Philosophical Screens: Le Corbeau/The Raven (Henri Georges Clouzot, France, 1943) and the abortion film today

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

I am writing this post ahead of/as a companion to a discussion of Le Corbeau that will (have) take(n) place on Tuesday 22 November 2016 at the British Film Institute in London as part of the Philosophical Screens series organised by Kingston University and the London Graduate School. It contains my thoughts only, and not those of my co-panellists Lucy Bolton and Catherine Wheatley (except where credited).

The post will explore how Le Corbeau is in part a critique not uniquely of the fascist era in which it was made (France under occupation), but of a more lingering everyday fascism, perhaps even the fascism of the everyday, the everyday fascisms that are part and parcel of the human project – and which when they become dominant lead to death. I shall also relate this to the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau today.

Le Corbeau focuses on Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a surgeon recently arrived in a small town called Saint Robin in France. In a series of anonymous letters, he is accused of having an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the younger wife of psychiatrist and work colleague, Dr Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). He is also accused of carrying out abortions and, latterly, of sleeping with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the coxalgic sister of one-armed school master Fernand Saillens (Noël Roquevert).

Germain is not alone in receiving these anonymous letters; in fact, everyone in town seemingly receives them, since we are told at one point by Vorzet that the person sending the letters, who signs off as Le Corbeau/The Raven, has sent some 850 such accusatory epistles. Each letter either lays bare or accuses its recipient of a scandal that has taken place – with Germain also being accused of sleeping with Denise’s younger, 14-and-a-half year old niece, Rolande (Liliane Maigné).


While the town at first suspects (and drives away) Laura’s nurse sister, Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), after the suicide of a hospital inmate, François (Roger Blin), who is dying of cancer, Germain begins to suspect Denise, especially after she breaks down during a handwriting test set up by Vorzet, who happens to be an expert in detecting supposedly anonymous handwriting. Indeed, Germain discovers in Denise’s digs a letter from Le Corbeau to Germain announcing that Denise is pregnant, thereby seeming to confirm his suspicions.

However, when Denise tells Germain to look her in the eye, she explains that this is the first and only letter that she has sent. Germain becomes confused – and goes to see Laura, on whose hands he finds some ink, leading him to suspect her.

Vorzet intervenes and says that his wife did indeed begin the letters, hoping to lure Germain into an affair as a result of his old age and his inability sexually to satisfy her. However, he explains,  when Germain did not reciprocate, she went insane and started to send out many such letters to everyone in Saint Robin.

Laura denies that this is so – and says that Vorzet himself has been sending (most of) the letters. Germain goes back to Denise, who has fallen (deliberately) down some stairs – affirming that he wants (‘needs’) her to keep his child, a decision that lays to rest the ghost of his former wife who, along with his first child, died during a botched delivery (Germain’s real name is Germain Menatte, a well-known brain surgeon).

Denise then says that Laura could not have sent the letters because she was too scared about violence that might be done to her if she revealed the true identity of Le Corbeau. Germain realises, therefore, that it must have been Vorzet – but arrives too late to prevent Laura from being carted off to a mental institution, the details of which he gave to Vorzet.

However, Germain steps into Vorzet’s office only to find him killed at his desk – his throat cut with the same razor blade that François used to take his own life. We see the mother of François (Sylvie) leave the premises and walk away down the street. How she found out about Vorzet’s guilt we do not know, but she has made good on her promise to use the François’ razor in order to avenge the premature death of her son.

Having got this synopsis out of the way, I can now turn to my analysis of the film.

In the first anonymous letter that we see/hear, Le Corbeau announces that (s)he has an œil américain, or an American eye. The term supposedly comes from novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who in The Heidenmauer, or The Benedictines (1832), which is set in sixteenth century Europe, writes to his American readers about how ‘an American eye would not have been slow to detect its [the landscape’s] distinguishing features from those which mark the wilds of this country [the USA].’

Interestingly, the differences that the American eye would spot are the small signs that would announce Europe to be occupied by humans; the trees in Europe ‘wanted the moss of ages,’ Cooper explains, before suggesting that the landscape offered ‘certain evidence that man had long before extended his sway over these sombre hills, and that, retired as they seemed, they were actually subject to all the divisions, and restraints, and vexations, which, in peopled regions, accompany the rights of property.’

I shall return to how Cooper’s American eye would spot how the sculpted landscape of Europe might seem natural but that it does not contain the truly natural ‘mouldering trunk’ or ‘branch [that] had been twisted by the gale and forgotten’ or ‘any upturned root [which might] betray the indifference of man to the decay of this important part of vegetation’ (all Cooper quotations are from page 2 of this edition).

