“. . . And also by Gégauff are one or two little things such as the scene where they talk about the erotic quality of their skin. The whole story depends on this, he would say: it’s a story about skin texture.”
– Claude Chabrol
“Chabrol has been able to pass with masterly skill from the theoretical beauty of a script by Paul Gégauff to its practical beauty – in other words, its mise en scene.”
– Jean-Luc Godard
The scene in Les Cousins (1959) referred to in the above quote by Claude Chabrol is the subject of the present analysis. This is the critical, disturbing scene that elevates the film to a nightmare and remains in the viewer’s memory. It begins innocently enough. The morning after a wild, orgiastic party, Paul’s cousin, Charles, arranges for a date with Florence, whom he had met the night before, to take place after his afternoon class is over. Florence mistakenly arrives at the apartment of Paul and Charles two hours too early, and the ensuing seduction of Florence is the essential event of this scene in the apartment.
In terms of film language, the scene is shot in a provocative fashion. It is nine-and-one-half minutes of continuous action – primarily a rhetorical conversation between Florence and first Paul and then Clovis, which takes place in a single room. Despite these elements which suggest stasis, the scene is propelled by Chabrol’s prowling camera which seems to trap the characters in fatalistic courses of action. It is as if the characters can walk anywhere but are condemned to confinement within the invisible cage of Chabrol’s fluid framing. The scene that follows takes place immediately after the telephone conversation between Florence and Charles.
The fourteen schematic floor plans included in this analysis provide a means to follow the character movements within the scene. The camera positions are denoted by encircled numbers with arrows, e.g.and give the direction of the camera angle at the beginning of the shot. Any tracks, pans, or tilts that take place subsequently are not shown on the diagrams but are described in the text. The camera position is given only to suggest the direction in which the particular shot was taken, not to show the exact physical location of the camera during shooting.
The individual characters are indicated by the capital letters of their first names. Thus “C” stands for Clovis. Character movements within the shot are denoted by solid lines, and movement that takes place off camera is indicated by dashed lines. Where several shots are shown on the same diagram (for example, floorplan 8), the mark,
is used to consign the movements to the separate shots.
Shot 1 (698 frames)
Paul is seen from profile in closeup, on the inside of his opened apartment door.
PAUL: “But he’s gone to class, Flo.”The camera pulls back and pans to the left to form a two shot of Florence and Paul at the door. Florence is at the left side of the frame
FLORENCE: “He said we’d go together at three.”Florence shakes her head to decline the offer.
PAUL” “You’re in a fog. He said five. Come have a drink.”
PAUL: “Come on. You’ve two hours to kill.”Florence looks up at Paul and then moves screen right, passing in front of Paul and through the doorway into the apartment. With her movement the camera pans slightly to the right until Paul is in the center of the frame in medium closeup. After she exits the frame on the right, Paul is seen following her with his eyes, establishing a separation.
Shot 2 (94 frames)
Florence is seen in medium long shot moving to sit down in a rocking chair inside the apartment. She looks forward and to the left of the frame, returning Paul’s glance from shot 1.
Shot 3 (142 frames)
Paul is seen from the same position as he was at the end of shot 1, still looking at Florence. He then exits in the direction of his gaze (screen right). This return to Paul in shot 3 reinforces the initial separation and sets the tone for the rest of the scene.
Shot 4 (704 frames)
Florence is in her chair, viewed from the same angle as in shot 2. Florence’s eyes are following Paul, and the separation is resolved as Paul enters the frame from screen left, passes in front of Florence and goes to a table to the right of her chair where he picks up a drink. As Paul passes in front of Florence, the camera begins to pan rightward, following his movement, and tilts upward in order to frame Paul in medium shot. When Paul reaches the table, Florence is no longer visible in the frame, and a new separation is formed.
PAUL: “Tell me, kitten, what’s with you and Charles?”Paul moves to the left and leans down to hand Florence (who is not seen) a mixed drink.
PAUL: “Playing a new game?”Paul walks away from her to another table in front of the wall where the guns are mounted. The camera has followed this movement, which is forward and to the right. Paul begins to prepare another drink and turns back toward Florence.
FLORENCE: “Just playing.”
PAUL: “Such refreshing frankness. And what do you get out of it?”The camera pans leftward back to Florence in her chair.
FLORENCE: “ A strange pleasure.”She then looks forward and to the right, offscreen, at Paul.
Shot 5 (1636 frames)
Paul is seen in medium closeup, returning towards Florence.
PAUL: “With Charles? Impossible.”He kneels down and the camera pans and tilts downward to form a two-shot with Florence. Florence is in the chair, and Paul is to the right of her in a squatting position. This resolves the separation begun in the middle of shot 2.
