Friday, September 30, 2016
Claude Chabrol | Les Cousins (The Cousins)
by Douglas Messerli
Paul Gégauff (screenplay, based on a story by Claude Chabrol), Claude Chabrol (director) Les Cousins (The Cousins) / 1959
Often described as being related to director Claude Chabrol’s first film, The Beau Serge, his 1959 feature The Cousins, this time around, brings the country cousin, Charles (Gerard Blain) to the city and into the apartment of his decadent cousin, Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), who, with his thinly -trimmed beard, is even made up to look a bit like the devil he is.
It is not merely that Paul’s hip apartment (filled with African masks, antique guns, and marine-related paintings) at the center of which is a large, open hearth, is a location of nightly heavy drinking and sexual orgies—which in 1959 may have seemed particularly “morbid,” as The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther described them—but that Paul himself, apparently into sadomasochism, likes to put on Wagner and wear a Nazi gestapo hat. His nasty friends, Clovis (Claude Cerval)—an ironic name, surely, given that King Clovis was the founder of France—and an Italian count (Carrado Guarducci) join him and his women friends in his nightly carousals.
Clovis is particularly furious that Florence seems to be pretending something she is not, and arranges for her to be found in Paul’s bed when Charles returns from his college classes—classes which, it’s evident, Paul never attends.
When Paul easily passes the law exams without doing any studying, and the hard-working Charles fails them, that love triggers a death-wish as deep as the two lovers in Wagner’s opera suffer. And it is only through death that their love can be consummated.
Taking up one of Paul’s wall-hung handguns (can there be a better example of male-male expression?), Charles puts a single bullet into it, determining, in a kind of reverse Russian roulette, to let chance make the decision of whether or not his beloved cousin lives. As in everything else, Paul, it seems, is lucky, and survives.
Chabrol does not even let us hear the gunshot; we see only a small puff of smoke. And Charles, at first, seems not even to have felt the bullet’s entry into his body as he stands a few seconds in utter disbelief before slowly falling to the floor (a kind of death that Fassbinder will later brilliantly exaggerate in his The American Soldier).
Paul, obviously shocked by the turn of events, goes to his cousin to momentary stroke his forehead—with a wonderful visual mix of hands and feet and heads—before retreating, as the doorbell rings, forcing him to face his tragic future.
His fate was determined, we now recognize, from the moment he invited his loving cousin into his life.
Los Angeles, September 30, 2016