For the time being, though, I should like to stress how Cooper’s term soon made it into French literature, where it came to take on the sense of an all-seeing eye. As soon as 1835, Honoré de Balzac’s arch-villain Vautrin accuses Eugène de Rastignac of scrutinising him with ‘the American eye’ in Le père Goriot, while Gustave Flaubert also uses the phrase in Madame Bovary (1856), where Lheureux, the pernicious merchant who causes Charles and Emma to go into debt (and Emma, ultimately, to kill herself) also claims to have an ‘American eye.’

Reworked within French literature to convey a sense of omniscience and a sense of evil, the term is an apt one to reappear in a film about secrets and affairs like Le Corbeau.

However, for most viewers of the film, to hear about an ‘American eye’ cannot but also bring to mind that most American of eyes on to the world – the cinema. That is, the cinema is an American eye.

Let’s be clear: the French have as strong a claim to the invention of cinema (the Lumière brothers) as the Americans (Thomas Edison), but by 1943 it is the American cinema that dominates globally. For Le Corbeau to claim that it has the ‘American eye’ might also imply, then, that the film is an attempt to rival American film productions – as might also be suggested by Judith Mayne‘s assertion that the absence of American films in Occupied France during the Second World War led to filmmakers trying to make more ‘American’ movies. This is not to mention how the famously troubled history of the film, in that it was produced by Continental, a German-backed and German-led production house, also suggests a German desire to rival American cinema. Which is not to mention still how the noir style that Le Corbeau more or less adopts is not unique to the USA, but that it has strong roots in both Germany and France. In other words: cinema as a whole, and the film noir style of Le Corbeau more particularly, are not necessarily American.

However, at least for the purposes of discussion, I should like to propose that in Le Corbeau the ‘American eye’ does speak of cinema – and perhaps especially of the kind of cinema-eye that Cooper describes. That is, an eye that can see a world without divisions, without property, and in some respects without man, as opposed to the European eye that only sees divisions, property and the human.

While Le Corbeau (the anonymous letter writer) claims to have an American eye, then, Le Corbeau (the film) also adopts an American eye, the American eye of cinema – not simply for the purposes of mimicking a Hollywood style, but in order to lay bare the very European way in which space is divided up into segments of property, with the human at the centre of this exploitation of space.

We can see how this is so in the film’s treatment of space.

Le Corbeau contains a very fluid camera, with the second shot of the film seeing the camera moving along a cloister that lines a cemetery, before then moving through a gate that seems to open of its own accord. In other words, from its beginning, Clouzot suggests that his camera moves and is alive, even as humans die. Furthermore, his camera can pass through gates – something that we also see humans do regularly in the film.

Indeed, I counted 419 shots in Le Corbeau (giving to the film an average shot length of 12.24 seconds given a running time – excluding opening credits – of 85 minutes and 28 seconds). Over the course of the film, we see people walking through doors or gates 64 times, with people opening but then not passing through doors twice. We hear doors opening and closing offscreen a further 7 times, with characters also passing through car doors twice. We see people walk through curtain partitions three times, while characters open cupboards, postboxes, bureaux, drawers, and/or a trunk a further 9 times. Furthermore, we have 2 POV shots of characters looking through keyholes and/or windows, and we see characters (generally Germain) open or close windows 4 times.

In other words, Le Corbeau features c93 instances of thresholds being crossed and/or reaffirmed. Since many of the moments featuring characters passing through thresholds are shown over the course of two shots (with a cut as the character or characters pass from one room to the next), then we can see how there are 100+ instances in the film of threshold crossing and/or container opening, meaning that likely one quarter of the shots in the whole film features the crossing of boundaries.

However, where Le Corbeau opens with the camera passing through a gate, and while we see humans pass through gates and door themselves, Clouzot’s otherwise mobile camera does not pass itself through gates or doors after this initial transgression.

In other words, a tension is set up between the mobile camera that can go anywhere irrespective of boundaries, and humans who also travel, but who are very much restricted by boundaries. If the second shot of the film tells us that the camera is mobile and alive while humans are immobile and dead, then the enclosed rooms and containers that humans inhabit and use in some senses move humans towards immobility. The creation of divisions, the creation of property, the creation of those things that Cooper’s and Clouzot’s American eyes can see as arbitrary, and yet which to the European are real, these are moving humans towards death.

