Monday, October 20, 2008

Le Beau Serge
Claude Chabrol B&W, 98 minutes, 1958

French New Wave director, Claude Chabrol, shows himself a master of suspense in his 1958 film, Le Beau Serge (translated as Handsome Serge). What is a shame is that Le Beau Serge is not in the suspense genre, suspense is not really pertinent to the film’s subject matter, and even Serge is not really the protagonist in Le Beau Serge.

The plot elements of Le Beau Serge start with the film's true protagonist, Francois Bayon, who returns to his native French village after spending the last 12 years studying and fulfilling his dreams in Switzerland. We learn that Francois is back to spend a supposedly milder Winter in France after surviving a nearly fatal but mysterious lung disease. He also wants to see his old childhood best friend, Serge. Francois comes to learn what village life is really about and how his escape so darkly is contrasted with the disintegrating life of Serge. Francois eventually risks his life (his health while searching for Serge on a cold Winter night) to redeem Serge by his own example of selflessness.

That is the basic outline of Le Beau Serge. The summary leaves out many important points but it is basically a good outline of the film. What is mainly left out is Chabrol’s mastery of building suspense, distrust, evil, and moral decay that threatens the lives of the main characters if not the entire village.

The opening sequence of the film is the first, and not the least, example of Chabrol building suspense on the viewer’s lack of information as to what the film is, what it is about. A long shot showing a road that leads towards the viewer in the foreground also exposes the emptiness of country life in France. This is not the vivid cityscapes that are favorites among other French New Wave directors. The season is Fall, and the landscape is barren, dying, and vaguely menacing. In what is a characteristic motif of the film, Chabrol uses music to express, or enhance, the mood he is aiming to present. The dark, somber brass score is a further emotional weight upon the viewer. The bus arrives in the village. Francois exits the bus and meets old friends—an old woman he fondly calls ‘grandmother’ and his friend Michel. Chabrol’s camera follows the activities of the bus driver as he searches for Francois’ bag. As the camera searches the bags, looking for the Swiss label that identifies Francois’ luggage (and, if this were a suspense/thriller, might hold some darker secret). The camera finally shows us what is on the other side of the bus: two men, silently waiting, smoking on the other side of the bus.

This is a classic suspense-thriller scene. Who are the men on the other side of the bus? Are they waiting for Francois, and if they are, why? The music fades in and out, painting mostly dark tones, emphasizing our uncertainty. Finally the suitcase is found, the bus moves on, and the denouement of the first suspense scene should take place. It turns out that the two men waiting are Serge and his father-in-law, Old Glomard. Serge ignores Francois’ calls to him and follows Glomard into a bar. Michel, the first of many village sources of news and information, informs Francois that both men are merely drunk, as they are almost always drunk. The sinister aspect of two strangers seemingly waiting to confront Francois resolves into a kind of animal brutality—the only reason Serge and Glomard are waiting is that they are too drunk and stupid to walk around the bus to reach their destination, where they intend to increase their stupefaction by drinking even more.

I lingered on this scene because it is emblematic of the rest of Le Beau Serge. Chabrol spices his film with tension building up into some more familiar, genre-fulfilling type of release found in the thriller genre but each moment of suspense ends in the flat narrative of the inhuman, brutal, stagnating life of the village.

Francois is always observing his old home from windows and doors, removed from the realities of the present by his memory of a more idyllic past. The current villagers are now people who are either fatalistic (such as Michel, who is resigned to being a baker as his father had been a baker before him) or like Serge. Serge’s struggle with this diminished present after being an equal or better scholar than Francois, who once had dreams of being an architect, is now a creature caught in a bizarre relationship with the Glomard family; his wife, Yvonne, his father-in-law, and a younger daughter named Marie.

The villagers provide all the exposition in the film while serving the roles of local gossips and newspaper reporters; a situation the more city-oriented Francois begins to resent. There are stark realities of rumored incest within the Glomard family. Yvonne’s first baby, the child who made Serge marry Yvonne and abandon his dreams, is born a mongoloid and soon dies. Superstitiously, everyone thinks that Yvonne’s second baby, unborn as the film opens, will be the same…and for the same supposed reason, incest with her father.

Most of this film is very satisfying in the tensions and suspense Chabrol controls so easily. But the film turns in its ending and becomes a religious allegory of the Christian doctrines of Christ’s setting an example, of suffering for our sins, of the redemptive quality of self-sacrifice.

Chabrol is subtle in his use of Christian symbols. Francois is beaten up by Serge and falls in front of a window whose frame and lit glass panes form a cross on which Chabrol lingers. The recovering Francois is determined not to abandon his friend, to be an example of how he can be a better husband and avoid the temptations of the corrupt Glomards.

The ending of the film leaves Serge a rejuvenated man, happily accepting his wife and child now that he has some assurance that Yvonne is not like the incestuous Marie, that the healthy son is truly his own. Francois slumps down in Serge’s filthy rooms, either exhausted or possibly dying from the lung disease and exposure to cold.

I admit that I prefer the suspenseful aspects of Chabrol’s use of imagery, editing, storytelling, his use of music (at times, a single chord or a single note is used to enhance the emotions on the screen). The overt religious tone of the last section of the film, while true to itself and satisfying in its own way, is less to my taste.

Chabrol starts out with master strokes of suspenseful film-making within scenes that turn into a sociological study of village life in France as a brute’s condition, harsh and destructive to the dreams of a more modern, city-focused France, ends the complete film on a transcendent note of religious redemption that either fits both the situations shown in the film’s the Nature-based village life and the Modernistic cityscape. To me, it is ironic that this same director ends a movie that is full of suspense and tension, already explored by Hitchcock whom Chabrol could match in his technique if he so chose, with religious resolution of certainty and faith opposed by temptation and sin. Hitchcock is arguably as obsessed with religion or religious morality while never really resolving any of its tensions—unless you count the destruction of the Woman in films like Vertigo.

Chabrol shows he is the master of his his religious tensions as he is master of the thriller film. Hitchcock can only hope to reach such a complete mastery of his material even if his films are more edgy, sinister, Modern, and violent; attuned to the current trends of secularization in modern life. Le Beau Serge ends in redemption and resurrection, choices that Hitchcock failed to make in the considerable body of his work.

I hope Chabrol goes on to explore the suspense genre in his future work; and perhaps also a more nuanced treatment of his religious themes.

** images available from

1 comment:

Mark said...

Le Beau Serge was originally in the course syllabus but was replaced by Les Cousins. Unfortunately, Les Cousins is only available for ₤80 which is $too many.and a whole lot more n U.S. dollars.

If I can get a copy of Les Cousins before the end of the semester, I will review it.

Thanks for your understanding.