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Friday, September 30, 2016

Claude Chabrol | Les Cousins (The Cousins)


kissing 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.
     The handsome “mamma’s” boy, Charles, has little chance in such a debauced world, although he attempts to study day and night for his law exams and regularly writes long epistles home. But a single kiss by the woman these celebrants describe as “the slut,” since she has evidently slept with all of them, sends him into a spin, as he immediately falls in love with the girl, Florence (Juliette Mayniel).
      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. 
      Charles’ discovery of the sexual “betrayal” sends him into an even deeper loop as he now finds it even more difficult to concentrate. But it is clear that something else here that is going on. As any psychoanalyst might explain, the sharing of a sexual partner can easily be perceived as urge to share the other’s bed. Moreover, he Wagner record Paul loves to pay is Arturo Toscanini’s version of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which suggests that a far the deeper “love” urge going on in Charles internal thinking, an unrequited relationship with his attractive cousin himself; the sexual betrayal involving Florence is just the surface of a far deeper homoerotic relationship that neither he nor the director deeply explores.

     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.

      But the next morning, after hearing of his cousin’s “failure,”—the subject is his law exams but the subtext is Charles’ failure of being able to actually destroy his cousin—and attempting to reiterate their nonexistent comradery (apparently without even recognizing that Charles does share in his heterosexual revels—although we might ask whether they were, in fact, “celebrations,” but rather tortures of the opposite sex) with Tristan and Isolde once again booming out from his record player, Paul picks up the pistol where Charles left it and, as yet another “prank,” releases the trigger while Charles stares back in horror. 
      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

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