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Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s chilly mystery ‘Le Corbeau’ shook occupied France 75 years ago

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Film Critic

It’s hard to say what is more astonishing about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau,” a savage feature that’s been called the most controversial film in French history.

Is it Clouzot’s icy, misanthropic view of human nature, his pitiless dissection of the French character or that this film was shot in 1943, decades before Martin McDonagh, responsible for the similarly bleak “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” was even born.

Made during Germany’s World War II occupation of France, “Le Corbeau” (usually translated as “The Raven”) was a true film maudit, a cursed movie written and directed by Clouzot that made all elements of the French power structure cringe.

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Though the picture proved popular with audiences, the right-wing collaborationist Vichy government pulled “Le Corbeau” from theaters because of the immorality of its characters as well as its thinly veiled references to the destructive nature of informing on your neighbors, a staple of Vichy France.

After liberation, the resurgent political left was just as upset with the film because it clashed with the received wisdom that France had been a top-to-bottom nation of heroic resisters.

As a result, once WWII ended, director Clouzot was banned from working for life, a verdict that was transformed into a blacklisting that lasted two years, until 1947, when the corrosive thriller “Quai des Orfèvres” (which also returned to Los Angeles a few weeks ago) was made.

Even the tradition-busting French New Wave critics and filmmakers scorned Clouzot, mistaking his meticulous work habits for the conventional point of view that was never his.

Now, in a new 4K restoration playing at the Laemmle Royal that makes “Le Corbeau” look spanking new, we can see what all the fuss was about.

The film’s incongruous setting is a bucolic, picturesque spot, a kind of French-style Pleasantville described ambiguously in a title as “a small town, here or elsewhere.”

The residents of this town appear to be upstanding enough, but a psychological plague is about to descend on them, destroying everything in its path.

Based on the real-life Angèle Laval affair that took place in the town of Tulle in 1917, this plague is a torrent of poison-pen letters, all signed “Le Corbeau,” next to the image of a raven.

Whoever the letter writer is, he or she knows all the town’s Peyton Place secrets. Who drinks too much, who is cooking the books, who is clandestinely sleeping with whom.

Making these secrets public gradually creates mass panic, revealing the town’s inhabitants as sour, scheming, backstabbing and duplicitous. No one is as he or she seems, and no one can be trusted.

Met first is Dr. Rémy Germain (Pierre Fresnay, the star of Marcel Pagnol’s “Marius”), introduced, we soon learn, just after having performed an abortion.

Brusque, humorless and disdainful, Dr. Germain is employed at the local hospital, where he clandestinely flirts with Laura Vorzet (Micheline Francey), the much younger wife of Dr. Vorzet (Pierre Larquey), a psychiatrist with a mordant sense of humor.

Laura’s sister Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), is a bad-tempered nurse whose idea of appropriate bedside manner is telling a patient in pain to “stop your moaning.”

And don’t forget about Denise Saillens (Ginette Leclerc), a strong-willed seductress who pretends to be ill to get Dr. Germain to make a house call. “For this kind of examination,” he tells her dismissively, “you don’t need a doctor.”

Clouzot, always a painstaking filmmaker, has constructed a plot of fiendish intricacy whose wild twists implicate one character after another until justice is finally served.

“The Ink That Made Blood Flow” is how a newspaper in the movie characterizes these goings-on, and as the hysteria mounts, you start to wonder if anything, even blood, will return the town to normal in this audacious, take no prisoners film.

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‘Le Corbeau’

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran


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