(This is not to mention the walls of the town, or the grilles and other objects that seem strongly to delimit space in the film.)

This tendency to create divisions can also be understood through the importance of letters in the film, the postal service, and the way in which all letters are sent to an address. The term address originally in the early 14th century meant

“to guide, aim, or direct,” from Old French adrecier “go straight toward; straighten, set right; point, direct” (13c.), from Vulgar Latin *addirectiare “make straight” (source also of Spanish aderezar, Italian addirizzare), from ad “to” (see ad-) + *directiare “make straight,” from Latin directus “straight, direct” (see direct (v.), and compare dress (v.)).

As philosopher Alan Watts can be heard explaining on the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ ident, wherever people go, they want to straighten things out – to ‘set right’ rather than to let wiggle, with nature itself being full of wiggly things.

In other words, the notion of the address is an attempt to ‘straighten’ humans, with the idea of addressing someone being the idea also of straightening out their identity. This is also linked to the idea of dress – as reflected in the stiff costumes that nearly every character wears, from Marie and Laura to the men who claim to run Saint Robin.

One’s address, forms of address, dress: all in effect ‘straighten’ humans. But as the division of space is in some respects unnatural, so, too, are these linked concepts of dress and address unnatural – and Le Corbeau tells us so.

For, while Marie and Laura and the men are all buttoned up and repressed (or unable to repress desires that perhaps otherwise might be celebrated), it is Denise who from her initial appearance takes her clothes off/gets undressed and who, most notably as a result of her coxalgia, cannot walk straight (as well as being horizontal a lot of the time while other characters, but in particular by contrast Laura, are vertical – as Mayne also points out).

Germain is attracted to Denise – but he cannot bring himself to admit to loving her for reasons of decorum and social pressure; she is too lower class for him, and he (in Denise’s words) is bourgeois. He closes her window when they first meet, and he addresses her as vous (instead of tu, much to Denise’s displeasure) after they have slept together.

And yet, those who address Germain as Germain are not addressing him quite correctly, for his name is not Rémy Germain, but really Germain Manotte. That is, Germain has a repressed, or rather a fluid, identity. It is only through loving Denise that he can let go of the memory of his first wife and his lost child and learn to be himself again. It is only through accepting his own lack of straightness that Germain can move forward, or be alive. This is signalled most clearly in his impending fatherhood: to be alive is to create life in the universe of Le Corbeau, as we shall discuss in more detail shortly.

There is another side to the division of space that the film creates through its insistent depiction of doors, walls, gates, barriers and other containers. This is seen in the regular shots of characters speaking, but not looking at each other. Sometimes (such as when Laura and Germain meet one evening by the walls to Saint Robin) they positively look away from each other.

It is as though the characters in Le Corbeau do not look at each other, preferring instead to read about each other and/or to address each other formally – but not to address each other properly. We see each other not as people, then, but as symbols – as what we are supposed to mean as opposed to who we are. This is also made clear by the gendered spaces of the film: the all-male club in which most of the men hang out in the evening, and the all-female shop from which Germain is excluded at one point.

If Denise is honest in her lack of straightness (her limp and her desire to get undressed), then she also is honest in her interactions with Germain. For it is only with Germain that we specifically see prolonged exchanges of gaze, with Denise proving her innocence to Germain not through anything other than a remarkable exchange of looks into each other’s eyes.

(Addendum: Germain and François’s mother also look in each other in the eye in an important scene where she announces that she will take her revenge; the old lady also is hunched and thus not ‘straight.’ My thanks to Catherine Wheatley for pointing this out.)

In some senses, then, this is also the ‘American eye’ of cinema: it takes us into a world beyond language and consisting of direct connection via looking into the eyes of another human being. Language itself, then, is part of the ‘straightening’ process of the human world – with the tension between the written text and the visual ‘language’ of cinema also making this clear.

Perhaps it is also important that at one key moment in the film we see Denise from an impossible angle as she lies in bed with Rolande putting cups on her back. In other words, this impossible, ‘American eye’ angle suggests that Denise is a key to a world beyond division and a world beyond conventional notions of property.

It is not that Denise or Germain are heroes in the film. Indeed, Germain causes Laura to go to the asylum (although hopefully he will be able to recall her once Vorzet’s guilt is discovered), while he also literally has blood on his hands from the start of the film: he literally cannot save the life of a baby (and this, we are told, is the third such instance of a miscarriage with which he has been involved). Clouzot is, indeed, too smart a director to make a film that can read in such a straightforward way; for the film to be straightforward would be to contradict the film’s critique of straightness.

