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.

Review: Coco avant Chanel

Rarely have I seen a movie more apologetically but accessibly deferential to the intelligence of its viewers than director Anne Fontaine’s beautifully thought-out 2009 film “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) starring Audrey Tautou. Based on the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the film chronicles Chanel’s rise from obscurity to become one of the most innovative and celebrated fashion designers of the 20th century. If it were simply a bio-pic there would be plenty to chew over, for Chanel was a complex and unconventional woman whose past she intentionally kept somewhat obscured during her own lifetime. Yet this stunning production also assumes that the viewer will be able to pick up on the influences which shaped Chanel’s work, taking the piece outside of what might otherwise seem a made-for-tv costume drama and creating something extraordinary.

The film begins with the young Gabrielle Chanel arriving at a provincial Catholic orphanage with her sister, where the two are being left by the father, who is either unwilling or unable to take care of them; the film never makes this clear, and Chanel herself does not help. In fact, from this point on the viewer should be aware that during her lifetime, Chanel changed her biography numerous times, depending on whom she was speaking to and what she wanted them to believe. Throughout the film, as she moves from working in a dressmaker’s shop and singing in a bar (where she obtains the nickname “Coco”) to auditioning for the dance hall and becoming a live-in mistress, we see Chanel lie about some aspect of her upbringing, background, connections, experiences, and so on.

In doing so Chanel is creating the persona she feels is necessary in order for her to scramble up out of the gutter. To her surprise, she comes to understand that it will be in fashion, rather than in the bedroom or on the stage, where she will make her name. But make no mistake: Coco wants the good life and is going for it, conventions be damned. When she and her sister are observing from a distance some of the wealthy assembled together, her sister comments how bored they all look. Chanel replies, presciently, “Soon they will be willing to kill just to dine with us.”

It is perhaps difficult for us today, when an item such as a Chanel tweed suit (or a knock-off of one) is considered de rigeur among successful women, to realize what a shock Chanel’s style was to the women of her time. The film takes pains to point out to us how exceedingly uncomfortable it was to be considered well-dressed at the turn of the previous century, wearing yards and yards of fabrics, heavy make-up and jewelry, with giant hats pinned into long ropes of hair. At one point Chanel meets her sister at the races; the latter is wearing a long, fitted white lace gown, and explains that it is the latest fashion from Paris. Chanel snorts at its impracticality and remarks, “I’m sure that train picks up a lot of mud.”

In another, beautifully shot scene, Chanel walks down the boardwalk at Deauville toward the sea, wearing a simple plaid dress and straw hat of her own design. Despite the sun and the heat the women on either side of her are cinched into enormous, heavy dresses that cover every part of their bodies, which of course are dripping in jewels. On top of their heads are hats piled with accordion folds of material that then tie beneath their chins. The modern movie-goer, watching these women try to keep from moving about too much, can only imagine how stiflingly hot and uncomfortable it was.

As she walks past them with the love of her life Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel makes catty, but well-observed comments about these supposedly fashionable women. About one, wearing a huge necklace which spreads like a peacock’s tail across her chest, Chanel says, “She’s wearing the family silver.” About a group of others in enormous, uncomfortable hats she sneers, “Looks like a bunch of meringues.” When Capel offers to take her dancing that evening, she explains that she does not have any evening clothes. He counters that she should make a simple evening dress, like the one that she has on.

This is the impetus for Coco to create the famous “little black dress”, Chanel’s lifelong mantra which has become a staple of women’s attire down to the present day: a simple, comfortable, but elegant black cocktail dress that every woman should have in their closet and which can be worn to any dressy occasion. Chanel and the tailor whom she visits that afternoon have quite a discussion about how the dress is to be constructed; Chanel knows what she wants, but needs encouragement from Boy to keep the dress from looking too conventional. When Chanel and Capel waltz around the hotel ballroom later than evening, she stands out in a sea of more enormous white dresses, feathers, and frippery with her simple dress and hairstyle. It is a look which, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, would be completely at home at an evening event today.

