Le Corbeau Review
A wave of hysteria sweeps the small provincial town of St. Robin when a series of poison-pen letters signed ‘Le Corbeau’ (The Raven) begin to appear, denouncing several prominent members of society. The slow trickle of sinister letters soon becomes a flood and no one is safe from their mysterious accusations.
Le Corbeau is the second film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les Diaboliques) following a decade working as screenwriter - most notably on Georges Lacombe’s The Last One of the Six and Henri Decoin’s Strangers in the House - and the success of his first steps as a director with The Murderer Lives at Number 21. The film, famously shot for the Continental, a French production company controlled by Germany during World War II’s French Occupation, was very successful on its release but became the object of a controversy during and after the Liberation of France. Indeed, it was curiously criticised by both the Vichy government and the French Resistance for its bleak and degrading depiction of the inhabitants of a French village and it even led to Clouzot being banned from any cinematographic activity for life at the Liberation in June 1944 (this sanction was finally only reduced to two years). Clouzot was subsequently, thankfully, rehabilitated and Le Corbeau has slowly achieved the status of French, and worldwide, Cinema masterpiece.
It is not difficult to imagine that the scenario created by Clouzot and Louis Chavance, deprived of any romantic or heroic aspect, could easily have angered both side of a divided France by refusing any form of Manichaeism. As the wonderful scene of the bulb clearly suggests, in Le Corbeau, nobody is good or bad, everything and everybody is nuanced, and as a result the film cannot be considered as an object of propaganda.
This aspect clearly played a key role in the film’s recognition. However, without taking into account these political or historical considerations, Le Corbeau simply stands out as a powerful work of art. With its plot ingeniously revealing clues and pointing at various suspects the film remains, first of all, a clever thriller which keeps the audience on the edge of their sit throughout its duration. This is most certainly the result of Clouzot’s amazing writing talent, which he had already more than demonstrated in the aforementioned films, but also the result of the affirmation of his directing style, which would fully crystallise in his subsequent masterpieces, The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Clouzot also perfectly knows how to create suspense around the identity of the blackmailer by playing with the entry of characters into frame, individuals sometimes appear as if by magic, and make the audience wonder just long they've been there or what exactly they have seen or heard.
Even more disturbing in the film is Clouzot’s camera, it mimics the indiscretions of the characters by insisting on overtures and closures; throughout the film, Clouzot uses multiple camera angles when shooting through doors, windows, a lock, etc. Everyone spies on the villagers and this is one of the great strengths of Clouzot’s mise-en-scène: it puts the audience directly in the middle of the blackmailing scandal but not as spectators but as voyeurs.
Furthermore, as with other Clouzot films, Le Corbeau features a gallery of colourful characters played by talented actors benefiting from clever dialogues, in particular Pierre Larquey (who will meet Clouzot again for smaller parts in Quai des Orfevres, Les Diaboliques and Les Espions) in the role of the mischievous Doctor Vorzet, and of course Pierre Fresnay perfect in a role of absolute modernity, Doctor Germain, a dark and enigmatic character who has everything to attract hatred against him. Le Corbeau itself is also an incredibly modern film which doesn’t shy from addressing thorny themes such as abortion, adultery and drugs while criticising the authorities of the village and the behaviour of cowards, traitors and informers!
For all these reasons, Le Corbeau is not only a masterpiece, it’s also one of the most important films of French cinema.
Le Corbeau is released on Blu-ray disc on 5th March by StudioCanal.
The film is presented in a glorious new 4K transfer, taken from the original negative, and respecting the original 1.37 : 1 ratio. The result is amazingly rich in terms of nuance and grain, and definitely superior to the previous DVD version released in the UK. On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc offers a very efficient Mono DTS-HD French audio track, with optional French and English subtitles. I didn't notice any defects with either sound or picture during viewing.
Finally, on the bonus side, the disc offers only one extra, The Cursed Masterpiece of HG Clouzot (25 mins, English subtitles). This is a new interview about the film in which Pierre-Henri Gibert (Director of Le Scandale Clouzot) and Claude Gauteur (Historian, author of H.G. Clouzot, l'œuvre fantôme) evoke Clouzot’s career at the Continental through the use of archival official documents in relation to his sanctions after the War. It makes for very interesting viewing and overall, a great job by StudioCanal.