Review: Les Cousins DVD

Les Cousins boxSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Claude Chabrol | CAST: Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy, Juliette Mayniel, Guy Decomble
RELEASE DATE: 9/20/2011 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: comm entary by film scholar Adrian Martin, trailer
SPECS: NR | 109 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.33:1 fullscreen | monaural | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Les Cousins, the second feature, and first masterpiece, from Claude Chabrol (Inspector Bellamy), the French New Wave filmmaker hailed as “the Gallic Hitchcock,” is a brilliantly constructed character study shot in the thriller mode. Made in 1959, the film contains the seeds of the themes, plot twists and sumptuous visual style that distinguished his later masterworks (Les Biches, Le Boucher, La Ceremonie).

Les Cousins movie scene

Gérard Blain (r.) stars in Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins.

The drama’s plot is a simple “country mouse visits city mouse” tale that is complicated by the menacing nature of the city dweller who serves as host to his rural cousin (Gérard Blain). As played by Jean-Claude Brialy, he is an extremely cool Parisian — with a dauntingly awesome bachelor pad  — who is charismatic yet uncommonly sleazy and morally repellent (as demonstrated in a famous scene where he dresses as a Nazi during an orgiastic party).

In his best films, Chabrol took no easy way out. Here, Blain’s character is the one we sympathize with, and yet Brialy is a disturbingly appealing figure. Like his filmmaking heroes Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, Chabrol liked to explore what he called “the transference of guilt,” wherein we witness the dark side of the likeable characters and the charming aspects of the unlikeable ones.

These and other issues have been explored elsewhere in relation to Chabrol’s work, but the audio commentary by Australian film historian Adrian Martin, included on this DVD, offers a quick run-through of the ways in which Chabrol worked with his most frequent scripter, Paul Gegauff (Purple Noon), to formulate charismatic villains and flawed heroes. This strategy duplicated Hitchcock’s technique of directly involving the viewer in the proceedings through direct identification, or sympathy for, villainous characters.

Criterion has released Les Cousins in conjunction with its “brother film,” Chabrol’s debut, Le Beau Serge (1958) with the same two stars. In Serge, the Parisian (Brialy) goes back to his provincial hometown, only to find that his old best friend (Blain) is a hopeless drunk. The release of Serge contains a very thorough audio commentary and two superb TV documentaries featuring Chabrol and his cast looking back at the film and visiting its location, Chabrol’s actual hometown of Sardent.

For a more in-depth look at Chabrol’s first quartet of films, check out Ed Grant’s Media Funhouse blogspot.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”