Although his masterpiece, Les bonnes femmes (1960), occupies in his œuvre a category of its own, Claude Chabrol’s is a cinema of ambiguity where events aren’t always clear or things aren’t what they seem. His most purely ambiguous (and sophisticated) work is Le boucher (1969) where, depending on how one “reads” it, either a butcher’s war experience, erupting in his civilian life, results in his committing murders to gain the attention of the schoolteacher he is in love with, or, out of sexual unease, the schoolteacher herself imagines his guilt, compelling the butcher, although innocent, to confess to these crimes and commit suicide all in an effort to move her heart at the last towards him. (Since the former is the “official,” literal view in the film, and the latter is the view riddling the other with ambiguity, it requires some obstinacy, it seems to me, to decide on the former—not to mention that doing so also robs a poignant love story of its emotional depth.) Here, as elsewhere, Chabrol isn’t interested in puzzling us or in playing games; rather, his method matches his theme: the ambiguities of human experience.
Chabrol’s cinema is ambiguous from the start—Le beau serge (1958), dark and ferocious, and its lesser, although brilliant companion-piece, Les cousins. (The Catholic imagery in the first of these has since led Chabrol to disown it.) The latter film is in some ways the former’s mirror-image reversal. For instance, in The Cousins, instead of a city boy visiting the country, we are shown a country boy visiting the city. The same actors, Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, play the lead characters in both films; whereas Blain plays the derelict one and Brialy the fish-out-of-water innocent in the first film, though, Brialy is the derelict and Blain the innocent in The Cousins.
Both films, and especially Les bonnes femmes, are stunning reminders of how much rougher and more powerful Chabrol’s work was early on, before—once Chabrol was past thirty and had been burned by the uncomprehending reception Les bonnes femmes initially drew—he turned from black and white to color and to more refined, sometimes overly refined, modes of expression.
The Cousins revolves around two college boys: naive, plodding Charles (Blain) from the provinces and his cousin Paul (Brialy, excellent), in whose Paris apartment Charles stays while attending school. Paul is insensitive and obnoxious; Charles, blind to his faults, idolizes him. Chabrol arranges for our first view of Paul to be as Charles sees him—“cool,” liberated, elegantly detached—and with Fu Manchu whiskers to boot. But the mise-en-scène—relics of the jungle and the battlefield adorn the walls of Paul’s apartment—hints at something restless and chaotic in him. This boy may not be what he appears to be. On the other hand, Charles seems transparent.
Quickly Paul’s behavior dispels our first impression. When Geneviève announces she is pregnant by Paul, behind her back Paul hands Clovis (Claude Cerval), a friend of his and a pimp, a wad of cash for the abortion. From the closeup of the money in Paul’s hand, to the transaction, to Geneviève’s downcast face, Paul throughout looks, like Charles, clumsy and helpless. When we discover that Geneviève’s “pregnancy” was all gimmick, an act of make-believe, Paul’s conscientious response, in retrospect, seems even more foolish. There is also his “performance” at the first party of his that the film shows. Paul turns out the lights and, with Liebestod swimming out of the phonograph, he enters the room in high German get-up, carrying a lit candelabra. Chabrol undercuts the seeming elegance of this entrance with shots of bored faces, some in closeup; Paul’s guests have seen their host brandish the same act too many times. And when, after the party, Paul wakes up a passed-out friend of his, who is Jewish, by shouting in his ear, “It’s the Gestapo!” all fun flees our impression of him.
Nor does he do a good job of protecting Charles, a responsibility, one guesses, that is part of the arrangement made with Charles’s parents. Instead, Paul takes as his lover the very girl he knows Charles has fallen for, Florence (Juliette Mayniel). Paul appals when Charles walks in on this unexpected couple. With pain and repressed bravado, Charles, devastated, remarks, “I’ll wait in line for my turn”—whereupon Paul affectionately slaps Charles’s leg in great relief, announcing: “And you’ll get it. You’re taking it much better than I expected.” Paul further exasperates his cousin by throwing a noisy party upon completion of his crucial final exam, even though Charles is taking his final exam the next day. Unlike Paul, Charles fails.
Still, on balance, Paul is the more likeable of the two. Charles is continually—almost continuously—frustrated. The opening shots of him establish this as, new to Paris, he anxiously tries to figure out how to get to Paul’s apartment. At a club the next day he makes up to, of all people, a lesbian. Too, there is the bridge game Charles is invited into as visiting expert, where he winds up, with the first hand, being dummy. This does permit him, though, to rush outside to catch up with Florence, who has just left; all he gets is a rear view of her as Clovis, presumably her pimp, escorts her away. At the first party, when he wants desperately to be alone with Florence, the two somehow, in a group rush, end up in different cars. (Florence ends up in the same car as Paul.) Frustration, frustration; in a rut, Charles seems to be reliving some variation of the same experience over and over. This makes him too predictable to be intriguing.
