Le Corbeau Review
Now recognised by many critics as the first film noir, Clouzot's Le Corbeau is also one of the most ambiguous works produced during les années sombres - the years during which France was divided and collaboration with the enemy became second nature. In the south, the Vichy régime opted to produce solely films in support of their Travail, Famille, Patrie ideology, films that have mostly been forgotten. Strangely, the occupied territories were less censorious when it came to films (for a cinematic revisiting of that very particular era, see Bertrand Tavernier's excellent Laissez Passer). It was for the German run Continental that Clouzot made Le Corbeau his third film as director, a career move that would later have him banned from making films after the Liberation.
The camera starts by lingering through a graveyard, pans along until the gates. Slowly and mysteriously, the gates grind open for the camera to move through and focus on the proudly poised church belfry. This is La France du Terroir - the provincial small town where secrets seldom remain that way for long. This summer, an anonymous letter writer has decided to make gossip their business. Poison-pen letters signed Le Corbeau (The Raven) are being sent to almost every inhabitant and skeletons are being unshackled from their closets. The local GP, Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), has found himself at the centre of these allegations. His indiscreet lovelife has been revealed to all and sundry, as has his unofficial role as local abortionist. Suspicions are raising as rapidly as the temperature and accusations are starting to fly...
If a great film is defined by the condemnation it receives, Le Corbeau deserves a place in the pantheon of cinema. The Catholic church decried it as an amoral piece of work as did the Vichy regime. Some amongst the occupying forces saw it as a coded film condemning collaboration with the enemy - after all, Occupied France was busy writing their own letters: millions of them were being sent by "respectable" members of society to the German HQ denouncing their neighbours as Jewish or members of the Résistance. Fifty years have done little to resolve these ambiguities - after all, France has only in recent years started to realise that many of the collabos ended up ruling the country for decades after the war. Personally, I first read Le Corbeau as a condemnation of collaboration but, with repeated viewings, I started to detect a deeply pessimistic edge to Clouzot's worldview. Flaws abound in each character, especially the more affluent members of society. Doctors, accountants, town mayors, in fact the entire bourgeois mass is corrupt beyond redemption. The general population are not portrayed any better - they are nothing better than a lynch mob, slow to understand but relentless in their stupidity.
But to judge the film solely on its political outlook is naive. Where the film excels is Clouzot's ability to go against the grain and his brilliant use of shadow and light (partly learnt from his work experience in the German film industry). Even to the more casual observer, his style is unmistakable and underlines the storyline's tension with recurring motifs. The actor's play is in itself quite interesting - Pierre Fresnay gives a sardonic performance as the Dr. Germain and, despite being the main protagonist, keeps the audience wondering whether we should be siding with him or not. As often in Clouzot, the female characters work as a tandem of oppositions - Ginette Leclerc and Micheline Francey - which we will find almost unchanged in his masterpiece Les Diaboliques. Le Corbeau is without doubt a masterpiece and deserves to be rediscovered as a unique piece of cinema from a master of the genre.
The image is framed correctly at 4:3 which is a step up from the Criterion edition that has slightly cropped the image on the sides. The print itself is not in the best of states and a lot of damage is evident. The whites tend to be quite unstable with a certain amount of natural flickering throughout the film. The image is not overly soft with some natural grain visible in many scenes. Globally, the film looks pretty good considering its age and allowances should be made for this.
Less impressive here - this retains the same problem that marred the French release: a tinny, metallic sounding soundtrack. This seems to have been caused by an over-enthusiastic use of crackle and noise reduction. It's not too distracting but is quite obviously present. It is a shame that the sound was not remixed for this as it is far better to have a crackling soundtrack than what we have here... We get a mono mix which is absolutely normal given that it was never meant to be anything more than that.
Again we get the burnt-in variety - not a good idea, Optimum! They get the general gist of the dialogue though miss out on some more complicated jeux de mots which is inevitable...
We only get one extra but it's a decent one: a 30 minute presentation and discussion of the film by Ginette Vincendean in English. Though the image quality is not so great (the choice of filming in a dark cinema being mostly to blame for that), she does a good job of telling you pretty much everything you would want to know about the film and its context. Watch it after the main feature as she may spoil some plot elements for you.
A masterpiece of French cinema and of ambiguity, Le Corbeau really deserves a much larger audience than what it has received so far. The DVD is lacking in the sound section but is correctly framed on the image front. Criterion or Optimum? The choice is up to you...