France has always been one of the centers of cinema in the world. After all, the Lumiere brothers rivaled Edison in their claims to being the inventor of the film camera. Throughout the 20th Century, France was a font of technological and formal development of the movies. And filmmaking did not stop even when France was conquered and occupied by the Germans during World War II. It was, however, co-opted. Racial and political restrictions were placed on who could work in the movies, and everything that was produced had to be simple entertainments or propaganda supporting the Vichy regime.
In the post-war period, several people who worked in the film industry were punished in various ways for what some saw as collaboration with the occupying Germans. For this 1943 film, Le Corbeau, the director Henri-Georges Clouzot was roundly criticized from every political corner, fired days before its release, and after a post-war trial was banned for life from filmmaking in France.
Le Corbeau (The Raven) at first glance doesn’t seem to be the sort of story that would be a magnet for so much controversy. It’s about a small peaceful village in France that is upset when someone begins spreading letters around town. Poison pen letters, accusing various townspeople of misdeeds. And all are signed Le Corbeau – The Raven.
The main target of these letters is a recent transplant to the area, the doctor Germaine. We meet him first coming out of a rural house, his hands covered with blood. In a rough birth, he was able to save the mother, but not the baby.
Well, the poison pen writer states that not only is he having an adulterous affair with the wife of a colleague, but that he is in fact an illegal abortionist. Germaine himself is a cold fish, highly competent but stern and disciplined with everyone. He might be a good doctor, but he has a lousy bed-side manner, and he brushes off minor attempts at friendship and major attempts at seduction with focused disdain.
Since the poison pen letters are being sent all over town, the cast of characters for the film is large and diverse. What’s universal is the reaction to the letter’s recipients: everyone vehemently denies what is said of them, and fervently believes the accusations against their friends and neighbors. Germaine’s supposed lover Laura suspects from the beginning that her own sister, the harsh and judgmental nurse Sister Corbin is the culprit. When a cancer victim that she was particularly cold to dies of a suicide after receiving a letter, the entire town begins to believe it, and Corbin is nearly lynched in the town square.
She’s arrested, and the letters stop… for a little while. But then they come again, just as vicious, and just as readily focused on Germaine.
Le Corbeau is not a long film at 91 minutes, and it does not have a particularly focused plot, but it moves at a brisk pace from scenario to scenario. It is in form essentially a mystery, but the story contains so many vignettes and layers that it feels sprawling, even in its brief run time. Central to the narrative is the philosophical differences between the logical, rational Germaine and the psychologist Vorzet. Germaine believes they’re looking for a madman; Vorzet, as a psychologist, asserts that on some level they are all mad men.
What made the film so controversial when it was released was this dim view it took toward all aspects of the human condition. The Vichy regime didn’t like the focus on adultery, abortion, suicide, and all the petty corruption that suffused the story. The Left press condemned it as undermining the French revolutionary spirit. Though it was extremely popular, it led to the sudden (and thankfully brief) end of Clouzot’s career.
It was only after protest, years after the war he was allowed to make films again, leading to his masterpieces Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. But Le Corbeau is a small masterpiece of his own. It has subtle visual flair. Though taking place mostly in lit daytime spaces, pitch black shadows dominate the tonal pallet of the film. Though made years before the term “film noir” entered the lexicon, Le Corbeau has some of the visual feeling of that genre which would come to coalesce in Hollywood in the post-war era.
Besides being a visual stylist, Clouzot had a flair for quickly sketching interesting characters. Even the smaller players have a point of view in their scenes, even if it is mostly self-interest. It all contributes to painting a world that, though not centered necessarily in any time or place, feels real.
Of course, it was made in a real time and place, and that was under German occupation. What the contemporary critics seemed to miss about the film (and which could not be explicit, given the censorship of the time) is how much the film says about living under occupation. The occupier in Le Corbeau is not an army, but rather a sense of paranoia. The distrust sewn between neighbors and the hysteria that an angry paranoid mob can whip up are in full display. Le Corbeau is a much about an external force disrupting the natural order of a community as it is about some creep writing nasty letters.
Le Corbeau work on multiple levels, as an entertainment and as a commentary on sedition. It displays not only how a community can be brought to each other’s throats through fear and suspicion, but also why that works so well. It’s fun to hear the dirty little secrets that Le Corbeau reveals with their poison pen. It’s a little thrilling to see the recipient squirm at his own secrets, just after delighting in the revelation of someone else’s.
Le Corbeau has been released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Extras include an interview with filmmaker Bernard Tavernier (21 mins) and an excerpt from “The Story of French Cinema by Those Who Made It: Grand Illusions 1939–1942” (8 mins), and 1975 documentary. There’s a brief essay in the included booklet.