Thursday, February 13, 2014

Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was born in Niort, in western France, but moved to Paris to pursue a career in writing and film. He spent the first decade of his professional life working as a screenwriter in Paris and then Berlin, where he wrote dialogue for the French versions of several German films. Here he was exposed to the work of German expressionist directors such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose work would majorly influence his future career. He was allegedly fired due to his friendship with a number of Jewish producers and sent back to Paris. Despite this, he found work in Nazi-occupied France as a screenwriter and director for German company Continental Films. The anti-Gestapo themes of his second feature film, Le corbeau, got him fired from Continental and later banned from making films in France for several years. His sentence, which initially banned him from film-making for life, was overturned due to the support of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau, René Clair, and Marcel Carné, among other well-known artists and filmmakers. He returned to prominence with two classics, Diabolique and Wages of Fear, and married one of his key collaborators, Brazilian actress Véra Clouzot. She suffered from poor health and died of a heart attack in 1960. Though depressed, Clouzot remarried a few years later to another South American, Inès de Gonzalez.

Though often compared to Hitchcock, Clouzot’s films are darker and more nihilistic, lacking Hitchcock’s more lighthearted and conventional characters. Clouzot contracted tuberculosis early in life and suffered from poor health, which unfortunately slowed down his career in later years. His time in sanitariums did keep him out of the war and allowed him to read extensively, work on scripts, and develop the grim impression of human nature that would so heavily impact his work.

Clouzot’s films are stocked with inherently amoral and selfish characters, individuals who are sexually and financially opportunistic and place their own pleasure or survival above all else. Communities are based on alienation and paranoia; there is no trust between neighbors, families, or lovers. Romantic relationships in Clouzot’s films fail due to a mixture of female infidelity and male possessiveness, jealousy, and sexual obsession. Though some of his characters are portrayed to genuinely love one another, it is always a doomed love that is fundamentally unrealistic. Many of his women are portrayed as ambitious and promiscuous, independent to a fault, while even his likable male characters are often predatory and abusive.

On to his films:

I was unable to find his first short film, La terreur des Batignolles (1931), the comic story of a burglar. There seems to be very little information about it or either of the first two films he worked on, Tout pour l’amour (1933) and Caprice de princesse (1934). As far as I can tell these are German productions that were shot in both German and French. Clouzot was responsible for the French versions as screenwriter/translator and assistant director. Both are musical comedies and neither are available on DVD. 

Clouzot’s first feature film remains one of my favorites. A mixture of comedy and suspense, it relates the tale of Monsieur Durand, a serial killer who leaves calling cards at the scene of each crime. Desperate to find the culprit, the French police threaten to fire Inspector Wens (Pierre Fresnay) if he doesn’t immediately catch the killer. Wens learns that Durand lives in a boarding house – Number 21 – full of some very interesting characters. He takes a room and disguises himself as a priest to root out Durand’s identity. Unfortunately his nosy girlfriend, struggling singer/actress Mila (Suzy Delair), is told she’ll become famous if she catches the killer and also on the case.
Based on a story by Stanislas-André Steeman, L’assassin habite au 21 is proof of Clouzot’s excellent comic timing and impeccable instinct for suspense. He makes great use of distinguished star Pierre Fresnay and a number of memorable side actors. Fresnay’s co-star, Suzy Delair, a French pop singer and Clouzot’s lover for several years, is rather grating, but she played the same obnoxious character alongside Fresnay in Le dernier de six (1941), a mystery film written, but not directed by Clouzot. Somewhat similar to Agatha Christie’s darker novels and packed with misanthropy, L’assassin habite au 21 comes highly recommended.

Clouzot’s first masterpiece was a film that got him blacklisted from cinema by the Nazis, Vichy government, Catholic Church, and French Resistance due to its scathing subject matter. Pierre Fresnay returned to star as a doctor targeted by a mysterious writer of poison pen letters in a small town, accusing him of having an affair with a colleague’s wife (Micheline Francey) and of performing illegal abortions. The letters soon spin out of control, revealing that everyone in town has at least one dark secret. The townsfolk are more than willing to inform on one another and someone ends up dead. On the verge of hysteria, the town is determined to find the culprit or, failing that, a scapegoat.
Beautifully shot with some incredible sequences, Le corbeau is a film about blame, guilt, secrets, lies, doubt, and suspicion, apt subject matter during the German occupation of France. It was rapidly banned by the conservative Vichy government due to its blatant anti-Nazi themes and also by the Resistance due to Clouzot’s perceived collaboration with the Germans. For this reason, it was also banned after the war and Clouzot was not permitted to direct another film until 1947. One of Clouzot’s finest works, few films from the ‘40s or ‘50s were able to capture this acerbic atmosphere of paranoia and misanthropy, the spirit of life for many in occupied France.

