Review of “Le Corbeau”: Why Shock Value Isn’t Enough

A film whose central character is a philandering abortionist would seem to be too hot a commodity for mainstream cinema to attempt, even today. Yet Henri-Georges Clozot did so in his controversial 1943 work “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”), which I screened over the weekend. While the film shows there really is nothing new under the sun, insofar as shocking audiences is concerned, I must confess that it left me rather underwhelmed: it is all crime and no punishment.

“Le Corbeau” is set in a small town in France, where all of the local residents have closely-guarded secrets. From the start, we are made very much aware that this is not a happy, peaceful town: long-standing hatreds are commonplace, and people are often very much less than kind to one another. The “hero” of the story, if we are to call him that, Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay) works as a surgeon at the local hospital, and practices illegal abortions on the side. He is carrying on an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of one of his colleagues, and in the course of the film succumbs to the amorous advances of his landlady Denise (Ginette Leclerc).

As the story develops, a series of poison-pen letters signed by someone who calls himself “Le Corbeau” begin to circulate, accusing Dr. Germain and others of committing various crimes. The supposed mystery of the writer’s identity, as matters become more heated and turn to acts of violence, is what occupies us as the film gets going. Unfortunately for this reviewer, I realized who the author of the letters was almost immediately, and so the foregone conclusion turned the experience into something of a waiting game.

“Le Corbeau” is a film which is usually on the must-see list for those of us interested in the development of French cinema, and it is not hard to understand why. It is a something like a combination of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock – in the French taste, natch. Parts of it are superbly well-shot, particularly in using empty space/silence and unexpected camera angles to create a threatening atmosphere. And there are a number of good performances from the cast, though throughout the movie I kept thinking that the character of Denise would have been played more convincingly by the great Jeanne Moreau, a generation later. Most view it today as a kind of veiled criticism of the atmosphere of distrust brought about as a result of the Nazi occupation, when neighbors would turn in their neighbors to the Gestapo.

However the real notoriety of the picture stems from its scandalous public history. It was produced by a German-owned company, and seemed to offend almost everyone across the moral and political spectrum – from the Church to the French Resistance to the Vichy Regime. The film was banned for a time, and Clozot himself was barred from working in French cinema for two years after the war. As we all know, anytime something like a book or a movie is formally banned, it is going to attract an audience keen on examining it for themselves, and this is one reason why “Le Corbeau” continues to be studied today.

This did not have to become the only reason to see the film, however, even though that is now the case, at least in the opinion of this reviewer. The poison-pen letter used as a plot device by Clozot can be a useful tool for ripping open the painted scenery and showing us what lies just behind. He could have allowed the possibilities open to him through the implementation of this device to lead him to create a script and accompanying film which captures our universal desire to see crime being punished. He would not have been the first Frenchman so to be fascinated, or successful, in considering the subject through the use of this plot device.

Perhaps the most famous French example is the 18th century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, which has been treated by cinema many times on both sides of the pond. Two examples with which my American readers may be familiar are the now-classic Glenn Close/John Malkovich “Dangerous Liaisons” from 1988, and the Reese Whitherspoon/Ryan Philippe reinterpretation “Cruel Intentions” from a decade later. In these films, crime has consequences that not only result in death, but in actual punishment.

The spectacular performance by Glenn Close in the earlier film as her world crumbles around her is made particularly satisfying because her own methods are being turned against her. We enjoy her punishment because it is part of our fallen nature to enjoy revenge, but more importantly because we realize, as she does, that she will go on experiencing a living hell on earth. She has ruined the lives and reputations of others, and now her life and reputation are ruined: the punishment fits the crime.

By contrast, in “Le Corbeau” the writer of the letters is punished, vigilante-style, but we are left unsatisfied by the outcome, thinking, “That’s it?” The doer of the deed comes almost out of nowhere; the story has become so convoluted by this point that we have forgotten about them almost entirely. And despite some last-minute “what ifs?” by Clozot there is never any doubt as to the writer’s identity or fate.