PAUL: “A great guy – honest – I’m mad about him. But . . . . well, you know what he’s like."He looks at her and then continues.
PAUL: “I’m not getting through. And you look so bright. I can see you two at art exhibits – but once in bet. . . “The camera now begins moving forward, closing up the frame.
FLORENCE: “You’re not bright. With him I don’t think about that.”
PAUL: “What else is there?”
FLORENCE: “There are other things.”
FLORENCE: “I want to be in love with him.”Paul stand up and exits to the right of the frame. As he does so, the camera pans leftward to center the frame on Florence.
PAUL: “Okay – let’s start with that. How old are you?”
FLORENCE: “Twenty.”Shot 6 (3636 frames)
Paul is in closeup, looking down and to the left (towards the still-seated Florence, who is offscreen.
PAUL: “So you’re in love with him.”He turns to his left and begins walking away from Florence. The camera follows his movement (to the right), keeping him in closeup.
PAUL: “And, of course, he adores you. So what happens? You play house.”Paul turns back to look at Florence.
PAUL: “He works like a dog. He’s that type.”Paul now begins to walk back towards Florence (to the left), and the camera follows.
PAUL: “For two weeks you tidy up the place. Or someone else does the work, while you lie in bed and read books. . . “Paul turns three-quarters of the way around and points at Florence as he continues with his argument.
PAUL: “ . . . . that he picks.”Paul begins to walk away from Florence again.
PAUL: “Saturday night – movies. Sunday – I visit – invite you both for a drink.”Paul again turns back toward Florence.
PAUL: “He’s too busy, and you won’t leave him. But I know you.”Paul beings walking back towards Florence’s chair.
PAUL: “You’ll act like a sainted martyr. And I’ll die laughing.”As he approaches Florence, the camera continues its motion until it reaches Florence in the chair. When Florence is centered in the frame, the camera moves in.
PAUL [offscreen]: “Wait. I forgot Mama. What’ll she say?”Paul leans down and into the frame to form a two-shot. The camera pulls back at this point, and the composition is maintained by Paul’s straightening up and stepping slightly forward (so that the two characters continue to fill the frame).
PAUL: “He won’t dare write her, because he can’t lie.”Paul again walks away from Florence’s chair.
PAUL: “What’ve we got? A good boy.”The camera pans and zooms in so that P:aul is in medium closeup when he turns toward Florence.
PAUL: “Now let’s be practical, Florence.”Paul begins walking back to her again.
PAUL: “He’s good looking. He’s not a simpleton. He’s quite smart.”Paul kneels down beside her chair again to from another two-shot – Florence left and Paul right. That is, the camera follows Paul as he kneels down until Florence appears in the frame on the left.
PAUL: “He has a noble character. But you each speak a different language.”The camera zooms in as Paul stand up and exits the frame. Florence is now seen in closeup
PAUL [offscreen]: “You’d both be miserable.”Paul’s hand now appears in the frame and rips Florence’s head.
PAUL [offscreen]: “And you’d cheat.”A doorbell is heard offscreen, and there is a continuity cut to shot 7.
Shot 6, which is over two-and-a-half minutes long, contains what amount to hidden cuts which break up the action. First Paul is seen in closeup, which begins a separation. He walks away from Florence until he is standing so that the apartment door can be seen in the background. When he walks back to Florence, the camera follows but not quite as closely, and Paul eventually is seen in medium shot. Then the camera pans to Florence (hidden cut) and then pulls back to form the first two-shot (another hidden cut). This sequence is more or less duplicated as Paul walks away again, comes back, and then approaches the chair to from the two-shot followed by the closeup of Florence. Thus there are six “quasi-shots” within shot 6.
Shot 7 (391 frames)
The doorbells is ringing, and Paul and Florence are seen from the position of the apartment entrance in long shot and looking toward the camera. Paul walks forward and exits screen left. Florence gets up and takes off her dress coat. She lays it across the couch.
CLOVIS: “I’m staved.”Clovis and Paul enter the frame in medium closeup, Clovis from the left and Paul from the right, their backs to the camera as they walk toward Florence. Clovis is wearing a hat. He puts his arm around Paul just after he enters the frame.
CLOVIS: “Ah, best of pals. . . . “As they walk towards Florence, she sits down, and the camera pans slightly to the left so that Florence is still visible on the right, and the two men are on the left of the frame.
Shot 8 (679 frames)
Action cut to Clovis and Paul seen approaching Florence from the front. Florence is closer up and to the right, seated in her rocking chair.
