Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment

The PFA presented a series called Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment in January and February. The series looked interesting but ran up against Noir City, Mostly British and SF Indiefest. I was only able to see four of the films in the series.

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 starring Pierre Fresnay & Suzy Delair; French with subtitles; (1942)
Quai des Orfèvres starring Louis Jouvet & Suzy Delair; French with subtitles; (1947)
Le corbeau starring Pierre Fresnay & Ginette Leclerc; French with subtitles; (1943)
Manon starring Cécile Aubry & Michel Auclair; French with subtitles; (1949)

All films were directed to Clouzot.

I become aware of Clouzot a little over a year ago when the Roxie screened Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, a documentary (co-directed by Serge Bromberg) about the making of L'Enfer (English translation Inferno). Directed by Clouzot but beset by his indecisions and obsessive behavior, Inferno had an unlimited budget financed by Columbia Pictures. Made in 1964 but never released, Inferno remains the stuff of legend. Clouzot's widow told Bromberg that she had 185 reels of the film in storage which would be approximately 40 hours of raw footage. The clips of Inferno which were shown in the documentary were stunning and made me yearn for a finished product.

When I saw the Clouzot series on the PFA calendar, I resolved to see as many of the films as I could.

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 was notable for being made while France was under Nazi occupation. The film was a mystery-comedy hybrid involving a serial killer, the police detective trying to identify him and the cop's girlfriend - a scatterbrained actress who helps by going under cover at the boardinghouse where the killer is staying.

Number 21 had a large budget by occupation era standards. Intended to replace the big budget Hollywood films which were banned by the Nazis, I would guess that Number 21 was trying to achieve something between screwball comedy and The Thin Man. It didn't achieve it. Suzy Delair, who was Cluouzot's girlfriend at the time of filming, was very attracting and at times funny, but overall the comedy seemed forced and too contrived.

Quai des Orfèvres was a more traditional mystery/noir. Delair plays an aspiring actress with a jealous husband (for good reason) and a wealthy "benefactor." When said benefactor turns up murdered, the husband becomes the prime suspect. The motivations of Delair's character and some vivid characterizations of the supporting characters elevates Quai des Orfèvres beyond the standard pulp.

Le corbeau was my favorite of the four films. French for "the raven," Le corbeau is bleak film about a series of anonymous letters which sets a small town against itself. Based on true events from the 1920s, Le corbeau masterfully balances the mystery aspects of the author's identity against the observations of human behavior. All the characters have dirty secrets and behave disgracefully at times. Truly a cynical view of humanity (which likely mirrored Clouzot's own outlook), Le corbeau was later condemned by post-WWII French authorities seditious. Clouzot was blackballed for several years as a result of the film.

Another cynical tale, Manon is the story of Manon Lescaut (Cécile Aubry), a young woman about to be lynched for collaborating with the Nazis. Robert Dégrieux (Michel Auclair), a French Resistance hero is charged with guarding. They fall madly in love despite her likely collaboration and ample evidence of deceit in other areas. Convinced he has found his true love, Dégrieux helps Manon escape to Paris where the seek the help of her brother, a black marketeer. Quickly adapting to her brother's lavish lifestyle, Manon supplements her income by working in a high-end brothel. Seeing an opportunity to marry an American Army officer, Manon's brother detains Dégrieux so that Manon can sneak away. Enraged by her deception, Dégrieux kills the man. This is the point the film begins; like all good noir films, the story is told in flashbacks.

Manon, like Le corbeau, allows Clouzot to fully express his low opinion of humanity...at least, the French variation which he felt had mistreated him after misinterpreting Le corbeau. Based on the novel Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost, the film reminded me of another French classic - Madame Bovary. Ruining his own life for the love/lust of a woman, which is a very noir theme, Dégrieux is like so many other noir protagonists. Aubry, only 20 at the time of filming, shines as Manon. Retiring from film before age 32 and having acted in nine films, Manon only whetted my appetite to see more of Aubry which is unfortunately a severely limited endeavor.

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