and makes a convincing case for it too. He positions the film as the moment Chabrol discovered his true nature, and states that it got him on the path of continuously telling stories of unrest in middle class environments that erupt into violence. It made me wonder if perhaps the film has a greater effect after seeing more of Chabrol’s work – a perfectly reasonable position any auteurist eventually takes.
We also get an excerpt from Brialy’s memoir, in which he writes about Blain, with whom he lived for a time in Paris. Due to childhood trauma, he writes, Blain had a deep-rooted hatred for homosexuals, and Brialy was proudly bisexual, but somehow they remained lifelong friends. It’s a rather interesting, passionately told tale, regardless of any bearing it has on the film itself.
On the whole, it’s a decent package, hardly exceptional. The film is worth a watch – but then again, so is everything in the Criterion Collection – and if it sits even half-well with you and you have some time to kill, I’d recommend giving the commentary a listen. It did make me want to check out some of Chabrol’s other, hopefully more assured works, and the commentary and essay provide great recommendations.