Claude Chabrol was one of the original members of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague), a youthful group of film critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema magazine (they included Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer) who began putting their theories into practice by making their own films at the end of the 1950s. Although the New Wave filmmakers had a variety of styles, they generally shared a belief in the “auteur theory” originally put forward by François Truffaut: that despite the fact that movies necessarily involve contributions from many creative sources, the authorship of the film, its vision, comes from the director.
Of course each of the Nouvelle Vague directors had his own vision that he wanted to express in film. Each wanted to be an auteur. Truffaut’s early films were personally lyrical, Rohmer’s were cerebral contemplations, and Godard’s films offered social and political commentary. But Chabrol’s early films were not so obviously personal expressions. His film technique looked more “professional”, and his narratives were more conventional than those of his New Wave comrades. In addition his lengthy and somewhat uneven film career of more than fifty features has been relatively mainstream and has included a number of rather ordinary efforts that are sometimes dismissed as hack jobs. Nevertheless, I hold that Chabrol really is an “auteur”, in that original sense, and that he has his own unique cinematic vision and style. Insight into that vision can be gained by examining his second feature, Les Cousins, which he directed in 1959 at the age of twenty-nine. It still stands as one of his best films and can be ranked along side his great run a decade later that included Les Biches (1968), La Femme Infidèle (1969), Que la Bête Meure (1969), Le Boucher (1970), and his masterpiece, La Rupture (1970).
Chabrol’s style is ultimately expressionistic, but he achieves this expressionism not by lighting and moody exteriors, but more by the social dynamics of his intense character interactions. This has led him sometimes to be labeled satirical, cynical, or even aloof, as if he were sneering at his own characters. But I do not feel that he completely dismisses his characters; instead he sees them from a sympathetic, but ironic perspective.
The story of Les Cousins revolves around two young men who are cousins and are university students in Paris. Charles is from a small French town and has been sent by his mother to live with his cousin, Paul, who has an apartment in the big city. Although the two of them immediately get on together, they couldn’t be more different. Charles is direct, sincere, guileless, and rather naive. Paul is a sophisticated poseur, unwilling to accept any responsibility and ready to adopt whatever role might amuse him for the moment. In short, Charles is a country boy, and Paul is a cosmopolitan playboy. When it comes to studying, Charles is earnest and dedicated, while Paul is a lackadaisical hedonist. This dichotomy is emphasized every step of the way through the film, and that may sound too simple-minded and static. But there is a inner movement in the mind of the protagonist, Charles, as his innocent world view molded from traditional values is challenged by the face of corruption.
In some ways Les Cousins can be viewed as a descent into Hell, and there are cues throughout the film that reinforce that metaphor. As presented, the plot of the film can be broken down into roughly four sections, each one centered around a social gathering.
1. The Students Club. (28 minutes)
Charles (played by Gérard Blain) arrives in Paris from the countryside and goes to Paul’s luxurious apartment, where he introduces himself to Paul (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) and his boorish companion, Clovis. Paul, with his circle beard (goatee with connected mustache) has a Mephistophelean look about him. On the walls of the apartment are mounted guns and hunting paraphernalia belonging to his wealthy and always-away father. As part of his posing and role-playing, Paul has the habit of taking an unloaded revolver from the wall and playfully aiming it at people. I was once warned, by the way, that if you ever see a gun mounted on the wall in the first act, it will be fired before the last act is over.
Paul, Charles, and Clovis are soon visited by a former girlfriend of Paul’s, Genevieve, who is distressed because she has just learned that she is pregnant by Paul. Paul and Clovis both flippantly tell her to “get rid of it”, and Paul offers her some money to have it taken care of. This gives the viewer a quick early picture of the depths of feeling Charles and Clovis have for the concerns of other people. Later Paul takes Charles out on the town, and they visit a social club, where fellow students are drinking heavily, smooching, and playing cards in various rooms. As Paul shows him around, he says to him, “Look, . . . into the bowels of Hell”. Charles, the innocent rube in the big city, is fascinated. He meets some of the other students, including Philippe, who is heartbroken over having been dumped by Françoise (played by Stéphane Audran, who would be later become Chabrol’s wife and long-time leading actress). He also is introduced to Florence, a modest and beautiful girl, to whom he is immediately attracted. When he follows her out onto the street, she is already engaged with others, so he wanders into a nearby bookstore and talks to the proprietor. The bookseller, who will serve as a reminder of the values by which he was raised, favorably compares the earnest provincial student to the superficial slackers that live in the city.
