This is arguably the simplest possible structure for a documentary about a filmmaker that you could imagine. Brian De Palma (born 1940) sits in front of the camera and talks about his life and his work across six decades. The camera frames him head on and nobody else appears on screen. De Palma introduces clips from, as far as I could see, every one of his feature films as well as several early student films and at least one of his Bruce Springsteen music videos. There are also clips from various films that might have been important influences and some ‘behind the scenes’ footage and stills. I can’t remember if any of the footage is shown in split screen with De Palma’s own work – he was very fond of the split screen. The director proves an engaging raconteur and one blessed with both enough vanity to laud his own efforts and enough humility to recognise the clunkers. You would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to enjoy his tales. He was 75 when the documentary was released and he’s still going.
But what does he tell us and do we learn much about Hollywood? In a generally very positive review the New York Times critic A.O. Scott admits:
Mr. De Palma’s recollections are so vivid and warm that ancient war stories seem fresh. It’s hard for even the most determinedly forward-looking film critic to suppress a twinge of generational envy. Forty years ago, we would have been contemplating Carrie, Jaws and Taxi Driver, with the two Godfather movies in the rearview mirror and Star Wars on the horizon.
Well, I was there and saw all those movies when they were released. I had forgotten the extent to which, at the time, De Palma was so closely associated with Scorsese in particular and the other ‘Movie Brats’. The one De Palma didn’t mention, I think, in reference to the group was William Friedkin, though he does tell us that he soon became fed up of car chases and after The French Connection he thought it had all been done. I watched most Hollywood ‘New Wave’ movies in the early 1970s. For me, Lucas was gone after American Graffiti and Spielberg, though a fantastic technician, holds little interest for me now. De Palma, however, was important alongside Scorsese. Coppola was already involved in studio filmmaking in the 1960s, so my main interest in this documentary was to learn about De Palma’s early forays into New York filmmaking and to be reminded of films like Sisters (1972) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a film I’d like to see again. I learned a lot from this section, including which young actors De Palma worked with; Bill Finley, Jennifer Salt and Jill Clayburgh as well as Robert de Niro – who all appeared in The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but not released until 1969. At this time De Palma was effectively being mentored by Wilford Leach. De Palma had been a science major at university so his film training had been through short courses and projects. I realise now that Phantom of the Paradise was the first of his films I’d seen on release in the UK. After that I picked up on Sisters (1972) with Margot Kidder which became a cult film.
I was aware of De Palma’s fascination with Hitchcock and to the specific influences on his work that might be seen as ‘Hitchcockian’. In 1976, however, when I saw Obsession, I had not yet seen Vertigo (which was unavailable in the UK for several years). I remember that I was very impressed by Obsession but unaware of just how close it was to Vertigo, which De Palma had seen as an 18 year-old in New York on its initial release. Jimmie Stewart’s rooftop nightmare is in fact the opening clip of the documentary and De Palma talks about Obsession in some detail. He claims to be the director most influenced by Hitchcock. I can see the influences, but I’m a little surprised that having recognised the impact of seeing early French New Wave films as student filmmaker (he shows clips of Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol films) he doesn’t mention them (and particularly Truffaut and Chabrol) in relation to the Hitchcock influences in their work. And across the rest of the documentary he seems relatively disinterested in what is happening elsewhere outside Hollywood. This is a shame since one intriguing link I picked up was that Jessica Harper, the star of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977 was also a lead in Phantom of the Paradise. I hadn’t made the link because I didn’t see Suspiria until the 1990s.