The morning after the first party, Charles anxiously anticipates a phone call from Florence. This sets into motion another frustration—the first of a trio of such incidents, in fact, by which Charles will lose, first, his girl, next, his career and, lastly, his life.
The call comes. That much is certain. Charles, it seems, says he has a class at three o’clock and asks Florence to meet him so that they can walk to Paul’s place together. She agrees, hangs up after some unclear reiteration of the appointed time, and tells Clovis that she is meeting Charles at three—a lie, perhaps; perhaps her mistake. Charles tells Paul enthusiastically: “Great! We’re meeting at five.” Paul and Florence become a couple, then, when Florence arrives at Paul’s apartment sometime before three o’clock, ostensibly to walk Charles to class. Charles’s rotten luck here may owe something to his own muddled instructions. On the other hand, Florence doesn’t leave once she learns Charles has already left; nor does Paul fortify his position out of loyalty to his cousin. When Charles finally arrives, having walked home alone, he suffers the first of the three losses.
Paul may be thoughtless, or envious—or both. Either description also fits the celebration he devises when Charles needs to study. But Charles infuriates. Does he arrange for his failures by projecting responsibility for them onto Paul? Why doesn’t he leave the apartment and go elsewhere to study the night before his critical exam? (There is a provincial stubbornness in Charles that takes one’s breath away.) Is he that responsible a student, anyhow? Night-before cramming for a test on which his career depends certainly doesn’t suggest so. Indeed, throughout the film we have seen him writing letters home to his mother; only very rarely, however, have we seen him hitting the books.
Focusing on Charles’s irritated attempts to concentrate, the passage showing Paul’s second party is great. He must pass the exam the next day, Charles explains, because he promised his mother he would. This is a juvenile motivation when it is professionally necessary for him to pass; it may even imply a degree of ambivalence regarding his university studies. Moreover, Charles’s timing couldn’t be worse. Not only is Paul ripe for noisy celebration now, but Florence is a guest. By now she and Paul have broken up. She slips into Charles’s room and offers herself, at one point suggestively flicking the adjacent bathroom switch on and off; but, keeping his back to her, Charles remains stuck in both his studying and his self-pity. He shouts at her to get out. Plainly he is miserable—jealous and dejected. Once Florence has left, the camera pans around the room in a complete rotation, stopping at Charles, whose profile faces the camera as he stands wearily over his book and paper-strewn desk. The pan is repeated—only, this time the camera stops at Charles in the act of sitting down at his desk. Cut to school the next day and a closeup of his face, and then a brief zoom out from it. Unmistakably his is the face of failure. The filmmaking is remarkable. In Charles’s bedroom, the camera rotates on a fixed stand (something like the earth’s rotation on its axis); there is a swooning impression of motion, on the one hand, but also of a standstill, on the other, which both the execution of the shot—the rotation from a fixed point—and the outcome of the shot—a closed, circular movement—mutually reinforce. Similarly, the zoom lens applied to Charles’s disconsolate face the next day results in a limited sense of movement when in fact the camera hasn’t moved at all. This time, the impression of stasis—of Charles’s not going anywhere—overwhelms the tiny amount of movement meeting the viewer’s eye. And enclosing all of this is the face itself, contorted into a kind of mask (another suggestion of stasis), revealing Charles’s failure on the test but resisting disclosure of the complex of factors—partly in, partly out of his control—that have led to the outcome. Absolute clarity. Absolute ambiguity.
The second party, then, has proven disastrous for Charles. When his performance on the exam—in context, a sublimation of the sex he did not have with Florence when he chose fruitlessly to cram—results in the cancellation of his professional future (from what we can glean from the film, how the French university system actually worked at the time), it is the execution of the second of his great, progressively inclusive losses (canceled future enclosing canceled future wife).
The third such loss occurs when Paul shoots his cousin dead.