It is in these moments of observation, and there are many, in which the filmmakers excel, by giving us a taste of materials, experiences, and the like which came to have an influence on Chanel as an artist. I use the term “artist” intentionally for, as a friend pointed out last night in discussion of the film, one cannot separate Chanel’s radical departure from the fashion of her own day without considering what was going on artistically at the same time. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Gropius were doing in painting, music, and architecture what Chanel was doing in fashion: learning the conventional and then rejecting it to create something new.

The filmmakers take full advantage of the environment that surrounds Chanel to not only provide hints and suggestions of what she will do later in life, but also to create beautiful works of art themselves. Many of the scenes have an autumnal palette to them, like the leaves falling at the House of Elrond, for the Gilded Age does not know that war is on the horizon and that the world they know is coming to an end. Indeed, the often-found-riding Chanel is, from their perspective, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they would but recognize it.

When Gabrielle Chanel makes the final transition to become Coco Chanel, the lighting changes: the golden glow disappears and black and white come to dominate the camera’s eye. There is one scene in which she is shown, working alone at night at her sewing machine not long after Boy’s death in an automobile accident, where the only source of light is a sort of gooseneck lamp. Virtually everything in the scene is jet black but for the bright scarlet fabric she is working on, and Chanel stops her work to reflect on and mourn her lost love. It is a short sequence but a brilliant composition, with its vivid slash of red cutting through the darkness reminding us of the work of Eduard Manet or Edward Hopper.

Audrey Tautou is, as ever, an actress who is not only capable of wonderful subtlety in her expressions, but also develops her character through such things as movement, posture, and manner of speaking. Because my French is practically non-existent, in fact I did not pick up on a further subtlety in the performance which was pointed out by a colleague. During the course of the film, just as she visually becomes more and more polished, as she moves up the ladder Chanel’s French also becomes more and more polished. By the final montage when Gabrielle, in the fully-realized persona of Coco Chanel, is seated at the top of her famous staircase watching the models parade past her, the transformation is complete: Tautou is like a Horst photograph of Chanel come to life.

It is interesting to consider the fact that, from a practical perspective, Chanel has had a far greater influence on people’s day-to-day lives than any of the aforementioned artistic giants of the early 20th century. Yet her contributions may not be recognized by the general public for the enormous significance they carry in this regard, in part because she made clothes, and in part because she was a woman. If you are at all aware of the rag trade, or at least have a curiosity about anthropology and sociological development in the 20th century, you will find much to muse over in this film. Even if you do not fit into these categories however, you will enjoy the stunning cinematography of this film in its re-creation of a now-departed age, as seen through the eyes of one of the figures responsible for ushering it out.

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in “Coco avant Chanel”

Chain, Chain, Chain

Last evening I watched the rebroadcast of a somewhat disappointing PBS documentary on the building of Gothic cathedrals which, while not quite as eye-rollingly ridiculous as your standard Conspiracy Channel – aka History Channel – piece, still had some rather bad bits to it. This is, as always, based on a lack of understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and an unwillingness or invincible ignorance on the part of the filmmakers either to educate themselves or their audience. Among other curiosities for example, the generalized assertion was made during the film that a cathedral could not have been built without the invention of the pointed arch. However cathedrals, with and without pointed arches, existed both before and after the period in which Gothic structures were built.

Any Catholic knows (or ought to know) that what makes a cathedral a cathedral is not the style or the size of the building, but rather the fact that a cathedral is the seat, or “cathedra”, of a bishop. Thus the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, while the largest church in the city, is not the cathedral, for it is not the seat of the Archbishop. Similarly, the Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Stephen in Speyer, Germany, is a Romanesque building, and the Cathedral of St. Matthew, here in Washington, is a Neo-Byzantine building. The former predates the Gothic era, and the latter postdates it: neither of these has a pointed arch in sight, but each is still a cathedral.

