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Henri-Georges Clouzot

A retrospective is on at MoMA through Christmas Eve and at the Harvard Film Archive through December 18.
The DailyClouzot and Romy Schneider

Clouzot and Romy Schneider on the set of L'Enfer

"Watching a film by the French master Henri-Georges Clouzot, you often feel as if the walls were closing in on you — even when there are no walls," writes Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. "The Wages of Fear (1953), the movie that opens the Museum of Modern Art's Clouzot retrospective [today], takes place almost entirely out of doors, yet it's as claustrophobic as a stretch in solitary confinement…. It is perhaps fortunate, for the sanity of his viewers, that he managed to complete only 11 features between 1942, when his deceptively light-hearted L'Assassin Habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at No. 21) was released, and 1968, when his last movie, La Prisonnière, came out.... All 11 will be screened before the series ends on Dec 24, along with odds and ends like a couple of early-40s pictures for which he supplied screenplays and a 2010 documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, about his mid-60s project, L'Enfer, which he was unable to complete after suffering a major heart attack during filming."

When Criterion released Diabolique (1955) on DVD and Blu-ray in May, Rafferty called it "an almost perfect movie about a very nearly perfect murder, a film in which the artist's methods and the killers' are ideally matched, equal in cunning and in ruthlessness." For Vadim Rizov, writing at GreenCine Daily, Diabolique is "a pitch-dark comedy about taking responsibility and assigning blame.... Clouzot's 1943 The Raven (Le Corbeau), a not-so-thinly veiled parable against French collaboration with the Nazis, nearly destroyed his career, but his post-war work started immediately jabbing again at the post-war French republic. Both 1947's Quai des Orfèvres and Diabolique have real mysteries at their core, and both deliver satisfying twists and resolutions, but the larger focus is on people working as hard as possible to avoid being indicted for or accused of anything. Guilt is merely a question of plausible deniability… It's an occupation mentality."

Folco Lulli, Clouzot and Yves Montand

Folco Lulli, Clouzot and Yves Montand on the set of The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear is also opening at Film Forum in New York tomorrow, where it'll be playing through December 22. "Like Hitch," writes Budd Wilkins in Slant, "Clouzot has often been judged a cold, technical director, and it's certainly true that The Wages of Fear contains tension-fraught stretches of 'pure cinema' that probably gave even the Master cold sweats, but darkly humorous political satire directed at incipient global capitalism and a ballsy existentialism also suffuse Clouzot's film. 'Man is nothing else,' wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, arguing the necessity of political commitment, 'than the sum of his actions.' Given the film's bitterly ironic ending, it would seem that Clouzot, for his part, wasn't so sure that the sum ever exceeds zero." Alt Screen has an excellent new roundup on the film.

The Complete Henri-Georges Clouzot is still on at the Harvard Film Archive and will run through December 18. When the retrospective ran in Toronto last month, Blake Williams wrote an overview for Ioncinema: "Violent, misanthropic, suspenseful, and frequently nihilistic — Clouzot's filmography is a stand-in relief for the complex life he led behind the camera. An affair with actress Suzy Delair (star of two of his earlier features, The Murderer Lives at Number 21 and Quai des Orfèvres) gave way to a marriage with Véra Gibson-Amado, star of his Wages of Fear, Diabolique, and Les Espions [The Spies, 1957]. Naturally, she died unexpectedly of a heart attack during the filming of La Vérité [The Truth, 1960], damning Clouzot, justifiably, into a deep depression, prompting him to move away to a Tahitian resort until he got sick of it and moved back to France in 1960. He would make only one more film before dying in 1977 (apparently while listening to Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24)."

Update: "Midcentury French movies didn't come any hairier, nastier, or more robustly existential than The Wages of Fear," writes Michael Atkinson for Alt Screen. "Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 primal-scream therapy was a pulp-craftsmanship nonpareil, and it's not difficult to empathize with cinephiles who saw this beauty explode out of mid-1950s moviehouses like a molten spume. The child of cinema in that blessed day knew well the Italian shoeshiners and bicycle thieves, the harumphing Japanese samurai, Jeanne Moreau in a bustier, Harriet Andersson on her back, Alain Delon with a gun. But The Wages of Fear was something new, and a shock to the system: an edge-of-sanity tribulation saga, universal in its desperate torque but so specific on the ground you knew that something like it probably happened at one time or another in reality, the true story buried with the bodies in some distant wilderness."

Clouzot and Picasso

"[A]ny show calling itself The Complete Henri-Georges Clouzot will be defined by its omissions," writes David Cairns in Moving Image Source. "Absent is Clouzot's television work, filmed concerts of Verdi and Beethoven, under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. These films illuminate aspects of Clouzot's dramatic work and could help make sense of the fragments of the uncompleted L'Enfer, that unresolved combination of psychological drama with pop art asides. A fascination with the artist's process informs The Mystery of Picasso, a kind of painter's performance film in which Pablo Picasso stalks about in his shorts creating as we watch. But it also informs the kinetic pop art of La Prisonnière and the young conductor character in La Vérité. The latter film features a long sequence of Brigitte Bardot rushing to her lover, edited to the rhythms of his music, and this musical editing and intense focus on performance are the two central features of the TV productions."

Update, 12/10: Steve Seid, Video Curator for the Pacific Film Archive, introduces Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment, which'll be running from January 12 through February 4: "Not even love gets a cautious embrace from this dry-eyed existentialist who seemed to think that la petite mort naturally leads to its grand conclusion and released a string of pearls, dangling amour fou before us with Manon (1949), La vérité (1960), and Woman in Chains (1968)."

Update, 12/14: "It's fitting that Hitchcock considered Henri-Georges Clouzot to be a serious rival," writes Simon Abrams in the L. "The two even had a bidding war over who would get the rights to adapt Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's novel She Who Was No More (Clouzot won, adapting the book into Les Diaboliques in 1955). Clouzot's grim thrillers toy with the prolonged struggle to avoid the inescapable, absurd and mostly miserable circumstances of life. Clouzot's characters often discover conspiracies that exists solely to keep one in one's place and characters never realize just how limited their agency is until it's too late. These are highly entertaining movies about existential uncertainty."

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And for your fans on the West Coast, a heads-up that Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive will also be holding a Clouzot retrospective come mid-January:
Ah! Didn’t know that. Thanks, Michael!

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