Quick: what's the first French New Wave feature? If you said The 400 Blows, close, but not quite. If you said La Pointe Courte, I like you, but technically wrong again. But if you said Le beau Serge, well, it's probably because you read the title of this post and could see where I was going with this.
Claude Chabrol was the first Caheirs du Cinema critic to step behind the camera, and for his debut he picked this quiet story about a man returning home to the small village where he grew up and becoming enmeshed in his old friend's complicated and tragic family situation. Unlike The 400 Blows, which would be completed later the same year, Le beau Serge doesn't flaunt its revolutionary choices. Its themes are more conservative than those of Truffaut's film, as well, and - as Terrence Rafferty points out in the essay accompanying Criterion's release - the story would have seemed right at home in French cinema at the time with just a few commercial tweaks. Because its revolution is so much more subtle, Chabrol's film has largely served as a footnote to the global one-two punch of The 400 Blows and Breathless, and Chabrol himself has similarly fallen into the shadow of his peers Truffaut and Godard (this is, at #580, the first Chabrol film in the collection - hopefully Criterion is in pursuit of his late-60s, early-70s thrillers).
Ironically, despite Chabrol's ties to the French New Wave, Le beau Serge most reminded me of Bresson's films, particularly - though not exclusively - Mouchette. The religious themes of Bresson's work carry over here, and the tragic and lonely characters Chabrol presents would be right at home in Bresson's oeuvre. The film's technique is not at all flashy, but the story aims for universal conclusions about people and their relationships, so the film is mature enough to have a light touch but green enough to think this small story can have a huge impact. The former is undoubtedly part of the reason Chabrol's debut never reached the level of notoriety of Truffaut's or Godard's, but the fact that the latter goal is not entirely successful probably played a bigger role in its legacy. All three films believe in the power of cinema, but Le beau Serge doesn't convince us that that power is all-consuming.