Le corbeau (The Raven or The Crow) is probably the most controversial film in French history. It was made in 1943, under the German occupation–and for a German-owned production company–by Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known in the US for Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear. 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 and did not complete another film until 1949; Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc, the film’s stars, were imprisoned.
Both Left (Resistance) and Right (Vichy) agreed in finding Le corbeau demoralizing and “anti-French.” Even today, those who praise it speak of its darkness and cynicism, its jaundiced denial of moral certainty. Yet my impression is quite different. I see it as a film about trust and love, on the one hand, and the harsh but real necessity of moral judgment on the other. No film more forcefully denounces mob persecution and scapegoating, not to speak of the sinister practice, so notorious under the occupation, of informing on one’s neighbors through anonymous letters. Although not a propaganda piece for the Resistance, Le corbeau is an affirmation of humanistic values antithetical to those of the German occupiers and their Vichy collaborators.
Le corbeau has many characteristics of a detective film. At the center of the story is a rash of anonymous letters signed “le corbeau,” the first of which accuse Dr. Germain (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, the attractive young wife of the old psychiatrist,Vorzet. The letters go on to reveal many secrets and denounce much dishonesty in the (medium-sized) town of St.-Robin. One brutally informs a young hospital patient that his cancer is fatal, whereupon he cuts his throat with a razor.
Germain, perturbed by the accusations, spends a night with Denise (Leclerc), the sluttish occupant of the neighboring room (he is renting in a schoolhouse). Meanwhile, suspicions about the letters solidify around Marie Corbin, Laura Vorzet’s unattractive sister who is a nurse at the hospital. Clouzot films Marie’s flight through the empty crooked streets to her room with the techniques of German expressionism to create a powerful indictment of mob violence. Then a letter that appears after Marie is jailed demonstrates her innocence.
Germain catches Denise writing him a corbeau letter to announce that she bears his child, and immediately suspects her of having written the others. But in the film’s most moving scene (and its only close-up), she asks him to find in her tearful eyes the truth that she is not le corbeau. Finally, it comes out that the first letter was written by Laura herself in an effort to seduce Germain, and all the others by Vorzet. Laura is carted off to a mental hospital in a scene reminiscent of a Gestapo abduction; the hospital suicide’s mother cuts Vorzet’s throat with her son’s razor. Germain and Denise decide to have their child and, we assume, will leave St.-Robin together.
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, having closed it to shut out their noise in the couple’s first scene in the film. Even Clouzot’s fabled cynicism is not dark–nor is the lighting–but satiric and often humorous.
The situation of Clouzot’s spectator is judiciously balanced. With respect to the satiric elements of the film–the mutual blackmail of the chief doctor and the bursar, the hypocritical storekeeper who abandons Germain for another doctor because of the letters, the postmaster taking for himself a corbeau letter addressed to his wife–we stand back ironically. But as regards the central question of discovering the author of the letters, we are put in the same position as the other characters, particularly Germain, and are induced to jump to the same conclusions. Rather than being terrorized along with the victim, as in a film noir, or repelled by the mob, as in Duvivier’s postwar Panique, we become part of the persecuting crowd. Yet there is no final lynching to pin on us. Like the good doctor, we learn that those he suspected were innocent. The guilty party, whom we presumably have not suspected, is indeed punished, but not by “us”; the mother, half-hidden by a veil, dons in the film’s final shot the black plumage of the Crow.
In probably the best-known scene in the film, Vorzet confronts Germain in a schoolroom at night. Germain affirms his moral reprobation for the corbeau and declares his certitude in knowing right from wrong. Vorzet, accusing Germain of being just as contaminated by the letters as the rest of St.-Robin, counters with a little demonstration. The two doctors stand in front of a globe; the room is lit by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Vorzet pushes the light fixture so that it swings back and forth, casting its moving shadow on the globe (on which Europe is visible) as he claims that the boundary between good and evil is similarly unstable. When Germain tries to grab the bulb to stop its swinging, he burns his fingers, whereupon Vorzet announces that his demonstration is conclusive: moral truth cannot be grasped by mere mortals.
This scene is inevitably cited by critics as a statement of Clouzot’s own views about life in general and collaboration in particular. Thus Ehrlich:
The theme of the film is stated quite explicitly in a scene between Vorzet and Germain. [description of the lamp-swinging scene] The moral ambiguity which Vorzet verbalizes in this scene is certainly Clouzot’s. (p. 185)
But the critics inevitably pass over the contrasting scene that follows.
Vorzet departs, leaving Germain in the room. As the lamp continues to swing, Clouzot signals the passage of time by fading in an image of the lamp having come to rest. We pan down to see Germain in the morning, having apparently spent the night asleep with his head on the teacher’s desk. He is awakened by the arrival of the suicide’s mother, who tells him that she now works as a cleaning-lady at the school, shows him her son’s razor, and informs him that she has a good idea of the identity of the corbeau but is waiting to be absolutely sure before taking action. Germain expresses shock, but she is unmoved.
Thus the matching of the still lamp on the moving lamp reflects not only the passage of time but the transition from a world of relativism associated with Vorzet to a world of moral certitude exemplified by the mother. Germain seems to side with Vorzet, and in his subsequent remarks about the corbeau and the priority of the mother’s life over the child’s he takes a more measured position than previously. But when the film ends with the mother’s departure down the crooked street as Vorzet lies dead with his head on his desk beside an incomplete letter of the corbeau, we can hardly assert that the film itself is on Vorzet’s side. On the contrary, it shows us that only the mother’s brutal act could terminate the scourge of the corbeau, and that more delicate souls like Germain in fact depend upon such acts to maintain a moral order. If we situate the film within the ethical context defined by the German occupation of France, then if Vorzet’s ambivalence relativizes the guilt of collaboration, the mother’s act cannot but recall the deeds of the Resistance.
An element in this complex film that fits less easily into this interpretation is the strange insistence on the sexuality of pubescent fourteen-year-old Rolande, Denise’s niece, whom one of the letters accuses Germain of seeking to make his mistress. But if this suggestion of sexual disorder reflects the paranoid world of the corbeau, in Rolande’s last appearance on screen she uses her nascent feminine wisdom to reassure Denise that Germain will not leave town without her. The lovers’ mature relationship takes over the sexual terrain from Rolande’s adolescent longings–as well as from Laura’s illicit desire for Germain that created the corbeau in the first place.
The ambiguity that critics see in Le corbeau is not absent, but neither is it the film’s message. The refusal to judge offers a charitable vision of humanity where tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, but the final word of the film is something else. We are offered visions of both Germain’s broadened humanity and the mother’s vengeful resolve. The first is more congenial, but the second ends the story. A corbeau, corbeau et demi.
Vorzet (played to perfection by Pierre Larquey) is a seductive character, and his “demonstration” a convincing one; but as we learn from our earlier readiness, shared with the townsfolk, to condemn Marie Corbin, séduction n’est pas raison. The truth is not to be found in mere appearances, the film tells us, but in Denise’s eyes–and in the mother’s razor.