Clouzot’s first two post-war films, Quai des Orfèvres and Manon, are both concerned with infidelity, jealousy, sexual obsession, the desperate search for wealth, and murder. An up and coming singer, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair again), is desperate for fame and regularly drives her husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) into fits of murderous jealousy when she flirts with wealthy, powerful men. When one of her would-be producers, the lascivious Brignon (Charles Dullin) is murdered, Maurice is the main suspect and Jenny is desperate to clear his name. Their downstairs neighbor Dora (Simone Renant) tries to help them, but a very clever inspector (Louis Jouvet) is on their trail.
Based loosely on Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel Légitime défense, Quai des Orfèvres is somewhat similar to L’Assassin habite au 21, though it is stripped of humor and the identity of the murderer is quickly revealed. Instead, the plot revolves around what will happen to Maurice and Jenny as they crack under the strain of a criminal investigation. This is balanced by the charm and wit of Inspector Antoine, played with aplomb by the ever wonderful Louis Jouvet (The Lower Depths). Antoine is one of Clouzot’s few positive characters. As a detective and ex-soldier, he is aware of life’s nastier aspects, but manages to slog past it with humor, patience, and an almost serene understanding of human nature.
A retelling of Abbé Prévost’s tragic love story Manon Lescaut, Clouzot brilliantly set this film at the conclusion of WWII. In a small, nearly destroyed town, a young woman named Manon (Cécile Aubry) is accused of collaborating with the Germans, but is rescued from punishment by French soldiers. One soldier in particular, Robert (Michel Auclair), comes to love her and they run away together. They encounter a number of obstacles, including Robert's family, Manon’s obsession with wealth, and her secret career as a highly paid prostitute. Robert’s insane jealousy leads him to commit murder. They flee on a boat full of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine, but the Captain (Henri Vilbert) is determined to turn them over to the authorities.
Though much of the film is a nihilistic take on the classic romantic melodrama, Clouzot’s surreal, inspired conclusion makes Manon a must-see. Manon and Robert do make it to Palestine and encounter a paradise-like oasis where they have a truly perfect moment together, which highlights the illusory, fleeting nature of their love. The blistering desert becomes the final resting place for Manon (echoing the novel’s original ending), but it is also the literal end of the road for the Jewish refugees. Clouzot concludes the film on a cruel note about the futility of hope and the false notion of new beginnings or starting over.

One film I was unable to find was the anthology Retour à la Vie (1949). Clouzot directed the segment Le retour de Jean, which concerns a man’s encounter with the Nazi who tortured him during his time as a prisoner of war. Louis Jouvet returned to star and the other three sketches also concern prisoners of war returning to France after the war’s end. I was also unable to find much about Le voyage en Brésil (1950), an unfinished documentary about life in Brazil. In 1950, Clouzot met his Brazilian wife, Véra Gibson-Amado. They went to her home country for their honeymoon, where Clouzot attempted to film a documentary, but he ran out of money and the Brazilian government disapproved of his interest in the country’s poverty. Instead of finishing the film, he wrote a book about the experience, Le cheval des dieux.

Clouzot’s only truly light-hearted film is this comedy about an aspiring young actress (Danièle Delorme) whose mother (Mireille Perrey) wishes she would settle down with a wealthy gentleman instead of pursuing a career on the stage. Three men compete over her: the lascivious head of an acting troupe (Louis Jouvet again), an old marquis (Saturnin Fabre), and his young nephew (French comedian Bourvil). This romantic comedy of errors ends relatively well for all the main characters, particularly the young lovers, and there are scenes of both great verbal wit and physical comedy. 
Clouzot warmly makes fun of young love, artistic ambition, and the theater all in one blow. He also seems to be poking fun at his series of tragic, romantic films. Coincidentally, Clouzot met and fell in love with his wife on the set of Miquette. Unlike the majority of his other films, Miquette is set in the belle époque and benefits from a number of lovely sets and costumes. It is difficult to get ahold of for U.S. fans, as it has not been released on region 1 DVD and does not seem to have been subtitled yet.
In a desperately hot, poor South American village, four men are needed to drive two volatile trucks full of explosives through the jungle in order to put out a fire in a mine hundreds of miles away. After a number of interviews, Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folci Lulli), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck) are selected. While they are anxious to receive the sizable payout at the end of the trip, the drive is full of obstacles, both personal and physical, and before long the men are plagued with exhaustion and fear. 
Based on a script by Georges-Jean Arnaud, who wrote about his own experiences living in South America, Clouzot and his brother Jean (as Jérôme Geronimi) penned this bleak, acclaimed film that gave Clouzot an international reputation. It won several awards, including Best Film at Cannes, where Clouzot-regular Charles Vanel also won Best Actor. Unlike Clouzot’s previous films, Wages of Fear has a mostly male cast and moves away from his themes of doomed love, though there was a small role for his new wife, Vera, as a village girl mistreated by her lover, Mario. Instead, the film returns to some of the themes from Le corbeau: greed, suspicious, doubt, and fear, as well as throwing in a political theme. In lieu of the evils of fascism, here Clouzot exposes the dark side of capitalism and its powerful ability to crush both the human spirit and human life. 

The abusive headmaster of a boys’ boarding school (Paul Meurisse) is killed by his sickly wife (Véra Clouzot) and his bold mistress (Simone Signoret). His wife Christina is tired of the regular beatings and psychological cruelty so, along with his mistress Nicole, flees the school and demands a divorce. He arrives to forcibly bring his wife home, but the women drug him and drown him in the bathtub, as they had planned. They take his body back to the school and dump it in the swimming pool during the dead of night. When the pool is drained shortly after, his body is missing and the two women become consumed with hysteria and fear.
Les diaboliques makes an interesting companion piece with Wages of Fear. While the latter is populated with male characters and is essentially a study of fear surrounding a financial and stereotypically masculine situation (hard labor), the former is focused on two female characters and a similarly gripping fear, instead in the female domestic space. Christina is also concerned about money; her sizable inheritance, which runs the school, is tightly controlled by her husband. The story is based on a novel by the mystery writing team known as Bouileau-Narcejac and Clouzot bought the rights directly out from under the nose of Alfred Hitchcock, who intended to adapt the book. There are certainly elements of the source material and Clouzot’s film that influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Along with Wages of Fear, Les diaboliques is Clouzot’s most acclaimed work and remains one of the greatest French thrillers of all time.

Le mystère Picasso (1956) aka The Mystery of Picasso
Clouzot’s first documentary is this film that attempts to capture the techniques of famed Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. Picasso and Clouzot were close friends and what I first thought was going to be a documentary about the life and work of Picasso is instead something more obtuse and perhaps of more historical value. Picasso draws and paints 15 different pieces, which Clouzot captures from the opposite side of the sheet or canvas, following Picasso’s outlining, shading, coloring or painting, and frequent changing and transforming of his work. 
Though a bit repetitive for the first half, the second part of the documentary is fascinating and is essential watching for aspiring or professional painters, illustrators, and miscellaneous artists. The drawings are timed, so Picasso never lingers too long on one subject and tries to keep the themes different, though they are all Cubist in nature. There are a handful of shots of him up close, though Clouzot’s camera generally fixates on the art. Dialogue is very limited. Picasso destroyed all 15 works after filming was complete and the film was declared a national treasure by the French government. It also won a prize at Cannes, though it failed at the box office. An interesting work that captures Clouzot's love of art, this unique documentary comes recommended.

With Les espions, Clouzot returned to the thriller and focused his attention on yet another popular war-time topic: espionage. Set during the Cold War, an alleged atomic scientist on the run and his shady associates bribe the head doctor (Gérard Séty) of a run-down sanitarium in exchange for shelter. The sanitarium becomes the site of an international conspiracy as Russian and American spies descend upon the hospital to try to locate the missing scientist. 
Les espions is one of Clouzot’s least popular films, possibly because it is so difficult to classify. With elements of black comedy and absurdism, this unpredictable film shares some of the same themes as Le corbeau, including betrayals, murder, lies, and an isolated community in the grip of paranoia. It is certainly not a standard spy thriller or spoof, which were becoming popular at this time. The excellent, international cast includes Curd Jürgens, Peter Ustinov, Sam Jaffe, and Véra Clouzot. Les espions is somewhat difficult to find on DVD, though there is an affordable U.K. edition available. 
Despite his reputation and two classic thrillers, Clouzot's biggest critics were the directors and writers of the nouvelle vague – such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard -- who claimed that he was old fashioned and uninspired. La vérité stands as a scathing, if somewhat sympathetic critique of stereotypical New-Wave life. The young, beautiful Dominique Marceau (Brigitte Bardot) is on trial for the murder of her boyfriend Gilbert Tellier (Sami Frey). During court proceedings, she is defended by a kind lawyer (Charles Vanel) and harshly criticized by the opposing attorney (Paul Meurisse) for her bohemian lifestyle, which supposedly led to her murdering her more serious boyfriend, an up-and-coming composer.
Allegedly Bardot’s favorite film that she appeared in, her status as an important new wave actress adds weight to the character of Dominique, a beautiful, but aimless party girl with a promiscuous lifestyle and no ambitions. Bardot is certainly at her best here and Clouzot had the last laugh – La vérité was one of the most successful films of the year. It revisits some of Clouzot’s themes from his tragic, romantic films, such as doomed love impacted by selfishness, jealousy, and a woman’s desperate striving for freedom. Dominique is one of Clouzot’s most vulnerable characters and her qualities of longing and uncertainty manage to overcome her greed, selfishness, and youthful cruelty. The film also unnervingly mirrored Bardot’s life. The film’s trial is concluded with Dominique’s suicide; Bardot’s own highly publicized suicide attempt occurred shortly after.

