Le Corbeau: The Raven – Clouzot teaches us the power of gossip

Le Corbeau (The Raven) is a 1943 French film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The film was notable for causing serious trouble to its director after World War II because it had been produced by Continental Films, a German production company established in France in the early months of the war, and because the film had been perceived by the underground and the communist press as vilifying the French people. Because of this, Clouzot was initially banned for life from directing in France and the film too was banned, but both bans were lifted in 1947. It reminded me a lot of the challenges Fassbinder poses in the film Lili Marleen, which I discuss here. The film has been called the most controversial French film in history. Part of the reason for this is its startling ambiguity in subject matter. With the joy of 20/20 hindsight we can call this a marvelous film for that fact, but at the time, it was interpreted and misinterpreted in many different, often destructive, ways.

To quote Evelyn Ehrlich’s authoritative study of Vichy film, Cinema of Paradox (Columbia, 1985), “Of all the crimes committed by the film industry during the occupation, seemingly the most serious was having worked on Le corbeau” (p. 176). Clouzot was banned from film-making after Liberation, at first for life, and was not allowed to work until 1947; Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc, the film’s stars, were briefly imprisoned.

The word corbeau has always been the French for raven or crow, but has now acquired the sense of a sender of anonymous letters. 

Both the Left (Resistance) and the Right (Vichy) agreed in finding Le corbeaudemoralizing and “anti-French”: unfounded rumors were spread that the film was shown throughout Germany as a demonstration of the decadence of French society. On the contrary, the Germans understandably disliked the film for its theme of anonymous letters; ironically, it was only because it was produced by a German company that it ever got past the censors.

Later when Cahiers du cinéma was the defining word in what made a great film, Clouzot was considered to be something off a hack, and so his very brilliant direction has been swept under the carpet, primarily due to controversy and an outright dismissal by the directors of the French New wave.

Le corbeau is based on a real incident, in which the southern town of Tulle was subjected between 1917 and 1922 to a series of over 1000 anonymous letters, including pornographic drawings, signed L’oeil du tigre; the scandalous revelations of these letters provoked several suicides. After a lengthy dictation organized by a Lyon police doctor and graphologist, the handwriting was discovered to be that of one Angèle Laval, an amorously frustrated former civil servant; arrested and tried in 1922, she was given a suspended sentence and lived on for another fifty years.

Le corbeau has many characteristics of a detective film. At the center of the story is a rash of anonymous letters signed (with a drawing) by Le corbeau, the first of which accuses Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a physician-obstetrician suspected of being an abortionist because he cares more for the mother’s life than that of the child, of illicit relations with Laura (Micheline Francey), the attractive young wife of the old psychiatrist, Vorzet (Pierre Larquey).

initially the letters are sent to Dr. Germain, Laura and Vorzet, but soon everyone in the town is receiving them. Each letter discloses secrets that may or may not be true. In a wonderful scene and man launches into another mans office and accuses him of fiddling with the books a few months earlier to his financial advantage. The man responds with a letter of his own that reveals an affair the initial man is having. At this point both the men agree that there is no substance to the letters out of fear of their own exposure.

Dr. Germain is still the subject of every letter, and most accuse him of being an abortionist, Laura’s lover and soon the lover of other women as well – including a child. Although everyone has become the victim, Dr. Germain is still the primary target of The Raven. Dr. Germain is not having an affair with Laura. He is sleeping with the town floosey, Denise, who uses her sexuality to mask a limp she carries from a defect she received from an accident in childhood.

But the town is torn apart by a desire to believe the dirt about others and a desire to hide the dirt about themselves. As a director Clouzot plays with the letters in exciting ways. They fly from windows, dance down upon unsuspecting church goers and in the best scene of the film, one falls from the back of a hearse. It sits on the road as the mourning town part like the red sea around it as they move forward. The camera work here (as with many of the letter shots) is from the point of view of the letter itself. Clouzot makes the letters a character in the film, but even more than this, he places himself in the role of the letters.  Clouzot’s message is not just that we mustn’t tear each other apart through gossip, but also that we are always being watched by the other.

A cancer patient receives a letter informing him coldly of his condition and he decides to commit suicide. The town is now furious and wants blood. At this point in the film, reminding me a lot of Millers Salem Witch hunts in The crucible, the town turn on an unnatractive nun who works at the hospital who happens to be the sister of Laura and Vorzet. A wonderful scene of her running through the streets has her appear like a crow, as the crowd chase and corner her. Letters continue to be sent however, even though she is locked away, so soon it becomes obvious that she is the only one they can be sure is not the Raven.

Vorzet decides to undergo an experiment where he gets the towns prime suspects to write The Ravens letters dictated by Vorzet himself. During this episode Denise collapses and is suspected of being The Raven. Dr. Germaine goes to her room and there he finds a letter from The Raven half completed. He tells Dr. Germiane that he has fathered Denise’s child.   Dr Germaine hides and witnesses Denise completing and sealing the letter. He jumps out at Denise who claims she only wrote that one and it was to use the Raven herself to let him know she was pregnant with his child. Dr. Germaine doesn’t believe her, and then, in the only closeup in te entire film, Denise asks him to look into her eyes and see the truth. He does and he knows inside himself Denise could never have sent all the letters.

Denise then informs him shed received a telephone call from Laura claiming she’d received a death threat from The Raven. Dr. Germaine races over to the house to find Laura has just completed a Raven letter to herself. When confronted by Dr. Germaine, Laura claims she did in fact write the first letter, but only that one, in order to start a romance between herself and the Doctor. Laura’s husband Vorzet overhears this conversation and tells Germane he believes his wife is insane. Dr. Germaine signs the papers to have her locked away himself. In a shocking scene straight out of Nazi germany we see Laura being carted off to the asylum with no one to help her. It is at this moment, however, Dr. Germaine re-enters the house, only to find Vorzet is dead. He is half way through a Raven letter, when his throat was cut with the very razor the young man had killed himself with in hospital. The murderer is the young man’s mother, who had promised earlier in the film that she would kill the raven.

There are so many interesting things to say about this film. Vorzet is a famous and well-respected psychiatrist and gives a wonderfully illuminating commentary as the film wends its way through its narrative on the nature of the human being. There is a fantastic scene where he is asking Dr. Germaine if he trusts his own reflection?  he swings the overhead light so that the two men are sometimes in darkness, sometimes in full light and each swing changes the image he shows to the world. There are many such moments, all the more illuminating when we find out Vorzet was the Raven himself.

Direction is superb.  All institutions, graveyards, schools, hospitals, churches, clubs are shot from the perspective of them being mini prisons that each member of the town is locked into. There is no escape here.  While it may not be true to say this is a judgement on the French as a universal, it is a judgement on small towns and small town mentality.

To read most descriptions of this film, one would never know that the story ends with, on the one hand, the punishment of those guilty of sending the letters, and on the other, the affirmation of life and love through the child awaited by the principals. Germain declares to Denise that he needs this child, that one should not refuse the future-and opens his window to hear children playing in the schoolyard, in evident counterpoint to his act of closing it to shut out their noise in the couple’s first scene in the film.