Thursday, June 2, 2011

Five-Star Streaming #1: Le Corbeau

Le Corbeau (The Raven)
France, 1943
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

What It's About:
A small French village is terrorized by a series of increasingly-personal poison pen letters, mysteriously signed by Le Corbeau (the Raven). The letters make vicious, scandalous, and often quite accurate accusations about the townfolk, leading to an air of paranoia, mistrust, and suspicion regarding Le Corbeau's true identity.

Le Corbeau was released by a German production company while France was still occupied. This led a lot of people to wonder if Clouzot was a collaborator, or if the film's themes were somehow anti-French. On the same token, the climate of suspicion and incrimination that the film presents could be interpreted as being anti-Occupation, and this didn't exactly endear Clouzot to the Nazis or the Vichy government, either. The film was a black mark on Clouzot, and derailed his promising career for years after the war. Only in subsequent years, seen removed from the heated WWII climate in which it was released and taken with the rest of the great films (The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques) of Clouzot's canon, did Le Corbeau receive a well-deserved boost to its reputation.

Why You Should Watch:
Le Corbeau is a great film because of the way Clouzot milks tension out of every frame. It is dark, brooding, and—as is often remarked about Clouzot's films in general—admirably Hitchcockian in its use of suspense. But, as the contemporary argument over the film's intentions demonstrates, it's got a subtlety and depth generally unseen in Occupation-era films. Le Corbeau wrestles with the gap between our private lives and public faces, as Le Corbeau's letters reveal bourgeois convention for the fiction that it is. It's not an easy film to figure out, in terms of "who did it" and why, and a lot of this has to do with Clouzot's skill at manipulating your emotions and attention throughout the film. And, as Alan Williams notes (caution, spoilers!), the film neatly bridges the gap between the earlier poetic realism and what would later come to be called film noir.

Mostly, the film works as a combination of cautionary tale and social criticism. It is a parable, in a way, that could easily be tweaked to fit other social/historical circumstances—post-9/11, post–Patriot Act America springs to mind. And, more than anything else, the film asks questions and shows potential answers without being overly-didactic, allowing you to come to your own conclusions about its message. Yet despite all of this serious baggage, and even though humanity doesn't exactly come out of it smelling like roses, Le Corbeau is still an entertaining, engrossing, enjoyable film to watch.

Watch This If You Like:
Hitchcock, suspense, crime thrillers, Se7en, classic noir, Haneke, 1984, Chabrol, upsetting the social order, pessimism, psychodrama

Five-Star Streaming is an occasional feature championing great movies available to be streamed from Netflix. As of each post's date, the film under discussion was listed as streaming on Netflix's Watch Instantly service in the US. However, due to the volatile nature of licensing rights, I can't always know how long a particular selection will be available, so you'd better watch each film while you can!

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