As Alan Williams notes, “Le Corbeau is an essential work for world film history, if only because its meanings are still being debated” (1). Filmed during the Occupation by the German controlled Continental Films Company, whose head likened himself to an Aryan version of Louis B. Mayer, the unit sought to make quality films rather than Gallic versions of the “mindless entertainment” Goebbels envisaged for the French market. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s first film for this company, L’Assassin habite au 21 (1942) was a French variant on the MGM “Thin Man” series starring Pierre Fresnay, combining cinematic lighting associated with now unavailable MGM and Paramount Hollywood films with visual elements foreshadowing post-war French film noir seen in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prevert’s Les Portes de la nuit (1946). Unsurprisingly, Williams describes Le Corbeau as “the first classic French film noir” (2).
During and after its release, Le Corbeau managed to offend both the Left and Right. Attacked by the Resistance for its demeaning portrayal of the French character and by Vichy critics for undermining family life, Catholic values, and the sanctity of marriage, Clouzot and leading actors Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc fell victim to the postwar cultural cleansing of the épuration purge organised by the Comité de libération du cinéma francais (3). While the actors suffered brief terms of imprisonment, Clouzot was initially banned from the profession. Debate over Clouzot’s supposed guilt raged during 1947 in correspondence between Henri Jeanson and resistance hero Joseph Kessel, author of L’Armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre’s Melville film version was released in 1969) (4). It continues today in articles by critics either condemning the film for its Fascist tendencies or noting subversive motifs that escaped Occupation censorship (5).
As Evelyn Ehrlich recognises, the issue of whether Occupation films may be read as either pro-Vichy (unless they are blatantly propagandist) or pro-Resistance is highly problematic. Direct causal connections are impossible to detect and directors often
hid behind the formal beauty of their mise-en-scene and the elegant construction of their screenplays as if to draw a curtain between their ideas and anyone in the audience who might be offended by those ideas. Censorship did not determine the new styles and subjects that emerged in the 1940s; rather it helped promote a tendency that was already gaining currency. (6)
This stylistic tendency not only characterised the “cinema of quality” that became the “bête noire” of the 1950s Cahiers du Cinéma critics but also an Occupation filmic aesthetic that Edward Baron Turk defines as involving “static pictorialism and psychological regression”, as seen in Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir [1942)]” (7). However, although “psychological regression” appears in Le Corbeau, articulated according to non-Aryan values of Freudian discourse, the film itself does not display the static pictorialism of many Occupation productions. Instead, Le Corbeau offers a mixture of cinematic styles ranging from appropriated classical MGM and Paramount Hollywood-style cinematography to elements of German Expressionism and proto-French film noir. Williams describes conflicting visual styles in Le Corbeau involving camera movement and the depiction of the look between characters almost “as if there is a constant war going on to control the visual field, between the film’s unseen narrator and its characters” (8). This is an appropriate definition for a film involving surveillance, suspicion, and paranoia within occupied territory. No need exists to depict either Germans or Vichy authorities. They exist outside a text containing its own version of surveillance, one involving tensions that destabilise those who think they are in control.
The film’s visual style and characterisation are crucial towards understanding that ambiguity may not be a convenient cloak behind which director and screenwriter chose to hide but essential to depicting the complex nature of existence within an occupied country and how this may affect its inhabitants. Ehrlich notes that despite the fact that Le Corbeau was the most controversial film of this time its style resembled the dominant contemporary trend: “The film’s atmosphere, its sense of self-enclosure and isolation from the world are typical of the ‘isolationist’ tendency of the French school.” (9) Yet, this enclosure may be part of the film’s critical interrogation.
Unlike Les Visteurs du soir, Le Corbeau is characterised by its use of a mobile camera presenting the viewer with an opportunity for a flexible mode of spectatorship denied to the fictional characters. Beginning with the caption, “A small town, here and everywhere”, it opens with a long shot before the camera pans left to reveal the rural town of St. Robin. After dissolving to an arch, the camera cranes past further arches, stopping at a church in the background before entering gates that “creak open” and show a cemetery. This opening scene significantly depicts the mood of claustrophobia and death-filled existence that the film explores before it reaches its final shot showing Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay) opening the windows of a study containing the body of the poison-pen author to reveal children playing in the street and the departing figure of the avenger clad in a dark costume resembling both a raven and a nun. Despite Vichy censorship, the film indirectly critiques a stagnant world dominated by patriarchy and Catholic ritual – canted-angle German expressionist shots of an innocent victim pursued by a mob show are one such visual example of this. Clouzot films the funeral procession by alternating between high-angle shots of a camera objectively observing the procession and low-angle shots placing the camera in the “subjective” position of the poison pen letter that mourners deliberately ignore fearing its contaminating influence (before a child picks it up). The letter circulates at the funeral service leading to the “rush-to-judgment” attitude of observers emotionally manipulated by the deliberately articulated stentorian tones of a pompous Vichy military official foreshadowing the oppressive sound of Dr Vorzet’s tapping pencil and ticking watch later in the film.
As Marie (Helena Manson) flees, a sound montage of church choir and mob chanting intermingles before she is arrested by the police outside her small room in a manner evoking the actions of the Gestapo. Another, not-so-innocent, victim is bundled inside a sanatorium van towards the end of the film. Although Le Corbeau has often been seen as an attack on informing by letter during the Occupation, other features of the film also evoke the era as seen in the debate between the moral relativism of Dr Vorzet (Pierre Larquey) and Germain involving the ominous presence of a globe signifying Nazi plans for world domination and a swinging light bulb. This light not only intermittently casts them in opposing areas of light and darkness but also undermines Germain’s bourgeois values of moral certitude. The woman sent to trap Germain into agreeing to an illegal abortion refuses to be “an informer” while guilty Rolande (Liliane Maigne) spies on everyone, her bouncing ball linked with that thrown at Germain by malevolent schoolchildren earlier in the film. Aged women glare at a young girl who attempts suicide after an anonymous letter claims she is illegitimate. Having committed a “mortal sin”, she may expect no sympathy from these rural occupants of Vichy France.
Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the supposedly obvious “femme fatale” of Le Corbeau, condemns the film’s supposed hero, Dr Germain, in the following terms: “You may be right doctor. But I feel sorry for you. You are what is saddest and strangest… a bourgeois.” Later influenced by another poison pen letter, Germain fears that he may be the father of a “degenerate child”. But a close-up of Denise not only undermines his contamination by Nazi-Vichy racial values but also his misreading of a supposed “slut”.
As Judith Mayne observes, appearances in this film are deceptive and “the woman who looks like a Vichy poster for womanhood” acts like a lunatic while her supposedly guilty and sexually repressed sister-in-law becomes the victim of mob rule. By contrast, in one of the most revealing close-ups in the film, Denise asks Germain to look into her eyes so that he can directly perceive that she is not a guilty woman. As opposed to scenes in the film showing people looking at each other and the point-of-view image showing Rolande spying on Germain through the key-hole of his door, this shot argues for the importance of direct perception rather than indirect, prejudicial, misperception.
Like Rupert in Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), Germain is a compromised hero. His bourgeois values reinforce the stagnant, conformist world of St. Robin. He eventually faces an adversary articulating and acting out perverted interpretations of Nietzsche believing that he is beyond good and evil. Germain finally understands that “evil is necessary” if only to confront a dark world. But, unlike in Rope, his act of opening the window does not bring the kind of relief associated with fresh air or of outside sounds overcoming a claustrophobic interior. Instead, we see children playing freely and the retreating figure of the avenger. Children are now outside school and free from its restrictions. Although this may suggest that youth represents the hope of the future, as articulated by Marc Bloch in his analysis of the fall of his nation due to the crippling forces of intellectual stagnation and tradition, the film’s final scene is not so clear-cut (10). It reflects the ambiguity of the entire film where issues cannot be resolved in black-and-white terms. The world of childhood is as contaminated as its adult counterpart. Precocious, larcenous, adolescent Rolande spies on Denise and Germain. Vorzet even suggests that Germain may take her for his mistress, a suggestion the good doctor never rejects. An “innocent schoolchild” denies seeing the poison pen letter Germain seeks in the schoolyard. When he leaves, she withdraws it from her underwear and immediately devours its contents.
Neither explicitly pro- nor anti-Resistance, Le Corbeau is a film of deliberate moral and visual ambiguity. This is due less to Clouzot’s supposed duplicitous artistic evasiveness and refusal to take sides and more to the recognition of the dark motivations affecting human beings in occupied territories (a situation those of us who have never experienced it can never really comprehend). The film implicitly criticises the oppressive moral codes of not only the Vichy regime but also the judgmental values of future liberators eager to condemn those who would fall below a certain moral standard, especially those females subsequently accused of “horizontal collaboration” such as Arletty and the more unfortunate Mirielle Balin of Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937). In what film of this era (and beyond) would one find a sympathetic portrayal of a supposedly “guilty woman” such as Leclerc’s “femme fatale” who not only seduces the supposed hero of this drama but attempts to abort her unborn child? Denise’s first appearance in the film designates her as a sexually free woman. Like abortion, such overt displays of female sexuality were criminalised under the Vichy “family values” law of 15 February 1942 (11). St. Robin is certainly no idyllic “little fatherland” for the rural ideology of Petain’s New Moral Order as Le Corbeau clearly reveals on its director’s own terms.
- Alan Williams, “The Raven and the Nanny”, Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, ed. Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos, State University of New York Press, New York, 2002, p. 152.
- Alan Williams, “Le Corbeau”, Le Corbeau, DVD Booklet, The Criterion Collection, New York, 2004, p. 2. Judith Mayne also regards Le Corbeau as the first French film noir. See Le Corbeau, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2007, pp. 29, 30.
- For the role of this period in postwar French history see Evelyn Ehrlich, Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking Under the German Occupation, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, pp. 173-177; and Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989, pp. 347-350.
- See the Criterion Collection DVD booklet.
- See Gregory Sims, “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau: The Work of Art as Will to Power”, Modern Language Notes vol. 114, no. 4, 1999, pp. 743-779, who views the film as a fascist text. For various opposing views see Ehrlich, pp. 177-184; Alan Williams (above citations); Eric Gans, “Clouzot’s Cruel Crow”, P.O.V. no. 20, 2005, pp. 51-58; and Judith Mayne, “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and the Crimes of Women”, The Journal of Twentieth Century French Studies vol. 4, no. 2, 2000, pp. 319-341.
- Ehrlich, p. 106.
- Turk, p. 200.
- Williams, “The Raven and the Nanny”, p. 154.
- Ehrlich, p. 184.
- “France of the new springtime must be the creation of the young.” Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, trans. Gerard Hopkins, Oxford University Press, London, 1949, p. 175.
- John F. Sweets, Choices in Vichy France: The French Under Nazi Occupation, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 43. For some interesting insights concerning the film’s depiction of gender crisis and use of film noir imagery see Mayne, Le Corbeau, pp. 55, 65-66, 77-78.
Le Corbeau (1943 France 91 mins)
Prod Co: Continental-Film Prod: Rene Montis, Raoul Ploquin Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Scr: Louis Chavance Phot: Nicolas Hayer Ed: Marguerite Beauge Art Dir: Andre Andrejew Mus: Tony Aubun
Cast: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, Pierre Larquey, Helena Manson, Liliane Maigne