A more interesting part of the film dealt with the issue of height and how the effort of builders during the Gothic age to build impossibly tall vaults often led to disasters. The Cathedral of Beauvais is perhaps the most famous example, and it was astounding – indeed, quite frightening – to see the present state of the Cathedral there, with horrific bracing and scaffolding trying to keep the whole thing from collapsing. I have written about Beauvais recently as regular readers will recall, but to see mass being celebrated amidst terrifying structural supports was truly a skin-crawling moment.

In examining the Cathedral of Amiens, the documentary showed how the vaults are both caving in and pushing out, using laser-guided computer modeling taken at the site. Many of my readers may not be aware that probably the only thing keeping this beautiful structure from tumbling into ruin is a massive, wrought-iron chain. It was installed, red-hot, around the triforium of the crossing in 1497, and down the length of the structure. The hope was that, as it cooled, it would pull the walls and columns of the building back into place and hold them there, which it has done successfully for over 500 years now.

The use of chains as integral engineering design or post-construction patchwork to support tall structures is not unique to Amiens; in fact historically, the use of enormous iron chains proved particularly important for domed structures. For example, inside the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren wrapped a giant wrought iron chain to keep the sides of the dome from spreading and causing the structure to collapse. A similar design was used by Brunelleschi when constructing the iconic dome-within-a-dome of the Cathedral of Florence, as well as in restoration of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul, and even in the restoration and support of Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

As the film moved on, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary’s review of the decoration of the great French Gothic cathedrals was what I believe to be a missed opportunity to consider their facades. In addressing the aesthetics of these churches the filmmakers focused on the stained glass, naturally enough, and presented a bit on the design of a cathedral portal, although this latter was particularly unsatisfying. The filmmakers thought it odd that Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists would appear, sculpted in stone, on a cathedral facade. Again, as in the case of what makes a cathedral a cathedral, the film shows only a cursory understanding of the Church. We know that many theologians in the Scholastic era of the Church looked back to the preserved knowledge of the ancients for clues as to the Mysteries of Creation and the Incarnation.

So for the enjoyment of my readers, I wanted to show an image of what the exterior decoration of Amiens originally looked like. Our ancestors in the Faith were a far more colorful and interesting people than the stark, sometimes imposing, present-day condition of their churches would in certain instances lead us to believe. In this sense, there is a conceptual chain which links them to the classical past, which itself was not the blindingly white world that modern interpretations of classical architecture, such as the monumental core of Washington, D.C., would otherwise indicate.

As you may be aware, the Greeks and Romans did not build the white-washed temples that we see today, but decorated their facades with brightly, often garishly painted sculptures. The decoration of the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives us some notion of what the Parthenon, for example, must have looked like in its heyday, before the effects of weather, war, and decay bleached it to its bones. Similarly, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages loved color on the exterior of their buildings, as much as they loved it on the interior; the latter aspect is more familiar to us as exemplified in the stained glass windows and altarpieces which have come down through history.

When the Cathedral of Amiens was being cleaned in 2000, researchers came across multiple traces of polychrome decoration on the sculptures of the West Front, underneath centuries of dirt, grime, and pollution deposits. The carvings themselves were completed between c. 1230-1240, a remarkably short period of time, meaning that they have a wonderful harmony of design. Using their findings and computer imaging, experts were able to come up with an overlay projection of the original decoration of the facade. This is now projected on top of the West Front in the evening during summer and at Christmastide; a photograph of one of these illuminations is reproduced below.

If this writer is ever fortunate enough to make his way to Amiens on pilgrimage, he is hopeful that it will coincide with one of these displays, for it no doubt will be an awe-inspiring thing. Certainly I would like to see the great chain that keeps the entire thing from going the way of Beauvais, but I would also like to see this projection as a kind of chain in and of itself. For after all, Christianity is not a break with the Ancients, but rather the final, missing link of centuries of human yearning for something more, beyond the hedonism of pagan times.

The West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Amiens,
with an approximation of its original polychrome decoration
projected onto the facade.