Sunday, 7 September 2008

le beau serge (chabrol) & les mistons (truffaut)

The NFT notes inform that Chabrol mostly financed the making of his first film himself, and that it did not get an immediate release. They don't say whether he felt this was a disaster or not, but note that he immediately got on with the making the next.

Chabrol's film showed at Cannes with Trauffaut's 20 minute short Les Mistons two years after they were both made. You can see why distributors and the like would have been wary. Le Beau Serge is psychologically hard hitting. The eponymous anti-hero is an alcoholic waster, treated with an even-handed sympathy. The narrative describes what happens when his childhood friend, Francois, returns to the village they grew up in. Francois is a well-dressed young man, who's been to university, whereas Serge is a scruffy drunk who never got close to realising his dream of becoming an architect. Francois' ostensible reason for returning to the village is to recuperate following a TB attack, but it becomes increasingly clear that he wants to save his old friend, something Serge, of course, resents.

In a sense, this is the kind of narrative that might have been groundbreaking at the time, but now has become commonplace, the stuff of TV mini-series set in rural backwaters. (In the UK McGovern's The Lakes comes to mind.) But it's not hard to grasp how, at the time, the superficially unsympathetic characterisation and harsh psychological realism would have seemed like a hard sell to distributors. Furthermore, there's no gloss on Chabrol's shire horse. In grimy black and white he captures the mud and rain and dourness of the rural environment. In the final sequence, as snow falls, he succeeds in convincing that this isn't pretty - it's cold and threatening. He pulls this off in part through the minimal, powerful lighting. The outdoor scenes where Francois goes searching for Serge are lit by nothing more than a flashlight, throwing stark, disorientating images onto the screen; conveying the genuine chaos of the night.

The comparison with Truffaut's twenty minute short is intriguing. Les Mistons is all bright Summer memories of youth, as a pack of brats pursue the beautiful Bernadette, who's awakened their adolescent curiosity and fear. This is a gentle, elegiac film, with a clear crowd-pleasing premise. On the surface it would be seem to be the complete opposite to Chabrol's harsh examination of rural life. What knits them together is something which could only be described as 'style'. Which is to say, the straightforward camerawork, the lack of any great emphasis on design, and the use of natural lighting as far as possible. Both films have a freshness to their approach, the sense of cobwebs being brushed away as a result of a wilful lack of artifice.

Cinema is always exploring the duality that exists between its desire to explore technological frontiers, and a corresponding desire to strip the technology back and let the stories speak for themselves. Hollywood, a cultural-technological adjunct of the world's most powerful economy, makes 'em bigger and brasher than anyone else, because technology has always driven cinematic expression. However, whenever a group of directors come together and step back from technology's tyranny, like the Neo-Realists or the Danish Dogmatics or the Nouvelle Vague, the audience feels as though it's learning to see what's in front of its eyes all over again. Like 19th century audiences who stared at the very first screenings of people walking through city streets, or horses running, we're reminded of the most simple cinematic miracle of all: the ability to capture life, once, and play it back again forever.

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