Le Corbeau

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

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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.

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Criterion Essay by Allen Williams.
Wikipedia en­try on the film.
• Senses of Cinema ar­ti­cle on Clouzot.
Some stills from the film.

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