At Le Beau Serge, we’re on the cusp of the nouvelle vague, so it’s natural for some to see it as the beginning and for others to insist that it’s something more like “a French neo-realist school” (Kline, 88). But Kline supports his “uncertainty as to exactly what the new wave was” by quoting Claude Chabrol himself: “there is no new wave, there is only the sea” (87). That being said, it seems silly to ditch the notion of the French new wave. Clearly, some big changes were taking place at this time, changes recognizable both in the films themselves (form and content) and the filmmakers (Cahiers du Cinema, anyone?).
Having viewed Les Cousins last summer, Le Beau Serge was akin to revisiting that film by screening its mirror opposite. (Kline argues for a binary relationship between the two films, another claim supported by Chabrol’s own statements.) Like Les Cousins, youth is at the heart of Le Beau Serge, specifically the relationship between two young men whose relation to manhood is identical with the films’ relationship to the nouvelle vague. Set in a rural, provincial space (unlike the urban setting of Les Cousins), Le Beau Serge identifies chiefly with Francoise, the young man returning to his childhood home to recover from a lung spot and meet his own alter-ego in his old friend Serge. Apparently the more promising of the two, Serge dropped his aspirations toward architecture and picked up the bottle. Between gigs driving trucks, he has impregnated a young woman twice (the first ended in a monstrous and dead child), married her, and become a cynic among cynics.
Kline’s most helpful contribution continues the thread that joins all the chapters of his book (Screening the Text: Intertextuality in New Wave French Cinema) by drawing attention to the textuality, i.e., literary layers that constitute Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins. Drawing heavily on Balzac on account of the explicit reference given to him in Les Cousins, Kline notes the complexity of the characters in these films and the ways in which characters, themes, and other narrative elements defy simple explanation. Le Beau Serge has been described as an example of realist cinema as well as constructed on a “Christian framework” (89). Chabrol’s practicing Roman Catholicism at the time, along with the rather important figure of the priest in Le Beau Serge and Francoise as a pseudo-Christ figure suggest such a reading, which ultimately struggles to coexist with the film’s other textual complications. Chabrol has stated, and has a main character insist in Les Cousins, that appearances should not be trusts. Chabrol enigmatically states that his films are intentionally contradictory, removing any elements of simplicity and defying a clear reading. Kline draws, too, on Greek myths such as that of Icarus, Ariadne, and Arachne, to show how, despite strong connections between mythology and these films, the characters in the films oscillate between their identification with their mythological forbears.
Kline teases out figures of the mère, père, and labyrinth in his analysis: the figure mère in terms of what is beneath the text’s surface that might serve as a guiding exegetical code, the father figure in terms of the priest in Le Beau Serge and the bookstore owner in Les Cousins (they both act as sages and are variously regarded and disregarded for the advice they give to youths), and labyrinth as a complex maze both on and beneath the film’s surface leading to a monstrous center. “Appearances [are] all confused” in this film as well as in Ovid’s poem, the eye “led astray” by labyrinthine images and all they connote (98). As in his chapter on Resnais’s Marienbad, Kline notes the dreamlike nature of this film. Time does not seem to pass in a way that respects continuity or reality. In one scene it is one season, in the next it is another. One might go beyond Kline to note that the seasons seem to correlate more to the narrative status of the film rather to any diegetic temporality. Fittingly, the film ends somewhat tragically and somewhat hopefully in the dead of winter. One life is exchanged (apparently) for another, and perhaps Serge himself does an about-face. On the other hand, note the final dissolve from Serge’s ambiguous face to the suggestion of a skull:
Note, too, how a similar dissolve opens Chabrol’s later film Just Before Nightfall: