Masters Of Cinema #58 - Le Beau Serge - Blu-ray Review

Claude Chabrol's début, and the film credited with kicking off the French New Wave, the weight of film history weighs heavy around the shoulders of Le Beau Serge. Chabrol's film is best taken on its own, rather meeker intentioned merits, than addressed as a production of great import. Serge has found a place in history but take a step back to 1958 and you doubt anyone involved was looking beyond the next day of filming. This is a lo-fi piece of French social realism, an intriguing indie film about maturity, life on the outskirts and addiction.

The two leads, Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, who guide our path through the entirety of Chabrol's film, typify much of Serge's style. Though both, and Brialy in particular, would go on to have long and well-regarded careers as actors in French cinema, here their craft is raw. Blain was more experienced at this point, and it shows. Brialy had only been acting for a year. The performances they turn in show a certain level of naivety and uncertainty but, using the benefit of hindsight, the presence both exhibit makes it little surprise that they would have significant future successes. So it is with Serge as a whole. This is a film rough around the edges but with a quality and an emerging voice strong enough not to be hidden behind technical and storytelling missteps.

The most obvious of those missteps is the length. At one-hundred minutes, La Beau Serge is some fifteen minutes over-cooked. Arriving in the town where he grew up, François (Brialy) meets Serge (Blain), drunk and stumbling, right away, yet it takes him forever, and well into the final third, to fully realise and explore his addiction. The stodgy middle section in particular rumbles on for a long time, whilst offering little new to the story or the characters.

As noted though, Chabrol does not let story shortcomings get in the way of telling his fable of rural life, a story during which he excels at weaving in complimentary themes and subtexts. Maturity plays a big part in François' rediscovery of his village and in the exploration of Serge's shortcomings. Costumed in smart clothes, where those who have stayed are comparably in rags - note Marie (Bernadette Lafont) telling François that she made her 'frock' herself - Brialy's character arrives with an air of superiority but little practical knowledge from the outside world, from which he can draw advice to benefit the village's inhabitants. Note an early scene of François skipping through the square, kicking a can around whilst a frivolous flute invades the score. At this point he is not dissimilar to the children in the school opposite his hotel window, whom Chabrol puts on the screen near constantly, and not by accident.

Serge meanwhile, whose 'Beau' (handsome) tag is at least partially ironic, runs from responsibility, family and tragedy by indulging in wine with his filthy father-in-law Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp). Chabrol could fall into the trap here of assimilating François' apparent destiny to help his friend with a need to get him off the bottle. He doesn't. Chabrol's approach to addiction is a modern one. François must, like a perceptive psychologist, address the cause of Serge's pain, rather than the way in which it manifests itself.

Chabrol too weaves in the idea that the rural and isolated location, from which you feel that many of the characters have never left, is at least a partial cause of their malaise. Serge summarises his options as staying in filth or leaving to join the army, where he will be forced to become another François; an invader in a foreign land, attempting to do good for its inhabitants. During the finale, as Chabrol cuts suddenly from Yvonne (Michèle Méritz) in childbirth to François falling down on a snowy road, providing a reminder that he too - near sainted at this point - is a product, a child, of this village. It is a glimpse of light during what, at that point, may still turn out to be a very dark tunnel indeed.

The only salvation available to this isolated cast is, unsurprisingly, religion, represented by Claude Cerval's unnamed priest. Addressing this element, Chabrol is as scathing as Le Beau Serge gets. Like François, there are hints that the priest has tried using words to snap his flock out of their predicament. Unlike François, there is no hint that the priest has ever realised that words are not enough, that he must 'do something', as well as preach. Note that, after François has completed his Jesus Chirst-like final reel act, it is only then that he declares, 'I believe'. Meanwhile, in scenes previously, the priest has not only told the protagonist that he himself cannot and will not help, but has advised François to take the same course of ambivalence.

This dense compact of ideas from Chabrol falters only once, in the problematic portrayal of Marie, which seems clumsy for a film so sure of its direction. Raped by Glomaud, who immediately comes up with an excuse for his actions, which is subsequently accepted by Serge at least and arguably by others, she goes on from this point to pursue married Serge, after François chooses not to protect or better her but to ignore her. This rare bit of clumsiness from Chabrol casts Marie as the villain, where in reality, she is as much a victim of circumstance, location and tragedy, and as much in requirement of an intervention, as Serge. It is a shame that such an element threatens to undermine what is, otherwise, a supremely clever Dramatic exploration of several complex themes, a film with more worth than simply signalling the start of what was to come.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Le Beau Serge is released in the UK on Monday 8th April 2013

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