Le Beau Serge – The Criterion Collection #580 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
September 14, 2011 by Dennis Amith
The first film of the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” is a wonderful film. A film that is not only visually beautiful but also showcases a mature, smart and courageous screenplay and directorial style by Claude Chabrol, who would later become the most prolific filmmaker of the nouvelle vague. “Le Beau Serge” is a wonderful Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection!
Image courtesy of © 1958 Gaumont. All Rights Reserved. 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: Le Beau Serge – The Criterion Collection #580
MOVIE RELEASE: 1958
DURATION: 99 Minutes
DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio, Monaural in French with Optional English Subtitles
COMPANY: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection
RELEASE DATE: September 20, 2011
Written and Directed by Claude Chabrol
Produced by Claude Chabrol
Music by Emile Delpierre
Cinematography by Henri Decae
Edited by Jacques Gaillard
Gerard Blain as Serge
Jean-Claude Brialy as Francois Baillou
Michele Meritz as Yvonne
Bernadette Lafont as Marie
Claude Cerval as the Priest
Jeanne Perez as Madame Chaunier
Edmond Beauchamp as Glomaud
Andre Dino as Michel, the Doctor
Michel Creuze as The Baker
Claude Chabrol as La Truffe
Of the hallowed group of Cahiers du cinéma critics turned filmmakers who transformed French film history, Claude Chabrol was the first to direct his own feature. His absorbing landmark debut, Le beau Serge, follows a successful yet sickly young man (Jean‑Claude Brialy) who returns home to the small village where he grew up. There, he finds himself at odds with his former close friend (Gérard Blain)—now unhappily married and a wretched alcoholic—and the provincial life he represents. The remarkable and stark Le beau Serge heralded the arrival of a cinematic titan who would go on to craft provocative, entertaining films for five more decades.
When discussion is brought up among cinema peers of nouvelle vague (The French New Wave), its easy to think of names such as Francois Truffau, Jean-Luc Goard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette. Individuals, colleagues and contemporaries who each worked for Cahiers du cinema before they became filmmakers.
But there is one man that was a colleague who may have not received the prestige as his contemporaries but is respected for his contribution towards cinema with his thrillers but also years of cinema as part of his oeuvre. The man I am talking about is Claude Chabrol.
While debated of which film kicked off the French New Wave, many regard Chabrol’s 1958 film “Le Beau Serge” (Handsome Serge) as the film that began the Nouvelle Vague. Feature films created by contemporaries of Cahiers du Cinema that went on to become filmmakers.
In fact, Francois Truffaut had given Chabrol the biggest compliment in 1958 for his directorial debut on “Le Beau Serge” saying, “Technically the film is as masterful as if Chabrol had been directing for ten years, though this is his first contact with the camera. Here is an unusual and courageous film that will raise the level of French cinema”.
If there is one thing that can be said about Chabrol, although his name is not as well known as Truffaut or Godard in America, and while “Le Beau Serge” is a long awaited release for a Chabrol film from the Criterion Collection, he still remains the most prolific filmmaker among his contemporaries who nearly has released a film every year since 1958 starting with “Le Beau Serge” and ending in 2009 with “Bellamy”, a year before Chabrol passed away.
For cinema fans, many have been wanting the Criterion Collection release of a Claude Chabrol film on DVD for a very long time but finally, the Criterion Collection will be releasing two Chabrol films, “Le Beau Serge” (1958) and “Les Cousins (1959) on Blu-ray and DVD in Sept. 2011.
“Le Beau Serge” is written and directed by Claude Chabrol and would star Jean-Claude Brialy (“A Woman is a Woman”, “The Phantom of Liberty”, “Elevator to the Gallows”) and Gerard Blain (“Hatari”, “Les Cousins”, “Le Mistons”). The film would also feature the beautiful cinematography of Henri Decae (“The 400 Blows”, “Le Samourai”, “Elevator to the Gallows”) and long-time Chabrol editor Jacques Gaillard.
“Le Beau Serge” is a film that revolves around Francois (Brialy) and his childhood friend Serge (Blain). Francois has returned to the village that he had grown up in 12-years later and while the village has remained the same, the people have changed.
For Francois, he is recovering from an illness in which he has decided that he will split his life living in the village he grew up with during the fall and winter, while spending his life at another village during the spring and sumer.
