Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Raven (1943)
Almost a decade before the McCarthy witch-hunt, in post-war France, Henry-George Clouzot received a three year ban from directing because of a certain movie. The Raven, which he did during German occupation, became the subject of many interpretations and one of those, that it was an unpatriotic portrait of the French people, got him in trouble afterwards. The director got back to work in 1947, but his film couldn’t be seen in France until after 1969. Liberté, egalité, fraternité!
In a particular scene late in the film, two men talk under a hanging lamp. “You’re amazing,” the one addresses the other, “You think all people are good or all bad. That good is light and evil is dark.” At that point he grabs the lamp and sends it swinging left and right as he continues his speech, “But where is the dark? Where is the light? Where does evil end? Are you on the good or the bad side?” The other responds with certainty, “What rhetoric! You just stop the lamp.”
“Then stop it,” the first man urges him. As the lamp approaches he hastily grabs the bulb and gets burned.
They continue to talk while the lamp keeps swinging between them, consequently lighting up their faces and leaving them in the dark. Clouzot gives us a great example for the use of black and white aesthetics in creating ambiguity while the term film-noir didn’t even exist at that point if film history. Turns out he was the ambiguous one, a servant of evil under either light or shade: the Nazis banned his film in Germany on account of encrypted dissent long before the French did on account of collaboration with the occupant regime’s film company.
The movie’s narrative takes place “in a small town, here or elsewhere…” as we learn from the opening title. A poison-pen letter has reached the hands of Laura (Micheline Francey), a social worker married to the local psychiatrist, Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), regarding Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a very serious man, stranger to this town and extremely secretive about his past. The letter accuses him of practicing abortion and having an affair with Laura. A series of similar letters appear, accusing everybody in town for something, but mainly pointing at Dr. Germain as the personification of evil. They are all signed by “The Raven.” Dr. Vorzet along with all of the town’s renowned men and officers begin an investigation to discover who hides behind that massive libel. A scapegoat is found and The Raven’s wrath is appeased, but only for a small amount of time. The letters return, this time in bunches, making the postmen worry if they could be held as accomplices…
Vorzet and Germain, as shown in the scene above, are the main dueling characters, the amoral, sarcastic manipulator and the absolutist, loner and misanthrope. They both seem strong-willed and confident but neither has any real control of the chain reactions the poison-pen letters cause. Between them are three women, Vorzet’s wife Laura, her sister and a nurse at the local hospital Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson) and Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the playgirl that compulsively seduces men to make up for her crippled leg. Laura is modest and vulnerable, Marie is strict and prudish and Denise is alluring and vulgarly honest. They are all suspected of being The Raven for one reason or another while the men wander around showing a self-righteous hypocrisy, typical of a closed circle that refuses to acknowledge the failure to maintain its integrity. A circle perhaps of renowned men that Clouzot had no respect for.
When Denise tells Dr. Germain that he’s not just another lover but a man she’s in love with, he reacts in the self-righteous and absolutist way mentioned above, “Naturally, you changed over night. People don’t change. A decent man remains a decent man and…” She then continues his words in a high tone, “…a girl remains a slut? Maybe you’re right Doctor. Then i pity you. You’ll always represent what’s more dismal and most alien in life.” As she leaves the room Dr. Germain asks, “An idiot?” only to get her immediate, well-aimed response, “Oh, no! A bourgeois.”
Even little kids don’t make it out of Clouzot’s and his writer’s web, suggesting a misanthropic view that goes far beyond people of power and responsible adults. Rolande (Liliane Maigné), Denise’s niece, is an irritative busybody who steals money from the post-office’s cash register and constantly sneaks behind closed doors. The director has her react in close-up at anything that happens around her and is not her business, a symbol perhaps of an attitude already passed to the next generation forbidding any hope of change. Meanwhile, as the investigation goes back and forth, like the lamp, people fall in and out of the light, choosing to forget the only thing that has any real significance: Everything The Raven uncovers, despite being straight-up mean, is also painfully true.
Pierre Fresnay, a star in his time, and Ginette Leclerc are totally convincing in their parts, the morally impeccable Dr. Germaine and the morally fallen Denise. But the most intriguing is Pierre Larquey as Dr. Vorzet, likable and seductive, a real mystifier and too clever for each one of the rest. The photography, art-direction and Clouzot’s masterfull helming provide the film with an atmosphere of imprisonment inside the town’s gates, and the feeling that everything happens in a few certain sites involving a few certain people, reducing the rest to a brainless mob. When Marie Corbin is suspected to be the sender and runs to her house through an empty town, we only listen to the mob’s terrible sputter as it closes in on her from all angles. The same mob gathers at funerals and church masses where The Raven drops a couple of letters addressed to “the townspeople.” This is as much about them as it is about the main characters since we know they all have received letters, and they all look for a scapegoat sycophant to relieve them from having to confront the truth.
The Raven and its director ironically became such scapegoats in their time, but a good work of art stands alone, outlasting its interpretations which one by one become irrelevant as time passes. And Clouzot came back stronger, with more good films and misanthropic tales like his aforementioned overlooked masterpiece.