It’s also interesting that at least one reviewer describes this documentary as similar to the Truffaut-Hitchcock ‘conversations’ that became a book and then the documentary film Hitchcock/Truffaut (US 2015). That film didn’t really grab me and I’m not sure why. De Palma works better for me, possibly because of De Palma’s address to camera. It does make me wonder though what producer-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow actually did on this film, apart from just letting De Palma ‘go’ and then hiring a good editor. The question about this documentary is why it achieves something beyond the conventional TV documentary which uses clips and strings of anecdotes from talking heads. I note that several critics refer to it as a ‘master class’ by ‘American cinema’s greatest storyteller’ etc. I think that might be over-selling it, but it is true that that De Palma does illustrate and analyse how he achieved the sense of movement and vitality that underpins his features. He is also in a unique position to discuss the emergence of ‘New Hollywood’ in the late 1960s and early 70s – and the difficulties directors like himself encountered with the new ‘corporatised’ Hollywood that developed from the 1980s onwards. I ‘enjoyed’ or was challenged by his films up to the 1980s but I mostly haven’t seen the later films so the final third of the film didn’t hold much interest for me apart from De Palma’s comments on the struggles he faced with studio executives and the frustrations of trying to step outside conventional formats and the “visual clichés” created by working with CGI companies.
The question in 2020, in the era of #MeToo, and debates about representation, is how we should view De Palma’s presentation of his female characters and whether he exploits the women he casts – or provides them with opportunities to drive narratives that have engaged wide audiences, including women as well as men. At one point he tells us that he really enjoys photographing women. He is also quite prepared to ask them to strip for scenes. For Body Double he wanted to cast a well-known porn actress but was foiled by the studio. But the same actress helped Melanie Griffiths prepare for her role in the film. I found the nudity to be an important part of Carrie, a horror film with a real punch and I did find Dressed to Kill to be very effective but disturbing. It would be interesting to know more about what the women in these films thought about them.
Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible have been on TV in the last few days in primetime slots, suggesting they still have wide appeal. De Palma’s films, at least from the earlier period have held up well, with the proviso that they happened before current debates about abuse of actors began. De Palma’s commentary in this documentary is enjoyable and informative and De Palma is currently on MUBI.
Swimming Pool is an intriguing film which on release in 2003 attracted a lot of attention. It’s now streaming on MUBI in the UK. It proved to be the second of three collaborations between director François Ozon and star actor Charlotte Rampling. It was early in the features career of Ozon who made his reputation first in short films and who has gone on to become a highly prolific director. Ms Rampling is also highly prolific but she began her career in the mid 1960s. She belongs to that small group of middle-class female British actors, born roughly at the same time, who have managed to build careers in both Anglophone and Francophone cinema. Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Birkin are the other two members. There is something about these women that has caught the attention of French (and other non-British) directors and they have been cast on several occasions in roles that question attitudes towards sexuality – almost as if a challenge to assumptions about national types of sexuality is key to their appeal. All three began their careers as models in the early 1960s before moving into films.
In an interview at the time of Swimming Pool‘s release, Charlotte Rampling spoke about the death of her beloved sister Sarah in 1966 and how her grief had affected her both at the time and at various points in her subsequent career and personal life. Working with François Ozon, first on Under the Sand (Sous le sable, France 2000) and then this second film enabled her to experience a kind of abreaction in which she could deal with her memories. In Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling’s character is named Sarah as a tribute to her sister. Allied to this, Swimming Pool sees Rampling cast opposite Ludivine Sagnier who at that time was roughly the age of Rampling’s sister when she died. Sagnier was, however, already a very experienced young performer, had already featured in two of Ozon’s films and was touted in some quarters as a new Bardot figure.
The plot outline is simple but the narration is more complex. Sarah is a successful writer of a crime series featuring the unlikely-sounding ‘Inspector Dorwell’. Her small independent publisher (played by Charles Dance) senses she needs a break and suggests that she should use his villa in Provence as it is now off-season but the weather is still good there. Sarah agrees and sets off for for France. We know little of her background except that she leaves behind her elderly father and it appears that she lives in his house. In Provence she finds a spacious secluded house with a swimming pool and gradually she relaxes before Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a young woman who claims to be her publisher’s daughter, appears and moves in, taking the second bedroom. Julie has a series of one night stands with men she brings home. At first Sarah resents these intrusions and tries to block them out with earplugs. But eventually she begins to loosen up and to engage with Julie who has started to use the swimming pool.
