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Les Cousins effectively contrasts too opposite kinds of excess: a hedonists unbridled pursuit of pleasure and a workaholics denial of gratification. There is much that can be learned from this film, especially for those at the stage of life where one sorts out what approach to living ensures a sense of meaning. Its a palatable lesson as well, accompanied as it is by an intriguing storyline and energetic performances.
Historical Background: Les Cousins (1959) was just Chabrols second feature film, following one year after his debut film, Le Beau Serge (1958). Le Beau Serge is generally considered to be the first film of the French Nouveau Vague (New Wave) or, at least, the first to be completed. Chabrols first two films bear an interesting relationship to one another. Both starred the same pair of young actors (Blain and Brialy) and both involved one of the two displaced to an unfamiliar locale. In Le Beau Serge, Brialys character is a city-boy who moves to a provincial town where he encounters an old childhood friend and country-boy played by Blain. In Les Cousins, Blain is once again the country-boy, but it is he who is now displaced into the fast-paced life of Paris. The peak period in Chabrols long career as a director is generally considered to be 1968-1972, when he directed several of his best known works, including Bad Girls (1968), La Femme Infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1969), This Man Must Die (1970), and Just Before Nightfall (1971). During that middle phase of his career, Chabrols style showed a distinct influence of the great director, Alfred Hitchcock. It could be argued that the ending of Les Cousins represents one of the first evidences of a Hitchcock influence in Chabrols work.
The Story: Charles (Gérard Blain) and Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) are cousins. Charles is from the country and has led a sheltered life, especially because he has been closely tied to his mothers apron strings. He has come to Paris to study to become a lawyer and will be sharing an apartment with cousin Paul. Paul, a bon vivant, is fully immersed in the lifestyle of Paris. Although also a student, Paul doesnt study much or attend classes. He is suave and sophisticated, social and outgoing. He is quick with witty lines and flirtatious with all the young women (whether they are alone or with a date). His conversation is shallow but entertaining, revealing nothing about his inner self. He is insensitive to others. When a girlfriend believes herself pregnant with his child, he gives her a little cash and dismisses her. When he needs to waken a man in his apartment sleeping off a night of drinking, he pulls a mock-Gestapo act. Never mind that the man is Jewish! When he decides that the girl that Charles has taken a shine to is not right for Charles, he seduces her himself. Never mind that she probably really wasnt right for Charles.
Charles is much more serious about his studies. He wants badly to succeed, in part to satisfy the expectations of his mother, whom he writes to regularly. He reads serious literature (e.g., Balzac), while Paul and his crowd care for nothing deeper than mysteries or pornography. Charles takes an interest in Florence (Juliette Mayniel) love at first sight knowing nothing very much about her. He speaks earnestly to her, from his heart, without the polish or superficial confidence of Paul. Florence actually finds Charles refreshing in his sincerity and begins to fall in love with the notion of innocent love that Charles seems to represent. Paul, however, reminds her that she is a creature of the flesh, with far more of a taste for passion than idyllic love. She is drawn to Pauls passionate intensity even more than Charless innocence and shifts her affections accordingly.
Charles is devastated by Florences quick transfer of allegiance to Paul. The three begin live together in the same apartment, but Florence is with Paul and Charles buries himself in his studies. Charles worries about Pauls chances of success in the up-coming examination and urges him to study, but Paul insists that hell bluff his way through. Pauls exam is a day earlier than Charles, and Paul does indeed bluff his way through. He passes. The next day, Charles, despite his countless hours of study, fails. He had worked himself into such a state of anxiety over the exam that he found himself confused and flustered.
SPOILER AHEAD. SKIP TO THEMES IF YOU LIKE.
In a desperate state from this failure, Charles first seeks consolation at a church, only to find it closed up tight. He next seeks the advice of the bookstore owner, who had earlier befriended him, but the bookish mans advice is pretty much limited to buck up, keep working hard, forget about the women pretty much what his mother would tell him were she at hand. Deny your feelings and be a trooper! Charles returns to the apartment he shares with Paul and puts a single bullet in the revolver that Paul keeps laying around. He thinks about taking one shot at Paul while hes sleeping, but finally lays the pistol down instead. Paul awakens and, believing the pistol empty as usual, jokingly shoots at Charles blam! killing him on the spot. The death could just as well be attributed to Charless depression caused by his denial of his needs for gratification or to Pauls impulsive recklessness caused by his hedonism. Both lose, in the end, one by death, the other by having caused a death.
