Le Beau Serge (Claude Chabrol / France, 1958):

"The poet comes home..." (Heidegger). The bus ride adduces a baleful note from Some Came Running, the youth with wary eyes and brittle lungs (Jean-Claude Brialy) might be Gide’s l’enfant prodigue, back amongst the rubes. From the onset, a Claude Chabrol film: A high-angled shot finds two characters on one side of the bus depot before a lateral pan reveals a second pair on the opposite side, the first set of doppelgängers in a career stocked with cracked mirrors. Provincial life is "kind of a shock" after a decade away in the city, the successful novelist is met by the failed architect (Gérard Blain), the once-promising boy lost in a haze of booze and self-pity. (A string of reverse tracking shots as the muttering lout meanders through a dirt road and into a graveyard paints a remarkably suggestive picture of a squashed life.) Blain’s tormented, pregnant wife (Michèle Méritz) is rhymed with the town lewdling (Bernadette Lafont), the wayward sister tending to the malevolent drunkard (Edmond Beauchamp) who can’t wait to maul her. Vacant chapels and infernal fireplaces, the self-appointed savior in the blanched void of a small-town winter: "The boy’s got a Christ complex!" Part mock-neorealist homoerotic foxtrot, part obsessively symmetrical Cahiers du Cinéma analysis of Hitchcock’s I Confess, Chabrol’s debut helped spearhead the French New Wave. (Cinephile theorems alternate with inside jokes, including Phillipe de Broca as an Algerian War hero named Rivette.) Lafont’s complaint to Brialy ("You observe us as if we were insects!") notwithstanding, the camera’s inquisitiveness exudes its own mordant humanism -- every altruistic gesture is tarnished and every loathsome deed is multifaceted, all contrasting halves are fused by the filmmaker’s sense of ambiguity. One character’s self-annihilating sacrifice is another’s disconcerting redemption, and hysterical laughter fills the screen in the most chilling "happy" ending since Blackmail. Cinematography by Henri Decaë. With Claude Cerval, Jeanne Pérez, and André Dino. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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