From the beginning of the film, Philippe Rombi’s score introduces a score with a Hitchcockian feel, even though nothing disturbing has actually happened yet. In conjunction with Yorick Le Saux’s excellent camerawork and Charlotte Rampling’s performance we know that something is just not right about this seemingly straightforward holiday/writer’s retreat and the tension gradually builds. As well as Hitchcock, I also sense Polanski in the narrative. One neat touch is the crucifix hanging over the bed Sarah uses. She takes it down and puts it in a bedside cupboard. Later in the film, the crucifix will reappear. I was also impressed with the costumes Sarah wears in the first half of the film and the boring food she consumes in the house. The clothes are drab and the food is bland but gradually she becomes looser and her appetites change she drinks more alcohol, she dines out. Amongst the men who appear the two most important appear to be the caretaker, an older man in the village and a younger man who works part-time in the bar-café in the small town. I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way by revealing any more plot details. There is clearly going to be something that happens between Sarah and Julie and it is going to be key to follow what happens to Sarah’s writing as she ‘loosens up’. Sarah writes what appear to be police procedurals but she and John have discussed/implied that she might write something slightly different. Perhaps she will let her imagination develop in this different environment? Julie is a highly provocative figure, often naked or bare-breasted and deliberately goading Sarah.
The narrative has an open ending which seems to have caused some consternation. After thinking about it for a couple of days I think I’m quite ‘satisfied’ with the ending. It seems to work in several different ways, i.e. several different readings of the film could be made which are equally plausible/implausible. The ingredients of the narrative, the villa, the strangers, the pool etc. are each suggestive of genre elements and there are plenty of precedents. There is a famous French film with a similar title, La piscine (1969) which shares many of the same genre elements – the writer, the drinking, the pool, the sex etc. – and which incidentally has a young Jane Birkin in a secondary role as the daughter of one of the three main characters. There are many others too. A swimming pool, sunshine and a secluded house is the perfect location for this kind of film. The various cinema viewing classifications for the film are interesting – ‘universal’ in France but NC-17/R in the US and 15 in the UK. I don’t think it is an ‘easy’ film for audiences but it is certainly provocative and it made significant profits for what seem to be mainly French production companies (I can’t work out why it has a co-production designation) and Charlotte Rampling’s performance won her a European Film Award. The film was in competition at Cannes – early recognition of Ozon’s status as a director.
Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.
In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.
As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.
Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.
So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.
I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)
Venetian Bird deserves to be much better known. In some ways it’s similar to the Carol Reed films, The Third Man (1949) and The Man Between (1953). In those films, a British/American character finds himself in a post-war city (Vienna and Berlin respectively) involved in a murky investigation which involves an aspect of wartime legacy and contemporary issues focused on a man who doesn’t necessarily want to be found. As the title suggests, this 1952 film is set in Venice which is beautifully rendered on screen by Ernest Steward on only his second feature as DoP. Steward would go on to shoot many films for producer Betty Box in the 1950s and she should get great credit for an excellent overall production. The music too is worth noting, one of several scores for British productions in this period by Nino Rota.
Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas had got together as a team for the first time in 1950 to make another excellent and under-rated thriller The Clouded Yellow. It was a difficult period just then when Rank was re-organising and consolidating its resources. Betty Box survived the closing of the old Gainsborough Studios which she had helped to run with her older brother Sydney. He had run the main facility in Shepherd’s Bush and Betty had run the smaller studio in Islington. By 1952 she was safely housed at Pinewood and working effectively with production chief Earl St. John. Betty and Ralph Thomas would become a very effective team at Pinewood making more than 30 films over the next 25 years. Most of them made money, especially the comedies and with her husband Peter Rogers producing the later Carry On series, the couple could be seen as keeping Rank afloat until the mid 1970s. Betty Box eventually developed a strategy at Rank which involved her agreeing to make yet another ‘Doctor’ comedy (i.e. Doctor in the House, 1954 etc.) if in return the studio would finance one of her own more interesting adventure films. These were often made abroad and particularly in Italy. Her love affair with Italy began with Venetian Bird, almost completely shot in Venice.