2. The 1st Party. (25 minutes)
The next day Paul throws a wild, drunken party, to which Clovis has invited a wealthy Italian businessman, Count Arcangelo Minerva. From the scenes here, we can see that the obnoxious Clovis is, among other things, a pimp and a racist. The party rolls on with lots of drunken, raucous role-playing, with Paul in the thick of things. He puts loud Wagnerian operas on the hi-fi and parades around the room making overblown, histrionic gestures. Meanwhile Charles meets Florence again. Charles’s awkward sincerity, which contrasts so markedly with the rude and lewd behaviour of the other youths, charms Florence, and soon they are sweetly embracing. He invites her out for an evening drive, but before he can depart with her, the partygoers all decide to go outside for a drive, and their intimate moments are over.3. The Seduction of Florence. (31 minutes)
Charles arranges to meet Florence the next day, but a miscommunication leads to her showing up at their apartment two hours early, while Charles is away in class. This is the one scene in the film where the focalization seems to move away from Charles. But to a certain extent it could be said that Charles is still the center of focalization here, even though he is absent for most of the scene. Only Charles and Clovis are there at the apartment to meet Florence, and together, they scold her for her sentimental feelings towards Charles. In the key sequence in the film, lasting nine minutes, Clovis, now revealing his genuinely satanic self, sets out to convince Florence that she is too weak to live up to the standards of true love. He manipulatively breaks down her resistance until she succumbs and falls into the arms of Paul, who then takes her to the bedroom. See the separate article, "The Seduction of Florence in Chabrol’s Les Cousins", for a detailed shot breakdown of this scene.4. The 2nd Party. (21 minutes)
When Charles finally returns to the apartment, looking for Florence, he is shocked to learn that Florence is now Paul’s woman and that she has moved in with him. Later Charles runs into the bookseller again, who consoles him and tells him about women and to concentrate on his studies. Charles then devotes himself earnestly to his studies, despite the annoying distractions of Florence and Paul parading around the apartment at all hours.
As examinations loom, Charles devotes himself even more assiduously to his studies, while Paul spends all his time partying. Paul’s exams (they are apparently oral examinations) are one day prior to Charles’s, and though unprepared, he somehow manages to pass them. To celebrate, he immediately throws another wild party, although this interferes with Charles’s exam preparations. Florence, still has a flicker of sentiment for Charles and goes to his study room, but her half-hearted gestures are rejected and she is turned away.In the progressively more surreal and expressionistic world of Les Cousins, everything works out well for Paul, but not for Charles. Despite his superficial, conceited air and devilish appearance, all the girls seem charmed by Paul and his confidence. And yet Paul bears noone any malice. He just lives for day-to-day pleasure and couldn’t care less about anyone else’s inconvenience or troubles. Throughout the film, Charles keeps reminding himself that his way – living according to the traditional values of civilization, good manners, and responsible actions – must be the right way in the long run. But his confidence and convictions are continually eroded by perpetual defeat. In the end he seems to be asking himself, “could the world be so constructed that I am bound to fail, no matter what? . . . Could the deck of cards of life be so stacked against me that I will be guaranteed to lose the game of Russian Roulette?” If so, then everything he had been taught would be worthless, and life would hold no hope.
The next day Charles takes his exams, and, as we might expect, he doesn’t pass. He seeks solace at a church, but it is closed; then he goes to the bookseller, but only hears the empty-sounding encouragement to try harder next time. Walking the streets for hours in agony over his failure, he returns to the apartment while Paul is asleep. He dismounts a revolver from the wall and loads a single bullet, before spinning the chamber in preparation for a game of Russian Roulette. At Paul’s bedside Charles aims the gun at Paul’s head and a click is heard, but no shot is fired. Since Chabrol cuts the camera away from the gun at critical instant, it is not clear whether Charles actually pulled the trigger or he thought better of it and stopped short. Then Charles goes downstairs to the sitting room and broods. Later Paul awakens and comes downstairs. Learning that Charles has failed his exams, he launches into his customary extravagant gestures, trying to encourage him. He picks up the gun in his usual cheeky, histrionic manner and takes aim.
Such is Charles’s nightmare, but Chabrol is being ironic here. Charles, the innocent, is surrounded by ironically-named demons in this tale. There is the Mephistophelian Paul. The corrupt rogue Count Minerva’s name, “Arcangelo”, means “archangel” in Italian. The name “Clovis” has multiple symbolic references. It could refer to the ancient king who brought Christianity to the Franks. And of course a “cloven-footed” is a synonym for “satanic”. Also “cloven” is the past-participle of “cleave”, and certainly Clovis cleaves to Paul like a leech. Amid all the debauchery of these demons, the only angelic one is Charles. Florence senses this, even at the end, but Charles has lost his confidence.
One person full of confidence, though, was Claude Chabrol, himself. Though his aggressive mise-en-scène, he has presented the dystopic inverse of Charles’s idealistic world. Working with brilliant cameraman, Henri Decae, who was also the preferred cinematographer of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chabrol’s camera uninhibitedly moves about the room, promiscuously tracking everyone, and figuratively insinuating itself up close in order to get the best angle at every moment. For a more detailed examination of this style, see The Seduction of Florence in Chabrol’s Les Cousins. Filmmakers sometimes seek an opportunity to include in their films a 360 degree camera pan, a showy effect that in the days when significant lighting stands were required, was difficult to pull off smoothly. In Les Cousins, Chabrol brashly executes this effect three times (in each of the three group get-togethers): once in Act 1, once in Act 2, and once in Act 4, the last one of which appears to be a double circle. These kinds of things are perhaps a bit overly conspicuous, but they reflect Chabrol’s emotionally expressive mise-en-scène
Les Cousins was Chabrol’s early landmark and the first financial success for the New Wave. He would reach his peak a decade later with La Rupture.