Clozot leaves us with important, unanswered questions. Are the townspeople just going to go back to being mean to one another? Is Dr. Germain still going to be committing infanticide and fooling around? Is Denise still going to be playing Potiphar’s wife to all of her husband’s lodgers? In other words: has anyone actually learned anything? “Le Corbeau” fades out on a beautiful shot, but the story faded long before we got to this point – and this is ultimately its greatest problem.

Making something shocking is one sure-fire way to gain notoriety, or at the very least some attention. Yet the real power of a well-written play or novel that also happens to shock its audience at the time of its initial appearance is its staying power to continue to shock audiences a decade (or a century) or more later. Certainly, there is much to like about “Le Corbeau”, if you are interested in the history of cinema. Yet those interested in really getting into the meat of man’s inhumanity to man, in ways that can be just as shocking to us today as they were at the time their works appeared, would be better served by reading Balzac or Camus.

Why the Devil Wears Prada

In the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch film “Ninotchka” (1938) the title character – wonderfully played by Greta Garbo in perhaps the finest part of her legendary career – is a dyed-in-the-wool Communist sent from Moscow to Paris, to help negotiate a deal on behalf of the Soviet Union. She is initially stunned and appalled by the bourgeois world around her, though by the film’s end she has embraced it. In a very memorable scene when she first arrives at the grand hotel where she will be staying, she passes a window display for the hotel’s boutique, and pauses before an outlandishly shaped, sculptural-looking object. Ninotchka is informed that the object is in fact a lady’s hat. Shaking her head in disgust, she remarks, “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now comrades.”

In a somewhat different vein, on Monday evening I dropped into a recently-opened shop in Georgetown on my way up the hill to the home of a fellow blogger (where we spent a convivial evening on the back porch with some non-blogging friends discussing various and sundry matters.) The shopgirl whom I was chatting with as I examined the selection on offer grabbed my arm and said, “I have a Prada suit that would look *great* on you.” Giving a sly smile, I remarked, “I’m sure it would. But I don’t wear designers who sponsor communism.”

Admittedly the comment as regards myself borders on the immodest, but that regarding my rejection of a particular label is based on a long-time awareness of the machinations of said label’s head designer. Miuccia Prada is well-known among the cognoscenti in the design world as a communist and an active promoter of left-wing social and political policies, a fact which may be lost on many Americans who purchase her wares. Given my distaste for communism, I have never owned anything designed by her, nor would I accept anything designed by her as a gift, such is the extent of my admitted and fully-embraced prejudice. This aside from the fact that her menswear consists of utterly putrid, predominantly androgynous garments, which are really just clothes for genetic males who look like unattractive women with a penchant for copying “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s style.

Britain’s The Independent not long ago described Sig.ra Prada’s output as being full of “irony and sheer brains”, as she employs thread and needle to make fun of the bourgeoisie:

At the root of her work, like the theme of a symphony to which it constantly returns, is the conservatism and restraint that are so typical of bourgeois Milan and so at odds with the world’s image of Italy, and which she absorbed with her mother’s minestrone. But this conservatism is constantly punctured and subverted, rudely shoved aside and cruelly mocked, by a whole mad world of motley influences and by an almost childish compulsion to do what everybody says you mustn’t and what nobody expects.

Those familiar with Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” may recall the scene in which the character of Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) talks about his disappointment with Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s 1972 film “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie” (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”). Charlie, a member of a group which he has christened the “UHB” or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie”, describes how excited he was on hearing of the film’s title, and his subsequent disappointment upon actually seeing the movie. “I thought, ‘Finally! someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ But it’s hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.”

Of course Charlie is not aware that, as is typical of many Leftists with the leisure to pursue such ends, Buñuel himself was no proletarian: he came from a decidedly wealthy background, and heartily enjoyed being around wealthy people. And for someone who is supposedly so ironic, so biting in her criticism of the bourgeois, in mocking the bourgeoisie Sig.ra Prada is also, even more ironically mocking herself. She is nothing if not a woman of comfortably middle-class origin supported by a decidedly upper-class income. Like other dowdy, aging baby boomers who criticize traditional ideals, she fails to perceive her own hypocrisy in supporting Marxist ideology on the one hand, while simultaneously flogging her goods with the other – at ridiculously inflated prices, natch – in order to increase her own wealth. Indeed, Sig.ra Prada has now appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people for many years.

