Reflections on “Le Corbeau” (1943),
directed by H. G. Clouzot,
starring Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc
This is the story of poison pen letters revealing the “truth” about numerous inhabitants of the French township of St Robin, centring on Dr Germain and his supposed affair with Laura, the young wife of the elderly Dr Vorzet.
The letters of denunciation become ever more frequent and have grave consequences (sometimes deserved, sometimes undeserved) for some of the population, so we follow the townspeople’s attempts to identify and stop the author of the letters.
Made during the German occupation of France (released in 1943), the film attracted considerable notoriety and disapproval from all political sides, yet was a great success with the public.
The Nazis encouraged letters of denunciation (revealing criminals, Jews and members of the Resistance among others), inviting collaboration and creating informers to further their own ends and allow the Nazis to tighten their grip on the country. This is now a source of considerable embarrassment, but at the time it was fairly common practice and it seems that Clouzot set about making a film that would increase awareness of these acts and their potential consequences.
Of course, the film is certainly not restricted to the more obvious criticism of informers, but is also a cutting look at human nature, petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires and ambition, flighty feelings and actions leading to despair, remorse and vengeance.
The film does not paint a particularly pretty or sympathetic picture of the townsfolk of St Robin, but it does give rise to reflection on various aspects of human nature and society.
Dr Germain is depicted as serious, principled, aloof and unafraid to assert himself. He does not bend to suit others, yet others set out to make him bend. Having said that, he clearly has a relationship of sorts with Laura and although he resists Denise at first, he goes on to sleep with her only to reject her again later. He accepts willingly his own capricious nature and is unapologetic.
But then all the characters are similarly two-sided. We see their public faces only to be told of their “transgressions” by Le Corbeau (the name used by the author of the letters).
Denise is married but has regularly been unfaithful to her husband, yet now she claims to be in love with Germain.
Laura appears chaste and sincere yet is in a relationship with Germain.
The male figures of authority all act with pride and confidence, yet they are denounced as incompetent by Le Corbeau.
The list goes on – it appears that nearly every member of the community has something to hide, secrets revealed by Le Corbeau which lead to distrust and conflict in the community.
Truth hurts, and society and good relationships between fellow members of the community are dependent on turning a blind eye to certain truths. In many ways it is easier to go along with a pretence or performance than to seek the truth as truth will affect everyone since society creates a web in which everyone’s lives touch everyone else’s.
In a very famous scene between Germain and Vorzet, Clouzot cleverly points out the subjective nature of truth as Vorzet swings a light bulb, thus shedding different light and offering a different perspective on what is visible, so even “truth” is dependent on many factors open to personal interpretation.
In the end we discover the identity of the author of the letters, who has acted out of jealousy and a desire for revenge, but these feelings and actions have been made public, leading to interference in others’ lives rather than simply playing a passing role in them.
Clouzot appears to be suggesting that in society we generally rub along together and maybe we should not let certain truths get in the way of our relative contentedness. Although it is tempting to give in to human nature and seek revenge for some slight, perhaps the indulgence of feelings is a luxury we cannot always afford.
Clouzot, in his customary fashion, shows contempt for just about all his characters and shares his cynicism equally. It is then perhaps only just that he caused offence to both the German and French authorities with his film – the Germans because of the implied criticism of denunciation and informing, and the French because of his depiction of the French townsfolk. However, the result was a two year ban from film-making, principally due to the fact that Continental Films (the production company) was German-led and so Clouzot was accused of collaboration, the very thing he attacked in his film.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some interest.
You may also be interested in my pages about "Quai des Orfèvres" and "Le Salaire de la Peur".
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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.