LE CORBEAU (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

Inspired by an actual series of events that occurred in Tulle in 1922, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le corbeauThe Raven—likewise unfolds in a provincial village. Poison-pen letters, taking initial aim at Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay, solid) for being an abortionist and an adulterer, neither of which is the case (it turns out he isn’t even Rémy Germain), contaminate the place, creating an atmosphere of dread and paranoid suspiciousness. Who is “The Raven,” the name with which the anonymous letters, all in capitals, are signed? Clouzot intended his film as a critical reflection of the bourgeois mindset and bourgeois activities, including back-biting, back-stabbing, jealousy and gossip, that help explain the generation on French soil of collaborators with the German Occupation during the Second World War—a challenging insight. Thus the film was condemned by the Germans and the Vichy government, who had no difficulty perceiving that The Raven was targeting them*; but bourgeoisism being sacred to the French, the film was also condemned after the war, imposing a cloud of political suspicion over Clouzot, that he himself had collaborated, which never totally disappeared in his lifetime. It didn’t help that the film was produced by Continental Films, a German-owned firm.

For me, The Raven is an eclectic, unexpectedly delightful film, one combining different attributes: grim satire, hilarious French farce (subsequent Clouzot films would not be so funny), suspense, Poe detective mystery. There are brilliant passages, such as the funeral procession that results from a hospitalized young villager’s receipt of one of the letters, which assures him that he is terminally ill and therefore has nothing to live for, and the rampaging mob of villagers tearing through the streets in bloodthirsty pursuit of a nun whom they suspect of being The Raven. There are also fine images: the grief-stricken mother of the suicide in her mourning black, including the veil that covers her face in a mordant parody of anonymity, at her son’s funeral; the fluttering down in church of the latest note from The Raven’s poison pen—a parody of God’s judgment, but also an ironical vision of a community’s, hence society’s, fragility, vulnerability. Nevertheless, this is also a film of dry patches for which the revelation of copycat Ravens is insufficient black comedic compensation. The film, a bona fide classic, is overrated, itself compensation for the ill treatment that its maker suffered as a result of it.

Sylvie is marvelous as the grieving mother, the self-appointed Angel of Vengeance who dispatches The Raven with a straight razor—perhaps the same one with which her son ended his life. Throughout the film, children at play in the streets signal the impermanence of innocence in a village of permanent need of redemption. Ironically, the big black “bird” that the mother appears to be is the guardian of their innocence. She, also, is insufficient in this symbolical role of hers. It is she, after all, to help him keep up with his grooming at hospital, who innocently brought her son the self-murder weapon. Here is a film that abounds with dark, dark ironies.

* Like the Gestapo, the Bush-Cheney administration in the U.S. encouraged people (including school children) to spy on one another and denounce others. As in Clouzot’s film, purely personal spite and vindictiveness thus often found a protective cloak in officially sanctioned “civic-mindedness.” This also occurred in Soviet Russia.

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