Friendships, no matter how deep or strong, don't always last. People drift apart, tugged away by the branching paths of life, steered in different directions by contrary desires and ambitions, and once close relationships strain. It's often said that one can't go home again, and in essence this is both true and false. Indeed, one can technically return home, but what happens when the person who returns, is no longer the person who left? What happens when the friends you reconnect with, are no longer the same companions you once bid farewell? While it's not always difficult to physically return to a place of origin, a home is much more than mere setting, it is the marriage of a specific place and people and time, and that impermanent union is all too fragile. Friendships fade and people change, and as perceptions grow and bend with age, once comforting locals can take on a new, unsavory light. Claude Chabrol's 1958 film, 'Le Beau Serge,' flirts with these wistfully complicated concepts as the director infuses Christian themes into an intimate and ambiguous meditation on morals and martyrdom, on sin and sacrifice.
Though previous cinematic efforts certainly foreshadowed the movement's stylistic sensibilities, in the strictest sense, 'Le Beau Serge' is technically the inaugural film of the French New Wave. The first member of the Cahiers du Cinema group of critics turned directors to complete a feature length film, Claude Chabrol decided to set his debut movie in his own hometown of Sardent. The story follows the kindhearted but sickly Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) as he returns to the sleepy village he grew up in. There, he reconnects with his old friend, Serge (Gerard Blain), who has now become a bitter, self-destructive alcoholic. As Francois attempts to help Serge, conflict arises between the two, that culminates with Francois taking on an almost messianic crusade to save his seemingly morally bankrupt companions.
The heart of the narrative rests with its central characters, and both Jean-Claude Brialy and Gerard Blain do a fantastic job in their dueling roles. As Serge, Blain is heartbreaking and reprehensible. His behavior can be cruel and unsavory, but there is still a kindness at his core. On the contrary, Francois is much more outwardly compassionate and likeable, even if his virtue can lead to harsh judgment at times. Indeed, it is the two men's conflicting lifestyles and outlooks that drive the film's drama. Francois believes he can serve as an example, reminding Serge and some of the other villagers of the goodness that rests inside them. As events in the film hit their breaking point (including sequences that deal with some dark subject matter such as rape and incest), Francois sets himself up as a savior of sorts, willing to sacrifice everything to inspire those around him. But Serge and the others not only reject the idea of a savior, they don't seem to think they need one at all, and this complex dichotomy gives the film's otherwise obvious Christian parallels a more ambiguous air. For all his faults, Serge seems to know who he and his fellow companions are, and Francois's inability to accept their behavior becomes both noble and arrogant. Though his actions are with the best of intentions, there is a sense that perhaps he should simply move on, leave this town, and let its people be as they may.
Stylistically, Chabrol utilizes a mostly functional approach, but does sprinkle in more formalistic flourishes throughout. Long takes are common, with the camera reframing throughout the scene, keeping characters in shot together when appropriate. Though the movements mostly serve the technical requirements of the scenes, there are several instances when the director uses deliberate pans or tracks to emphasize emotion and subtext. In arguments between characters, for instance, the camera occasionally shifts from one side to the other, transitioning the dynamics of the disagreement, bolstering the narrative upper hand through framing. Other moments of visual interest also shine through, including some great tracking sequences throughout the village, and one particular shot that lingers on a character walking off in the distance through the snow, as the image slowly goes out of focus. Lighting also plays a large role in the proceedings, with shadows becoming literal embodiments of characters' figurative identities and inner moods. While the editing techniques are largely inconsequential, there are some instances of interesting parallel cuts, most notably a few near the end of the film. Though many of the stylistic trademarks that are often associated with the French New Wave are mostly absent here, Chabrol's filmmaking form still holds artistic merit and certainly hints at what's to come from the movement.
While a lot about 'Le Beau Serge' works wonderfully, there is a still a sense of inexperience here, and it's clear that Chabrol is still finding his footing as a director and storyteller. Some of the performances can border on the melodramatic and the score can be overbearing and too on the nose. The religious allegory can also come on a bit thick. On that same token, however, there may in fact be more going on beneath the surface that helps to mitigate any overtly saccharine morality. In fact, as Guy Austin's included commentary theorizes (and Chabrol himself hints at in an included interview) there is a slightly subversive element to the Christian parallels. Without giving too much away, the ending itself may also be open to interpretation, with a possible, faintly sinister quality lurking just below its otherwise positive and life affirming message. It's this ethical and narrative ambiguity that helps to elevate the film to a deeper and more complicated level.
Not everyone wants to be helped, least of all those that need it the most, and while it may be part of human nature to aid our fallen brothers, perhaps sometimes the sacrifice is simply too much, or unwarranted to begin with. Through its examination of friendship, martyrdom, hope, and transgression, 'Le Beau Serge' presents a filmmaker at his most green and raw, just beginning what would become a very long and prolific career. It may not be the best the director has to offer, but it's certainly a good and very worthy start.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion brings 'Le Beau Serge' to Blu-ray in their standard clear case with spine number 580. The BD-50 region A disc comes packaged with a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Terrence Rafferty.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Wonderfully textured and beautifully rendered, this is an absolutely gorgeous transfer.
The print is in excellent shape, with only a few very minor specks or faint lines visible here and there. A moderate level of rich, natural film grain is present throughout that gives the image a wonderfully authentic quality. Detail can be rather impressive throughout, with many sequences offering very pleasing levels of clarity. Black levels are deep, and whites are strong without being overblown. Overall contrast is great, and the black and white photography relies heavily on shadows and light. The climax of the film features a scene that is seemingly only lit by flashlight, and the resulting image features inky blacks and intense whites that carry a stark and wonderful ratio between light and dark.
This is a truly fantastic transfer that represents the film in an almost flawless presentation that is rife with detail and texture. It may not be impressive in the same way as a newly produced blockbuster, but as far as classic, black and white cinema is concerned, this is near reference quality.
The audio is presented in an uncompressed French mono PCM track with optional English subtitles. Like most other mono mixes from this era, this is a perfectly fine but unimpressive mix.
Dialogue is clean but thin and a little hollow. The mono track features limited effects work and while the score itself can be overbearing, it sounds decent. Dynamic range is pretty flat, but there is thankfully little distortion on the high or low ends. Balance between the audio elements is good, and speech is prioritized nicely.
There really isn't much to complain about or praise here. The track has been cleaned up well, with no major signs of pops or hissing, but the results are still inherently flat and thin.
Criterion has put together a decent collection of supplements, including a commentary and a documentary. All of the extras are provided in 1080i with French Dolby Digital mono sound and English subtitle options unless noted otherwise.
'Le Beau Serge' is a strong debut effort from Claude Chabrol. Though a little rough around the edges, the film's story of friendship and sacrifice still resonates, and while a little restrained, Chabrol still demonstrates some strong visual touches. As far as classic black and white cinema goes, the video transfer is fantastic, and while not exceptional, the audio is perfectly fine. Supplements are a little sparse but insightful. Criterion has done a really good job here, and this disc is recommended.