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Le Corbeau: The Criterion Collection

During the German Occupation of France in World War II, the best game in town for pragmatic directors was Continental Films. There was only one catch: It was a state-sponsored organ of Josef Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda, meaning that any filmmaker working under the company's auspices, no matter how sneakily subversive their work (because the company was government-controlled, the pictures were never submitted to the censors), would be derisively viewed as a Nazi collaborator by those risking their lives fighting for the French Resistance. Inevitably, at war's end, these artists would be harshly judged for their complicity; they were, after all, fueling their burgeoning careers with German money. One such filmmaker was Henri-Georges Clouzot, who drew especially harsh charges for his incendiary Le Corbeau (1943), a disturbing depiction of a nameless French village being torn apart by a rash of poison-pen letters. Though clearly intended as a none-too-subtle attack on the rampant and cowardly informing by anonymous citizens during the occupation, vindictive French officials, perhaps blinded by their anger at what they perceived as Clouzot's single-minded opportunism, accused the director of filming Nazi-sympathetic propaganda. In their view, the picture was a pernicious caricature of the French people, presenting them as ugly, scandal-mongering vermin concerned only with saving their own skin. Ergo, despite passionate defenses by the venerable likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Carne, and Jean Cocteau, Clouzot was temporarily banned from filmmaking. Placed in the context of that contentious period, it's not hard to see how Le Corbeau elicited such inflamed responses. Pierre Fresnay stars as Dr. Remy Germain, a drearily impersonal gynecologist who becomes the target of the film's titular letter writer, translated as "The Raven," ostensibly because he's conducting an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the wife of his superior, Dr. Michel Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). Soon, the entire town knows his secret — but, even more destructively, the letters also drop in gossipy tidbits about the town's other citizens, including Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the prolifically adulterous wife of the school's headmaster, and Marie Corbin (Helena Manson), the hospital's pitiless head nurse who's trafficking morphine on the side. When one of Marie's patients commits suicide after receiving a letter cruelly informing him of his terminal condition, the townspeople suddenly believe she is "The Raven." But while the letters disappear for a time after her arrest, they soon reappear; thus, inciting anew the villagers' suspicions while further destroying Germain's reputation, which takes another hit when his dalliance with Denise is brought to light. Finally, the chief suspects are rounded up and forced to write letters in the all-capital-letters style of "The Raven" as Germain struggles to clear his good name, while Vorzet tries to reduce the town's rapidly elevating fever. But there seems to be no end to this epidemic. Soon, everyone is sneaking about, trying to catch the letter-writer in the act while eroding what remains of their own civility.

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Sixty years after Le Corbeau nearly cost Clouzot his career, the film is easily viewed as a broadly applicable parable, what with the implied universality of its opening titles ("A small town, here or elsewhere.") After all, this rush to accuse has since been seen in such destructive witch hunts like the "Red Scare" and the widespread child-molestation charges of the early 1980s. What sets the film apart from its thematic kin, including Otto Preminger's remake The 13th Letter and Arthur Miller's The Crucible, is its lack of a purely noble protagonist. Though Germain does not lack for righteousness, particularly as he thunders against the town's bourgeoisie elite for investigating his carefully hidden, and quite tragic, past, Clouzot presents him as a morally compromised, uncompassionate individual. He's a man in perpetual mourning for his deceased wife, weakly submitting to a nihilistic quest for "oblivion," while showing reckless disregard for the feelings of others he so carelessly brings into his life. The film's most sympathetic character is probably Denise, the crippled sexpot who's had nearly every man in town as revenge for their haughty disapproval of her lifestyle. But Leclerc, under Clouzot's typically controlling direction, gives her a nearly impenetrable exterior of wanton carnality. Like everyone else in this toxic tale, she's too willingly diminished to be wholly likable. While Clouzot, as ever, deserves praise for his unflinching portrayal of the basest human behavior, the picture is too often one-note in its misanthropy. Unlike his subsequent masterpiece, Quai des Orfevres (1947), Clouzot doesn't appear to have any affection for his characters, and this inhibits the work from being at all involving. Had he employed a more darkly satiric approach, he might've been able to remedy this failing through the eliciting of laughter, but the picture too frequently feels like a wallow, which is probably a sign of the troubled times in which it was made. If Clouzot can't be fully forgiven for his decision to work with Continental Films, perhaps he can at least be absolved for the bracing bleakness of this most unpleasant work. Criterion presents Le Corbeau in a fantastic full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) , with crisp Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a video interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (22 min.), whose thick accent and sometimes imprecise English makes this otherwise informative discussion a rough listen. Also included is an excerpt from the documentary The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939 – 1942, which finds Clouzot sharing his own recollections of this controversial production. Finally, there are three essays, a new one from film historian Alan Williams, and two vintage, differing-opinion pieces from 1947 by Henri Jeanson and Joseph Kessel. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks