Thursday, August 8, 2013

Les Cousins - Claude Chabrol (1959)

 In some regards an improvement over his first film Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins remains a proto-work in which Chabrol is still grappling with the medium. At least it seems that way in light of what he accomplished with his next feature Les Bonnes Femmes, which, for all its primitivity, unfolds as a compelling cinematic experience and marks the point at which the apparent randomness of its mis-en-scène and plot seems--retrospectively--both necessary and recognizably "Chabrolean." With it a new cinematic form was forged that retains its apparently formless spontaneity and feeling of chaos no matter how many times one watches it. It is not incidentally the film in which Chabrol finds his most persistent and fruitful subject matter--womankind. But it is Les Cousins, with which Chabrol began to find his authorial voice, that first establishes the thematic complex that will typify his future work: the violent perversity of human nature and the reversals to which it is subject.

"Les Cousins," Godard once provocatively, if puzzlingly, observed, "is profound because it is hollow." It's a matter of speculation exactly how his observation relates to Chabrol's film, which was at the time in no way part of any new movement, but simply and startlingly novel. There are many possible interpretations. Evidence of hollowness might be found in the immediacy of the world captured by the mis-en-scene, as in the drive through Paris in an open convertible upon Charles' arrival, an episode anticipated by films such as Jules Dassin's Riffifi (itself likely inspired by Gun Crazy) and emulated in the title sequence of Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent CoupsHollowness is reflected in Chabrol's thematic and diegetic primitivity and the al fresco vérité style that became the hallmark of French nouvelle vague cinema.

The agitated excess of energy augemented by over-the-top performances, the purposelessness of adolescent posturing, especially Paul's reckless grandiosity--the shameful if not fatal flaw of his character--all convey a certain lack of a center. The distracted impulsivity of Parisian sophisticates seeking transgressive transport represents the hollow ennui hedonistic excess seeks to escape. It's unlikely Godard was referring to this species of moral de-centering, but to me it seems the most salient kind centerlessness, and rather emblematic of the nouvelle vague in toto. Godard's own films are certainly always as much self-conscious and quasi ironic ciphers of the Zeitgeist transpiring at the meta-level of the referential act as they are dramas about human conflicts.

That youth represents style over substance, the inevitable disproportion between claim and fulfillment, aspiration and accomplishment, is only obvious after its passing. The verdict of the classicist who's "seen it all before" feels rather merciless toward the excesses of inspiration. For romantic exuberance sins against the central aesthetic credo of classicism: that less--judiciously gauged privation--is always more. It is effectively and affectively a surplus in waking the desire for more, while more itself leads to premature satiety. This insight is unattainable for those just getting started, and it would be unhelpful if not fatal for the inspiration that fuels youthful creativity. Only the reversal of forward momentum--hindsight----exposes the void at the center of excess. This explains why the classical is paradigmatic: it is essentially reflective and informed by judgments of taste. Its verdicts always affect the faith and impulsiveness of inspiration as an astringent--inducing contraction (reflection). By the same token, the classic aesthetic is less creative than preservative. 


Each new generation makes its selection of paradigms. Naively at first rather than on the basis of historical importance. Such a criterion is foreign to it. The historical approach as often as not effects a kind of redemption of works that no longer speak to the full measure of our selves. It performs the work of rescue out of a sense of obligation, a growing sense of a finitude wholly absent from vernal exuberance. 

Judgments of taste and historical import as indicative of a certain resignation are understandably dismissed by new generations. Even in the exercise of judgment when compiling their own provisionally final canons. To chide youth for its want of hindsight is to misjudge what it has to offer. Fearlessness, of which little remains by the age of wisdom, will have its time and season. Even Chabrol's first obstreperous efforts must be grasped in their necessity as expressions of an unrepeatable moment in his personal development and in cinematic history: as flawed but bold rebukes of a standard of classical good-taste. Given time the historical perspective rescues and vindicates the one-time-new. Just this luxury of retrospection is absent in a beginning, rendering it,
for all its force of natality, awkward, even impoverished. Modernity took a stand embracing such impoverishment in the artless and ofter brutal unmitigatedness of the primitive.

