Le Corbeau

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #227: Hen­ri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Cor­beau.


Le Cor­beau was made in occu­pied France in 1943. It was denounced by the Vichy gov­ern­ment, denounced by the French Resis­tance and denounced by the Vat­i­can. For a film that seems rather innocu­ous in 2006 Amer­i­ca there must be a lot of sub­text that would have been picked up by World War II era French folks. The sto­ry takes place in a provin­cial town dur­ing the occu­pa­tion and the action revolves around mys­te­ri­ous, anony­mous “poi­son pen” let­ters that are cir­cu­lat­ed among the towns­folk, con­tain­ing just enough truth and just enough lie to turn the town into a mob of pitch­fork-and-torch-wav­ing lunatics. Minus the pitch­forks and torch­es.

Cast­ing Pierre Fres­nay, star of La Grande Illu­sion cre­ates a dis­tinct and imme­di­ate jux­ta­po­si­tion between both films. In one, Fres­nay is a French offi­cer and Ger­man cap­tive and there is hon­or and respect from both sides. In Le Cor­beau, there is not a Ger­man to be seen and Fresnay’s Dr. Ger­main is a sus­pect­ed abor­tion­ist. Yet the absence of any men­tion of the war or Ger­many in the light of Fresnay’s 1938 per­for­mance in La Grande Illu­sion invites a com­par­i­son of the Ger­mans then to now along with the jux­ta­po­si­tion. Clouzot could not have been open­ly crit­i­cal of the occu­pied gov­ern­ment, so cast­ing Fres­nay was inspired in this regard.

The Resis­tance prob­a­bly didn’t like the film because there is no resis­tance in it. Every­one is just con­tin­u­ing with their lives as if the war was not even hap­pen­ing. They should have been hap­py with the obvi­ous state­ment that inform­ing on peo­ple is one of the surest ways to destroy a com­mu­ni­ty. But per­haps this was the very rea­son they object­ed, since this film shows just how effec­tive it can be. This is just con­jec­ture.

The Vat­i­can obvi­ous­ly hat­ed this because of all of the abor­tion talk and all of the pre- and extra-mar­i­tal sex that is going on while hus­bands are “gone”.

In terms of a mys­tery and sus­pense film the exe­cu­tion is extra­or­di­nary. Most of the main char­ac­ters have the means, motive and oppor­tu­ni­ty to pen the let­ters, and it is only as the film pro­gress­es that some are elim­i­nat­ed. Added into the mix we have copy-cat corbeau’s, inquests, a nun named Marie-Corbin who every­one ini­tial­ly sus­pects, and a mor­phine thief. There is mur­der and may­hem, and some of the ugli­est and man­nish French women I’ve ever seen. Until the last two min­utes we’re still not sure who Le Cor­beau is.

As sub­tle as this film is, it is still quite brave of Clouzot to make some­thing such as this dur­ing the occu­pa­tion. Lacombe, Lucien wasn’t made by Louis Malle until 1974, so fraught was the sub­ject of French inform­ing dur­ing the war.