Masters Of Cinema #59 - Les Cousins - Blu-ray Review

Perhaps, over the last sixty-years or so, we have gorged too much, fed by the too-good to refuse talents of France's top directors. Red wine, free love, immaculate goatees; the first hour, at least, of Les Cousins feels, now with the benefit or hindsight, all so familiar. Released into the Masters Of Cinema series at the same time as director Claude Chabrol's earlier work, Le Beau Serge, this has none of the immediately thrilling grubbiness of his earlier film, none of the beautifully-realised rural conflict, the chaos of life on the margins. If Le Beau Serge is a tarnished rusty saw, Les Cousins is, by comparison, the surgeon's scalpel.

To that end, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chabrol produces a conclusion infinitely more poignant than that which he managed in Serge. Following country arrival Charles (Gérard Blain) and his titular family relation Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), Les Cousins weaves a path where both search for the meaning of life, alternatively, in books and love. The clash in styles - obvious from their first meeting when Paul is garbed in flowing dressing gown, brandishing such implements as a telescope, a sword and a gun, whilst Charles clutches his briefcase - can inevitably only lead to tragedy here, even if Chabrol expertly manages to avoid predictable cliché.

The problem with the main bulk of the film is that, whilst Chabrol works tirelessly to avoid sudden movements of melodramatic gesture, he also manages to almost completely avoid meaningful conflict. Beset with rage that Françoise (Stéphane Audran) has left him, her lover rails against the group briefly, before disappearing from the screen and plot. An oafish member of the Italian nobility (Corrado Guarducci) turns up, is obnoxious and then, again, disappears, vaguely hinting at threatening behaviour but never actually bringing it to realisation. Caught in an inevitable love triangle with Florence (Juliette Mayniel), the cousins settle their differences in a discussion that only ever reaches mild awkwardness. Voices are never raised. Blain, in fact, looks like he might be about to fall asleep. The first hour or so of Les Cousins is a drab affair; long scenes of not much in particular, drama-less constructs of cigarette vapour and ever-present Merlot.

The main points of interest in this section are provided by the wonderful Blain and the even better Brialy. In a simplistic manner, their roles here represent a reversal of their lose dramatic responsibilities during Serge. Blain - in Serge the titular aggressor, hopelessly lost to ill-maturation and addiction - is again a 'boy from the country', but instead of revelling in abnormality, here he is quiet and controlled, trying to make his way as a professional in Paris; almost exactly as Brialy is when he returns to his village in Serge. The latter, meanwhile, is notionally the aggressor here, though in a completely different way to Blain in Serge. Where Brialy's entry in that film was to Blain's grubby world of decay, here Charles enters Paul's palace of opulence, late night parties and Wagner. There is joy at seeing two talents portray such different characters as previously, yet retain the same presence they had in the earlier film, and much of the same chemistry.

As with Le Beau Serge, a more worrying failure of Chabrol in Les Cousins is his treatment of women. Thankfully, Florence is much deeper written than his attempts at female characters in his first film, and there is not the same marginalisation of rape and abuse. Still, this is man's film, where the women are arm candy; promiscuous men, like Paul, are championed and held up as group leaders, promiscuous women like Françoise are 'sluts'. Any women who starts to get ideas about escaping her allotted role - like Florence, in a painful conversation with Paul and the abominable Clovis (Claude Cerval) - is stringently put back in her place with a severe mental tongue lashing. It fits with the characters Florence must ultimately choose between (Paul: free-love, life, wine; Charles: education, sensible, knowledge), but only to the point that it reflects the desires and motivations of the male characters. Florence, et al., are here merely to reflect, not to think for themselves.

Perhaps the problem with the female characters is a deeper-rooted one than simply the film's innate disinterest in them. The late Roger Ebert once famously wrote of George Lucas that '[he] cannot write a love scene... greeting cards have expressed more passion'. Chabrol's first love scene, where Florence and Charles leave a party to converse under the trees outside, is similarly painful. 'I love your voice', Florence tells Charles. Things get more awkward and less meaningful from there on.

In the background, Chabrol plays with interesting ideas with plenty of success but insubstantial focus. Opening the film with a military march and a shot of Paul's shelves of toy soldiers, conflict rears its head on several occasions. A scene after a party, where Paul wakes up a Jewish reveller by pretending to be a Gestapo solider, shows just how far his character traits may push him, predicting the finale. Family, clearly, is also key to Chabrol's ideas. Paul seems to have no contact with anyone but Charles, whilst the latter maintains an odd, almost quasi-Oedipal relationship with his off-screen mother, whom he writes often and wishes to satisfy. The repeated theme of town living vs country living, a further examination of the dangers of, arguably, both, can be seen to carry on from where Serge left off.

But where Chabrol's Le Beau Serge was dirty and different, this is mainly concerned with the much svelter French middle-class-to-be, drinking wine and being debauched in Paris. Both should have similar levels of interest but somehow Les Cousins' plot becomes anonymised and difficult to engage with, whilst the unsympathetic leads struggle to find humanity in their rich-blooded charges.

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.

Les Cousins is released in the UK on Monday 8th April 2013

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