A moment on the pen; a lifetime on the soul.
Set in a small French village, Le Corbeau is the dark tale of a number of residents who find themselves the target of poison pen letters that condemn their perceived immoral behaviour. The primary target for the letters is the mysterious village doctor, Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), who is accused of illegal abortion. The resulting shock and fear spreads enmity throughout the village until finally lives are endangered.
Clouzot directed this film during the German occupation of France while working for Continental Films, a German-owned company receiving its orders directly from propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels. After the war, Clouzot was heavily criticised. He was charged with collaboration and banned from directing for life, later commuted to two years.
There are two larger themes that are drawn out in the film. The first is that of how fast hysteria can spread, in this case in a deeply religious, traditional village, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and gossip is currency. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia is an appropriate allusion to the Vichy government under Nazi auspices, which sowed the seeds of enduring division by encouraging its citizens to inform on each other. The insurmountable pressure of this daily struggle forces the villagers into behaviour their strong relationships and faith should, under normal conditions, chase away. It seems designed to confront the faithful with the realisation that their faith isn’t strong enough, and that their God will not protect them. This was entirely in keeping with Goebbels’ own anti-church radicalism, and more widely as fully administered Nazi policy itself.
The second theme is woven into the dialogue throughout the film and is that of the nature of good and evil. This film begins with something as innocuous as a bitchy letter, but it escalates to suicide and murder. Clouzot shows us the ordinariness of the shoots of malignity, how they grow, divide and produce an all-pervasive crop of evil. The principal antagonist of the piece dances between light and shade like a puppeteer trickster, watching the devastation unfold with the detached amusement of a sociopath. Clouzot, unwittingly or not, shows us the invading force’s technique of divide and conquer: the Nazis sowed the seeds of mistrust, the infected population turned on each other.
Unfortunately for Clouzot, however, this makes it easy for post-war analysts to read the featured intimidating behaviour as a metaphor for the paranoid backbiting actions of the occupied French. Trapped in the crucible of constant supervision and control by the Nazis, neighbour attacks neighbour, each desperate to throw suspicion away from themselves. As this is the case, it seems like an act of self-harm to punish Clouzot after the war for the actions many had unwillingly to take. The film was funded by Germany, their aim to further demoralise the nation using anti-French propaganda fed to them through cinema.
The formerly friendly village is all too swiftly brought low by the poisonous atmosphere. Our baser instincts are never far away for the human animal dressed up in the clothes of respectability. The Nazis accused the French of being too ready to descend into vitriol, too ready to forget who they truly are as families and friends, as if they are animals with only a mantle of civilisation of variable depth. This is not exclusively an unfortunate characteristic of French people, this is all people under similar circumstances.
Le Corbeau is entirely appropriate material for Clouzot to direct, featuring people under pressure exhibiting the worst aspects of our species. Clouzot’s output was mostly pessimistic, what David Thompson called “A cinema of total disenchantment”. His pragmatism, both on screen and in life shows his trademark disappointment in humanity but also in himself. Clouzot spent five years pre-war with consumption. When the time came to join up, he was unfit to defend his country against her brutal oppressors. With a sense of impotence as his personal starting point, he traces the fall of the villagers into torment as inevitable. The theme of domination and submission reappears regularly in his works.
The soundtrack to the film is also worthy of note. As tension builds, it bears down on the listener creating the oppressive atmosphere that will hound the fearful inhabitants. At one point, the soundscape too threatens to overwhelm us. The chief suspect runs home alongside the towering church wall as the soundtrack combines the cries of a vengeful mob with the vehemence of the congregation singing a hymn, in an effective demonstration of the power of a group united in belief, however, misdirected.
The film has been dogged by controversy for its entire existence. However, it still Ranked no 27 in Time Out’s list of 100 Greatest French Films. Given the current state of global politics, Le Corbeau seems all too relevant a film to revisit.