The first feature film by "French Hitchcock" Claude Chabrol has the additional selling point, as reiterated by the Criterion Collection's packaging, of being the first feature-length manifestation of the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave, though it was followed up more famously by Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Why Chabrol's debut and not, say, Louis Malle's debut feature Elevator to the Gallows of nearly a year earlier? Apparently because the New Wave was the intellectual property of Cahiers du Cinema magazine, for which Chabrol, Truffaut and Godard wrote, but Malle didn't. From this perspective, the New Wave was an unprecedented and unrepeated opportunity for film critics to back up their opinions by becoming the creative vanguard of a national film culture. Posterity concedes that the critics walked the walk -- and some still do today, and Chabrol did until his death last year -- but the New Wave ultimately encompassed many more directors than ever wrote for Cahiers, so it doesn't seem quite fair to say the Cahiers critics started the New Wave, unless you want to say that their criticism started it before any of them ever shot a frame. I suppose the case can be made.
Anyway, despite its primacy Le Beau Serge doesn't have the prestige of Truffaut and Godard's debut films, and on its own terms it's hard for me to see what was revolutionary about Chabrol's film without more experience with the "tradition of quality" and the prevailing pop cinema against which Cahiers rebelled. Toward the end, I did notice a self-conscious departure from the "invisible" neatness of past direction in the main character's business with a lantern as he's trying to pick his drunken friend (the "beau" Serge of the title) off the floor of a shed. As Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) struggles with the body, the lantern tumbles forward and briefly beams an utterly abstract pattern of raw light into the camera. I can imagine a lot of directors rejecting that as a bad take, but it actually enhances the intimate immediacy Chabrol seems to be aiming for overall. Apart from that, however, there's little I recognized as showiness or disruptive narrative trickery. For a newcomer, Chabrol has an assured, efficient storytelling style. There's an easiness to it all, an actual lack of pretension, that comes with the director's familiarity with the location -- the village of Sardent was Chabrol's wartime home.
For a New Wave film, Beau Serge reminded me a lot of some Elia Kazan movies, particularly those taken from Tennessee Williams. Chabrol's film is a tale of thwarted nostalgia; the message may not be "you can't go home again," but this movie might make you think twice. Francois, the local kid who made it in the big city, has come visiting as a convalescent and hopes to look up his old best friend Serge (Gerard Blain, the driver in the shot above). To his dismay, Serge, once an aspiring architect, has become one of the town drunks, a truck driver who hangs out with the local trash, most notably an older man (Edmond Beauchamp) and his jailbait companion (Bernadette Lafont) who may or may not be his daughter but dutifully wheels him home in a barrow every night. Serge himself is unhappily married to Yvonne (Michele Meritz), whose second pregnancy repels her husband -- the first turned out traumatically bad. Once presumably the envy of the village -- hence the "beau" nickname -- Serge has been demoralized by his entanglement in its dead-end economy and social life. Francois takes it upon himself to rescue Serge from his despond, but only embroils himself in the simmering issues between Serge and Yvonne and the other couple, his own dalliance with the jailbait leading to her rape by the old man, who was apparently waiting all along for someone to say in public that the girl wasn't his daughter. Serge himself doesn't welcome Francois's solicitude, finally beating him up outside a village dance, but despite that rebuff our hero feels a commanding need to save his old friend. He imperils his own health to find Serge on a wintry night after the bum has gone on a bender while his wife has gone into labor. Francois exhausts himself dragging the possibly moribund Serge through the streets to his house, where they get news that might turn Serge's life around....
I suppose Francois is a sort of heroic figure, but Chabrol lets us keep our distance by giving us an ambiguous ending that represents not redemption but at most the possibility of a second chance for Serge. The writer-director has meanwhile so completely convinced us of the hopeless conditions in this rotten town that you can leave the film questioning whether Francois has really done Serge a favor at all. The real subject of the film isn't Serge's fall or rise but Francois's troubled nostalgia and his desire to make things what they were before. His is the situation most viewers will identify or empathize with, and Brialy does a fine job cinching the identification. You may leave Le Beau Serge asking whether it was worth it to Francois himself to undertake such a potentially thankless mission, but it won't be hard for many viewers to understand or at least imagine why he does it. Leave the question of the film's historical significance aside and you still have a well-made film with a solid story and a strong beginning to an honored and honorable career.