Stories of Sin and Survival: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s "Le corbeau" & "Quai des orfèvres"

While the second film of the French director was controversially made during WW2 with Germany money, his third is an appeasing diversion.
Jeremy Carr

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le corbeau (1943) is showing November 20 – December 19, and Quai des orfèvres (1947) from November 21 – December 20, 2018 on MUBI in the United States.

Henri-Georges Clouzot

On September 3, 1939 France, alongside Great Britain, declared war on Germany. As pronounced May 8, 1945 by Charles de Gaulle, president of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, Europe’s World War II conflict was over. Between these years, years that saw the demoralizing German occupation of de Gaulle’s homeland, battle lines were heartily affirmed and mightily preserved. There was, in this tumultuous time, little room for partisan ambiguity—it was a black and white world of Allied and Axis powers, of us versus them. 

Within this context of chaos and violence, Niort-born Henri-Georges Clouzot advanced his filmmaking career, beginning with screenwriting efforts in the early 1930s and progressing to his first feature as a solo director, L’assassin habite... au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21). Released in 1942, Clouzot’s debut was produced by Continental Films, a Nazi-controlled company established in France during the occupation. Exacerbating his controversial decision to operate within the strictures of German control, Clouzot’s 1943 follow-up, Le corbeau, managed to further upset all sides of the political spectrum. Forget that a first draft of the scenario was written before the war began, and forget that the depicted events were based on an actual incident taking place in 1917. What some saw in Le corbeau—and, truth be told, what still resonates so strongly today—was a scathing contemporary indictment of cloistered cruelty and the paranoid perils of inflexible prejudice. 

While Clouzot evinced no pro-German sentiment during this period, that he would even work under such conditions was bad enough for many, and, justly or not, he and Le corbeau were swiftly criticized as catalysts for social and diplomatic alarm. Yet this reproach is a curious one, born from predetermined dogmatism and a contradictory popular appraisal. Why, as Henri Jeanson argued at the time, should Le Corbeau be singled out as the subject of harsh denunciation, while other French features were likewise produced with adversarial funds? And after all, spectators happily packed cinéclubs across the nation, eager to see Clouzot’s latest effort despite the critics and journalists who raged against its very existence. On the other hand, as Joseph Kessel countered, Clouzot was getting paid by the same Germans who were massacring his countrymen; he was living a pleasant life thanks to German capital and was making a film that depicted a French town and its citizenry “in the most hideous light.” Still, though, Kessel had to concede: “Le corbeau is an extraordinary film. That is irrefutable.”

Le corbeau

Set in a small town, “here or elsewhere,” a situational establishment of purposefully vague generality, the imprecise location of Le corbeau befits its universal aim, as an allegorical account that inevitably fosters application in France or wherever similar circumstances arise. Attesting to its widespread relevance is a key scene near the end of the film, where Doctor Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey) presents an instructional demonstration on the oscillating impulses of good and evil, on how forces of light and dark coexist in the wavering gray recesses of human nature. His lone audience is Doctor Rémy Germain, played by Pierre Fresnay, an acting mainstay at Continental. Prior to this point, it had been Germain himself who induced an indeterminate ruling on his ethical rightness. With his first appearance in the film, having just performed a tenuous operation that, once again, left an expectant mother alive and her baby dead, the implied suggestion, eventually stated outright, is that Germain has been the facilitator for a recent pattern of suspiciously similar procedures. And with Germain’s bloodied palms and wrists facing upward, Clouzot makes sure the portentous image is apparent for all to see, to judge as one will at this preliminary stage. It’s about as subtle an indication of inaugurating tension as when a cancer patient is soon seen fretting over his bed number—number 13—fearing it is bad luck, and then that same patient is given the gift of a straight razor, which Clouzot accentuates with its own ominous close-up. 

