No One Escapes the Gaze of ‘Le Corbeau’

Criterion re-releases a long out-of-print Clouzot classic made under Nazi occupation

Criterion has recently rereleased Henri-George Clouzot’s long out-of-print 1943 proto noir film Le Corbeau, a pitch-black drama about collective guilt. Over a relatively short filmmaking career, Clouzot has an impressive quality to quantity ratio. Le Diabolique has one of the best twist endings ever, The Wages of Fear is a great adventure film, and the courtroom drama La Verite has plenty of still-relevant insights about gender. Le Corbeau, his second film, might be his most controversial and his most scathing.

Widely condemned upon release, it offended the Communists and the nationalists as well as the Catholic church. The film excuses and forgives no one. Le Corbeau tells the story of an anonymous French small town whose simmering tensions are stoked to a fever pitch by the blackmail letters that threaten to expose the townspeople’s dirty little secrets, which come from a mysterious person known only as Le Corbeau, i.e. The Raven. The echoes of Poe are probably not accidental.

We meet a stern but shady Doctor Germain, whose penchant for sleazy affairs belies his public rectitude, a cancer patient whose already fragile health is jeopardized, and an aged doctor whose young wife is becoming more and more suspicious, as is Germain’s mistress. Anyone could be the raven, which becomes an indictment of the town itself. The new Criterion edition’s stark crispness enhances the murky world of growing suspicion as the secret lives of the townspeople start to manifest as hysteria.

Given its time and place, the plot has an obvious reference to life under the German occupation. This probing at collective responsibility is probably what pissed everyone off so much at the time—some call Clouzot one of the cinema’s great misanthropes–not to mention Clouzot’s using the resources that the occupying power provided in order to make the film. But the ominous mood and mordant plot twists were and still are chillingly evocative, and this might be why eminences like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre defended its value in the postwar years.

It’s a blink and you’ll miss it kind of reference, but Le Corbeau is the movie on the marquee of the Nazi-infested theatre that Shoshana burns down during the climactic scene in Inglorious Basterds. It’s a good film in many ways, but Quentin Tarantino’s superficial understanding of life under Nazi occupation is a weakness. QT is certainly a movie expert but that does not by definition provide him with a historian or novelist’s understanding of lived experience. Killing Nazis is all well and good, but evidently he didn’t bother to learn much about the existential anguish of life lived under the Nazi boot. There were plenty of gritty, morally complex titles to learn from: such as Le Silence de la Mare; Leon Morin, Priest; and Army of Shadows.

Some slag off the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and boast that they’d never let those Nazi bastards push them around. It’s not hard to see through this tough talk as the historical Monday morning quarterbacking that it is. The deeper truth that Le Corbeau understands is that no one really knows for sure how they would act while living through that state of perpetual paranoia: suffering the compromises of survival, racism as official policy, Nazi occupied homes, censored letters and media, with everything you might read or say making you instantly vulnerable to arrest, imprisonment, or death.

The poison pen of Le Corbeau digs deeper into the murmuring misanthropy of life in a small town, with everyone poking their beaks into their neighbor’s dirty laundry, and reveals how it can have dire consequences when collective suspicion and guilt becomes, as it were, institutionalized. It provides a haunting metaphor about the perils of collective guilt and how it can gradually seep into a community’s unconscious, poisoning it from the inside out. Le Corbeau doesn’t just warn us about the perils of fascism; it goes a crucial step further and makes us look at the shadowy places in our dark little hearts where it takes root.

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Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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