When Andrew Sarris published Interviews with Film Directors in 1967, he could already write that Claude Chabrol (1930–2010) had “quickly become one of the forgotten figures of the nouvelle vague.” Of the most prominent New Wave directors, Chabrol had been the first to complete a feature film (Le Beau Serge in 1958), resulting from an inheritance received by his then wife. The film was shot in Chabrol’s home village of Sardent, where his grandfather and father were pharmacists and where Chabrol established a film society as a young teen during World War II. This inaugurated a pattern of Chabrol setting his films in the French provinces, and, indeed, Les Cousins is largely concerned with the perennial tension between Paris and the rest of country. He brought back the two leads from his first film, Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, both of whom went on to successful careers as actors and directors. The former had had a brief period of comparison with James Dean and actually broke into the English-language market with the 1962 Howard Hawks/John Wayne film Hatari.
Chabrol, of course, had been one of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma (along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Erik Rohmer) mentored by André Bazin. With Rohmer, Chabrol had written a book on Alfred Hitchcock, and the themes and obsessions that preoccupied Hitchcock, including an ambivalent attitude toward Catholicism, recur throughout Chabrol’s work. Chabrol quickly became identified as the French counterpart of the “Master of Suspense,” yet while he was enormously prolific, I would argue that none of his films quite approach the complex stature of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, or Psycho. Still, in the films he made starring his second wife, Stephane Audran (beginning with Les Bonnes Femmes, in 1960, through Violette, in 1978), Chabrol produced a collaborative body of work that might be compared to that of D. W. Griffith with Lillian Gish or Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich. The couple divorced in 1980, and the director’s later work, much of it in television, was intermittently successful, although he was still directing at 80.
Les Cousins received generally bad press in America, not unusual for the early arriving New Wave films. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said it had “the most dismal and defeatist solution for the problem it presents…of any picture we have ever seen.” Of Chabrol, the “dean” of critics wrote that his “attitude is ridden with a sense of defeat and ruin.” This and similar reviews caused Pauline Kael to make an extensive effort to extol the film’s virtues, saying it “glitters” and referring to its “glossy stylishness.” Kael wrote: “The Cousins, more than any other film I can think of, deserves to be called The Lost Generation, with all the glamour and romance, the easy sophistication and quick desperation that the title suggests.” Kael, probably more than she realized, was onto something.
The New Wave, of which Les Cousins serves as a major harbinger, was indeed something new, and cinema would never be the same again. The comfortable verities and virtues of classical Hollywood (so admired by the Cahiers crowd) and the equally classical linear stodginess of European production (mostly reviled by the same group) would give way. The American studio system, staggered by television, would soon reap at least short-term benefits from the rise of people like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn, Woody Allen, Blake Edwards, and Stanley Kubrick. In Britain, realists like Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and Tony Richardson arrived; in Italy and Sweden, bleak visionaries like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman would predominate; and in France, the New Wave submerged the past. But where were the likes of Renoir, Ford, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Chaplin…? In the parlance of the day, where had all the flowers gone?