Paris on the cusp of the new decade, "the fabulous city" in "a very strange world," the Idealist and the Philistine. The goateed young pasha (Jean-Claude Brialy) lords over his dissolute collection, the objets d’art include toy soldiers and real revolvers along with the fauna and flora of the bohemian student scene. Enter the cousin from the provinces (Gérard Blain), "the plodding sort" of innocent, uneasy amid the bourgeois sharpies and parasites and buffoons. Balzac from the gruff bookstore owner (cf. Boudu Sauvé des Eaux) and Wagner at the soirée, Gestapo regalia and all, then infatuation for a worldly gazelle (Juliette Mayniel). Love is a lost ideal in this sealed-off environment, jaded sophisticates yearn for purity even as they inevitably squash it. The diffident poet is no match for his urbane double, Brialy ("living proof that studying is a waste of time") aces his tests and scoops up the heroine while Blain pretends to shrug: "I’ll wait my turn." Reversing the setting and characters of Le Beau Serge, Claude Chabrol discovers the acerbic stylization that he would for the rest of his career polish and sharpen. (A concerned padre in the previous film, Claude Cerval is here reborn as a Mephistophelian leech.) The triangle that would become the favorite Nouvelle Vague structure is erected on manifold ambiguities: The innocent’s priggishness contrasts with the scoundrel’s tormented emotion, the doleful woman caught between them suffers the cynic’s nostalgia for romance. The mercilessness of the filming is recognizably keyed to the Aldrich of The Big Knife, circular panning shots burnish the screen and frosted glass dividers splinter it. Chekov’s gun will not merely be fired but also turned into a literally loaded mechanism of Fate, a languid intensity accelerating toward a devastating negation. La Dolce Vita is just around the corner. Malle in Le Feu Follet reflects the spiral, Chabrol's Les Godelureaux is something of an unofficial third panel. Cinematography by Henri Decaë. With Guy Decomble, Geneviève Cluny, Michèle Méritz, Corrado Guarducci, Stéphane Audran, Paul Bisciglia, and Françoise Vatel. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce