Studiocanal has recently released three films by director Henri-Georges Clouzot that haven’t been available on Blu-Ray before: Le Corbeau, Quai des Orfèvres and La Prisonnière.
Le Corbeau was Clouzot’s most famous film for a long time within France. It was deeply controversial, mainly because he was believed to be a Nazi sympathiser due to having received money for the film from a German production company in 1943. You can see why people would think that given the time, and it was condemned by both the French left and the right, although the film itself can certainly be read as anti-Nazi. The left in particular thought it was vilifying the French people, but the Nazis and the Church didn’t like it either, and he was banned from filmmaking for two years.
It’s one of the first French noirs, and is about a man who is receiving mysterious letters accusing him of having affairs, and soon finds himself hated by his whole community. It’s a strong film that condemns the herd mentality, and one could easily draw parallels with current events like the spreading of slander and rumour on Twitter.
Quai des Orfèvres is more of a straight-ahead murder mystery. It was Clouzot’s first feature after his ban ended, and helped him make a real comeback. He based it on a novel by Stanislas-André Steeman, whose book The Murderer Lives at Number 21 he had adapted previously. The story follows Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), a local theatre actress, who has been fending off advances from a businessman called Brignon. Her husband, Maurice Martineau, threatens to kill Brignon… on the same evening that she had agreed to meet the lech. But then Brignon turns up dead, making both spouses potential candidates for having been the murderer. Detective Antoine must solve the case, which has lots of twists and turns.
It’s a tight and well-made mystery, but the Cahiers du Cinema critics deprecated Clouzot’s work even while they were praising Hitchcock’s. This was probably mostly political, but it has to be said that they tended to have a bias against popular French filmmakers.
La Prisonnière was Clouzot’s final film, made in 1968. He had been trying to make a film called L’Enfer, which would have been a psychedelic psychosexual thriller shot in a mix of black and white and colour. It would have been his crowning achievement, but it never happened. L’Enfer was eventually made by Claude Chabrol, one of the few Cahiers du Cinema critics who ever had any time for Clouzot, but without all the crazy psychedelic stuff. Meanwhile, Clouzot ended up working on this film, which took some parts from his plan for L’Enfer, and has some similarities to Peeping Tom and Blow Up, which he had likely seen.
It is very much of its time, which is what makes it awesome. It was his only film in colour, and it makes you wonder what he could have done had there been more. The plot removed around Josée (Elizabeth Wiener), the wife of an artist with whom she has a very loose relationship. His work is sort of sub-pop art. She gets involved with a guy called Stan, who has a passing resemblance to the actor who plays Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock. Stan owns the gallery that exhibits her husband’s art, and he photographs nude women in different poses. They start a very twisted relationship. There’s a bit of Belle du Jour in the storyline, of course, which he would obviously have seen. There’s a fantastic sequence in which she becomes a voyeur, and the film is mostly told from her point of view, both of which were definitely unusual for that time. Josée is following her husband and the local art critic, who he’s romancing to get a good review from, and the art, mirrors and space all connect with a kaleidoscopic effect that was all done in-camera. Another absolutely extraordinary dream sequence at the end is very similar in feel to the “Stargate” sequence in 2001. It predates the Giallo genre, and is a much better movie with similar themes than most of those.
Each disc includes an interview or documentary related to the film, adding anything from 24 to 30 minutes of special features. La Prisonnière has been hard to find for a long time, and is definitely due for rediscovery.