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.