Clouzot began shooting L'enfer, another film about marital strife, jealous, and infidelity, but never completed it. Star Serge Reggiani had to be replaced due to illness and soon after Clouzot’s own health forced him to cancel the production. It would have been his most experimental production to-date and included the use of colors, textures, abstract art shots, and psychedelia. 
In 2009, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea made a documentary about the film, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, with the blessing of Clouzot’s second wife who provided hours of unedited footage from L’enfer. This fascinating look at one of Clouzot’s unfinished masterpieces is a must-see for fans of his work and contains clips of the film, interviews with the cast and crew, and plenty of extra footage. The documentary also examines the ways in which the film nearly killed Clouzot, his obsessive, megalomaniacal directorial style, and his intentions to make L’enfer his most experimental film to date. Even if you aren't a serious Clouzot fan, L’enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot is a fascinating portrait of the process of creating a film and what happens when it is unfinished.
In the mid-‘60s, Clouzot took a break from feature films partially due to health and financial straits, and directed some classical music performances for television. With Die Kunst des Dirigierens aka The Art of Conducting, Clouzot directed five separate performances of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the famed Herbert von Karajan. Including Verdi’s Requiem, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Schumann’s 4th Symphony, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto, these were turned into five documentary-style episodes for French television. The success of Die Kunst des Dirigierens encouraged Clouzot to produce one more classical special, Messa da Requiem.
Again conducted by Karajan, Verdi’s Messa da Requiem was filmed in the beautiful La Scala theater in Milan. Masterfully staged, there are some famed soloists including Luciano Pavarotti, Fiorenza Cossotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, as well as the excellent La Scala Symphony and Chorus. If you enjoy classical music at all, Messa da Requiem comes highly recommended and is surely one of the finest recorded performances of Verdi’s funereal masterpiece. Though I was unable to find a link to the DVD, it is currently available on Netflix as a disc.

The brooding Stanislas Hassler (Laurent Terzieff) owns a modern art gallery. Josée (Elisabeth Wiener), the wife of one of his artists (Bernard Fresson), becomes fascinated with him and learns that he keeps an apartment with his own private photography collection. She soon discovers that his photography is more than just art pieces – there are numerous images of women in submissive sexual positions. Rather than fleeing back to her husband, Josée is overwhelmingly curious about Stanislas’s fascination with dominance and submission. 
A fitting, if too early conclusion to Clouzot’s career, La prisonnière uses many of his classic themes, such as infidelity, jealousy, and the search for sexual and personal freedom. It also brings in some of the experimental elements he was developing in L’enfer and he used a number of the abandoned psychedelic shots from that film in La prisonnière. Clouzot’s only film in color (discounting the documentaries), this is a frustrating film because it suggests a change in Clouzot’s career, a progression that likely would have resulted in another masterpiece if he had not grown seriously ill and died several years later. It comes with the highest recommendation for Clouzot's use of color and texture alone and stands as the culmination of his later career.

One of the finest French directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s a shame that Clouzot’s later career was hampered by his ill health. Truffaut allegedly pleaded with him to return to cinema between his last film in 1968 and his death in 1977, but was unsuccessful. He is buried next to Véra in Paris. His reputation – a difficult, demanding director who often abused his actors – and legacy – films about the bleak, nihilistic, and predatory side of human nature – remain. He deserves a wider audience and several of his films have yet to be released on region 1 DVD. If you’d like to learn more, check out Christopher Lloyd’s recent Henri-Georges Clouzot, which is the only full-length book available in English, or start with Fiona Watson’s article about the director for Senses of Cinema. And, above all, watch his excellent, anxiety-inducing films. 

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