Themes: The principal theme of Les Cousins is one of the most important psychological issues that adolescents and young adults have to grapple with, but it is seldom tackled as directly as Chabrol does here in this film. It is the issue of ones fundamental motivation in life. Which is more meaningful: a life based on finding pleasure and self-gratification or a life devoted to selfish giving and productivity? Hedonism or service with self-denial? When I was an adolescent, I came to realize that I had tendencies in both directions. I could, on the one hand, picture myself goofing off, pursuing pleasures, and thinking only of myself. I could just as well picture myself working hard to make the world a better place in some sense. Id try one for a while, then the other, but neither by itself seemed to satisfy. It occurred to me, after a while, that either approach taken to its logical conclusion becomes an absurdity. Suppose, for example, that every person in the world were in a state of absolute self-denial and altruism, totally devoted to beneficent acts toward others. Who would there be to enjoy those acts of beneficence if everyone derived pleasure solely from their goodness to others? Suppose, instead, that every person were totally self-centered, greedy, and hedonistic. Who would there be to cater to all that selfish neediness? I realized that for life to feel meaningful to me, it had to include both a sense of accomplishment of some sort as well as some good old personal gratification. Most people who go entirely to one side or the other in the selfish/selfless continuum end up feeling dissatisfied with their life at one state or another. Most people will find a balancing of hedonism and altruism the most fulfilling approach in the end.
In Les Cousins, Paul represents selfish hedonism run amok. He is shallow and crass, he cares little about the women that he beds, he drives recklessly, blows off his studies and education, drinks heavily and holds up intoxication as a laudable state. He lives a life of empty dissipation. Charles, on the other hand, has gone to the other extreme, especially after his hopes of romance with Florence fall through. He studies constantly and denies himself even the simple pleasure of companionship. Charles fits the old saying that all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy. If we were to create a corresponding axiom for Paul, it might say that all play and no work makes Johnny a shallow fellow. Sooner or later, Paul will wake up in the morning, perhaps when he is middle-aged, and realize that he has nothing to show for his life. Charles, if he lives long enough, will wake up and realize that his long resume of accomplishments has not brought him happiness. For most people, the sense that ones life has been meaningful requires both knowing that weve taken time to enjoy life and nothing that weve had some kind of positive impact, whether locally or globally.
When we put all of our eggs in either the hedonism basket or the altruism basket we increase our risk of psychological breakdown. If all one cares about is success, a set-back in that department will be demoralizing. If all one cares about is pleasure, an emotional pain like a romance falling apart or death of a loved one could be devastating. Valuing both gratification and productivity means that each of the two arenas can cushion a blow in the other. Charles had put all of his sense of self-worth into his studies and had no source of emotional support to see him through when he suffered a failure. With so much at stake in the examination, Charless anxiety level must have been extreme and likely contributed to his failure.
Chabrol actually filmed two alternate endings for Les Cousins a happy one and a tragic one. I wont repeat which one was actually used in case you skipped the spoiler above. I think, though, that the existence of the two alternatives indicates that the ending is not really crucial to the theme of the film. It may add drama, but the thematic points have already been made over the main portion of the film.
This is not a film about good and evil or even a right and wrong way to be. Paul and Charles are each incomplete in their own way. One reviewer claims that Chabrol paints Charles as a rather pathetic creature, whose goodness turns Chabrols stomach and calls Charles a loser and a square. Another reviewer, however, describes Paul as the prototype of the bourgeois student, selfish and smug, self-confident and apolitical. Another writes off Florence as a slut, which is really far too harsh. I dont think that Chabrol is painting any of these individuals as evil or better than another. Its not so much that hedonism or, conversely, a workaholic mentality is inherently evil or wrong its only that both lead to feelings of emptiness in the end. Les Cousins is not so much a study in morality as a study in psychological health.
Production Values: Les Cousins is Nouveau Vague cinema at its best, in several respects. We get an intimate, realistic look at Parisian college life and the city ambiance nightclubs, house parties, busy streets, and the familiar monuments. There is a claustrophobic feel to the scenes set in the apartment of Paul and in Charless room in particular a claustrophobia that we might expect a country boy like Charles to feel acutely. Chabrols cinematographer, Henri Decae, provides novel camera techniques (a signature feature of the New Wave), such as a spinning shot around the walls of Charless room finally settling on Charles at his desk, as if to illustrate his psychological disorientation. Both the directing and photography are excellent.
All of the three key performances are delivered with freshness and gusto. Gérard Blain provides all of the charm, innocence, and naivety one might expect from a country cousin. His other roles included ones in Le Beau Serge (1958) and The American Friend (1977). Jean-Claude Brialy had a long and successful career in film. After Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, he appeared in Paris Belongs to Us (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1960), Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), the magnificent The King of Hearts (1966), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), La Nuit de Varennes (1982), and Queen Margot (1994). Juliette Mayniel gave a commendable performance as Florence.
Bottom-Line: The VHS copy of this film that I purchased had many film defects scratches, lines, debris. There was one upside down frame and a sudden jump that I feel certain was not intended. Hopefully, one company or another will take up the task of producing a good quality DVD transfer for this film classic. I thoroughly enjoyed this brilliant film of the New Wave despite the print flaws. The performances and the fascinating contrast between the two cousins kept my attention riveted. Les Cousins is in French with English subtitles and has a running time of 112 minutes.
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Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age