For his 1958 debut, Le beau Serge, Claude Chabrol told the story of a man returning to his provincial hometown after many years away. In the follow up, Les cousins, Chabrol flipped things around, even switching the types of roles played by the two lead actors. This time, Gérard Blain is Charles, a mama’s boy from the country making the move to Paris in order to study law. While there, he will room with his cousin, the brash and outgoing Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy). One of Charles’ friends doubts the two are related; they look nothing alike. Charles responds that this is because they’re cousins, not twins. In truth, the divide between the two relatives couldn’t be wider.
Paul immediately takes his cousin on a trip around the city. Eventually, the two end up at Paul’s favorite club, full of young, spoiled people looking for a good time. It’s love at first sight for Charles when he sees Florence (Juliette Mayniel), a girl with a past but whom Charles sees with fresh eyes. As smitten as he is, Charles can’t quite bring himself to recite a poem he wrote for her. After spending time together at a party, Charles becomes convinced that Florence is the girl he’s meant to spend the rest of his life with. They arrange to see each other again.
On the following day, Charles reveals to his sober cousin that he has fallen in love with Florence. Inspired, he goes to a nearby bookshop to buy a few of Balzac’s best novels. The owner, (Guy Decomble) immediately recognizing Charles is a young man in love, gives him some books for free.
Meanwhile, Paul decides he has to put an end to the relationship between Charles and Florence. After all, his cousin doesn’t understand that Parisian girls like to play games with men like him. Besides, as a law student, Charles doesn’t have much to offer Florence, a girl used to the easy life. So, with the help of his hustler buddy Clovis (Claude Cerval) Paul lures Florence into his bed. The girl moves in with the two cousins; rather than have his nose rubbed into his romantic failures; Charles buries it in his books.
Here, the contrast between Charles and Paul becomes paramount to the drama. Charles falls in love with Florence first, but Paul simply can’t stand by and let that happen. During a party Paul witnesses the two kiss for the first time, and his expression of sadness speaks volumes. A shallow man he may actually long for love but be incapable of maintaining a relationship. This inability leads to terrible betrayal and cruelty. Charles is on the other side of the spectrum. His dedication to his studies and his non confrontational demeanor make him bury all of his anger, where it quietly simmers, until finally boiling over during the films climax.
Though Claude Chabrol was still in the early stages of his career here, he shows a marked maturity from Le beau Serge. The visual style is much more interesting, bolstered by more natural and polished performances. As Jealousy leads to tragedy, we are left to wonder whether a life of hard work. Or one of abandon is the one that pays off.
Presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer represents another tremendous effort from Criterion. The black-and-white photography is sharply balanced, with clear imaging and razor sharp resolution. There are no digital anomalies to speak of. A nice layer of grain helps to preserve the look of this older film.
The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is excellent. Criterion has preserved the movie’s original sound design perfectly. Dialogue is audible from start to finish, and the films jazzy soundtrack has nice pop throughout.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following special features are included:
- Commentary: an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, coeditor of Movie Mutations: The Changing Faces of World Cinephilia. Engaging an informative, he gives a wonderful analysis of the film, and discusses how Les Cousins fits into the nouvelle vague.
- Trailer (5 min, 1080p) the original theatrical trailer for Les cousins. In French, with optional English subtitles.
- Booklet: an illustrated booklet featuring Terrence Rafferty’s essay “The Nature of the Beast”; and “Brialy on Blain”, a collection of excerpts from Jean-Claude Brialy’s memoir “J’ai oublie de vous dire…” in which the actor remembers his close friend and acting partner Gerard Blain.