Criterion Sunday 581: Les Cousins (1959)

For his second feature film following 1958’s Le Beau Serge, Claude Chabrol takes the same leading actors and remixes them in a Parisian setting. Jean-Claude Brialy is still the affected intellectual, as Paul, this time sporting a goatee that clues us in right away that he probably listens to jazz and is pretentious, though in actuality what he listens to is Wagner, and he loves to party — plus his hobby is to collect antique guns — so he’s a whole lot more dangerous a character. And again it’s Gérard Blain who plays the provincial type, as Charles, who shows up to his cousin Paul’s swanky Parisian apartment and moves in to study law. He’s committed to the studying; Paul is, of course, not, and he tries to tempt Charles by bringing a number of women through his life; when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), things get competitive between them. This is a sort of twisted psychodrama in the end, a ménage à trois that none of them really seems to be aware of — or certainly not Charles — and Chabrol has a streak of nastiness running through his plotting that means none of them are going to get away with it in the end.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Chabrol; Writers Chabrol and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Juliette Mayniel, Claude Cerval; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 580: Le Beau Serge (1958)

Claimed by some to be the first film in French nouvelle vague, I think there are enough caveats to make that debatable — Varda made her debut a few years earlier, albeit that it was barely screened at the time — and stylistically this is still only moving towards what Godard and Truffaut would do a year later with their debuts. However, in applying some of the feeling of Italian neorealism to a story of ordinary people filmed on location in a small village, there’s certainly something of that incipient film movement in Chabrol’s debut feature. It concerns François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who’s returned to the small village where he grew up after a few years of study in the metropolitan centre, to find that his titular former best friend (Gérard Blain) has become an alcoholic layabout. The film is filled with darkness in its exploration of relationships (especially with Bernadette Lafont’s teenage Marie) and homecoming, almost judgemental in the way it makes out French provincial life and with a heavy sort of cynicism in its key relationships, which can make it all a bit of a slog.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Claude Chabrol; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Michèle Méritz, Bernadette Lafont; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 18 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 347: Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970)

It’s hard not to watch this film without acknowledging the very creepy power dynamic at its heart, as our bearded late-30-something protagonist Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) arrives in Annecy on holiday before his wedding, where he bumps into an old friend Aurora (Cornu) and then proceeds to obsess over his friend’s landlady’s teenage daughters. To be fair Aurora encourages him in flirting with them, and he is a very strangely touchy-feely kind of guy, and it’s worth pointing out from the outset that nothing particularly untoward happens, it’s just that constant way he is always talking himself into action (or, as frequently, inaction) that puts one’s guard up. Then again, that’s really what you feel Rohmer is going for and if there’s one thing I’ve taken from this run of “Moral Tales”, it’s that Rohmer’s male protagonists are all pretty terrible, in their own ways. Jérôme’s particular problem is that he likes to analyse everything, and Aurora, who’s a novelist, likes to listen to him do this, and even encourage him a bit. Brialy is almost like a Woody Allen presence in a way, constantly commending himself on his own restraint while also talking up the potential outcomes, that could involve him romancing these teenage girls, Laura (Béatrice Romand) and then her sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), who to her credit isn’t interested in Jérôme at all. It’s a film ultimately about the power of storytelling itself, which may explain some of its enduring appeal — though the luminous colour cinematography by Néstor Almendros helps too — but the power dynamic between its leads remains offputting.


  • Linked to Claire’s Knee, the third disc features a short film called La Cambrure (The Curve, 1999) which was made under the auspices of Éric Rohmer and displays plenty of Rohmerian feeling. It has the lead actor — who is also the film’s director and writer, Edwige Shaki — put herself into the context of European art by almost literally modelling herself on various paintings pictured in her art historian boyfriend’s flat. It’s witty and concise in its way of taking on these artistic ideas of women that are promulgated by men, along with a sly demolition of the boyfriend’s own motivations for getting into the relationship at the end. It’s slight, but likeable.
  • Accompanying this film is a short interview segment from a French TV show in which Brialy, Monaghan and Romand all discuss working with the very private Rohmer (who did not of course appear). There’s a little bit about the making of the film, in the sense of Brialy telling of how far in advance Rohmer was doing his planning, but the rest is just descriptions of Rohmer and his working from his young actors.
  • As well as the short film and the interviews, there’s also a trailer for the original release, and of course it’s just snippets of talking. Makes one wonder how it lured people in, but I suppose the audience of the time were more understanding of Rohmer’s style.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 13 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 290: Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974)

One of Buñuel’s typically absurdist late films, which narratively careens from one character to another almost randomly (like Linklater’s Slacker), a series of brief skits which fundamentally question the meaning we ascribe to narratives by constantly bamboozling one’s expectations. It may be one of his greatest films in fact, although the experience of watching it can necessarily be a little bit confounding, as familiar targets are satirised — like the bourgeoisie (sitting down to go to the toilet together), the police (the commissioner with his fixation on his sister, or the cadets being taught about polyamory in a class setting), men of religion (drinking and gambling in an inn), and just the general slew of human perversions and vices. There are some hilarious individual episodes as well as others which seem somewhat more of their time, but Buñuel stays above the fray dispassionately observing these foibles.


  • The only significant extra is a short video introduction by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière which sets up some of the ideas he and Buñuel were playing with in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 7 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 9 February 2020).

Criterion Sunday 238: Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961)

This very early film, Godard’s third feature I believe, gets wildly disparate reviews, and I sort of land somewhere in the middle. It’s a thin undertaking, like so much of JLG’s work, a few recycled ideas stolen from books and film, made feature-length, and largely predicated on the on-screen allure of his leading lady Anna Karina. Of course, there have been less substantial reasons for making a film, and if it’s going to be Karina mugging for the camera or doing little musical interludes (though this is not really a musical), then there are plenty of pleasures along the way. The fourth-wall breaking, the self-aware nods to cinema history, and the constant inventive staging and cutting mark out this period of Godard’s work, and just on a formal level it’s a pleasant undertaking. That said, Karina’s character feels like little more than a cipher for her (fairly bland) male co-stars’ sexual competition, as Brialy and Belmondo try to woo her, and so it ends up feeling overlong even at its shortish running length. Likeable, colourful, and playful, with an excellent Karina only hinting at her much greater work in Vivre sa vie (still my favourite of Godard’s films)… but little more than that.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 5 February 2019 (and originally on VHS in the university library, Wellington, October 1998).