Le Corbeau

Feb 17, 2004

For most of its history, French cinema has undergone periodic upheavals characterized by massive changes in many areas—personnel, economics, typical film style and content, and so on. The German occupation resulted in perhaps the most striking of these points of rupture. In personnel, some men and women retired or changed professions rather than work under fascist rule, while many others were cast out because of their “non-Aryan” origins. New people entered the industry or moved up in its hierarchy to fill the void; not surprisingly, they had some of the biggest problems during the “purification” that followed. While most filmmakers accused of collaboration with the enemy escaped with only public reprimands, a few received more extreme sanctions, including being banned from the industry for a period of up to several years. Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of Le Corbeau, was one such filmmaker; the occupation brought him a long-term contract as a writer (and later as a writer and director) for Continental-Films, the notorious German-controlled, vertically integrated “major” that was the dominant force in the era’s cinematic production.

Continental’s head, Alfred Greven, seems to have thought of the company as a European version of MGM, with himself as an Aryan version of Louis B. Mayer. Though his brief from propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered him to produce mindless trash for the French public, Greven wanted to make “quality” works of the sort typical of Hollywood studios, including some films of real artistic ambition. One of Continental’s specialties was the detective film, generally with a light, even comic tone. Many of these films starred Pierre Fresnay, the company’s biggest star, who, until Le Corbeau, often played detectives whose screen image was close to that of William Powell at MGM. Clouzot’s first film as a director for Continental, L’Assassin habite au 21 (The Murderer Lives at Number 21, 1942), was one of these—a stylish mystery solved by Fresnay as a police inspector and Suzy Delair as his mistress (a very French variant on the MGM Thin Man series’ husband-and-wife team). In this comparatively conventional work, Clouzot already sought to go beyond the superficiality of the studio formula; the film has several disorienting scenes of virtuoso cinematic paranoia. In Le Corbeau, he went much further, taking the standard ingredients of the Continental-Films detective movies and using them to make something darker and more complex—to make, in fact, the first classic French film noir.

Though the label film noir didn’t yet exist (it would be a postwar French invention), Le Corbeau is decidedly noir in its vision of the world. And though none of the film’s individual stylistic and generic elements was new (most had surfaced in the “poetic realist” films of the late 1930s), Clouzot and screenwriter Louis Chavance’s specific combination of them was.

Much of the film’s style and content will be readily familiar to noir lovers everywhere. Though—unlike later examples of the genre—Le Corbeau has comparatively few scenes set at night, this doesn’t prevent Clouzot from exploiting hard-edged compositions featuring stark contrasts between light and darkness (the last shot, for example, of the black figure going down the sunny street), dramatically exaggerated shadows (Vorzet’s figure on the stairway wall tips its hat to Germain and says good night), and even, at one dramatic high point, a bare light bulb swinging freely in a dark room—not, however, a police station or a cheap hotel, but a school classroom. Such noir elements are coupled in Le Corbeau with traits characteristic of works made under the occupation: the small town in the provinces, virtually cut off from the outside and serving as a microcosm of human society; the remarkable passages of subjective sound mixing; striking images of immobility, as when the congregation sits transfixed while a letter drops through a silent church.

Other aspects of the film are not so much specific to either the (nascent) genre nor to the occupation period, but rather to the director’s own ethos. Perhaps the most remarkable of these is the work’s sense of humor, covert though it may be in most instances. Although not calculated to produce outright laughter, amusing moments abound (sometimes bitterly, even despairingly funny ones). Witness Dr. Vorzet’s comments on psychiatrists’ conventions, or the dictation in the schoolroom (a droll, if rather nasty, parody of one of the mainstays of French educational practice), and, above all, the texts of the anonymous letters that provide the film’s mystery plot (“Give my regards to the Eternal Father,” ends the one to the dying cancer patient). A major source of humor is the loving attention Clouzot and Chavance give to the French class system. The bourgeoisie (primarily, the doctors) come in for the most ribbing, of course, but the petite bourgeoisie (the hypocritical shopkeeper who won’t let her daughter see Dr. Germain) and the lower classes (the worker who doffs his hat at the funeral procession) fare little better.

But probably the most unusual aspect of the film, generically, historically, and in the context of Clouzot’s work, is the way in which it stages a properly philosophical debate about the effects of the German occupation. For clearly, as many observers have noted, the anonymous letters that plague the town of St. Robin create a situation much like that of France under the occupation. Dr. Vorzet makes this parallel all but explicit when he speaks of the corruption of moral values brought on by the letters. For example, he says Dr. Germain will spy on his mistress if he gets the chance, and he is almost immediately proved right. But this point of view is only one of two competing ideas in the film about what is happening in the town (and, by extension, in France under the occupation). In opposition to the psychiatrist Vorzet, the brain surgeon Germain says that “sometimes, evil is necessary,” and that he, and presumably others in the town, will emerge from the ordeal stronger, even better. He also is proven right when he manages, near the end of the ordeal, to break out of his bitter isolation.

Those who have denounced the film as nihilistic have assumed that it endorses the Vorzet position, conveniently forgetting that the conclusion discredits him completely, even though he has been telling “the truth” throughout. But Germain fares little better: not only does he succumb to the moral corruption around him, as Vorzet predicted, he also fails to solve the mystery. And so, oddly enough, the film may be read as implicitly rejecting both Germain and Vorzet’s views of the letters, and hence the occupation. Instead, Le Corbeau puts its faith in women—not all women, by any means, but those who have suffered (like Denise, from her deformity, and the cancer patient’s mother, from the death of her son). This is a work, after all, in which the first people we see are old women grieving, and the last image is of the avenging mother walking away down the street. In this respect, too, Le Corbeau is very much a film of its time, a period when the very size of women’s roles, their symbolic weight, and their moral significance were much greater than they had been before, or would be for some time afterwards. It seems doubtful that Clouzot, the French cinema’s great misanthrope, would have consciously held that Suffering Womanhood represented a viable moral or philosophical alternative to the positions of Vorzet and Germain. Probably his covert appeal to women as figures of both knowledge and redemption represented, as it did for so many filmmakers during the occupation, an almost visceral grasping for light in the darkness, and for hope at a time of deepest despair.

Alan Williams is the author of Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking, and is a professor of French at Rutgers University.