PAUL [looking at Florence but speaking to Clovis]: “She came up to see Charles.”(Clovis had already known of the meeting with Charles, since he had seen Florence when she had made the appointment by telephone.)
CLOVIS [drinking out of Paul’s drink]: “Whatever for?”
PAUL [still approaching]: “She’s in love with him.”
CLOVIS: “Impossible! It can’t be true.”Clovis removes his hat and approaches Florence’s chair. Paul turns and walks away, along the path he had taken for shot 6. Clovis and Paul are now separated and the orientation of the characters begin to get complicated at this point. Up until now, the scene has only involved two units – Florence, usually seated, and either Paul or Clovis-and-Paul (as a single unit) walking about her. From here on Chabrol must keep track of the three separate characters.
CLOVIS: “You can’t be serious. You two?! You’d be bored to death. In three days . . . [he spreads his arms out.]Paul comes ack up to Clovis and grabs his arm.
PAUL: “I told her.” [he comes forward].Florence, in medium closeup on the right side of the frame, has been learning forward in her seat. By leaning backward, she now exits the frame on the right just as Paul moves forward. Thus the three-shot transposes itself to a two-shot, with Paul on the right and Clovis on the left.
Shot 9 (43 frames)
A medium closeup of Florence looking forward and to the left of the frame. The separation is between Florence and the two men.
FLORENCE: “You don’t unders- . . . “Shot 10 (174 frames)
A medium closeup shot of Clovis and Paul. Clovis on the left is leaning down and looking in profile to the right at Florence (who is offscreen to the right). Paul, who is standing straight up and is slightly behind Clovis, is on the right of the frame and is visible on between the neck and the waits.
PAUL: “There we go!”Paul turns and walks out of the frame to the left.
CLOVIS [leaning towards Florence]: “The stupidity of it sickens me.”Clovis walks to the right of the frame. Then he turns a round and looks down and to the left, indicating that he has passed in front of Florence. Florence is not seen in this shot at all, because the camera passes above her.
Shot 11 (78 frames)
Florence is seen in closeup, looking left in profile. This angle is from Clovis’s point of view.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “The Can’t-Say-No Girl wants Choir-boy . . “Shot 12 (56 frames)
The same view as in shot 10.
CLOVIS” “. . . . Presto! – she’s a virgin.”Clovis begins to move left again. Notice the fact that since the entrance of Clovis, the length of each shot is much shorter. This reflects the change in mood that Clovis’s entrance has created, as well as the altered situation of having to establish the positions of three people in the room instead of two.
Shot 13 (145 frames)
The camera maintains a closeup of Florence while its angle changes. The camera is physically moving from right to left, and, since Florence’s eyes move with the camera so that they are always looking into the camera, we assume that this shot represents the point of view of Clovis (as did shot 11). This implied movement of Clovis enables Chabrol to execute a reverse shot in shot 14, since a new action axis can be established after shot 13.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “Even I find that immoral.”Shot 14 (200 frames)
Clovis is now seen in a medium shot looking down and to the right. He leans in the direction of his look and the camera pans and tilts in that direction, until Florence is brought into the frame to form a two-shot.
CLOVIS: “Don’t fool the boy. You can’t change. Sleep with him or drop him.”Clovis stands up again, and the camera pans down to from a medium shot of just Florence.
FLORENCE: “Filthy swine!”Florence is looking at Clovis, who is apparently walking away. This shot begins with Clovis in separation, moves into a two-shot, and finally ends with Florence in separation.
Shot 15 (826 frames)
A medium closeup of Clovis on the left and Paul in the background on the right. This reestablishment of Paul’s position indicates that he had walks only a little way after shot 10. Clovis sets his drink down on a table and turns back to Florence.
CLOVIS: “We adore you, . . . our own dear little Florence . . “Clovis walks toward her (to the right), and the camera pans with him until Paul is no longer visible.
CLOVIS: “We’re only thinking of you.”When Clovis utters this line, he turns and looks back in the direction of Paul. Then he turns back to Florence and kneels down next to her (Clovis is facing screen right).
CLOVIS: “Enjoy a few nights with him.”The camera pans over to the right to form a two-shot of Clovis and Florence
CLOVIS: “Don’t confuse things by marrying him first.”Clovis’s simple movements in shots 14 and 15 maintain a dynamism to the visuals of the scene as well as create separations and resolutions thereof in an inconspicuous fashion.
FLORENCE: “I might like that.”
CLOVIS: “And that would be very bad.”
Shot 16 (479 frames)
An action cut to a closeup (might tighter than shot 15) of Florence straight on.
CLOVIS [offscreen]: “Can you make him happy?”The camera pulls back to take in Clovis, who is still at screen left. The camera also pans slightly to the left.