Venetian Bird was adapted from a novel by Victor Canning who wrote the screenplay himself. Canning was a prolific writer from the 1930s onwards whose work became more widely used in cinema and then on TV from the 1950s. He had been stationed in Italy during the war and his detailed knowledge of Venice proved useful in deciding on locations. The central character of the film is Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) who arrives in Venice on a mission for a Paris insurance company. He is charged with finding an ex-partisan named Renzo Uccello (John Gregson). ‘Uccello‘ can have several meanings in Italian, some rather dubious, but ‘bird’ is perhaps the most common? Mercer gets help from a seemingly respectable brothel-keeper Rosa (Margot Grahame) who he knows from previous visits to Italy and his investigations lead him to a large house acting as a form of art gallery with a diverse collection of objets d’art and here he meets Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a beautiful young woman who at first seems impervious to his charms and who manages to appear to be helpful without giving Mercer any real help at all. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Uccello doesn’t want to be found and that somebody wants Mercer out of the way. Eventually Mercer is investigated by the police who at first let him go before he is framed for a serious crime, making him a wanted man.
I’ve read quite a few comments on the film (mostly American) which complain that it is too ‘talky’. That’s a common American complaint about European films. ‘Too much’ dialogue is perhaps a question of taste, but I think the plot does get over-complex at times and I did get confused. Part of the problem is explained by Betty Box in her autobiography Lifting the Lid (The Book Guild, 2000). The local Italian officials were generally supportive of the shoot but they demanded certain changes for political reasons which although on the surface don’t seem to have made much difference, actually make the political action in the film hard to follow. Some other commentators criticise the camerawork and suggest this is a low budget film, a ‘British ‘B’ film noir‘. This is just nonsense. The film was distributed in the US by United Artists. In the UK it was certainly an ‘A’ picture.
One of the difficulties of a retrospective viewing of the film is that the three main leads were all in the early stages of their careers as leading players. Richard Todd and John Gregson were the same age but Gregson had a lower profile in his early career at Ealing. Todd had found instant success while under contract to ABPC, being nominated for an Oscar in the lead role of The Hasty Heart in 1949 alongside Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. The apex of his career was playing as Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955) after which it slowly declined through the 1960s. In the 1950s though he offered a young, handsome and virile persona. Some commentators see Venetian Bird as a forerunner of James Bond style thrillers. Ian Fleming is said to have wanted Todd as Bond for Dr No. As a public school and vocally Tory figure he would have made a very different Bond. John Gregson became a star later with light comedy roles such as in Genevieve (1953) probably dominating his other familiar roles as decent men with integrity in war pictures. In this context his Italian partisan with dubious politics seems odd casting but this is the role that might have been most altered by interference from Italian authorities. Although the film was shot almost completely in Venice, all the main Italian characters are played by British actors. Eva Bartok was Hungarian but her English is very good in the film. Betty Box had originally wanted Gina Lollobrigida but at this time her English was not yet good enough for the part. Ms Bartok was quite difficult to deal with but I think her performance works well in the completed film and after this film and the earlier The Crimson Pirate (1952) with Burt Lancaster, she became a familiar lead player in both British and German films.
The chase scenes in the closing section of the film feature rooftops and spectacular shots of Venice. They are reminiscent of those at the end of The Clouded Yellow (which ends at Liverpool Docks). There are suggestions that these sequences might have influenced later Hitchcock films and they certainly look familiar when compared to numerous later European thrillers. Betty Box includes one interesting anecdote about the studio support for the film. Michael Balcon, Head of Ealing was also a major producer at Rank and he voted against making Venetian Bird because it had only one British character and was “a story about Italian people against an Italian background”. For Balcon it wasn’t a ‘native’ narrative. Earl St. John disagreed and the picture went ahead. Balcon’s attitude, which was perhaps justified in wartime, seems way out of date by the early 1950s. Betty Box thankfully ignored Balcon’s limited view and made several more films in Europe in the 1950s and ’60s.
