Just this week I watched and reviewed Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and in my review I referred to Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (1948). Now I am commenting on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, Le Corbeau (1943)—which another reviewer has called a “distant cousin” to The White Ribbon—and which makes me think of Shirley Jackson yet again; this time, her short story, The Possibility of Evil (1965). I categorized The White Ribbon as a “poison-in-the-well” piece. Others may or may not find this categorization convincing, but there can be no debate that Le Corbeau is a poison-in-the-pen piece.
As with Jackson’s story, the plot has to do with an individual anonymously sending hateful gossip to all and sundry in town in order to satisfy what can only be a nefarious purpose. The crucial difference between the story and the film, however, is that the audience knows from the outset who the culprit is in the former but only finds out at the very end of the latter. Jackson’s is a critical character study that lays bare a sociopath who perversely sees herself as a righteous pillar of the community. Clouzot’s is a whodunit mystery that would be trite if not for its penetrating investigation of parochial hypocrisy and the dark underbelly of those next door neighbors we thought were nice…but little did we know.
Hence, in Jackson’s story, the exposé necessarily ends with the corrupter getting hers. This happens in Clouzot’s film too but only instrumentally for the narrative. Thematically it’s about how all of us have dirty little secrets. And the best exchange of dialogue in the film reveals that our dirtiest secret isn’t so little. You know that line we draw between good and evil so we can claim to walk straight on the side of good? Uh-huh. Total bullshit.
Not to take this too seriously though. Le Corbeau may be far from trite, but it is just as far from profound. The cynicism coming off of the thing is mostly for show. It’s an exercise in style that draws heavily on American noir. There is some wonderful cinematography that achieves this feeling within a provincial French town, which is cool in its own right. One that especially stood out for me is the nurse/nun wearing a flowing black habit and veil, running away from vigilantes in broad daylight against white-washed walls of old stone. “The Raven” indeed.
Meanwhile, the film satisfies another noir requirement: a dark sense of humor delivered by way of hard-boiled dialogue. For all the suspense and unwholesome interactions, I found myself laughing along the way, and I do believe Le Corbeau should be appreciated as a form of satire. To call it a “distant cousin” to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, well, the distance is very, very great, my own middle-man references to Shirley Jackson notwithstanding. I’ll not pursue this further except to say that Haneke appears to have adopted Kubrick’s title as the intellectual Ice Man of cinema…minus the sense of humor.
Context is key to fully appreciate the greatness of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau. Shot in the first year of the Nazi occupation under the watchful eye of German-controlled Vichy France, and by logical extension, the film industry, through Continental-Films (who understood the value of movies as propaganda better than they?), Clouzot’s film had to walk quite a tightrope in order to escape the censors’ scissors. Not only that, it had to withstand the attacks of French patriots who viewed Clouzot’s willingness to work with the German controlled film institute as proof that he was in the first rank of collaborators: A man who had sold his soul to the Devil just so he could continue to make movies.
But Le Corbeau ain’t just any old film. This taut, tightly wound 91-minute feature is a despairing and morally complex look at the things that damaged people living in a dangerous time will do. That it is a thinly-veiled examination of the many difficulties of living in Vichy France is the common wisdom today, though that allegorical aspect of the film seems to have initially slipped past the folks at Continental-Film who okayed the movie and the censors who allowed its release. So there’s some interesting meta-criticism going on w/r/t the film in that folks wonder about the morality of taking money from the Nazis while making a final product that is essentially anti-Nazi. ’Tis a real head scratcher, that one. But in the end, for any film of this sort to succeed, it must work at both literal AND allegorical levels, and Le Corbeau most certainly does that.
Our attention throughout is focused on Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Freznay), a secretive, curt and stolid man who claims that all he seeks from this life is peace, though we’re not initially sure what torments him, or from what he is trying to escape. He is first seen washing blood from his hands (is he Pilate? Macbeth? Why all this guilt?) after performing an apparently shady operation where the mother is saved, while the unborn child is not. That we don’t know him, yet are quick to pass judgment is one of the many preconceptions that will be used against us later.
As you have pointed out, Shirley Jackson’s Possibility of Evil, published over two decades after the release of Le Corbeau, has much in common with Clouzot’s film. Both are built around the same premise: an anonymous citizen is writing poisonous letters attacking the townspeople’s misdeeds, in the hope that it will lead them to correct the error of their ways. Instead, in both story and film it creates a climate of paranoia and dis-ease that spreads like a virus, infecting everyone in it path. At first, the townspeople try to ferret out the epistle-writer, but soon grow frustrated with that, and instead turn their paranoid concerns to the most prominent victim of these insidious attacks, Dr. Germain. Complicating our reaction to these events, as the persistent victim of many of these smears, Germain is not a particularly appealing hero. He is cool and aloof, detached and even a little arrogant. And the charges made against him may have merit: Germain just might be guilty. And we just might cheer his fall.
