P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

Clouzot's Cruel Crow

Eric Gans

Le corbeau (The Raven or The Crow) is probably the most controversial film in French history. It was made in 1943, under the German occupation-and for the German-owned production company, Continental Films-by Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known today for his postwar films Diabolique and Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear). To quote Evelyn Ehrlich's authoritative study of Vichy film, Cinema of Paradox (Columbia, 1985), "Of all the crimes committed by the film industry during the occupation, seemingly the most serious was having worked on Le corbeau" (p. 176). Clouzot was banned from film-making after Liberation, at first for life, and was not allowed to work until 1947; Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc, the film's stars, were briefly imprisoned.

Both the Left (Resistance) and the Right (Vichy) agreed in finding Le corbeau demoralizing and "anti-French": unfounded rumors were spread that the film was shown throughout Germany as a demonstration of the decadence of French society. On the contrary, the Germans understandably disliked the film for its theme of anonymous letters; ironically, it was only because it was produced by a German company that it ever got past the censors. As a result, despite its immediate box-office success, Le corbeau was pulled from the movie theaters only three weeks after its release; it has led a checkered career ever since. Despite its masterful direction and acting, its powerful characterizations, and the extraordinary density of its social commentary, Le corbeau has never achieved the revered status of such films as Renoir's La grande illusion or Carné's Les enfants du paradis. Nor has Clouzot ever received his due as the creator of some of the most distinctive and powerful films ever made. The filmmakers and theoreticians of the Nouvelle Vague treated Renoir and Cocteau with reverence and Carné with respect, and reserved a special admiration for Alfred Hitchcock, the subject of a book-length study by Eric Rohmer, longtime editor-in-chief of Cahiers du cinéma; Clouzot, although sometimes (in my opinion, mistakenly) called the "French Hitchcock" for his suspense films, was considered at best a skillful hack. The eclipse of his reputation is due in large measure to the enormous influence of the Nouvelle Vague/Cahiers du cinema on the French intelligentsia.

Even today, those who praise Le corbeau as Clouzot's masterpiece speak of its darkness and cynicism, its jaundiced denial of moral certainty. Yet my impression is quite different. I see it as a film about trust and love, on the one hand, and the harsh but real necessity of moral judgment on the other. No film more forcefully denounces mob persecution and scapegoating, not to speak of the notorious Occupation practice of informing on one's neighbors through anonymous letters. Although anything but a political propaganda piece, Le corbeau is an affirmation of humanistic values antithetical to those of the German occupiers and their Vichy collaborators. And in its affirmation of these values, it accepts the necessity, obvious in wartime but rarely faced so honestly, of violent extralegal means, means whose obvious interpretation in 1943-yet no one to my knowledge has ever suggested it-is as an apology for violent acts of resistance.

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Le corbeau is based on a real incident, in which the southern town of Tulle was subjected between 1917 and 1922 to a series of over 1000 anonymous letters, including pornographic drawings, signed L'oeil du tigre; the scandalous revelations of these letters provoked several suicides. After a lengthy dictation organized by a Lyon police doctor and graphologist, the handwriting was discovered to be that of one Angèle Laval, an amorously frustrated former civil servant; arrested and tried in 1922, she was given a suspended sentence and lived on for another fifty years. A screenplay inspired by l'affaire Angèle, originally entitled L'oeil du serpent, was written by Louis Chavance over the period from 1932 to 1937, then reworked with Clouzot in the course of production in 1943.

Le corbeau has many characteristics of a detective film. At the center of the story is a rash of anonymous letters signed (with a drawing) by Le corbeau, the first of which accuses Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a physician-obstetrician suspected of being an abortionist because he cares more for the mother's life than that of the child, of illicit relations with Laura (Micheline Francey), the attractive young wife of the old psychiatrist, Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). The letters go on to reveal many secrets and denounce much dishonesty in the sous-préfecture of St.-Robin. One brutally informs a young hospital patient that his cancer is incurable, whereupon he cuts his throat with a razor. Germain, perturbed by the accusations, spends a night with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the sister of his schoolmaster landlord, whose loose morals reflect her need to prove her sexual attractiveness notwithstanding a severe limp. Meanwhile, suspicions about the letters solidify around Marie Corbin, Laura Vorzet's unattractive sister who is a nurse at the hospital. Clouzot powerfully exploits the techniques of German expressionism to film Marie's flight from the angry crowd through the empty crooked streets to her room, her black nurse's robe fluttering like a crow's wings in the wind; the two men who take Marie away have an unmistakable air of the Gestapo. But another letter floats down from the rafters of the church after Marie is jailed, demonstrating her innocence; the corbeauis still at large.

The dictation, supervised by Vorzet, although inconclusive, has thrown some suspicion on Denise. Shortly after, Germain catches her writing him a corbeauletter to announce that she bears his child, and immediately accuses her of having written the others. But in the film's most moving scene (and its only use of close-ups), Denise tells Germain to look into her tearful eyes to witness the truth that she is not Le corbeau. Germain cannot refuse the truth; he and Denise decide to keep their child-and we assume they will marry and leave St.-Robin together.

Finally, it comes out that the first letter was written by Laura herself in an effort to seduce Germain; the others, she claims, were dictated to her by her husband. Insisting that Laura is insane, Vorzet gets Germain to sign internment papers, and Laura is carted off to a mental hospital in another scene reminiscent of a Gestapo abduction. But when Germain, on Denise's suggestion, returns to Vorzet's house to discover the truth, he finds Vorzet dead at his desk, bleeding onto a final, unfinished corbeauletter; the hospital suicide's mother, whom we see leaving the house in the final sequence, has cut his throat with her son's razor. Laura was right; Vorzet was the Corbeau.

