Thursday, June 11, 2009

Le Corbeau (1943)

On its surface, Henri Georges Clouzot’s noir Le Corbeau (The Raven) is simply an expertly crafted suspense film. Made in 1943, the film follows the controversy that erupts in a provincial French town after an anonymous author starts sending caustic letters revealing the citizens’ darkest secrets. Near-riots ensue, innocents are imprisoned, and at least one person turns up dead. There is a laconic leading man with a dark past (Pierre Fresnay), a lascivious young woman after his affections (Ginette Leclerc), a colorful cast of supporting players, and a cracking mystery at the center of them all. And while all this might not seem that extraordinary, the circumstances under which the film was made, along with its rich subtext and the consequences it had for its creators, certainly were.

Le Corbeau was made during the reign of the Vichy government, when France was still very much under the control of Nazi Germany. The film’s script had been around since the early thirties, but some of its incendiary content-- that Fresnay’s character, Dr. Germaine, performs abortions for desperate women is not only alluded to but stated outright-- had prevented it from being produced. Clouzot, who only had one other major work to his credit, was only able to get the film made by collaborating with the Continental Film Company, a production outfit that had been started by the Nazis as a means of making popular entertainment for occupied France, as all American movies had been banned. Ironically, at the time, filmmakers working for Continental were allowed to work with little censorship and larger budgets than those working for the French companies, and this freedom helped Le Corbeau become a wide success.

It was only after the war and the occupation ended that the controversy started. The film’s actors and crew were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and Clouzot was initially banned for life from making films in France. This ban was eventually lifted after much debate about the content of the film, but it would be four years before he worked again.

Seen today, the most puzzling thing about the firestorm created by Le Corbeau is how both the censors at Continental and those who decried the film as an act of treason so clearly misread its message. If anything, the film’s story of an anonymous writer of inflammatory letters now seems a bold statement about the culture of informing and back-stabbing that was going on in France during the occupation, when the Vichy regime and many citizens even went so far as to help the Germans organize raids to capture Jews and other undesirables to the Nazi Party. Le Corbeau, both through its characters and the way it deals with questions of morality, repeatedly condemns this behavior, showing the ways that it can tear a community (or a country) apart. The war is never once mentioned during the film, but it hovers over everything like a fog, and the message is there. Still, it would take some time before a number of prominent writers and filmmakers recognized Le Corbeau for the parable of life under occupation that it is.

That this message was so subtly delivered means that Le Corbeau works on many levels, and it can also be enjoyed as the pure entertainment that Continental meant it to be. On a stylistic level, it’s hard to believe that this was only Clouzot’s second film as a director, because he employs such a confident visual style. His compositions are as impeccable as they are economical-- every shadow, every object in the frame is there for a reason. He relies on his camera to express his themes as much as he does dialogue, most notably in a scene where the avuncular Dr. Vorzet, a psychiatrist in Germaine’s hospital, discusses the nature of good and evil, all while a light bulb swings overhead, casting alternating patterns of shadow and light over the two characters. It’s a powerful scene, and this motif of moral ambiguity is one that Clouzot would return to throughout his career, especially in his two masterpieces, Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. It has been said that Alfred Hitchcock would eventually consider Clouzot to be one of his chief rivals for the title of “master of suspense,” and after watching his work here it’s easy to see why.

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