Le corbeau


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June 21, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

There are certainly many remarkable things about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeau. Only the man’s second feature as a solo director the film emerges fully formed and expertly polished with all the control of a seasoned veteran. A decade or so of experience as a scriptwriter obviously served him well. Alongside that it is dark, vicious and seething with all manner of social ills all while being made in a France that languished under the control of the Nazis. Occupation or no, seemingly the most remarkable thing about Clouzot’s film is that it managed to be made at all.

Under the Nazi regime all French cinema had to be submitted for approval to a board made up of ranking members of Vichy society; usually army generals, priests, politicians and other social figureheads. Such a board as this would have quickly caught Clouzot’s remarkably dark tale of a small French village that turns upon itself under a wave of poison-pen letters. However, this film came into being under the auspices of Continental-Films, a German production company. Continental-Films had basically been founded by the Nazi party and was headed up by Alfred Greven with the specific goal, set by Goebbels himself, of producing light and purely entertaining films to distract the French masses from their plight as an occupied nation. Greven agreed to the mission statement but had ideas of his own. It would seem that while he wished to comply with Goebbels’ request he did recognise a duty and an opportunity to make great cinema. So it was that Greven strove for and maintained standards that led to the production of numerous quality films even if they did not stir the French people to rise against (apparently one such film he supervised did suggest national pride and Goebbel’s quickly banned it even while citing it as a magnificent production). So, with a Continental-Films production logo, Clouzot’s film escaped the hurdle of a meddling Vichy regime.

The film’s story is actually based on a real life incident that occurred in Tulle, France in the 1920s. In that town a series of poison-pen letters, anonymous messages that revealed hidden information and gossip to all and sundry, sent shockwaves through society and threatened social order1. In Clouzot’s hands the film takes on all kinds of different shades. Set in an unnamed provincial village the setting suggests a detachment from the rest of the world that makes this society nowhere and everywhere. Everyone knows everyone else and so, when illicit details come to be revealed, the fallout is considerable. Such is Clouzot’s expert touch that the film effortlessly supports a large central cast. Chief among them is the doctor Rémy Germain, played by Continental-Film’s biggest star Pierre Fresnay. Alongside him we have psychiatrists, nurses, lovers, seductresses, townsfolk both young and old and Le corbeau (The Raven) him/herself, the cause of all this trouble. Germain has gained something of a reputation as an abortionist after a few difficult deliveries led him to choose the life of the mother over the child. Meanwhile, morphine has gone missing from the hospital’s supply room and money from the post office’s till. Le corbeau seems to see and know all and reveals it through hundreds of letters sent to all within the village. The result is a town torn apart by infighting, suspicion, hatred and greed.

Moving away from revealing any specifics of the plot, which plays out like a tense detective piece, it is still amazing that Clouzot’s film managed to be completed and released. It may have stepped over the barrier of Vichy censorship but Greven’s willingness to display this film, even if he did fire Clouzot after its completion, does speak to a love of great cinema that obviously runs contrary to the edict of the Nazi Party. The central moral dilemma is that Le corbeau is often telling the truth, even while it damages all around him/her. The film was made towards the end of 1941, apparently a year of great success for the Gestapo and its intelligence services, supported by anonymous tips and informants. As one of the characters observes within the film, the actions of Le corbeau, an informant, undermine perceptions of right and wrong within the entire community. It is not important whether or not what Le corbeau states is true or false but that the constant barrage of invective means everyone will suspect everyone else. Given the chance, any person would rifle through the papers and belongings of another to check for incriminating evidence. Truth itself is destroyed amidst mass social fallout.

This social fallout could be seen to further add fuel to the fire of claims that Clouzot was a misanthrope. Then again, while it is filled with broken people and unsavoury activities, Le corbeau also never seeks to assault one group over another. It is somewhat entertaining to think that details such as abortion, drug abuse and illicit sex could be brought to the fore under Nazi occupation while Hollywood’s Hays Code prevented such overt displays in the Land of the Free. Cinematic freedom always seems to be defined by how far some have been willing to push.

I do wonder if perhaps the film’s release was secured by how attentive Clouzot is to plot for the majority of the film. Thematically this film shares more than a passing resemblance to something like Michael Haneke’s Caché. However, while that later film could dabble in more general terms to evoke a spirit of guilt in France’s colonial past (among other things), Clouzot stays absolutely on point throughout, always pursuing the central narrative. This attention to story, to ensure that the film can be read as totally self-contained, may well have been what saved it. The parallels to Gestapo policy, Nazi occupation and so on may seem crystal clear to us now, but the film certainly does allow for the argument that it was all just a thriller about a demented letter-writer.

Le corbeau was a huge success in France even while it was roundly blasted by both the political left and right. The conservative elements in France felt the film portrayed the nation badly and they’re undoubtedly correct. Clouzot’s film shows a group of people torn apart by suspicion and prejudice. For a nation being oppressed by a foreign power the thought of a fellow countryman making a film that depicted France thusly was unthinkable. Even after the war it took France many years to come to terms with its complicity in Nazi war actions. In addition, the film repeatedly makes motions to dismiss the authority of the church and portrays the various politicians within the story as weak-kneed opportunists. Meanwhile, for the Communists and the resistance movement on the other side many of the same complaints were being made. Clouzot’s film earned him a lifetime ban from filmmaking upon the liberation of France and the subsequent ‘purification’ of the ranks. Unspoken, and no doubt due to the support of many major figures in French society (Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau among many others), that lifetime ban was reduced to two years. Good news for film fans the world over who otherwise would not have been able to revel in Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) or Les diaboliques.

Visually the film again reinforces Clouzot’s obvious skill behind the camera. Coming in the wake of Poetic Realism the film does possess that sense of atmospheric foreboding and oppression that would later become a part of the film noir movement; a term coined by French critics for the influx of gritty American crime dramas that came with their liberation. Stark contrasts shape the black and white cinematography throughout the film with the final shot, a vengeful old woman in black walking down a small alley, providing a particularly strong visual impact. That it manages this without the guise of night-time only adds to matters. Meanwhile the number of central characters, the effortless fluidity of the story and the sustained dread of the proceedings all surely helped exonerate Clouzot when the liberation of France rolled around. Comparisons to Zola and Maupassant seem ideal and, regardless of what institutes allowed him to work, the final product is undoubtedly the singular work of an assured artist.

In terms of popular success I suppose Clouzot is better known for his two major works made a decade or so later. Le salaire de la peur is a dark and endlessly involving adventure yarn while Les diaboliques is a vicious and twisted thriller that not only directly inspired Hitchcock’s Psycho but also surely paved the way for the modern genre of ‘thriller’ as we know it. It’s most interesting then, and most gratifying, to find out that Clouzot’s talents found root much earlier and arguably with even more fervour in Le corbeau. It’s a potent film, charged as much by the peculiarities of its production as by the obvious skill of its director. In the turmoil of Nazi occupation many great films were still made but few could claim so much political charge as this one. The only other film that I can think of that compares is Dreyer’s masterful Vredens dag (Day of Wrath).

1 Interestingly, the original script for Le corbeau was written before the German occupation of France.

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