Measure implies finality and totality; totality implies the loops of life's many reels traversed. Youth's dismissiveness of precedent is part and parcel of its confidence. Youth is only "wasted" on youth in the sense that it consumes itself against a horizon of unendingness and novelty--moved in its extemporaneous self-declarations as much by glandular secretions as ideals. It is "full" of itself, urgent, pompous, and selfish, as exemplified by the over-bearing and histrionic Paul, the survivor (perversely enough) of Chabrol's second tale of mismatched comrades. 

In Chabrol's oeuvre perversity is less a matter of manifestly sick and malign individuals, of which there are plenty, to be sure, than a function of upset expectations and fortuitous inversions. In Les Cousins the ostensible victim of life, callow, over-conscientious momma's boy from the provinces Charles (Blain), winds up the transgressor, perpetrating a heinous crime de passion on the genuine villain of the piece, Paul (Brialy). Even if his motive is understandable given Paul's insufferable grandiosity and flamboyant deceitfulness, it takes malevolence of a decidedly fiendish sort to shoot a friend in his sleep. This reversal, while foiled as action, transforms our estimation of both characters. But it is outdone by a final denouement--a bit of poetic justice whereby Charles dies at the unwitting hands of his intended victim by firing the pistol he assumes to be empty. Whether such actions constitute a satisfactory ending to a character-driven film I leave open. It did feel a bit like someone pulling all the dramatic stops for the final act; an externally applied exclamation point wanting the organic inevitability of Les Bonnes Femmes's final moments. But it may just constitute a requirement of the crime genre (the one where discharged firearms change narrative trajectories) Chabrol has awkwardly and unmitigatedly incorporated into this tale of ill-fated friendship.

Contextualizing Chabrol's film in a cinematic space shared with Vadim's Les Liasons Dangereuses, Fellini's La Dolce Vitta, two other early examples of what would become the anarchic hedonism and perceptual renaissance of the 1960s, facilitates evaluation. Provided examination is made of one's own attitude towards the period's excesses. A judicious evaluation of Chabrol's film will be sensitive to the necessity of hedonistic liberation even as it maintains a critical distance towards its nihilistic consequences. The kind of distance impossible on a first immersive viewing.    

The film is a programatic aperçu of Chabrol's entire oeuvre. It is hollow qua open to the chaos of existence. Chabrol permits chaos to exist in a way that feels both unsettling yet tedious and almost leads one to question the aesthetic and moral judgments that constitute his style. A chaos of unforeseeable incident and anarchic surging within the characters, themselves figuring more as coordinates of conflict than primary focal points.

Chabrol's theme is suspense, the psychological thriller as explosion of reality. He assaults us with unforeseeable events, disdaining to fill-in the lacunae between them, and a permanent state of emergency as imparted by the restless camera, a style soon to be exploited to much greater, near-baroque effect by Truffaut. 

Blain is a mesmerizing fixation point; the picture of symmetry, sensitivity, and callow innocence. Yet Brialy’s impersonation is gratingly over-the-top: a caricature incongruously juxtaposed with Blain’s timorous fumbling. Its hamminess, anticipating the over-solicitous buffoons of Les Bonnes Femmes, and Isabelle Hupert's uppity boorishness in La Cérémonie, frustrates immersion in the dramatic events and helps define Chabrol's preoccupation with reality as action, where action is understood as the unmitigated, or simply, assault.

The diegetic use of Wagner as the bon-vivant demonstrates his cynical self-transcendence ad nauseum had me cringing. Being bludgeoned over the head with the conceits of youth-culture anno 1959 is no more bearable for being half a century removed. Everything is possible at that age: people hang-out in groups, play records, binge drink, confront one another in dramatic demonstrations of daring-do and truth confession, and fucking afterwards in discrete pairs. Nothing seems so quaint as yesteryear’s iconoclasm. 

