Le Corbeau (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
[Note: The following was originally posted at my old blog in 2008 as a review of the Criterion Collection’s now long-deleted DVD of this film. Customarily I would not use a DVD review, or such a casual writeup, for this venue; however, I liked this material so much and found that it articulated so much that my latest revisit to this wonderful film evoked (especially my discovery of it through a French teacher who proved extremely influential over my movie tastes) that I decided to revive the piece here, with just a few additions and the removal of two closing paragraphs about the supplements and price point. Please do keep its original context faintly in mind as you peruse it.]
I heard Criterion’s disc of Le Corbeau was going out of print so I made a point to grab one as soon as I possibly could. I don’t know why I hadn’t already bought it; when it came out I was really excited, because the announcement solved a long-running mystery for me. In high school, my French teacher used to show us a lot of movies toward the end of the semester, and although I wasn’t the best student and didn’t have an especially great relationship with her because I was a surly teenager, I quickly realized she had excellent taste. Through her I was introduced to Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, and the chief thrill of that was not even that I now understood the Simpsons episode that parodied them. She showed us Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with its gloriously undiluted romantic imagery, my freshman year. She showed us the TV miniseries of Les Miserables with Cyril Cusack and Anthony Perkins, which hypnotized me from beginning to end and caused me to pick the book up and actually start reading it. (I’ve since seen a few other versions across various mediums and that one is still the very best.)
Then there was Le Corbeau. It is the story of creepy anonymous “poison pen” letters (never having heard the term before, I was disheartened at the time that they weren’t literally notes written with poisonous ink) sent out into a French village that torment and agonize the occupants to the point of insanity, self-destruction, and death. It is suffocatingly atmospheric, amping up the paranoia and dread of Rod Serling’s (much later) “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” until it’s nearly intolerable. It contains one of the most hauntingly photographed sequences I can ever remember seeing, when prime suspect Rolande runs away from the mob that is accusing her of slander during a funeral procession; and later, the haunting images of a letter falling from the upper galleries of a church onto the congregation below, and of a killer slipping away mysteriously into unforgiving daylight. The ending lurched forward at a breakneck pace, as did the whole film (91 minutes; take that, rambling Hollywood assholes!), but what stayed with me was the oppressive world in which the film took place, the feeling of constant threat and fear, the inability to be at peace, which spoke very loudly to me at the time. Today I’m still enchanted by how it feels like some beach-read turned on its head, with its many characters made distinctive despite their limited impact, our suspicions of each of them ebbing and flowing throughout the narrative, and its extended dialogue sequences made gripping and breathless at times by nothing more than a device like a light bulb swinging to and fro. It would be some years before I would learn the extent of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s mastery, but this was enough to convince me of his importance.
My teacher’s copy was on a shoddy old VHS and the transfer looked distant, damaged, ancient, which made it all the more terrifying. After I learned that it was made during the Occupation my fascination increased and I was absorbed in the story like never before. Later, the whole film felt like a dream, so much so that — unsurprisingly, with my age at the time — I forgot all about it for months and even years, until some time later I found myself looking everywhere to try and determine what this masterfully scary movie about poison pen letters tearing people apart had been, and it proved impossible simply because I could not locate the title of the film in any of my notes from school. I don’t know if this story is interesting to anyone but me at all, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to find a film when you know so little about it — even your description of a specific scene might not match the exact nature of what was happening, at least if you’re me and your memory about specific incidents and characters in movies is quite bad. I knew it was black & white, French, subtitled, and made during the war. That was all I had, and somehow or another I must have passed over Le Corbeau, literally “The Raven,” in numerous lists assuming it had something to do with Poe.
Then, in 2003, Criterion announced a release of the DVD. I check their announcements every month, both because they often release films I love or have long wanted to see, and because their schedule and website frequently introduce me to something I’m not familiar with that I want to learn more about. (If they had not released Ace in the Hole this summer I still would not have seen it, and that would suck.) I was immediately attracted to the beautiful cover, which subverts the Criterion design at the time with sloppy and sinister but elegant pen lines. And when I read the summary, it jumped out at me: this is something I had long forgotten, long wondered about, and here it was. It was a moment similar to when I heard “Mr. Spaceman” by the Byrds for the first time in over a decade; I had forgotten it existed and yet I still knew every word and could not contain my excitement.
Even though I did not know its title, Le Corbeau was a very special film for me, one of the first French films I ever saw. I eventually did find my notes and discovered we were shown the film just before Thanksgiving break in 1999 — the same month as The 400 Blows, quite an introduction to world cinema; I remembered the Truffaut film more clearly down through the years, and it undoubtedly meant a greater amount to me then and continues to do so. Nevertheless, Le Corbeau too seemed to awaken something, I think more in terms of the period of its production than its country of origin, a kind of preoccupation with its time. I felt this again on rediscovering The 39 Steps — something about the films of the ’30s and ’40s, especially but not merely in Europe, is infinitely evocative to me, and the more steeped they are in that time, the better.
Because while Clouzot’s film has its universal elements, specifically the familiar human-nature-at-its-worst parable, it is very distinctly awash in the paranoid setting into which it was born. As Bertrand Tavernier says in an interview included with the DVD, the fear and dread of the French village in the midst of German occupation is constantly palpable; you can taste it. It’s one of the most atmospheric films ever made, and while the story is gripping, that I believe is why the film stayed in my mind all these years, with a constant air of mystery about it. The feeling is of being unforgivingly thrust into a cold and inhumane world, something that Clouzot would become ever more adept at in Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, but in this case there is an obvious purpose — the communication of the horror of being so isolated as the town clearly is. Clouzot took heat for working with the German propaganda machine to continue making films during the war (although the Nazis weren’t any happier with Le Corbeau than the Resistance press was), but I feel you learn far more about France during WWII from this film than you could from any book or even eyewitness account. You can feel the heaviness of the air, the bleak ambivalence everywhere. It’s a memorably sensory but deadening experience. (You never feel all that great after a Clouzot film, except about movies.)
Of course, the storytelling is also just about perfect, mostly due to Clouzot’s visual sense, which is impeccable even this early in his career. Every sequence is evocatively lit and photographed; it’s really quite a work of art, and it’s no mystery why the Nouvelle Vague took up Clouzot as a cause some years later. However, of all his films I’ve seen, this is the one that least resembles the work of the man to whom H.G. is most often compared, Alfred Hitchcock — although the movie is extremely suspenseful, it is a whodunit, it is driven by plot twists, it is only psychological in the broadest sense (it’s more of a parable and/or a “think piece” than any Hitchcock film, save perhaps The Birds, which relies equally on isolation), and it is permeated with an ominous feeling of futility throughout. Although Diabolique and Wages both end with a crushing sense of maddening misanthropy, they had a sense of cackling absurdity. Le Corbeau does not; it may end with the promise of new life, but it also ends with a couple destroyed by one another and by obsession, and totally failing to find revenge in a world swirling around them that immediately and necessarily enacts its revenge. As vivid as the characterization is — and it’s brilliant — there is no escape from the darkness to be found. The sense that everyone is guilty is probably what made both Germans and French so upset, leading Clouzot after the war to be (briefly) banned for life from directing. But this lack of hopefulness makes the film that much more fascinating, and allows one to look upon it as entirely unique: the saddest whodunit ever filmed. And the creepiest. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that as presented by Criterion, the movie no longer looks ancient or faded, as it did when I first saw it, but to its credit, it’s still just as unnerving.