By Jean-Paul Garrieux
Le Beau Serge (Ajym Films, 1958) – Director: Claude Chabrol. Writer: Claude Chabrol. Cast: Gerard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michele Meritz, Bernadette Lafont, Claude Cerval, Edmond Beauchamp, Jeanne Perez, Andre Dino, Michel Crueze, & Christine Dourdet. B&W, 98 minutes.
Have you ever returned to your hometown after a lengthy absence to find that, while the town is still the same, the people have changed to the point where you now feel like a stranger in their midst? This is the plot of Chabrol’s, Le Beau Serge, a plot that might just as well come from the pen of Albert Camus. It is an excellent exercise in existential alienation.
The film begins on a quiet country road. The only sounds we hear come from a bubbling brook in the foreground of the frame. It’s the stuff of which picture postcards are made. The loud roar of an engine suddenly interrupts the peace as a large bus crosses the frame. It’s a harbinger of what is to come as Chabrol cuts inside the bus, and after giving us a brief montage of the passengers, he settles on as bespectacled, sickly-looking young man named Francois Bayon (Brialy) who is returning to the hometown of Sardent for a lengthy rest after years away in Paris (where he was a theology student) and Switzerland, where he went for treatment. He is suffering from tuberculosis, and has come back to his old hometown for the milder winter.
Immediately after arriving he is greeted by Christine (Dourdet), a friend of his parents, and Michel (Crueze), an old friend from boyhood. They exchange pleasantries, but soon Francois is distracted by the presence of two men, one of whom he recognizes as his close friend Serge. He calls out to Serge, but Serge keeps walking with the other man, heading for a tavern. Michel tells Francois that when Serge is “drunk as a skunk” he’s oblivious to everything. As Michel carries Francois’ bag to the hotel, they discuss old times as children and how the place has changed. But Francois can’t get his mind off Serge and asks how he got that way. Michel explains that Serge wanted to study architecture and passed his entrance exams, but then impregnated a young lady, Yvonne (Meritz) and had to marry her. The child was stillborn, a mongoloid. Yvonne is pregnant again and Serge’s fear is that this next baby will be born the same way, so he abandons himself into a liquor-hazed world, oblivious to most everything but womanizing. The old man Serge was with is his father-in-law and drinking buddy, Glomaud (Beauchamp).
The most arresting part of the scene is that while the driver is fetching Francois’ luggage on the roof of the bus, we see Serge and Glomaud standing on the other side. Immediately after the camera espies them, a sharp, dark sting of music punctuates their presence, and the way they are framed in the scene makes them appear most sinister.
The opening scenes also establish Chabrol’s mise-en-scene, which is drab, barren, and suffocating. The bleakness of the late autumn countryside blends with the stark claustrophobia of the village, with its narrow roads and unwelcoming run-down buildings. The hotel where Francois stays, with its granite walls, dark halls and stairways, is more like a penal institution than a place to relax. This is not a happy place, the townspeople are a reflection of their surroundings, caught in the decay. For instance, an act of incestuous rape is treated with a "ho hum" indifference by the village.
While discussing Serge and what has happened to him while walking to the hotel, Michel talks of Serge’s shattered dreams, telling Francois that “at least I knew I would end up a baker.” The best way to avoid pain and suffering is not to dream. But then, not to dream is to abandon hope.
For Francois, this state of affairs is intolerable. He sees out as up to him to set things right and he’ll begin with Serge. At first the two friends try to reconnect as they share memories and laugh as they talk over the divergent paths their lives have taken and the recent developments in those lives. But too much time has passed and their superficial and disjointed conversations quickly take a bitter turn. The unspoken conflict between the two is existential: Francois has been to the city. He haas become worldly, exuding an air of entitlement. Serge, on the other hand, has degenerated into a country bumpkin trapped in a downward slide. At first excited about his friend’s progress in escaping the village, Serge’s wonderment quickly grows resentful as he is put off by Francois’s superior attitude and his constant advice about how Serge can turn his fortunes around.
What began as a happy reunion has now become a quiet battle marked by passive-aggressive volleys back and forth. Soon Serge’s wife Yvonne and her slatternly sister Marie (Lafont) are drawn into the fray, with every get together between them seeing as if it could easily turn vicious. Serge has cheated on Yvonne with Marie, and the town gossip has it that Glomaud isn't actually Marie's father. Marie, for her part, is quick to jump in bed with Francois, who in turn is not about to turn her favors down.
This comes back to haunt Francois when Glomaud spots François in the hotel tavern and asks him to buy him a drink. François refuses, to which Glomard responds, “You won’t drink with me, but you’ll sleep with my daughter?” Glomaud yells. François’s defense to the charge is to repeat the unsubstantiated gossip that Marie is not his daughter. Glomaud, though, calls witnesses to attest to François’ statement, then stumbles off to rape Marie, whom he has reputedly lusted after for years. François later finds Marie in tears and tries to comfort her, only to be told that “You observe us as if we were insects.” Francis then chases down Glomaud, who is trying to escape through the local cemetery, and throws him to the ground.
Bewildered by what just transpired, François retreats to his hotel room, where Serge finds him. They engage in a telling conversation, as François says, “Everything’s so different here . . . You’re like animals, as though you had no reason for living.”
