Les cousins (1959)

Chabrol’s second feature is kind of the flipside of his first, Le beau Serge, with the same two male leads but the situation reversed: here the country boy comes to the big city rather than the other way round, offering a variation on the fairly hoary theme of the urban/rural divide and the former being a bad influence on the latter. The titular cousins are rural boy Charles and urban boy Paul, the former coming to the latter’s Paris residence to stay while he’s studying; Charles is basically hard-working and decent but naive while Paul is worldly, arrogant, unthinking and lazy. (I will confess to being baffled by the accusations of fascism flung at the character by Adrian Martin in his DVD commentary and elsewhere. I presume I’ve missed some detail somewhere other than Paul being a prick who likes guns and Wagner.) In the midst of all this Charles falls in love with one of Paul’s less dubious friends and a romantic triangle of some sort ensues. I must say I found this a lot harder to engage with than Le beau Serge; this review sums up part of my problem with it—let’s face it, Paul is hardly the loveliest film character ever put on screen, and his associate Clovis is even worse, and it does take too long to build up steam, but what really irritated me was Charles. There’s something about him which gets on my nerves, this innocence in the face of Paul’s decadence which I’m sure was meant to make him sympathetic by comparison but didn’t work for me. I think part of that’s down to the notion expressed here of the “moral” character “sacrificing” himself for the “immoral” one; that view fits Le beau Serge but I don’t buy it in Les cousins. What happens to Charles is accidental and purposeless—unless, of course, you interpret it as him unconsciously bringing it on himself, which unfortunately doesn’t endear me to him further. Maybe I was in the wrong mood for it, but that Film Fanatic review I linked above did hit on the things I didn’t like about the film, so maybe it’s not just me.

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