Nonetheless, Germain is, ultimately, a figure who respects the crooked and un-straight path that is life, and which irrevocably involves death as a part of life. This can be contrasted with the character whom we assume to be the main culprit, the ‘real’ Corbeau, Vorzet.

As Mayne has pointed out, Vorzet does not sound too dissimilar to the verb avorter, meaning to abort. And while he claims that Laura at first aroused him as a partner, nonetheless his relationship with her is sexless, straight-laced (as per Laura’s costume, but not necessarily as per her desire) and sterile. Furthermore, before marrying Laura, Vorzet was also engaged to Marie – who herself has become sexless, perhaps as a result of her rejection by Vorzet.

(If this play with Vorzet’s name sounds unlikely, we can again see how such wordplay with names is used by Balzac: as Christopher Prendergast points out in The Order of Mimesis, Vautrin’s name could mean vaut rien, or ‘worth nothing,’ which Prendergast associates with Vautrin’s role as a deceptive cipher in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine/Human Comedy. There is possibly also an oblique reference to Balzac when the post office workers discusses la splendeur et décadence postale, possibly a reference to the latter’s 1847 novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtesans.)

And so, Le Corbeau seems to suggest a world in which straightness (walls, fences), the division of space, and the idea of property all are related to the antithesis of life, all are a kind of death. Fascism, as the manifestation of straightness and control, is thus a kind of death that the film critiques in its depiction of space. Human desire, meanwhile, cannot – and perhaps should not – be controlled. It is not that the fascism of German National Socialism is specifically the target of Clouzot’s critique, then, but the fascisms that involved in everyday human life as we button ourselves up, straighten each other out and address each other with fixed names (Denise at one point calls Germain Joseph – as if identity did not matter to her).

This straightness can, finally, be related to the roundness of balls in the film: Rolande, on the cusp of womanhood, regularly is seen bouncing a ball, signalling both her childishness but also her discomfort at being socialised into the straight world (and this ‘neurotic’ behaviour – as Vorzet describes it – is acted out by her regular theft from the till of the post office where she works). At one point, a ball arrives suddenly from off screen, with Germain having to deflect it; the round has a habit of destroying the straight (the ball has of course been thrown by a child – a human not as yet socialised into straightness).

Not only might we think of the round chaos that is Melancholia swallowing up Earth in Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, but the insistent presence of a globe in Fernand Saillens’ classroom also reminds us that the world itself is not straight – as Cooper observes in The Heidenmauer thanks to her American eye.

An aside of sorts: being about the Benedictines, Cooper’s American eye is perhaps also reflected in Le Corbeau, which potentially also offers an oblique critique of the Benedictines. Not that the denomination is anyway made clear, but the town name of Saint Robin recalls the origin of the name Robin, St Robert of Molesme, a Benedictine who founded a series of small communities in the 11th century.

In The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967), Lewis Mumford writes about how

The Benedictine Order, instituted by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, distinguished itself from many similar monastic organisations by imposing a special obligation beyond the usual one of constant prayer, obedience to their superiors, the acceptance of poverty, and the daily scrutiny of each other’s conduct. To all these duties they added a new one: the performance of daily work as a Christian duty… the Benedictine monastery laid down a basis of order as strict as that which held together the earliest megamachines: the difference lay in its modest size, its voluntary constitution, and in the fact that its sternest discipline was self-imposed. (264)

In other words, the Benedictines constitute (for Mumford) a society of control and scrutiny, an early instantiation of the ‘megamachine’ that is modernity, especially as brought into being through the globalisation of capitalism.

And so, finally, if Le Corbeau offers us a critique of the death that is (everyday) fascism, proffering in its place a celebration of life – even if not straightforward and even if including physical death as an inevitable part of its imperfect, everyday existence – then what does this tell us about today?

It is notable that in the past few weeks various films have come out that involve childbirth, child death and abortion. A short list would include Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, USA, 2016), The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, UK/New Zealand/USA, 2016),  Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, USA, 2016) and, in its own way, Bridget Jones’ Baby (Sharon Maguire, Ireland/UK/France/USA, 2016).

It would seem that abortion becomes a key theme in relation to fascism – and that the rise of films dealing with the issue of life and birth bespeak both the way in which fascism certainly has not left us in contemporary times, and thus also of the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau nearly 75 years after it was made.

2 thoughts on “Philosophical Screens: Le Corbeau/The Raven (Henri Georges Clouzot, France, 1943) and the abortion film today

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