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To read most descriptions of this film, one would never know that the story ends with, on the one hand, the punishment of those guilty of sending the letters, and on the other, the affirmation of life and love through the child awaited by the principals. Germain declares to Denise that he needs this child, that one should not refuse the future-and opens his window to hear children playing in the schoolyard, in evident counterpoint to his act of closing it to shut out their noise in the couple's first scene in the film.

Our situation as Clouzot's spectators is judiciously balanced. With respect to the satiric elements of the film-the mutual blackmail of the chief doctor and the bursar, the hypocritical storekeeper who abandons Germain for another doctor because of the letters, the postmaster taking for himself a corbeauletter addressed to his wife-we stand back ironically. But as regards the plot's driving enigma-discovering the author of the letters-we are put in the same position as the other characters, particularly Germain, and are induced to jump to the same conclusions, suspecting first Marie Corbin, then Denise, never Vorzet. Rather than being terrorized along with the victim, as in a film noir, or repelled by the mob, as in Lang's Fury or Duvivier's postwar Panique, we become part of the persecuting crowd. Yet there is no final lynching to pin on us. Like the good doctor, we learn that those we suspected were innocent. The guilty party, whom we presumably have not suspected, is indeed punished, but not by "us"; the mother, half-hidden by a veil, dons in the film's last shot the black plumage of the Crow.

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The best-known scene in the film, which provides the key to its overall message, is also the most misunderstood. Vorzet confronts Germain in a schoolroom at night. Germain affirms his moral reprobation for the corbeauand declares his certitude in knowing right from wrong. Vorzet, accusing Germain of being just as contaminated by the letters as the rest of St.-Robin, counters with a little demonstration. The two doctors stand in front of a globe; the room is lit by a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. Vorzet pushes the light fixture so that it swings back and forth, casting its moving shadow on the globe (on which Europe is visible) as he claims that the boundary between good and evil is similarly unstable. When Germain tries to grab the bulb to stop its swinging, he burns his fingers, whereupon Vorzet announces that his demonstration is conclusive: moral truth cannot be grasped by mere mortals.

This scene is inevitably cited by critics, and even by Clouzot himself in interviews, as a statement of the film's message about life in general and collaboration in particular: nothing is black or white, wholly good or evil, we are all sinners and none of us has the right to judge his fellow man-including those who make films under the Occupation for German production companies. Thus Ehrlich:

The theme of the film is stated quite explicitly in a scene between Vorzet and Germain. . . . [description of the lamp-swinging scene] The moral ambiguity which Vorzet verbalizes in this scene is certainly Clouzot's (p. 185).

But the critics inevitably pass over the contrasting scene that follows. Vorzet departs, leaving Germain in the room. As the lamp continues to swing, Clouzot signals the passage of time by dissolving in a superimposed image of the lamp having come to rest. We tilt down to see Germain in the morning, asleep with his head on the teacher's desk, having clearly spent the night in the classroom. He is awakened by the arrival of the suicide's mother, who tells him she is now working as a cleaning-lady at the school, ominously shows him her son's razor, and informs him that she has a good idea of the identity of the corbeaubut is waiting to be absolutely sure before taking action. Germain expresses shock, but she is unmoved.

There is such a thing as objective symbolism. The matching of the still lamp with the moving lamp reflects not only the passage of time but the transition from a world of relativism associated with Vorzet to a world of moral certitude exemplified by the mother. Germain seems to side with Vorzet, and in his subsequent remarks about the corbeauand even about the priority of the mother's life over the child's he takes a more measured position than previously. But when the film ends with Germain opening the window curtain to show the mother's departure down the crooked street as Vorzet's blood stains the last letter of the corbeau, we can hardly assert that the film itself is on Vorzet's side, or even Germain's. On the contrary, it shows us that the scourge of the corbeaucould be lifted only by the mother's brutal act, and that more delicate souls like Germain in fact depend upon such acts to maintain society's moral order. If we situate the film within the ethical context defined by the German occupation of France, then just as Vorzet's ambivalence relativizes the guilt of collaboration, the mother's act cannot but recall the deeds of the Resistance.

An important secondary element in Le corbeau is the pervasive undercurrent of sexual tension, visible in Laura's frustration with her aging husband, Marie Corbin's spinsterish bitterness, Denise's promiscuity, and most interestingly of all, in the sexual awakening of pubescent fourteen-year-old Rolande, Denise's niece, whom one of the letters accuses Germain of seeking to make his mistress. In the pivotal scene with the swinging lamp, Vorzet even claims that Germain would sleep with Rolande if she seduced him. But if this suggestion of sexual disorder reflects the paranoid world of the corbeau, in Rolande's last appearance on screen we see her smiling as she uses her nascent feminine wisdom to reassure Denise that Germain will not leave town without her. In the same way as human truth and justice put an end to the social crisis fomented by the letters, the lovers' mature relationship takes over the sexual terrain from Rolande's adolescent longings, as well as from Denise's aimless licentiousness and from Laura's illicit desire for Germain that created the corbeauin the first place.

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The moral ambiguity that critics see in Le corbeau is not absent, but neither is it the film's ultimate message. We are offered visions of both Germain's broadened humanity and the mother's vengeful resolve. The first is more congenial and hopeful, and holds the future promise of a better world, but it relies on the second to put an end to the time of hatred and despair. Vorzet, played to perfection by Pierre Larquey in the supreme acting achievement of a long career, is a highly seductive character whose "demonstration" offers us the noble wisdom of tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. Yet as we should have learned from our earlier readiness to participate in the townsfolk's condemnation of the disagreeable Marie Corbin, séduction n'est pas raison. The truth is not to be found in mere appearances, the film tells us, but in Denise's eyes-and in the mother's razor.

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