Despite his controversial reputation and international notoriety as a filmmaker, no full-length study of Henri-Georges Clouzot has ever been published in English. This book offers a re-evaluation of Clouzot's achievements, situating his career in the wider context of French cinema and society, and providing detailed and clear analysis of his major films (Le Corbeau, Quai des Orfèvres, Le Salaire de la peur, Les Diaboliques, Le Mystère Picasso). Clouzot's films combine meticulous technical control with sardonic social commentary and the ability to engage and entertain a broad public. Although they are characterised by an all-controlling perfectionism, allied to documentary veracity and a disturbing bleakness of vision, Clouzot is well aware that his knows the art of illusion. His fondness for anatomising social pretence, and the deception, violence and cruelty practised by individuals and institutions, drew him repeatedly to the thriller as a convenient and compelling model for plots and characters, but his source texts and the usual conventions of the genre receive distinctly unconventional treatment.
This chapter examines in the broad context Clouzot and his cinema, situating him in the wider context of French history and cinema in the mid-twentieth century. The chapter explores the forces, personal, political and social, that shaped his career as a filmmaker. It also highlights the extent to which his films propose a consistent, personal vision, and the way they reflect the important social and aesthetic changes of his time. Furthermore, it explores the question of whether Clouzot qualifies as an auteur, as an original and innovative creator, or whether he was essentially a technically brilliant craftsman, a skilled manipulator of audiences, who produced a series of arresting genre films. Finally, it asks if his films were influenced in any way by the rise of the New Wave of French directors and critics from the late 1950s, or was it that they remained rooted in what some hostile commentators saw as a conventional and stultifying classicism.
This chapter illustrates the military defeat and subsequent occupation of France in 1940 by the Germans. The chapter explores the devastation, the chaos routed by the invading German forces and the loss of life of the French armies in May and June. The government had abandoned the capital and took refuge in Bordeaux. The signing of the armistice left the Germans in control of two-thirds of the country and they were fully able to exploit its economic resources. The parliamentary democracy of the Third Republic was abolished and replaced by a puppet regime with direct control of only the remaining third of the country. Based in the spa town of Vichy and headed by the aged Marshal Pétain, the new French state embarked on a policy of collaboration with the Germans, a relationship which in reality amounted to subservience rather than partnership.
This chapter examines the four films with which Clouzot relaunched his career on his return to filmmaking in 1947. Clouzot's first post-war film, Quai des Orfèvres (1947), is seen as a continuation of his previous work. Its preoccupation with sexual marginality makes it a significant transitional film, which anticipates his work in the 1950s and 1960s. Quai des Orfèvres attracted over five million French viewers and was awarded a prize for best director at the Venice biennale, while a critics' poll conducted by the review Positif in 1995 ranked it as the second-best French thriller ever made. Manon (1949) likewise gained over three million French viewers and another Venice prize. It was an adaptation of the Abbé Prévost's classic story of tragic love, skillfully updated to the liberation period. Retour à la vie was about the problems of French prisoners of war returning to civilian life. The fourth film examined here, Miquette, deals with sexual exploitation, rivalry and jealousy.
The main purpose of this chapter is to study Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Salaire de la peur and the particular ratio it exhibits between convention and invention, between the requirements of genre and the ingenuity and worldview of an auteur working with that genre. Le Salaire de la peur, released in April 1953, rose to immediate critical acclaim and commercial success, winning prizes at the Cannes festival for best film and best actor and proving the second most popular film of the year in France. There may be some initial hesitation about what genre Le Salaire belongs to. In practice the film shares many of the defining features of the action-adventure movie. Clouzot seems to adopt many of the conventions of the expensive and expansive adventure film with considerable relish; he invests them with added value, formally, psychologically and morally.
This chapter deals with suspense and surveillance in Les Diaboliques and Les Espions. Les Diaboliques was released in January 1955 and proved to be Clouzot's most commercially successful film but it's critical reception was mixed. While its combination of ingenious plot twists, moments of horror and black humour captivated cinema audiences, for many reviewers such features were taken as evidence that Clouzot's aspirations were cynically limited to meretricious manipulation of spectators' emotions in the cause of low-brow entertainment. Les Espions, released in October 1957, makes far less effort to engage or beguile the spectator. Although this film, like Les Diaboliques, is set in a run-down institution on the outskirts of Paris, and peopled by enigmatic and duplicitous characters that plot each other's downfall, its narrative and characterisation are deliberately disrupted and elliptical. Clouzot's intention was not to construct a pleasing puzzle but to convey an atmosphere of alienation and absurdist uncertainty.
This chapter deals with the documentary films which Clouzot made with Pablo Picasso and Herbert von Karajan. Le Mystère Picasso was filmed at La Victorine studios in Nice and first shown at the Cannes festival in 1956, where it was awarded a special jury prize. Le Mystère Picasso attempts to probe the mystery of artistic creation. Colour had the aesthetic function of highlighting the act of artistic creation. Clouzot made five films for the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan. His successful work with Karajan demonstrates Clouzot's durability and versatility. But the music films are no more than technically skilful records of the maestro and his musicians in performance, with Karajan at their centre. It has little sense of the filmmaker's presence other than as one of the conductor's facilitators. In fact, Karajan carefully used his sessions with Clouzot in order to learn about filmmaking, subsequently launching his own productions of his performances and directing them himself.
This chapter illustrates the last films of Clouzot, Le Mystère Picasso and Les Espions, through which Clouzot tried to renew himself. Though critics noted these innovations with varying degrees of approval, neither film drew large audiences. La Vérité, released in November 1960, returns to a more familiar, conventional manner. This well-crafted courtroom melodrama, ably supported by the director's stalwarts Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel and Louis Seigner, proved to be the second most popular French film of the year, attracting 5.6 million viewers. It was awarded the Grand prix du cinéma français, and an Oscar for best foreign film in 1961. La Vérité achieved one of the highest ever first-run attendance figures of over half a million viewers. The contribution of four female writers to the screenplay of the film explains La Vérité's sympathetic and sensitive treatment of the character driven to commit murder and then suicide in her quest for sexual freedom and love, and condemned by a patriarchal and prurient legal system.
This chapter deals with the overall contribution of Clouzot as a filmmaker. All of Clouzot's feature films offer painstaking reconstructions of a recognisable social world, ranging from Paris and provincial France in the late nineteenth century and mid-twentieth century to Palestine and Central America. In some cases, the background is sufficiently detailed and accurate for the films to acquire a genuine documentary value, insofar as they offer spectators historical insights into past customs, institutions and periods. Clouzot's command of detail validates his films as social documents. For instance, Clouzot's version of the occupation and liberation in Manon seems far more wide-ranging, authentic and persuasive (precisely because its cynical bleakness captures the spirit of the time) than the romantic melodrama and simplistic heroism offered thirty years later in Truffaut's Le Dernier Métro.