Le Corbeau (1943)

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Best known for the thrillers Les Diaboliques (The Devils) and La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), director Henri-Georges Clouzot is best described as the French Hitchcock. In fact, a certain key scene in Les Diaboliques was so frightening that it reportedly prompted Hitchcock to up the ante in that Psycho’s famous shower scene. Clouzot certainly never went by halves in his films, ramping up tension and paranoia until characters either broke or the audience did, as proven by the disturbing Le Corbeau (The Raven).

Le Corbeau opens on small French town Saint-Robin, where anonymous poison-pen letters signed only Le Corbeau have been plaguing the inhabitants. The main target seems to be the town’s doctor Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), accused of  a multitude of sins including having an affair with his colleague’s wife Laura (Micheline Francey) and providing illegal abortions for women in trouble. But soon other members of the community begin receiving letters informing them of infidelity, usury, and even illness. The catch is that the cruelly worded accusations seem to be true. As the letters pile up, the people begin to turn against each other, revealing the petty cruelties, prejudices, and paranoia underlying the idyllic little town.

Le Corbeau is not a pleasant film; it’s a film about unpleasantness, about meanness and cruelty and, more than that, about the willingness to believe the worst of your neighbors. While The Raven is a vilified figure, the gossip he or she spreads is believed without question, causing the destruction of homes, careers, and lives. The townspeople are divided in their suspicions of each other – not only could anyone be the Raven, anyone could also be targeted by the Raven, prompting a bizarre playing off of people against each other as they learn the worst about their neighbors. As the film proceeds to its inevitable climax, the viewer is treated to seeing characters at their vindictive worst.

Le Corbeau created something of a stir in France, both during and after its premiere. The film appeared in 1943 and was produced by Continental Films, a German production company set up in France just prior to Occupation. While the Germans viewed Le Corbeau as anti-Nazi, the French would later accuse Clouzot of vilifying the French people. This background throws the argument of Le Corbeau into interesting relief: the film does indeed represent the villagers as petty and malicious people, more concerned for propriety and disguising their own amorality than in punishing the guilty and exalting the innocent. Germain, one of the few decent people in Saint-Robin, is repeatedly attacked both by the Raven and the townspeople until forced into revealing his entire past; innocent people die or are injured because they’re suspected of being the letter writer. The film paints a very dark picture of France in the 1940s. It’s made even darker if read as a veiled allegory for the Nazi occupation, the turning of the French people against each other as neighbors become informers.

If Le Corbeau has any flaw it is in the denouement, when the discovery of the letter writer plays as secondary to Germain’s crisis of faith and eventual rejection of the town as a whole. The ending feels strangely rushed, as though Clouzot had run out of ideas and was simply trying to give the narrative some kind of closure. But the point of the film is not about closure – it’s about suspicion, about paranoia. The Raven is vindictive, but so is the entire town. As the film ends with the image of a figure in widow weeds walking down the empty street, one feels as though nothing has actually been resolved. Whatever Clouzot actually intended in his film – and whether he intended any parallels to be drawn at all – it is a deeply critical film at a time when France was in no mood to be criticized.

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