While Francois moved away from the village to the big city and did something with his life, his friends the baker (played by Michel Creuze) stayed and became the local baker, but his good friend Serge has become a drunk. This bothers Francoise because he expected big things from Serge but from what he hears from the local villagers, all Serge does is work and drink despite having a pregnant wife named Yvonne (played by Michele Meritz) who seems to make him unhappy.
On the first day since arriving to the village, Francois finds Serge drinking himself to a stupor with another local drunk named Glomaud (played by Edmond Beauchamp) and it’s a daily habit for Yvonne to go and get Serge and bring him home, while Glomaud’s daughter Marie (played by Bernadete Lafont) brings her father home. When Serge sees Francois, he begins crying but once again, Francois is shocked to see his old friend in such a way.
Meanwhile, as Francois tries to visit Serge, we learn that Serge is a truck driver who drinks on the job, after the job and at night and he is barely at home.
One day, while Serge is drunk and wanting to desperately speak to Francois, we learn that life changed for Serge as he became an alcoholic because of his stillborn child. He blames the baby for him being miserable as the pregnancy prevented him from pursuing his goals and now, he is stuck in the village, having a job that he doesn’t care about and in a marriage that he seems unhappy with. But it’s the life and survival that many people live with in the village.
For Francois, he has this bittersweet feeling of seeing how his friends, especially Serge has turned out and feels that maybe his presence in the city will be some good to Serge or his friends, despite the priest and others telling him that the village is not a good place for him and that he should return back to the city.
Can Francois help his friend Serge? Or will tense situations between him and Serge (who doesn’t want Francois’s help) end their friendship?
“Le Beau Serge” is presented in black and white (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and immediately upon watching this film, you start to realize how beautiful this film looks, from the symmetry of objects to the chose angles and shots of the characters as they walk towards the camera, away from the camera or trying to incorporate the city into the film.
And as Henri Decae had shown in the 1956 film “Bob le Flambeur”, his cinematic style can be seen the following year through “Le Beau Serge”, “Elevator to the Gallows” and “The Lovers”. Beautiful cinematography and following the direction of Claude Chabrol who wanted to capture the look and feel of the city of Sardent in his film.
The film is over 50-years-old and on Blu-ray, the Criterion Collection did a wonderful job in making the film look absolutely beautiful. Black levels are nice and deep, contrast and showcasing the whites and blacks are beautiful and for the most part, “Le Beau Serge” doesn’t have any artifacts, edge enhancement nor did I detect anything negative in terms of overall picture quality. The film looks fantastic on Blu-ray!
According to the Criterion Collection, the new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using Revival Flame, and Smoke, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
“Le Beau Serge” is presented in monaural French with English subtitles. Dialogue is clear, subtitles were easy to read and for the most part, the vocals were cleared and detected no hiss or crackle during my viewing of the film. If anything, I really enjoyed how Emile Delpierre incorporated music to this film, especially the quick music cuts whenever Serge or Glomaud are shown on screen.
According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using Audio Cube’s integrated workstation.
“Le Beau Serge – The Criterion Collection #580” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary – Featuring a wonderful and in-depth commentary on Chabrol’s career and his work on “Le Beau Serge” by Guy Austin, author of “Claude Chabrol”.
- Claude Chabrol: Mon premier film – (51:36) A 2003 documentary by Francis Girod on the making of “Le Beau Serge” featuring interviews with Chabrol and Jean-Claude Brialy.
- “L’invite du dimanche” – (10:00) Segment from a 1969 episode of the French TV series in which Claude Chabrol revisits the town of Sardent, where “Le Beau Serge” was filmed and the village where he grew up in.
- Original theatrical trailer – (2:54) The original theatrical trailer for “Le Beau Serge”.
“Le Beau Serge – The Criterion Collection #580” comes with an 16-page booklet, which includes the following essay “Homecomings” by Terrence Rafferty.
Hauntingly beautiful. These are the two words that I describe Claude Chabrol’s debut film “Le Beau Serge”.
An incredible feat. for the Cahiers du Cinema critic who produced, wrote and directed the film and I don’t know if I can categorize the film as a psychological drama.
The late Francois Truffaut described the film as a chess game and perhaps if you see the film in that perspective, it does make sense. You have Francois (Brialy) who once lived in a small village now from a big city who comes back into town. Francois is actually a nice man, non-intrusive nor does he flaunt to anyone that he is better than them because he lives in the city.
But for the villagers, it’s a preconceived notion that because he was able to move away from the village, he thinks he is better than they are.
