Monday, October 3, 2011

Poison pens

Le Corbeau (The Raven) 1943 Continental Films, France (91 minutes) directed and cowritten by Henri-Georges Clouzot; set includes a short interview in English with French director Bertrand Tavernier.
At outset, Le Corbeau (The Raven), centered at a hospital in a small town where a number of the doctors and staff have troubled or unsettled interpersonal histories, seems the ideal setting for a soap opera.
St. Robain, the fictional provincial French town where the movie is set, does not disappoint us.
An anonymous letter writer self-identified only as ‘The Raven’ stirs things up by targeting mainly his—or her—more self-involved neighbors. The writer’s primary target is Dr. Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a brain surgeon with a shadowed past, accused of performing secret abortions and also of having affairs with several local women, among whom Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the beautiful young wife of Dr. Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), the head of the hospital.
The result is a pithy, well-acted ensemble piece leavened with a dry sense of humor, especially in minor characters’ vignettes and asides, meticulously framed and shot.
The Raven’s letters come in the mail, fall from the horse-drawn hearse of a man whose suicide was caused by one such letter, even flutter from on high inside the town cathedral during a Sunday sermon; they could be written by one person, or several, or the result of malice inspired in many by one original.
Who could The Raven be? Motive is everywhere. The letters are artlessly laughable by appearance and the wickedly salacious and slanderous assertions they make, except that they contain enough grains of truth to fuel the townspeople’s suspicions, passions, and violence.
Ironically for director Clouzot, similar ‘grains’ appear to have succeeded all too well. The film enraged both the political right and the left in France, as well as the Catholic Church. It resulted in the director’s censure after the war—a two-year ban from making films—along with similar sanctions against several members of the cast and crew, all purportedly for having ‘collaborated’ with the Nazis (who reportedly had not been thrilled with the work themselves).
C’est un boulot bien fait—seems as though he did a fair job.
Clouzot shot the film in occupied France for a German production company set up in France under the auspices of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The raw human nature unleashed in the townspeople’s reaction to the ‘anonymographe’ was taken to have cast the French people in a negative light, in line with the Third Reich’s characterization of the subjected French as a craven and emotional people.
But Clouzot’s camera eye is closer to the nineteenth century French naturalist writers. He portrays ordinary people going about their lives too self-absorbed to see more of others than what their prejudices or received notions let them see. This leaves febrile ground, when the inexplicable strikes, for their hypocrisy to take root and to inspire them to ascribe to those they know not at all the darkest aspects of their own natures.
It comes down to the light in which one views his subject.
In a night conversation in a narrow staircase lit by a hanging light bulb that Dr. Vorzet has caused to swing metronomically between them, he asks Dr. Germain where in his view good and evil would begin and end in considering one’s character. The lamp continues to swing through the conversation, dramatically changing the light and shadow on each man’s face and the shadow he casts—a shot director Jean-Luc Godard later notably borrowed in Alphaville.
In the end, the character who appears to have the broadest appreciation for human frailty may turn out to be the frailest human of the lot.
Le Corbeau has been labeled ‘pessimistic’: it captures what can happen when one preys on the weaknesses of self-absorbed people lacking self-knowledge, but it ends on a note of not sacrificing the future for the present.

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