by Ben Sachs
It's a welcome reminder that, before they were regarded as masters, the Nouvelle Vague directors were young, eager critics making movies to better understand how they worked. There's also a feeling, in their early films, that watching and making movies enabled them to better understand their place in the world. This is certainly the case of Truffaut's autobiographical The 400 Blows, but it's also true of Claude Chabrol's early work. Chabrol started directing films shortly after he coauthored, with Eric Rohmer, the landmark study Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, the first serious long-form work about the director. His first two movies, Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959), draw on Hitchcock's predilection for doubling or mirroring protagonists. Both films center on an intimate, parasitic friendship between an introvert and extrovert; and they both reveal a quirky, personal response to Hitchcock's themes.
Les Cousins seems the more relevant of the two in light of The Color Wheel. Like Perry's film, it's a black comedy about family relations, marked by a seething anger towards a social milieu clearly familiar to its director. The movie contains some party scenes as deliberately unappealing as the one in Color Wheel, with Jean-Claude Brialy (playing the boorish bon vivant Paul) lording over his collegiate hangers-on like a self-appointed emperor. The pseudo-bohemian network—underwritten by the wealth of parents who are never seen in the film—seems as treacherous as any of Hitchcock's spy rings. Undermining others is the order of the day: Brialy's character takes hold over his country cousin Charles (Gérard Blain), who moves in to attend law school in Paris, then steals his girl and proceeds to drives him half crazy.
Chabrol also applies a bitter, critical stance toward his characterizations. As Terrence Rafferty notes in his essay for the Criterion Collection's DVD reissue of the film:
[Paul's manipulation of Charles is] a cruel experiment, and a macabre parody of the sort of thing film directors do: contriving impossible situations for their characters just to see what these invented people are really made of. (This is a far more defensible technique in art than in life.) As it turns out, Chabrol's people in Les Cousins don't add up to much: Paul's a sadist; Florence, lazily, resigns herself to being a plaything; and Charles, with whom all the viewer's sympathies should lie, remains infuriatingly passive and irresolute.
The film concludes with a shocking development that seems at first like a nasty non sequitur, but, upon reflection, proves to have been in the cards from the very beginning (The Color Wheel has a similar narrative construction, incidentally). It's a filmmaking trick that costs nothing to execute—which is just one reason why Les Cousins remains a model lesson for independent filmmakers.