Les cousins (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 9.20.2011)
Claude Chabrol's 1959 follow-up to Le beau Serge shows the director becoming more sure of himself and inching toward the crime cinema that would dominate his later career. Les cousins has the same stars as its predecessor, but this time they reverse their roles. Charles (Gérard Blain) is an innocent from the provinces, who comes to Paris to study law. While there, he stays with his decadent cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) -- also a law student -- in their uncle's apartment. Instead of studying, Paul stages an endless series of parties, while Charles struggles to avoid temptation. This becomes impossible when he meets Florence (Juliette Mayniel), who proves unworthy of his love.
Unlike the peripatetic narratives of his New Wave compatriots, Chabrol's script rarely ventures outside his characters' apartment. A French modification of a swinging bachelor's pad, this is the film's fourth protagonist, its claustrophobia closing-in on Charles. Chabrol uses windows, mirrors, doorways, and the bars on the balcony to comment on his characters.
While Les cousins is not a crime film, it was clearly influenced by crime films, particularly Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. There are unexpected plot twists throughout, as well as the kind of ironic ending that Chabrol would become known for. The director's skill with actors also shows signs of improvement. Blain is the stand-out, giving Charles the neurotic sensitivity of a Montgomery Clift character.
The HD transfer on this disc is considerably less grainy than the one on Criterion's concurrent Le beau Serge release. As always with Henri Dacaë, the cinematography is outstanding, particularly two nighttime street scenes.
As for extras, the commentary by critic Adrian Martin devotes more time to a general overview of Chabrol's career than Les cousins specifically. Martin finds parallels between Chabrol and other nouvelle vague directors, especially Eric Rohmer, who Martin concludes is far less interested in moral issues than Chabrol. The accompanying booklet includes excerpts from Braily's memoir and an essay by Terrence Rafferty, who argues that Chabrol found his true nature while making Les cousins. -- Michael Adams