Le beau Serge (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 9.20.2011)
Claude Chabrol's 1958 debut is often called the first French New Wave film, primarily because the director was previously a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, along with future nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut. However, Le beau Serge is more traditional than the early efforts by these filmmakers. François (Jean-Claude Brialy) returns to the village of Sardent after a long absence and is shocked to see how much his friend Serge (Gérard Blain) has declined, falling far short of his ambitions and weighed-down by his marriage to Yvonne (Michèle Méritz). Between confrontations with Serge and the local priest (Claude Cerval), François has a brief affair with Serge's teenaged sister-in-law (Bernadette Lafont, then married to Blain).
In one of the extras on this disc, several Sardent residents seem pleased with their small roles in the film, even though Chabrol presents their village as hell on earth (an incest subplot is especially unpleasant). The indifference and evil of Sardent arouses François' almost saintly side, as he struggles to protect his friends from themselves.
Le beau Serge works best as a psychological study, with the two friends struggling against their darker sides. With the exception of one notable tracking shot, the film's style is relatively conventional. Still, the black-and-white cinematography by Henri Dacaë -- who would later shot Truffaut's The 400 Blows -- is extraordinary. The film is quite grainy at times, but it looks quite good in HD, especially during the film's most memorable sequence: the finale, in which Yvonne goes into labor and François battles through a snowstorm to find Serge and a doctor.
Extras include a 1969 return to Sardent by Chabrol and a lovely 52-minute documentary from 2003 with Braily and Lafont visiting the village to reminisce. Terrence Rafferty provides additional background in the accompanying booklet and critic Guy Austin considers the influence of Fritz Lang (on the film's psychological aspects) and Roberto Rossellini (on the film's style) in his worthwhile commentary track. -- Michael Adams