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Charles is a young provincial coming up to Paris to study law. He shares his cousin Paul's flat. Paul is a kind of decadent boy, a disillusioned pleasure-seeker, always dragging along with other idles, while Charles is a plodding, naive and honest man. He fell in love with Florence, one of Paul's acquaintances. But how will Paul react to that attempt to build a real love relationship ? One of the major New Wave films. Written by
Chabrol plays Russian roulette with the French New Wave and wins
Les Cousins is definitively part of the French New Wave of the late 1950s. Whilst slightly more polished than the films of his contemporaries (notably Godard and Truffaut), Chabrol's film bubbles with an insurgence of new cinematographic techniques and fresh acting talent. The sense of newness is reinforced by presence of so many young actors, dressed elegantly in tuxedos and evening dresses, but acting somewhat delinquently for the most part. The film appears almost like the christening party for the birth of a new era in French cinema.
Both the direction and photography are of a high calibre and capture very well the changing mood of the central character, Charles. The film starts cheerfully and optimistically with the young man's arrival in Paris. Like him, we are enchanted by the bright lights, the wide boulevards and the historic monuments. But then, little by little, the mood changes to ennui and disappointment when the shallowness of the Paris jet set is revealed. Finally, a much darker mood prevails as Charles' best efforts to succeed are brutally crushed by a combination of circumstances, partly of his own making but largely as a result of the hand of fate. This ability to alter the mood of the film so subtly and effectively is one of Chabrol's great skills as a director and is used to far greater effect in some of his subsequent thrillers.
Both of the two central characters, Charles and Paul, are played admirably by Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy. Blain manages to capture the innocence of the outsider and offers a sympathetic and memorable performance. Brialy seems to revel in his role as the extravagant city student, hosting his parties with the gusto of a true bon-vivant, whilst exhibiting a more complicated and sensitive persona in his conversations with the characters Charles and Florence.
Both actors were used by Chabrol in an earlier film, Le Beau Serge, which, in some ways, is the mirror image of Les Cousins. In Le Beau Serge, Brialy played a city boy who returns to his home in a provincial town where he met up wih a childhood friend played by Blain. Brialy's character was the outsider and ultimately he was destroyed by his alien surroundings. In Les Cousins, the situation is cleverly reversed. Here, Blain's character is a country boy who joins Brialy in the city of Paris. It is Blain's character who is now the outsider, and who is finally destroyed by his unfamiliar environment. It is interesting to watch the two films back-to-back, to note the similarities and compare the differences. Both films seem to side with the outsider and condemn the society that rejects him, although it is perhaps disappointing that, in both cases, that the outsider is destroyed without having any significant impact on the society that crushed him. At least, in Le Beau Serge, the victim's fate was sealed by an altruistic desire to do some good for the community that rejected him, whereas in Les Cousins, the victim brought his destruction on himself by trying to attack the society he felt so repulsive.
Les Cousins lacks the emotional intensity of Le Beau Serge and appears in some places a little too stage-managed. (The ending is particularly stagy, but it works perfectly to the film's advantage.) On the plus side, Les Cousins benefits from a far superior musical score, a more interesting set of characters, and some impressive location filming in Paris. It is an engaging and accessible film which still appears fresh and vibrant.
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