This is not a film that eves-drops on itself but one that declares itself ostentatiously over long stretches, then grows suddenly quiet and inward, only to once again clamorously assault, rather than to ravish, our sensibilities. It is as if Chabrol did not trust his audience to get the juxtaposition of meek and mild Charles and Paul the pompous urbanite, endlessly underlining the disconnect as if it were a plot point rather an just a given, manifest incongruity. No slight-of-hand here. 

Everything, including Paul's baffoonery, seems ponderous, as Germanic as the Wagnerian opera played at unconscionably manipulative length late in the film. That parasitic ploy cannot cover up for the inability to cinematically evoke the deep pathos of which Wagner was the master. A romantic impulse that feels woefully out of place in the Jazz-infused post-War Parisian ambient. I struggled to make sense of the sudden emotional depth by fiat in the breezy give and take of the nouvelle vague setting. The playful-satirical and the romanticist are opposing magnitudes, and to meld them creates an incongruous mish-mash one can only feel ambivalently about. 

Put it down the excesses of youth and the ambition of an untried talent to make a strong impression. One that took some time to discover that whispering is an equally effective tactic to that end. 

I am not the first to point out Chabrol’s predilection for broadly drawn, caricatured characterizations. A tendency he rarely completely resisted in his early work, though paradigmatically in his intriguing Betty.

One of his most successful efforts is called La Rupture--a title that would describe any number of his films about human evil. Evil is a concept that would have obviated more abstract circumlocutions at the risk of closing off that which is endlessly unsettling about Chabrol's oeuvre. For we all already understand evil without feeling the need to "mystify," as Chabrol's experiential emplotment of the malefic must appear to do to anyone occupying the reflective high-ground of sound judgment and experience. Such a character-focused account of Chabrol's thematic ties his work to the basic preoccupations of dramatists of the human condition down through the centuries at the cost of obscuring what makes his treatment distinctive. 

Evil in Chabrol's vision is a component of the force of destiny that assaults us. It is the order of the dis-ordering in the face of which nothing human seems inconceivable. As such he makes evil inconsequential, mundane, inevitable. Rather than the fate of a character's derailment, it is inscribed in the context of his existence. Being good is the miraculous failure to do evil. Is the exception to the rule of chaos, fault, and rupture. The paradoxical effect of which is to elevate goodness to the rightful rank of grace. Meanwhile, evil is, obtaining as the default and quotidian modality of the moral universe. Whether by intention or inadvertently, this demythologizes evil. It makes evil acts appear as discrete and isolated from the arc of character; happening with a brute facticity that belies interpretation. As appropriate to the medium of cinema qua revelation of events, Chabrol shows events, but resists drawing conclusions. He does this by eschewing diegetic framings that invite reflective distance or reduction in characterologically necessary terms. Again, the core thematic--"shit happens"--imposes such abstinence. Chabrol isn't interested in helping us draw comforting conclusions, having in some sense aligned himself with evil as the assault of the real. He clearly reveled in his role as disturber of the peace. Of course his delight in disorienting the peaceable bourgeois and forcing him out of his zone of comfort presupposed that his own at-homeness in our domesticated world was taken for granted. He could disturb because he was happily unperturbed by human turpitude. That lent his efforts their innocence, and his character its mischievous fraudulence.

Even when he attempts, or appears to attempt, the emplotment of miraculous malice, as in the swan-trumpeted, snowy landscape of Les Bonnes Femmes, what we experience is one animal ending the life of another, nothing more. It is less shocking than poignant. The result is something else than the perception of an evil man. Chabrol makes us all complicit in murder. He is the cinematic nihilist who succeeds in throwing into relief the grace of existence.

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