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Le Beau Serge (Blu-ray Review)

10 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Bernadette Lafont.

As critic Terrence Rafferty points out in a crisply succinct accompanying essay here, film history would be tidier if France’s Nouvelle Vague had literally begun with a more symbolically sis-boom-bah-ish entry (my adjective, not his) like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Instead, the movement’s feature-film launch is credited to this rather brooding Claude Chabrol achievement, which the writer/director filmed (largely for comfort and economic reasons) in the town where he’d resided as a youngster/teen during World War II while his father was back in Paris fighting for the Resistance.

This would be Sardent, which took a while to get over the oppressively provincial manner in which Chabrol portrayed it (with booze the apparent driver of the local GNP). One of the two protagonists here (Gerard Blain) is indeed a serious drunk — unwilling to face up to the second pregnancy of a wife whose first (Down’s Syndrome) child died at birth. His reuniting friend — Jean-Claude Brialy as a onetime local returning home as part of a TB cure — takes on a kind of spiritual mission to set this wayward soul straight, in a community where the church is shown to be fairly ineffectual.

Chabrol later became one of the supreme masters of psychological suspense in a career that maintained consistency until his death a little more than one year ago — never letting too many occasional misfires accumulate until he came through with another jewel. Criterion has also just released Chabrol’s follow-up Les Cousins (which opened in France almost concurrently and also starred Blain and Brialy). I’ve never seen it (yet) so don’t know how soon the director’s films began to feel “prototypically Chabrol” — though I do know that his fourth outing (Les Bonnes Femmes, a personal favorite) absolutely does. It, like Beau, features Bernadette Lafont — then married in real life to Blain and co-star with him in Truffaut’s 18-minute short Les Mistons, which predated the New Wave features. Speaking of 18, Lafont wasn’t much more than that here, but she was already a well-developed force of nature. In Beau, she plays Blain’s sister-in-law and one with whom he has had a brief dalliance. She also lives with a father who really isn’t her father (another drunk), and he takes un-fatherly advantages that add to the story’s poignancy.

Included here — just how does Criterion keep tracking these things down? — is a standout 51-minute documentary from 2003 that interviews an ingratiating Chabrol on-camera and additionally contains a Sardent reunion between Brialy (who has since died) and Lafont. We get a sense of how cold it was doing shooting, which is something the picture’s cinematography by Henri Decae (soon to do The 400 Blows and Purple Noon) brings out. Brialy also speaks of how severely injured he got from the scene where Blain gives him even what looks to the eye like a serious real-life beating (his apparent hot-head of a co-star apparently lost himself).

By the time of this documentary (there’s also a 10-minute snippet from another one done in 1969), Blain had died. During my John Wayne formative adolescence, I was familiar with Blain before I had even heard of anyone else in this film because he had been in Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, which I saw five times in its original 1962 theatrical engagement. Can’t you just hear the Duke on the set over in the former Tanganyika, with Red Buttons and the baby elephants over to the side? “Well, GER-ee … I, uh, really liked ya in that sotty TEAR-jerker you did for that, uh, Cha-BROL fella.”

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