Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau (The Raven) is so utterly complex it still stirs debate today in France, a nation still reminded after all these years of the German occupation during World War II. Good luck trying to decide who is right in the argument whether Clouzot was a.) right to continue working (and profiting) in the German-run French film industry and b.) Le Corbeau was an indictment of, or a covert message to, the French people when it came to collaborating with the enemy.
This latter controversy is one of the great ironies surrounding 1943's Le Corbeau, whose essential plot is about how a series of anonymously written, poison-pen letters turns the citizens of a small French town against one another. It's ironic that, in Clouzot's apparent attempt to show how we do the worst damage to ourselves in the name of self-righteousness, he became vilified after the war, his film banned. Apparently, the message never resonated enough from this particular Trojan Horse. The film, restored and released last year by The Criterion Collection, will be presented by the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) as part of a series of films about France under the German occupation. (The next film will be Marcel Carn's 1945 film, Les Enfants du Paradis -- Children of Paradise -- at 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21.)
"It was too real," argues French director Bertrand Tavernier in one of the DVD's extras. "[The French] wanted to forget that French people informed (on each other)."
At first glance, the plot seems like the stuff of other films that the Nazi propaganda machine, led by cineaste Joseph Goebbels, wanted coming out of its Continental-Films studio in France. Like much of the other light fare of the day, there is a mystery to be solved, and French star Pierre Fresnay, as Dr. Germain, does what he does best in trying to figure out who in the small town is sending poison-pen letters to everyone. Germain is no saint; he's had an affair with one married woman, Denise (the smoldering Ginette Leclerc) and is being linked to another, Laura (Micheline Francey). He's a brain surgeon who has become isolated and clueless, a physician who can't even heal himself; he's a widower who, haunted by what he calls his "two ghosts," has become unfeeling and isolated.
Yet he is stirred into action, and even possibly feeling again, when the letters (signed by "The Raven") sow their seeds of discontent by telling the recipients intimate details of their lives. But the letters also point accusatory fingers at Germain and Laura's embittered sister for various sins, and when a patient mysteriously dies, the letters cry "murder."
In what starts to feel like a companion piece to the Salem witch hunt, the townspeople gradually turn on one another. They're tied up in knots trying to find out who is writing all those letters, if all the accusations are real, and what should be done with all of this. As one of the Raven's chief targets, Germain has everything to lose if he cannot figure out who the culprit is. But he is also naive; he believes that the town will become stronger from the experience. The wizened town psychiatrist and Laura's older husband, Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), warns Germain that he will become just as corrupted by the letters as the townfolk because that's human nature.
As he swings an overhead light that bursts momentarily through one part of darkness then another, Vorzet mocks Germain's self-righteousness. Germain suspects Denise, even while admitting he still has feelings for her. Vorzet can only laugh. "You're amazing," Vorzet tells Germain. "You think people are all good or all bad. That Good is light and Evil is dark. But where does each begin? Where does Evil end? Are you on the good side or the bad side?" It's a question that Germain struggles to answer all the way up to the bitter end.
If this also feels like the stuff of film noir, it should be noted that many consider Le Corbeau a predecessor to the genre by exploring the shades of morality with its allegorical use of light and dark shadows in script and cinematography. Indeed, Vorzet's shadow is seen at one point nodding goodbye to Vorzet. But if this all sounds like rather somber fare, Le Corbeau also benefits from Clouzet's offhand sense of humor. When the townfolk storm the gates of the local jailhouse demanding the head of the accused murderer, an official frets to the jailkeeper. The old man shrugs at the crowd: "I don't mind the noise."
Much noise was made of Le Corbeau, and The Criterion Collection presents opposing viewpoints of the film taken from two newspaper articles written in 1947. In his response to Henri Jeanson (screenwriter of Pepe Le Moko), Joseph Kessel writes, "In wartime, choosing to show the worst of one's country, while subsidized by the enemy, is to rejoice in and serve the intentions of the enemy in the battlefield of psychological warfare."
There's no denying the film could still stir this debate, particularly in light of our current grappling with the line between patriotism and dissent. All of which makes Le Corbeau the landmark film that it is.
- The Criterion Collection
- Le Corbeau, screening this Wednesday at the Prytania, is an allegorical (and controversial) take on the Nazi occupation of France.