MUBI seems to have a real interest in films that explore aspects of sexuality and the ‘erotic’. In the last couple of years they have streamed quite a range of different sorts of films dealing with sex and sexuality. Recently there was the art film melded with explicit porn in The Daughters of Fire (Argentina 2018) which addressed the male/female gaze question and is discussed on this blog by Nick. Over several months we were offered restored versions of American avant-garde/’independent’/’alternative’ soft porn ‘curated’ by Nicholas Winding Refn. I tried to watch one or two of these but gave up bewildered. Mostly MUBI offers us challenging festival films which query attitudes towards sexuality or more mainstream arthouse fare which features more overt depictions of sexual relationships than those in contemporary Hollywood films. But one of the recent offerings, Chloe from Atom Egoyan, seems to hark back to the cycle of erotic thrillers that were very successful in mainstream 1980s and 1990s Hollywood – films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), both featuring Michael Douglas and, not a thriller as such, but certainly a different kind of romance, Indecent Proposal (1993), like Fatal Attraction directed by Adrian Lyne. There were also a string of more explicit erotic thrillers, many of which went straight to video release. These had their own stars such as Shannon Tweed. The genre of the erotic thriller has received attention from film scholars, most notably Prof. Linda Ruth Williams with her 2005 book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema.
I was attracted to Chloe, first because it is a film directed by Atom Egoyan, a director I feel that I have neglected and possibly avoided. I’m not sure why. I’m generally interested in Canadian filmmakers and Egoyan had a number of well-received arthouse films released in the 1990s but I saw only Exotica (1994) – and that because I was obliged to watch it after a student had written an essay about it. Chloe, like several of Egoyan’s films has an interesting cast featuring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried. I didn’t realise until after I’d seen the film that Chloe is actually a remake of a French film, Nathalie . . .(2003), written and directed by Anne Fontaine, whose more recent work I’ve enjoyed very much. I wonder if I would have responded differently to the film if I’d known that when I started watching it?
Liam Neeson plays David Stewart, a university professor in an arts faculty – which is certainly an interesting change for an actor usually associated with action roles. In 2009 he was probably best known for the first Taken movie the year before in which he has to rescue his daughter kidnapped by bad guys, though he’d had a number of major roles in a wide range of films before that including as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993). Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, an upmarket gynaecologist with an office in a fashionable district of Toronto. David makes a trip to New York as part of his professorial role, not realising that Catherine has organised a lavish surprise birthday party for him in their designer house with a large number of guests. When he phones from New York to tell her he has missed his flight she is devastated. We wonder if he has taken up an offer of ‘a couple of drinks’ from a young woman. The marriage has not been going well and Catherine also deals badly with the realisation that her son Michael, a talented music student, has his girlfriend staying over on the night of the party without mentioning anything to her. Perhaps the actions of the two men in her life prompt her to take retaliatory action. She visits an up-market hotel bar and eventually singles out a young woman, the ‘Chloe’ of the title (Amanda Seyfried), as a high-class call girl. Catherine hires Chloe to make a play for David and then to report back what happens. We all know this is a crazy thing to do and that it will end badly. Why does she do it?
This is the set-up and you can probably write your own script as to how it works out – complete with an explosive finale. I think the only reason I continued watching was because of the relationship between Catherine and Chloe. The two women are well-cast and Julianne Moore is a fine actor who has taken on a wide range of roles. I know less about Amanda Seyfried but she’s very good in this, presenting the kind of steely determination that sometimes transforms her into an almost automaton-like figure, a simulacrum, a sex toy with a sharp brain – but with a fierce determination to get what’s best for her out of every situation.
At times this feels like a Paul Verhoeven movie. There is an early dialogue exchange with a patient in which Catherine dismisses the female orgasm as just a muscle contraction. Yet something is propelling her forward into the arrangement she has started and perhaps it is the excitement of the subterfuge as well as a substitute for what is not happening in the marriage? But it’s also something Chloe can manipulate. Catherine asks her to give her details of everything that Chloe has done with David and she is clearly aroused by hearing the details. Chloe knows how to exploit that arousal. But what if she’s making it all up? Chloe is like a stalker Catherine has invited into her family and inevitably Chloe will make a play for Michael. In fact Chloe will go wherever she pleases and every new action will increase her hold over Catherine. Catherine will try to stop all of these actions, but what if she can’t?