“I have neither friends nor enemies,” declares Germain, a self-possessed comment on the vacillation and duplicity of those around him (no doubt echoed by Clouzot in the wake of Le corbeau’s contested reception). But in this quaint rural town, the ambivalent positions of amity saturate a breeding ground for insults and slander, suspicious inquisitions, and prevalent, understated acrimony. The insular environment is ripe for vindictive discord, a propensity intensified when a series of poison pen letters disclose the neighboring dark side of the town’s inhabitants, especially Germain, who is accused of not only administering illicit abortions but of having an affair with Vorzet’s much younger wife, Laura (Micheline Francey). Distrust runs rampant as the community engages in hesitant, passive-aggressive interaction, and the dignified veneer of professional discretion fades in the face of death, deception, and anxious, defensive arbitration.  

Le corbeau

Le corbeau

Le corbeau, the raven, “fowl of blood and darkness,” feasts on the population, its winged image emblazoned on hundreds of letters in a two-month span, infesting the provincial hotbed, plaguing young and old alike, infecting the town with a “fever,” an “epidemic,” a “domestic contagion.” “A disability,” Vorzet observes, “even when hidden, often leaves a secret wound that can fester.” The lingering unease of Le corbeau, however, also intimates something profoundly transcendent. In an opening sequence of establishing shots, Clouzot has the camera pan past a graveyard, moving to a gate that appears to open on its own, as if a malevolent force were newly engaged (and later, Germain says he is haunted by the figurative ghosts of his past). Supernatural implications are reiterated in a succeeding scene where Clouzot’s camera assumes a casket’s point of view, as it is driven down the road as part of a funeral procession, and a threatening letter slips from its conciliatory wreath. The omnipotent figure composing Le corbeau’s mysterious chain of dispatches desires a “cleansing campaign,” a moralistic purging of sin, and this religious slant reaches ostensibly divine fulfillment when a church congregation is told to look to the lord above for its salvation, and as they do, yet another letter falls from the cathedral’s balcony, a note of admonition from seemingly on high.

Just as those on the political left were upset with its negative portrayal of French culture, when Le corbeau was released, Clouzot was summarily fired by the German authorities who, for their part, read into the film an attack on anonymous informing, which was, of course, central to the collaborationist government. It’s true the film is guilty on both charges, which goes back to its themes of behavioral and psychological dualism and elevates the picture, in effect, beyond the realm of a straightforward thriller, lending its content to the interpretation as both a resistance and fascist text. The film was subsequently withheld from wide release and Clouzot was banned from French filmmaking for life, though that only lasted until 1947, when post-war protests argued otherwise and he was able to direct Quai des orfèvres

Quai des orfèvres

As it dealt with unwanted pregnancies, drug addition, pedophilia, and the bourgeois naïveté of anyone who believes in righteous absolutes, Le corbeau is certainly a pessimistic and cynical picture. Nevertheless, the poison pen letters that paint this unattractive portrait of society, with their stated observations of lapsing integrity, are, like Clouzot’s film, truthful all the same. Compared to this jaundiced view of humanity, Quai des orfèvres, released in October of 1947, seems to be a markedly undemanding, easily entertaining departure, like a reprieve from the overwrought illustration of Le corbeau’s dire austerity. Taking on a more conventional formal identity, with contented types and a customary trajectory, Clouzot’s third feature pivots on the backstage aspirations of theatrical performer Marguerite Chauffournier Martineau, going by the stage name Jenny Lamour. Played by Suzy Delair, who had also appeared in L’assassin habite... au 21, Jenny is a plucky young woman seeking something better than a vaudeville career pitting her between animal acts and the “Wheeling Winos.” She is good-humored and provocative, brazenly flaunting what she’s got and gleefully singing uncouth songs about her “petite tra-la-la.” But Jenny’s crass behavior, in part derived from her bold single-mindedness, stirs the simmering pot of jealousy kept warm by her husband and accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier), who furiously discovers her scheduled rendezvous with Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), a lascivious and soon-to-be-slain financier.   