When cracks begin to appear in Germain’s veneer, he turns to his landlord’s sister, the promiscuous Denise (Ginette Leclerc), for comfort. While she cannot promise eternal rest for all that troubles him, a few hours of oblivion is better than nothing. As is almost always the case w/ Clouzot, the film seethes with sexual tension. Germain is attracted to both Denise and Laura, a nurse’s sister who helps out in the hospital. The young and lovely Laura happens to be married to the elderly Dr. Vorzot (Piere Larquey) who plays a cat-like role in the film, toying w/ the minds of the citizenry, though he’s most fascinated by the mysterious Germain. Watching in the wings is Denise’s Lolita-like 14-½-year-old niece Rolande (Liliane Maigne), who is clearly smitten w/ the good doctor herself.
Clouzot fills the frame with moody imagery. There is the titular raven, of course, but the film also has a predominantly dark palette with lengthening shadows and many characters who wear black dress. The contrast between light and dark/good and evil that typically reflects this post-Expressionist pre-film noir symbolism is best exemplified by the verbal face off between the sarcastic and seemingly omnipresent psychiatrist Vorzet and the frustrated and angry Germain during which a lamp swings on a pendulum between ’em. Clouzot’s influence in moments like this was obviously great. Not only did Hitchcock admire him, but the great Orson Welles used similar tactics in Touch of Evil, a full 15 years later.
The moral complexity of the film’s approach is thoroughly modern. Some of Le Corbeau’s wicked comic undertones are quietly slipped in, particularly in the scenes involving psychiatrist Vorzot. He is a clever and insightful cynic whose running commentary on the story is always good for a chuckle. While some of Clouzot’s targets are more subtly attacked, such as the petit-bourgeois values of the townspeople (Denise dismisses Germain as pathetic because he’ll never rise above his narrow bourgeois mentality), much of Le Corbeau is about taking on larger targets. Clouzot is obviously concerned about the effects on a society of living in a culture of informants and collaborators, and he is not afraid of also incriminating the audience as well as his film’s characters. This is a town full of tiny monsters, each willing to betray his neighbour if it’ll bring him a little peace and quiet, a little refuge from life’s storm. Only in a Clouzot film would the sole figures of empathy and hope be such terribly damaged females; the limping Denise and the distraught but vengeful mother of an apparent suicide. But neither is heroic in any conventional sense, as both suffer from physical and emotional wounds that cause them terrible grief and leave them virtual pariahs in their community. This may be a restorative ending, but it is not without its victims and its open wounds.
Using secret informants to rule by fear was clearly a tactic the Germans found useful in Vichy France, so it isn’t too surprising that, once it was released, Clouzot’s film was deemed too dangerous and soon shelved by the Nazis. Ironically, it wasn’t just the right wing who attacked it, but the communists as well. They viewed the film’s portrayal of the townspeople as too cynical, and lacking the appropriate sort of heroic values they wanted associated with the average Joe and Josephine fighting the good fight in wartime France. Equally disturbing to many on the left was the notion that Clouzot took money and resources from the Germans in order to produce films while the Nazi’s were simultaneously slaughtering thousands of innocent people all over Europe. In the end, while Clouzot was attacked as a collaborator for choosing to work with the Nazi-controlled Continental-Films, that didn’t stop him from making a film that the Nazis would soon realize was subversive, and which now stands above and beyond the criticisms of the day as a biting comment on the degenerative effects of using vicious and paranoid practices to bind together in fear any society of people.
I think that my review proves yours. The conditions under which it was made and the circumstance in which it was originally screened—this is indeed the key to fully appreciating Le Corbeau. While I continue to feel that the film is not endogenously profound, the exogenous factors you observe have taken my sorry ass to school with respect to the clandestine communications it portrays. I absorbed from the film a general philosophic—and therefore, not especially deep—investigation about people in general passing information and disinformation.
But of course, it makes all the difference in the world who is saying what to whom behind what cloak in occupied France. Are you an informant or working for the resistance? More than just sinister gossip, the poison coming from the pen in Le Corbeau is thematically intended for some and not others operating underground. In short, it’s political. Clearly, I was unaware. And I have to think now that the reviewer who called The White Ribbon a “distant cousin” to Le Corbeau was not so unaware, although I still maintain that these cousins are too distant to kiss.
Meanwhile, is it necessary to know that On The Waterfront is Kazan’s rationalization for personally cooperating with HUAC in order to fully appreciate that film? I am sincerely asking this question. I suppose any answer would ultimately boil down to a definition of “appreciate” in this context.
I don’t think it is essential in the case of On the Waterfront, because there is so much greatness in the rest of the film (casting, cinematography, set design, editing and so on) that it can stand on its own two feet. Indeed, I was knocked out by the film the first time I saw it as a teenager, and I had only the very vaguest appreciation of the political context. However, knowing now what I didn’t know then, I find Waterfront considerably less impressive.
Dan Jardine is the publisher of Cinemania.
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan’s who he has been lending movies to for a while now.