Unlike The Daughters of Fire, Chloe offers the audience a good deal of female flesh but seemingly without the suggestion that it is about female desire rather than the male gaze. Amanda Seyfried is presented dressing in lingerie for her sex work under the titles at the start of the film. Later both she and Julianne Moore will strip for the camera gaze – but Liam Neeson will remain clothed for sex with Chloe (‘real’ or imagined). It doesn’t seem a fair swap. On the other hand, this is clearly a female-centred narrative in which David and Michael are only there to fuel the desire that links Catherine and Chloe. As I watched I felt concern for Catherine – how exposed and vulnerable she was prepared to make herself. I’m wondering about how the French original handled Catherine’s desire for sexual excitement and her need for self-esteem in her failing marriage (and mother-son relationship). I found myself admiring Chloe’s cunning, her bravery and her ‘professionalism’ while being repelled by her coldness.
As one IMDB user suggests, one of the film’s attractions is to see Toronto playing itself rather than as a stand-in for a US city. It’s an upmarket Toronto in the snow and at times I wanted to shout at Catherine who seems oblivious to the weather with bare legs and high heels in the snow and slush. Chloe is actually more sensibly dressed for the outdoors. I can’t come to a final decision about the film. Its plotting did keep me watching, though I do feel it could have done more with the basic idea. The script was adapted from Anne Fontaine’s original by Erin Cressida Wilson. I’m intrigued to see that she was a film and literature academic and that she was involved in two other high-profile adaptations, Secretary (US 2002) and The Girl on the Train (US 2016). The three films make an interesting trio, each focusing on a form of ‘transgressive’ behaviour of a central female character. I think now I’ll have to look for the Anne Fontaine original of Chloe. I do wonder how this film would have worked out directed by a woman.
Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot is probably best known for Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Lesdiaboliques (1957, both France); Le corbeau was his second feature made for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films; the first was The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L’Assassin habite… au 21, 1942). For understandable reasons, now and at the time, that can be enough to write the film, and the director, off as morally culpable. Le corbeau was deemed to be ‘anti-French’ and he was banned for life from making films until it was rescinded in 1947. History has been kinder to the film, particularly as the Nazis hated it too.
The raven of the title is an anonymous ‘poison pen’ letter writer terrorising a small French town that could be anywhere at anytime; the titles at the start suggest such universality. Pierre Fresnay plays the unlikeable protagonist Doctor Germain who is the main focus of letter writer’s bile; the letters suggest that he is adulterous and an abortionist. In part, the film is a thriller (who is writing the letters?) but it also a melodrama of small-town hypocrisies not unlike some of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Hollywood films. It is the latter that invoked the wrath of the Nazis.
Vichy France ‘thrived’ on ‘collaboration’, no matter what the myth of the Resistance says, and Clouzot nails the narrow-minded, vindictiveness of those who pass on malicious gossip and shows its damaging consequences. Of course, the occupying Nazis thrived on informing. In one brilliant scene, an accused nun runs through deserted streets with the howls of a baying mob on the soundtrack. She reaches her home to find it vandalised and the mob materialise outside her window.
The local government officials get it in the neck too. One council member insists that they must be seen to be doing something; reminding me of the UK government’s response to Covid-19: much hot air and nowhere near enough action. I haven’t seen enough of Clouzet’s films to judge whether he was a misanthropist but it is difficult to find a pleasant character in the film. The local peasants-workers are marginalised and so are spared his satirical swipes; the bourgeoisie are skewered, which is apparently typical of his films.
In one scene the Doctor discusses the moral issues of the events with the cynical, and funny, psychiatrist Vorzet (Pierre Larquay). As they discuss good and evil, light and dark, a light bulb swings next to a globe no doubt suggesting the universality of human vindictiveness. I’m not sure I buy into that, the current crisis has shown much empathy and kindness (and more than enough of the opposite including informing on neighbours), but it works very well in the context of the film.
Le corbeau is the first of a Clouzot triple bill on MUBI; I’m looking forward to the others.