The response from the Left, of course, is that Sig.ra Prada, Buñuel and others like them very much recognize their own hypocrisy, but they are more than happy to take the resources of those whom they perceive as perpetrators of the evils of mankind, and use those resources to promote their supposedly more moral or liberating projects, causes and beliefs. In so doing however, they prove themselves to be no different from the people whose views and methods they claim to despise. They may not believe in the God of the Bible, but they worship themselves through self-promotion; they may pay their workers a living wage, but they would never eschew staying in grand hotels, let alone live in a shared, modest apartment with any of them. (Where would they keep the Château Margaux they laid down two summers ago?)

As Leon Trotsky writes in his 1938 screed, “Their Morals and Ours”, not long after founding the Fourth Communist International and his falling out with what for lack of a better term we can call mainstream communism:

Among the liberals and radicals there are not a few individuals who have assimilated the methods of the materialist interpretation of events and who consider themselves Marxists. This does not hinder them, however, from remaining bourgeois journalists, professors or politicians. A Bolshevik is inconceivable, of course, without the materialist method, in the sphere of morality too. But this method serves him not solely for the interpretation of events but rather for the creation of a revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is impossible to accomplish this task without complete independence from the bourgeoisie and their morality. Yet bourgeois public opinion actually now reigns in full sway over the official workers’ movement.

So much, Trotsky seems to be saying, for the champagne socialist.

I do not mean to suggest that we should always avoid, by our purchases, supporting the work of those whose views differ from our own. That would not only be ridiculously impractical, but decidedly narrow-minded. My personal rejection of the work of Sig.ra Prada is merely a personal affectation, based on my deep antipathy toward both her views and how her aesthetic is informed by them. What I do – most emphatically – mean to suggest, however, is that the educated courtier engage in some very practical exercise of their own powers of discernment. Said discerning gentleman or lady ought to consider exactly what it is that they are buying into, with their purchase of clothing, media, and the like, irrespective of its popularity.

Charles Baudelaire – a man who as a result of his own tumultuous personal life knew whereof he spoke – famously remarked that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince the world that he does not exist. With greater discernment, we can perceive an infernal hand in many places in our world today – in the way we treat one another, yes, but also and perhaps more subtlety in our entertainments and the way in which we live and even dress. The Devil is very much among us – and I definitely believe he wears Prada.

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) considers a very curious hat.

>The Affected Conservative: It’s All About Eve

>Last evening I had the very enjoyable experience of taking a visiting friend from Barcelona and a few colleagues around the village to do some shopping, followed by a good dinner at Leopold’s, where we ran into some other friends of mine. Georgetown is, of course, part of Washington D.C. proper these days, but geographically and stylistically it continues to have a sense of “otherness”, which is very noticeable, particularly if all you have seen for several days has been the inside of a hotel ballroom in Crystal City. For me the benefit of the experience was not only catching up with an old friend and meeting new ones, but also having an experience the antithesis of yesterday’s cautionary post about Twitter – which seems to have struck a nerve with a number of people – about using social media to build real connections.

When I arrived back at the manse, I proved this last point by engaging in an email conversation with a conservative friend I met some time ago via Twitter – the proof being, we do not merely tweet to each other but communicate outside of it on several platforms. We talked briefly about a number of subjects, including personal style, and it was pointed out that I come off as a strong-willed person. Less kind persons might have said “stubborn”, but it is a fair assessment.

Second-hand, I have heard myself referred to as “intimidating”, which certainly ought not to be the case at all. Someone’s being opinionated should not intimidate others, if they have their own developed sense of self, though I have occasionally had to step back and apologize when I fear that I am being too forceful. I suspect that the combination of being rather tall, a trial lawyer, and a conservative would do it, if my personal habit of sometimes affecting what I like to call “biker preppy” style does not do it alone. Exterior appearances may easily deceive the untrained eye, particularly where conservatives are concerned.