Serge can only respond that “The earth’s like granite; they can barely scrape a living. They work because they’ve no choice . . . Come and look. Miles to walk home, often in deep snow. Still, they want to learn. We’re animals, but who cares? Everyone can’t simply leave. You understand? It’s like a baby couldn’t walk if there were no one to show him how.”
Later Serge will make the observation, “Poor François. Always eager to do a good deed.” Francois may have changed outwardly, but he’s still the same judgmental person he always was, with Chabrol nicely emphasizing Francois’s lack of understanding of the insults thrown his way.
Chabrol’s portrait of Francois emphasizes his elitist outlook toward the economic and existential challenges faced daily by the townspeople. For François, the answer is simple: he must convince Serge to leave Yvonne, as she is clearly responsible for the problems between them and contributing to Serge’s fall from grace by getting pregnant and forcing him into a shotgun wedding. Later, expanding his mission, he rebukes the town priest (Cerval) for abandoning his mission to help the villagers find redemption via religion. The priest’s response that Francois doesn’t understand the situation and should mind his own business only causes him to dig in his heels. Chabrol shows that François has come to see himself a savior; it is up to him to save Serge, Yvonne, and Marie. And how? Merely be being there for them. “I think they need me, I think they need an example,” he says. He has become a false prophet, thinking that can succeed where the local institutions have failed in addressing and alleviating the town's economic and moral stagnation.
The schism between the former friends and François’ complete incomprehension of the villagers reaches its conclusion at a local dance. Francois objects to Serge’s callous treatment of Yvonne and begins dishing out advice and admonishment. Serge walks out into the street, followed by Francois, who gets a beating from his friend for his troubles. The villagers look on, imploring Serge to “teach the Parisian a lesson.” But instead of understanding François stubbornly remains stays in the village, feeling he is still needed to redeem Serge.
The film comes to its climax as Yvonne goes into labor. Serge is nowhere to be found. Francois finds the family doctor, then goes out looking for Serge. He finds his friend dead drunk in a barn and literally has to drag him through the snow. Once home he awakens Serge by rubbing snow in his face, just as his son’s first cries break the silence. François, collapsing, utters his last words, “I believed,” while Serge, hearing his healthy son’s cries, weeps from joy.
No matter how we look at it, the fact remains that Le Beau Serge was an impressive debut for the 27-year-old director. Yet. there was seemingly something in the film to cheese of everyone: Some criticized the blunt treatments of sexual material while others were bothered by the overt Catholic moralizing. The town of Sardent, where Chabrol grew up, was presented as somehow frozen in time; an incredibly insular place not unlike the backwoods towns in some horror movies, quietly threatening. Roland Barthes attacked it for its “right-wing” and “static” image of man, but on the other side it was championed by none other than Francois Truffaut who said at the film’s opening that it “is as masterly as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with a camera.”
The contrast between François's holier-than thou attitude and Serge's self-destructive actions reflects Chabrol’s Marxist view of the world as one of class divisions that in themselves produce lasting social consequences. Francois represents the well-to-do bourgeoise, who fail to realize the real problems of the working classes, instead offering platitudes instead of real solutions.
The film is also a cross between a family drama and a murder melodrama, as Chabrol was greatly heavily influenced by the films of his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, in particular, Shadow of a Doubt, as it announces the arrival of a dark presence in its opening scene. While critic Tom Milne notes that “As mirror images of each other, the two men reflect the interest in Hitchcockian themes of transference later elaborated in Chabrol's work, but here expressed rather too overtly in terms of Christian allegory (a transference not so much of guilt as of redemption)” he is overlooking the fact that the attempt at Christian redemption is self-serving and superficial. Chabrol is at heart a moralist, but not in the usual sense of lecturing people about right and wrong. Rather, he is more interested in finding out how and why people make moral decisions and how they come by strange beliefs. Unlike Chabrol’s later films, thrillers that disguise their morality beneath a veneer of bloody murder and tension, Chabrol goes right to the core of this film’s morality by asking two important questions: Why has Serge taken to drink, and why is Francois so obsessed with redeeming him?
Chabrol and cinematographer Henri present Sardent as both divided and interlinked as Francois and Serge, using the mise en scene of the town’s cramped layout to establish an atmosphere of alienation and ennui. Emile Delpierre's music, with its sinister surges, is used to foreshadow events. Throughout the movie Chabrol uses the music not not merely as a mood enhancement, but also to clarify what is occurring and anticipate what is to follow.
As Serge, Gerard Blain comes across as a sort of Frenchified James Dean, but without the histrionics that Dean often employed. Jean-Claude Brialy hits all the right notes as Francois, a man torn between the demands of the spirit and the pleasures of the flesh. And special mention must be made of Bernadette Lafont, who while only 19 when the picture was filmed, comes across with the intensity and presence of an actress much older.
Le Beau Serge is often regarded as the first of the French New Wave, but in truth Agnes Varda beat him to the punch with her 1955 production, La Pointe Courte. Still, Le Beau Serge is a fascinating film, made all the more so by the fact of its being a first effort, and one that demands to be seen.