In the 1940’s, it took considerable effort to write poison pen letters. It was literally a matter of pen and ink. These days, it can be done so much easier through social media. Always controversial as a production of the German-owned, Vichy-aligned Continental Films during the (second) French Occupation, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau feels timelier than ever. Freshly 4K-restored, it opens this Friday at Film Forum (trailer here).
Le Corbeau (The Raven) makes the provincial townsfolk so uncomfortable, because he or she is often correct in the accusations leveled against the apparently not so innocent villagers. For instance, Le Corbeau’s favorite target, Dr. Rémy Germain was indeed having an affair with the young wife of his colleague, grey-bearded psychiatrist Dr. Michel Vorzet. However, his main contention that Germain is an overzealous back-alley abortionist is most likely exaggerated. Nevertheless, he and Laura Vorzet find it prudent to put their affair on hold—at least temporarily.
Despite all the unwanted attention focused on Dr. Germain, he finds Denise Saillens, his landlord’s promiscuous sister is more than willing to take Vorzet’s place. He is not completely uninterested, but he has more than enough trouble without her attention seeking behavior. To clear his name, he will rather awkwardly team up with Dr. Vorzet, an expert in poison pen letter writers, after one of the Raven’s letters directly prompts a fatal suicide.
Le Corbeau is an absolutely fascinating film to analyze, both for what is on the screen and what was happening behind the scenes. Since it was produced by Continental Films, Clouzot and his two leads, Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc were banned from French film production and faced legal difficulties (including imprisonment in the case of Fresnay and Leclerc) after liberation. However, some critics read into it a subtle indictment of anonymous denunciations as well as a potent portrayal of the climate of paranoia that was true to life under occupation. Regardless, both the resistance and the establishment condemned the film, for either besmirching the French national character or traditional Catholic morality. Sometimes, you just can’t win.
Of course, it is easy to hear the Raven’s bitter moralizing voice in the social media cyber-lynchings of our times, such as the one that recently resulted in the death of adult film star August Ames. It is probably safe to predict there will not be a porn parody of Le Corbeau anytime soon, and certainly not with the participation of her harassers. Social Justice Warrior intolerance has replaced Catholic prudery, but the psychology of their cold-blooded cruelty is strikingly similar.
Regardless, as Germain, Fresnay might be one of the most anti-heroic anti-heroes in motion picture history. At best, he is an adulterer and his professional bedside manner is distinctly frosty. Yet, as we come to know him and his backstory, Fresnay steadily stokes the audience’s sympathies. Pierre Larquey is just as terrific as the old but still sharp Dr. Vorzet. Modern viewers might find Leclerc a tad melodramatic as Mme. Saillens, but Liliane Maigné is wonderfully sly but sensitive as her scheming niece, Rolande.
Perhaps what most defines Le Corbeau is the ugly mob justice unleashed on the obvious (and therefore most likely innocent) suspect, Marie Corbin, Laura Vorzet’s rigidly judgmental sister. Again, this was probably not the messaging Vichy was looking for, but it would have been just as inconvenient for the épuration score-settling. Indeed, the Raven is an ornery beast, but it is wickedly clever. It also well-deserves its reputation as an early film noir forerunner, thanks to cinematographer Nicolas Hayer’s dramatically expressive use of shadow. Very highly recommended, Le Corbeau opens this Friday (5/20), at Film Forum.