To those on the outside looking in (and perhaps even to the majority of those within), there is often an apparent “sameness” of appearance among people marked as conservatives. Yet among genuine conservatives there are people who espouse certain affectations which may seem incongruous or surprising. Part of this surprise has to do with a false assumption that everyone who believes in conservative principles ought to look a certain way. Yet part also has to do with the inherent human desire to name and categorize, which is inescapable. Let us consider each of these in turn.

Whatever the liberal press may tell you, a conservative can have just as much style, if not more so, than your average Hollywood bleeding-heart liberal fashion plate. Of course, the fact that Hollywood is dominated by the latter type does not mean that the film industry fails to show us examples of idiosyncratic style among people who have decidedly conservative views. When they do appear, it is not only their point of view but their style which surprises us, when we pay attention to detail.

This evening for example, I am going to a dinner party where we will be watching one of my favorite films, “All About Eve”. Director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was as bleeding-heart as they come, probably intended the witty, urbane, but somewhat shady character of Addison De Witt (George Sanders) to be the lone Republican in the ensemble, given some of the searingly vicious lines which he has Addison say. Yet also, I think notably, Addison is distinguishable by what he wears, as much as by what he says in conversation, or what he writes in his newspaper column.

Unlike the other men in the cast, Addison is shown on multiple occasions to enjoy wearing hats. He also likes to wear what looks to be a very expensive overcoat lined with fur – probably vicuna – and often smokes using a long, ebony cigarette holder. Addison not only has a hugely expert eye with respect to the theatre world, but in his personal style he stands out from the others. This is not just because he is considerably taller than the rest of the men in the room, but also because he has a clear appreciation for style and attention to detail. He pulls off looking different from the men of his day because although he dresses appropriately for the occasion, he also knows what he likes, and does not care whether others also like his choices or not.

Addison is, interestingly enough, quite the ladies’ man despite his seemingly aloof, foppish and snobbish personality. We learn that he picked up the stunning and considerably younger Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe) dancing at the Copacabana nightclub; later Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) discovers that she “belongs” to him after he bends her to his will. In the scene where Eve comes to understand this, he is very much aware of the importance of appearances: when Eve throws open the door to her hotel room and tells him to get out, Addison scoffs, “You’re too short for that gesture.”

As the scene continues, we get a glimpse of Addison’s respect not only for the political change of heart after Pearl Harbor which gave America a new role in the world, but also his appreciation for human decency. When Addison catches Eve in a lie about her supposed fiancee, killed during World War II, the realization that she has been found out sends her into a paroxysm of rage. “That was not only a lie,” he chides her, “but an insult to dead heroes and to the women who loved them.”

That line of Addison’s always reminds me of the character of Lieutenant Fred Boynton, another crypto-conservative, in Whit Stillman’s brilliant film “Barcelona”. Fred Boynton (Chris Eigeman) is a naval officer being shown around the Catalan capital by his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols). A rather trashy-looking group of Catalan youths pass them and sneer at Fred’s naval uniform, calling him a fascist. Ted tries to calm his cousin down by explaining that it is not his uniform which is the problem; if you comb your hair and put on a tie, those types of Barcelona youths will call you a fascist. Fred then goes off into a diatribe where he points out that men wearing the same uniform died ridding Europe of fascism. He is, in effect, showing the ignorance of the liberal in mocking his style of dress.

While Fred may have been ill-advised to wear a naval uniform when not on duty – we later learn that he has brought no civilian clothes with him, and needs to borrow from Ted’s closet – one suspects that he is secretly glad to be wearing it, as a stylistic indicator of how he sees himself. Its unexpectedness in the setting is what makes it – and him – stand out. We find it hard to believe that Fred has really forgotten his civies, and instead realize that this affectation comes about because he knows he looks good in a uniform, and because he likes how the uniform sets him apart.

Similarly, in Whit Stillman’s earlier film “Metropolitan” the character Nick Smith – ironically enough also played by Chris Eigeman – has a conversation with another character, Tom Townsend, in which he explains his own personal affectation, that of wearing dress shirts with detachable collars:

Nick: “You haven’t seen this? Detachable collar, not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.”