CLOVIS: “Touch your flesh. I’m an expert on flesh. Believe me. I’m an expert with a perfect score."The camera pans down to her right arm.
CLOVIS: “Yours is so warm and alive.”Clovis touches her arm.
Shot 17 (301 frames)
An action cut as Florence moves her arm away. The two are seen in medium shot.
CLOVIS: “Feel how it trembles. It reveals what you are, kitten.”The camera itself moves to the right while maintaining the two-shot, so that the shot begins over Clovis’s shoulder and ends over Florence’s shoulder.
CLOVIS: “You were born to be fondled – not kept under glass.”The camera is now looking more directly into Clovis’s face. The camera pans leftward now as Clovis turns and looks back in the direction of Paul.
Shot 18 (74 frames)
Paul is seen in medium shot. He is seen not to have moved from his position that he held in shot 15.
PAUL: “He makes good sense.”Paul is looking forward and to the right of the frame. It is interesting to notice that the separation between Florence and Paul has only been linked by Clovis since his entrance.
Shot 19 (293 frames)
The same angle as at the end of shot 17.
CLOVIS: ‘She’ll listen to me. You will, won’t you, Florence?”Florence turns away from him, towards the camera, but her look is downward.
FLORENCE: ‘Two hours . . . .”Shot 20 (835 frames)
CLOVIS: “Plenty of time . . . for what I want to prove.”
Action cut to a reverse of the previous shot. This reversed position lasts only for a moment, for Clovis stand and walks in front of the seated Florence. Clovis quickly passes o ut of the frame on the right, revealing the seated girl, whose eyes follow the offscreen movement of Clovis until he reappears again on the right of the screen, but not at Florence’s left side (he had previously been on Florence’s right side). Clovis again leans down next to Florence.
CLOVIS: “Admit that, when you touch Charles, something terrific should happen. Be honest. What do you feel when you touch Charles?”Florence looks at him but doesn’t answer.
CLOVIS: “Now you know how wrong you’ve been about this.”Clovis looks down at her arms.
CLOVIS: “Here . . . touch me.”Florence turns away.
CLOVIS: “No? . . . Then, Paul.”Clovis looks up at Paul (forward and to the left of the frame.)
Shot 21 (70 frames)
A medium closeup of Paul looking at the two of them with a trouble expression.
Shot 22 (1258 frames)
A medium long shot of Clovis (right) and Florence (left), viewed from approximately the position of Paul. Clovis stands up and comes toward Paul (not yet seen), i.e. comes toward the camera. The camera follows his movement by panning right a bit.
CLOVIS: “What are you afraid of? Let her touch you, Paul.”Paul enters on the left side of the frame in medium closeup and walks, or rather is led by Clovis, up to in front of Florence’s chair. Clovis bids Florence to stand up and holds her left hand. She removes her hand from his grasp, but he reaches for her right hand and places it on Paul’s neck. Paul and Florence are now standing in front of each other and staring into each other’s eyes. The camera begins to zoom in on them. Clovis is visible behind them and is now in closeup.
CLOVIS: “Well, how do you like it? The feel of such hidden strength . . . of flesh calling to flesh.”Paul and Florence lean forward and kiss. Clovis turns and walks away from them (directly away from the camera). This shot finally resolves this scene’s separation between Florence and Paul, which had existed since the entrance of Clovis.
Shot 23 (186 frames)
A medium shot of Clovis still waking away from camera. He turns around and faces the camera. This shot is taken from the point of view of the couple, although they are presumably engaged with each other and not looking at Clovis
CLOVIS: “Yes, Florence, it will be Paul who’ll save you from Charles!”Clovis takes a step forward, and his eyes shift slightly to the left and right, denoting the respective positions of the unseen lovers. This is the final and most striking use of facial glances to identify offscreen character position in the scene.
Shot 24 (300 frames)
A reverse closeup of Paul and Florence kissing ardently. This shot is taken more or less from Clovis’s position.
Shot 25 (272 frames)
Clovis is seen from the rear in medium shot. Behind him (that is, in the background of the shot) Paul and Florence exist screen left, walking arm in arm. Clovis watches them and walks forward and to the right to pick up a drink on a table. The camera pans slightly to follow him. Although the cut from shot 24 to shot 25 is presumed to be of continuous action, there is actually a break in the continuity between these two shots. Florence is now to the left of Paul at the beginning of this shot (she was on the right in shot 24), and the two of them have moved toward the door. Since, at the beginning of this shot, Paul and Florence are partially obscured behind Clovis, this break in continuity is not particularly noticeable.
This ends the scene.