Country cousin, city cousin: Chabrol’s film collapses the polar difference almost as soon as positing it. Like Charles, Paul can express the frustration of youth. Early on, Paul’s sense of freedom is curbed by Geneviève’s alleged pregnancy. Also, the preparation for his giving at his own party a commanding performance as a German warrior-lover turns up as empty as Geneviève’s womb. The reason: his envy of Charles. When during his Wagnerian act Paul comes upon Charles and Florence in the otherwise darkened room, his theatrical candelabra lights up the new couple’s intense kiss just at the climax of Paul’s own carefully rehearsed recitation (“. . . Once again is love triumphant”)—a stark revelation of the discord Charles’s romantic inroad into Paul’s own circle provokes in the seemingly unflappable city boy. Also, it is the case that Paul looks up to Charles no less than Charles looks up to him, although Paul is far better at hiding from the other his envious idolatry. When Paul introduces Charles at the club, the responses clue us in: “You’re the cousin”; “You’re the champion bridge player”; and when Florence exclaims, “Oh, the famous cousin,” Paul, trying nervously to cover up how well he has publicized Charles, while also trying to regain a sense of command, insists, “But I’m the famous cousin.” Throughout the film, Paul’s manner and lifestyle—for instance, his frequent untruthfulness—constantly threatens him with Charles’s disapproval. (Charles at one point tells Paul: “I can’t pretend. I can’t always act civilized like you.”) The truth is, Paul’s command and self-certainty are a façade, an inverse gauge of his confusion and self-uncertainty. (Some of his “act” borders on Clifton Webb-ish foppishness suggesting even sexual confusion.) Indeed, Paul’s overall deference to the demonic Clovis implies ripples of inferiority feelings beneath his neat, elegant, unCharles-like surface.
Charles’s death is the signal event of Paul’s life. It is the ultimate frustration—as, in a sense, although he is past enduring it, it is for Charles. The whole world he has staged in order to bolster a fragile ego explodes with the discharge of the bullet into Charles. Charles’s foolishly, mistakenly shot body takes agonizingly long to drop, as though the suspension for both boys discloses a realization of their shared fate. At the close of the film it is Paul’s devastation that we are left with, as his whole world of adolescent play, irreversibly shattered, lies along with Charles’s corpse at his bare feet. The doorbell rings; cold reality is about to make a house call.
Leading up to the gunshot is a series of events whose sum is a kind of universal logic. In this instance, inexorable fate has recruited as allies both boys’ psychologies. Linked to Paul, the path begins with guns. As noted earlier, our earliest view of Paul’s apartment casually reveals, in the background, a wall of guns—a display of power. Later, when Paul shows Charles the place, the camera pans this wall; even Uncle Henry’s animal skin joins the guns as an index of Paul’s need to orchestrate, command, be in charge—under the gun, so to speak, of France’s historic embrace of a military mystique. (Les cousins, released very early the next year, was probably shot not long after the start of the Algerian war in 1958.) The morning after Charles’s arrival, play-acting, Paul “shoots” his sleeping cousin with the same pistol that will later kill him. “It’s a deadly weapon when loaded,” he explains. Chabrol interprets the gun as a lurking danger linked to human frustration when, at the first party, an Italian guest, Minerva, points the weapon at another guest he has been unsuccessfully coming on to, drunkenly announcing, “I get what I want.” When he shoots the unloaded gun, though, everyone laughs at him over this inadvertent self-exposure of impotence. The next day Paul shows Charles where he stores bullets and, in a (breathtaking) scene that goes just far enough, Charles plays with the gun—another unwitting step toward his and his cousin’s eventual fate. The progression is telling; the seriousness of the gun’s “use” is growing, since, while Paul knew the gun wasn’t loaded when he woke up Charles, Minerva knew no such thing at the party. After failing his final exam, back at the apartment Charles takes down the familiar pistol from the wall and proceeds to load a single chamber of the barrel. Angry, feeling obstructed and cheated regarding both Florence and his future, he “shoots” the sleeping Paul—a mirror-image of Paul’s earlier “shooting” him, except that the gun is no longer completely harmless. Or does Charles “shoot” Paul? For, at the trigger-squeezing pivotal moment, Chabrol cuts away from Charles’s hand to a closeup of his face. What is the sound we hear? A chamber-click? A trigger release? In either case, there is no discharge. Charles leaves Paul’s bedroom, places the singly loaded gun on a living-room pillow and, fully clothed, goes to sleep in his bed in the fetal position. (It is a bed so enormous that, especially in an overhead shot, Charles resembles a little child.) The next morning, while Liebestod issues from the phonograph, Paul consoles his cousin over his exam failure. Reminded of Minerva at the party (“Ah, the Italian,” he says), Paul picks up the gun and innocently “shoots” Charles. Erasing the quotation marks forever, the bullet finds its home. One boy is dead; the other, ruined—as good as dead.
Such certainty. Such ambiguity. How did this all happen? And why?
Few films possess the power to haunt like this one does.
The terrific, tart script is by Chabrol and Paul Gégauff.
The film took the top prize at Berlin. In Germany, The Cousins was (correctly) understood as being anti-fascist—while touched upon indirectly here, a whole other dimension to this fascinating film.
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