In a nice twist of fate, Criterion has recently rolled out some indispensable French classics that look exquisite on Blu-ray, including Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Complete Jean Vigo, and Claude Chabrol’s landmark debut, Le beau Serge. Viewing them together is not only like being transported back in time, but also like experiencing a continuum: Vigo, who tragically left us prematurely, created a hybrid of naturalism and impressionism, tweaking the privileged for their pomposity and celebrating the idealism of youth; Cocteau emphasized both enchantment and horror in his fairy tale retelling, using a vivid mixture of styles, textures, and film stocks; and Chabrol ushered in the French New Wave for the Cahiers critics-turned directors with an assured debut about provincial suffocation and the fear of mortality among twentysomethings.
Of course, Vigo’s Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante are famous for their grade school rebellion and maiden voyage for newlyweds on a journey of discovery, but the earlier mock travelogue (À propos de Nice) and sports documentary (Taris) are revealing primers. All but Taris are photographed by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront), who helped navigate the stylistic and emotional shifts from the real and the imaginative.
With Beauty and the Beast, Cocteau found a post World War II allegorical statement about man’s inhumanity to man in a kaleidoscope of fear and redemption. It remains one of the most beautiful movies ever made and a way of melding different artistic influences.
Le beau Serge may have been overshadowed by Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but even Truffaut appreciated Chabrol’s maturity beyond his years in evoking working class melancholy in his hometown of Sardent.