MANON (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1948)

Abbé Prévost’s 1731 “L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s exuberant, passionate though somewhat puerile Manon (scenes of which aren’t far removed from producer Selznick’s overheated Duel in the Sun, 1946), a post-World War II updating, with flashbacks to the Occupation, the Resistance, and the Liberation of Paris—among other things, an Existentialist reimagining and radical transformation of the novella. Robert Dégrieux, a young Resistance fighter, rescues Manon Lescaut from a crowd’s indictment of her as a collaborator (a suspicion that clouded Clouzot’s reputation also). They fall in love, but the relationship proves tumultuous, not least of all because of Manon’s appetite for luxury and her uncloseted life as a prostitute. Eventually, Robert murders Leon, Manon’s black marketeering brother, who endeavors to help his sister flee from Robert; but the couple reunites, blending in with Jewish refugees headed for Palestine. There, the lovers meet their doom, as do, tragically, the similarly illegal Jewish immigrants.

While some have absurdly described the film as being pornographic, Clouzot won best film prizes from both the French critics and at Venice. Manon is a formally brilliant work, beautifully photographed in black and white (especially, most hauntingly, in the desert) by Clouzot’s reliable Armand Thirard and evocatively scored by Paul Misraki.

Intriguingly, with a surprising degree of liveliness, Clouzot (however obliquely) addresses a full range of France’s wartime shames and shortcomings, connecting these to the national postwar demoralization that Robert and Manon reflect individually and as a couple. For example, their chance incorporation with Jewish people who, like them, seek freedom and a fresh start refers, ironically, to the role that the French played in denouncing fellow citizens who were Jewish and turning them over to the Germans. Indeed, the final long passage in Palestine, with the massacre of the Jews by storming Bedouins on camel-back, with Manon, herself, fatally struck by one of the bullets, is a phenomenal stretch of cinema: the beating sun; the surreal cacti as they appear to an exhausted, delirious Robert; the skeletal carcasses of transport animals in the sands.

Clouzot’s Manon may not always convince; but it rivets attention and works the soul.

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