I put myself in the shoes of Francois, also coming from a small town and having lived in the city and I know there are moments when I was younger in which I have flaunted to friends in town about the fact that the city is fun for its close proximity to shopping, beaches and as a young man, there were a lot of women. But looking back at it now, it was so trivial, so much of commodity fetishism in boosting one’s ego of the have’s to the have nots.
But I look at the situation that is presented in “Le Beau Serge”, he doesn’t flaunt but his presence in the village, wearing his nice clothing in front of those who are barely surviving and not so happy with life but have accepted their life in the village as final.
This is where I identify with Francois because when you go back, you want to help your friends, especially those you feel have so much potential to be something bigger. In the case of Serge, he is a man that had so many dreams, wanted to leave the village like Francois but got a young woman pregnant and found himself married and stuck in the village he desperately wanted to leave. He has kept this burden of having his first child dead at birth but knowing that the right thing to do is stick by your wife and living life to provide for one’s family but in his case, drowning all the sorrows away through drinking heavily.
I’ve known to many people like Serge in my life who live their life as is…miserable and unhappy inside but are traditional. While Francois had left the city and his big advice to Serge, “to leave his wife”. It may seem quite harsh but it is logical that if a man is unhappy with his marriage, you leave.
But with Serge, he knows with a baby along the way…he can’t leave.
But it’s the return of Francois that enhances Serge’s negative and jealous emotions. You would think that there would be an ebullient sense of emotion but with each meeting between both Francois and Serge, you feel this ominous feeling that things are not right.
We see a scene with Serge wanting to tell Francoise of why he became a drunk. Why he lives this lifestyle. Why he is so miserable but if Francois only solution is for Serge to leave his pregnant wife, it’s unacceptable.
And for Francois, he had forgotten how things were in his village and many who see potential within him want him to leave because he is better off than being back at home where many men do not aspire to be bigger, they just live life as is, even if its a life of effete, a lack of vitality that one can not escape. Life is what it is…you just live it, repeat it.
And of course, Francois seeing this…he wants to make a difference. But can he?
“Le Beau Serge” is a magnificent feat. for Claude Chabrol as his debut film. While his future in cinema may not have been as lucrative nor historic in comparison to his other contemporaries, the fact is Chabrol is a filmmaker who did things his way, his style and he continued to create films in 1958 with “Le Beau Serge” through 2009, a year before he died.
“Le Beau Serge” is a film that is mature but perhaps is also a film that brings Claude Chabrol back to his village of Sardent and is in someway a self-discovery of his present life and his past. The film is not autobiographical but it’s a film that Chabrol was proactive in making sure the village of Sardent, what he saw in terms of life was captured onscreen. And of course, the cinematography is quite beautiful and it helps to have one of the best cinematographer’s in French cinema at the time, Henri Decaë.
The film also has elements of Chabrol’s life as he also wanted to become a priest at one time and help people. The film was raw in the way that Chabrol created a film with a small cast and worked in familiar territory, his hometown with a potential of many extras alongside him.
But through its visual beauty and its complex characters but accessible storyline, “Le Beau Serge” is a film that started the Nouvelle Vague era of film critics of Cahiers du Cinema taking up the mantle of becoming filmmakers. He inspired his contemporaries because he was able to go through his own filmmaking route and create this film with his own personal vision without having to follow any big studio or producer. It was his film, no ifs, ands or buts.
Surprisingly, “Le Beau Serge” while adored by film critics, it was delayed to the point that when it was released in theaters, his second film “Les Cousins” would be released a month later and it was his second film that would actually become the commercial hit.
While “Le Beau Serge” doesn’t break any new ground, nor is it remembered as a non-traditional film when compared to Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Godard’s “Breathless”, in 1958, it’s the fact that he was a man who had creative freedom to do what he wanted and capture the raw feel of his village onscreen with beautiful lighting and awesome performances by Brialy and Blain that make “Le Beau Serge” worth watching.
Once again, I applaud the Criterion Collection for bringing Claude Chabrol films to their collection but also giving both “Le Beau Serge” and “Les cousins” the Blu-ray treatment. The Blu-ray release looks fantastic and the addition of the documentary of Chabrol returning back to Sardent and watching these classic interviews is priceless!
Overall, if you are a Chabrol fan, a cinema fan or brand new to cinema and want important films in your cinema collection, then “Le Beau Serge”, the first film of the French New Wave is definitely recommended!
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