Written by Clouzot and Jean Ferry, based on Légitime defense, by Stanislas-André Steeman, Quai des orfèvres deviated greatly from Steeman’s novel, revealing the identity of the murderer, for instance, and introducing a lesbian photographer character played by Simone Renant. Most significantly, Clouzot refashioned the setting of the story and placed his adaptation within a nocturnal milieu of raucous nightclubs and music halls and bustling streets that flicker under neon illumination. The palpitating score by Francis Lopez boosts a lively Parisian mockup rendered by cinematographer Armand Thirard in the evocative visual essence of a film noir, a term just recently coined by French cinephiles. As an enthusiastic amalgam of genre benchmarks, situating it in a more familiar domain than the inhuman alienation of Le corbeau, Quai des orfèvres also introduces Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), which shifts its momentum and ensuing prescription to that of a studied police procedural, detailing the detective’s methodology, his occupational aptitude, and his informed discernment. Confirming his masterful management of character and corresponding strain, a strain fostered by spectator identification and empathy (a relationship improved upon in the back-to-back case studies of cinematic anxiety, 1953’s The Wages of Fear and 1955’s Diabolique), the narrative efficiency of Quai des orfèvres earned Clouzot Best Director honors at the 1947 Venice Film Festival. As opposed to the claustrophobic ambiance of Le corbeau, with restrictive settings only partially relieved by Germain’s movements as he frantically dashes about, Quai des orfèvres offers precise moments of demonstrable suspense, built on singular events and the verified predisposition of certain individuals. When Antoine lights his pipe with a piece of paper inscribed with incriminating evidence, or when a band plays loudly behind Jenny and Maurice as they are interrogated, producing an almost comically intense escalation of pressure, the nervous, earthly concentration of Quai des orfèvres, even with its secrets and lies and precarious alibis, is notably less toxic than the psychological, existential angst of Le corbeau.  

Quai des orfèvres

To that end, while there is no denying the misanthropic dissonance of Le corbeau, within its pitiless presentation of mass hysteria, Clouzot proposes a patent responsiveness, which is notable for a filmmaker seldom regarded as a paradigm of onscreen kindness. One can see it, for example, in the torment of Laura Vorzet’s scornful sister, Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), the stern and cruel nurse deemed the prime suspect for the detrimental notes. When a mob descends upon her self and her home, ransacking her room, Clouzot relates a compelling expression of innocence and fear on the face of one hitherto regarded as irredeemable. Le corbeau advances a succession of judgements and condemnation, usually before all facts are in, triggering Clouzot’s regular depiction of an ambiguous reality, where one pities a grieving mother, who enacts her own private retribution, and accepts the salacious ways of Denise Saillens, played by Ginette Leclerc, who is a conniving nuisance—a “beautiful whore,” according to Clouzot—but is at least unashamed and honest in her aims.

Similarly, although there are traces of a noirish fatalism in Quai des orfèvres, an unsentimental look at characters on the cusp of some private collapse, there is also a powerful tolerance, an understanding of what it’s like to form uneasy associations and to find oneself—like Jenny and Maurice, like Clouzot—caught in a bad situation where personal endurance takes precedence. It perhaps can’t be said for Le corbeau, but most of those in Quai des orfèvres are generally decent people, victims of circumstance and of their own faulted desires and inner uncertainties. Antoine is an exceptional case, a former soldier in the Foreign Legion who brought back from Africa a case of malaria and his mixed-race son, whom he cares for intimately and sincerely, but the others are almost united by their shared vices and failings, placing each on a level, lenient playing field. Clouzot’s under-appreciated capacity for thoughtful clemency even allows for moments of levity: the shameless bawdiness of Quai des orfèvres’ burlesque backdrop, the sad sack haplessness of Maurice, Antoine’s tale of a photographer who poisoned his family and photographed them on their deathbed, calling the murderer “a real artist.” In its unassuming presentation of assured genre fare, and after the caustic scrutiny of Le corbeau, and the bitterness surrounding its production and release, Quai des orfèvres is an appeasing palate cleanser, an amusing diversion, still within the confines of social realism but generally free from a climate of widely-ravaged despair. Traditional crime is now front and center, while the recent war is but a memory. And although characters have little money and little heat (many are routinely seen bundled up indoors), the undercurrent of hard times is reduced by the tantalizing promise of prosperity and a withstanding happy ending. Not unlike Clouzot himself, nor France as an embattled nation, Quai des orfèvres comes out on the other side of something calamitous and emerges triumphant and affirmative.  

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