Tom: “I had no idea anyone wore those anymore.”

Nick: “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards, they wanted to be happy. But of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.”

Tom: “I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents.”

Nick: “Oh, it’s far worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation, it’s barbaric. But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”

Tom: “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars…“

Nick: “Yeah, I am.“

When we leave the world of moving pictures for the real world, things become a little less clear. If Georgetown, in its best sections, has a sense of otherness, much of white-collar Washington has a sense of “sameness”. However, not everyone in Washington who wears a blue blazer and khakis to work is a conservative, as the first-time visitor often mistakenly believes. That is simply the local mufti, worn irrespective of party politics. In its blandness perhaps it tells us more about the general population of the capital area, rather than anything about those persons who adopt it, as individuals or party members.

By trying to class people through their style we are of course naming and categorizing, and by naming and categorizing we are engaging in something which we as a species have done from the very beginning. In the Bible we are told how God created the universe, from sun, moon and stars, right down to the animals and human beings. But the observant reader will note that while God Himself names certain elements and principles of His creation – “day”, “night”, “earth”, “sea”, and so on – and He also names Adam, it is Adam himself who names the animals.

Certainly God could have named the “things which creep upon the earth”, but He chose not to do so, leaving that job up to Adam. It is interesting to note, by the way, that in the Koran it is God rather than Adam who names the animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some important considerations we could take from this difference between Judaism/Christianity and Islam, but that we shall perhaps leave for a future post.

As creation unfolds, God wants to see whether Adam is going to become particularly attached to any of the animals, so that they will be his companion in creation:

So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name.

Genesis 2:19

As it turns out, none of the animals prove to be fully satisfying to Adam, which brings about the creation of Eve. Thus, the human female is the very last element of the universe which God created. Women should recognize that fact with some understandable pleasure, and men should be aware of its significance, for God was clearly aware of the fact than men are usually not so good at taking care of His creation all by themselves.

When God brings His final creation to Adam in Genesis 2:23, Adam does not at first give her an individual name, as God did to him. Instead he calls her “woman”, recognizing that she seems to be part of his nature as a human being, having been formed from part of Adam himself, but at the same time not seeming to fully understand exactly what she is. One could make the observation therefore that man’s inability to completely “get” women is of primeval origin. After they have sinned by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but before they are cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam recognizes the woman as an individual who fully shares his nature, and his fate, and gives the woman the individual name of Eve, Genesis 3:20.

When they are finally thrown out of the Garden of Eden, God does not give Adam and Eve seeds, or ploughs, or even teach them how to make fire. The only thing He does do, is to make them clothing out of leather, to replace the leaves that they themselves had unsuccessfully tried putting together to cover themselves. God Himself becomes the first true couturier. [N.B. Just imagine having the label “Hand Made by Almighty God in the Kingdom of Heaven” on the back inside lining of your biker jacket.]

Ultimately, the conservative recognizes that it really is all about Eve. Sin, death, salvation and redemption are all woven around a single decision she made, long ago, to exercise her free will, and to convince Adam to do the same. That recognition of the supreme importance, spiritually and philosophically, of the concept of free will, is foundational to the Western conservative, operating in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity and of himself.

When a conservative fellow stands out a bit from the crowd then yes, he is probably hoping in part that an attractive eye will bat his way – that is all about Eve, too. But outside of that fact, he is also engaged in exercising his free will in order to say something about himself: what he enjoys, what he supports, what he appreciates. The more stylish he is, the more unique or subtle the exercise.

Centuries ago the choice of a particular color, pattern, symbol, etc. in a man’s dress or accoutrement would have been endowed with a great deal of symbolic significance not only by the wearer but also by those who saw him. Today, as Nick Smith points out, many do not take the time to think of such things. Among those who do, it is with men of a conservative persuasion that the exercise of free will often proves particularly interesting.

George Sanders and Anne Baxter begin to form
their unholy alliance in “All About Eve” (1950)