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La vérité: the French Woman’s Prison (Criterion Collection)

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By Tony Williams.

Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is best known as the director of Le Corbeau (1943), Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Wages of Fear (1953), Diabolique (1955) for the majority of viewers. Although he beat Hitchcock in obtaining the rights for the fourth film, “The Master” gained his victory in purchasing Des Entre des Mortes for his acclaimed version of Vertigo (1958). In the era of auteur criticism, Clouzot unfairly gained a reputation as a “Master of Bad Taste” in comparison to more celebrated “Great Tradition” directors such as Hitchcock, but that label is unjustified for several reasons. First, it ignores the fact that human existence is often bleak and those who choose to explore consistently such dark avenues are not totally denying alternatives nor do they relish the depicted darkness. Secondly, it tends to marginalize those working in different areas and contributing other distinctive visions that may not correspond with false ideologically motivated idealistic portrayals of everyday life but which, nonetheless, are indispensable in terms of providing other interpretations, ones that are serious by nature. Finally, we must remember that certain celebrated directors benefited by working in better production circumstances with rivals marginalized for various reasons. One case is Kazan. Had there not been any blacklist, which he supported, would he today be in his position of dubious eminence, had Enfield, Losey, Polansky, and many others, gained the opportunity to display their untapped creative visions with more contributions to Hollywood cinema? Polonsky’s solitary, pre-blacklist Force of Evil (1949) is worth more than Kazan’s tacky Baby Doll (1956). Could not any of the future blacklisted directors provided a more insightful vision than A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed and scripted by two snitches who worked on the pro-HUAC On the Waterfront (1954)? Lindsay Anderson’s comments on the latter film are well worth reading.

Verite 03Following the commercial failures of The Mystery of Picasso (1956) and The Spies (1957), Clouzot returned to the dark noir territory he earlier explored in films made during the German Occupation and Diabolique. Although lacking many of the visual signifiers of “noir,” La vérité is without qualification one of Clouzot’s exceptional noir explorations of the human condition. Dominque Moreau (Brigitte Bardot) is as psychologically trapped as those characters in Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfevres. La vérité is a courtroom drama with obligatory flashbacks but one demanding close attention from the viewers rather than the type of prejudices exhibited by legal and news representatives in the film as well as deliberately chosen middle-aged jury and voyeuristic spectators in the courtroom as eager to prey on their chosen victim as the village community does in Le Corbeau.

Already disturbed “good time girl” Dominque, the product of a dysfunctional provincial family, arrives in Paris with her suffocating, passive-aggressive, repressive sister (Marie Jose-Nat) to experience life in the great metropolis. But, far from providing her with personal liberation, she finds herself drawn into self-destructive patterns of behavior and personal manipulation by ambitious music student Gilbert (Sami Frey) who uses and abuses her in a stifling, suffocating relationship which ends in tragedy and her appearance in court for his murder. From the very opening scene, claustrophobic images of entrapment appear, such as bar shadows in the woman’s prison incarcerating her, the spider web doodles of her defense attorney Guerin (Charles Vanel) having its spiders multiplying in the second design, biased journalists voyeuristically devouring the proceedings like a typical non-thinking movie audience, the huge courtroom audience eager to see blood spilled like those spectators at the Guillotine during the French Revolution, and the image of a film poster of Alexander Nevsky (1938) overlooking Gilbert’s preying mantis character prowling a Parisian noir street at night, consumed by possessive jealousy. It is not accidental that the image shows the brutal Knights of the Teutonic Order and not the film’s actual hero!

The film appeared in 1960. References are made to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins (1954), which was regarded as a scandalous book at the time in the same way Peyton Place (1956) was in America, provoking shocked gasps from the courtroom audience. Yet when prosecuting counsel Eparvier (Paul Meurisse) reads out a spicy passage in court, Guerin responds that the author’s prize-winning book contained more than that and asks, “Is Simone de Beauvoir on trial?” Despite the film’s date, 1960 did not see an overnight switch to liberated attitudes. Amongst Dominque’s other “flaws” are frequent weekly visits to the cinema, sins characterizing Occupation-era youths in Henri Decoin’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’ s Les Inconnus dans la Maison (1942), scripted by Clouzot himself. To his credit, Clouzot does not depict his heroine as a virtuous, innocent victim since she has personal issues, which she also recognizes. However, the scales of justice are tipped against her and she will become a convenient sacrificial victim in a process where “La vérité” is really as multi-faceted as the characters and their situations in the film. Like Le Corbeau, the community always needs a convenient scapegoat. For prosecutor and defense attorney, familiar colleagues, and combatants, the legal process is merely a game. Dominque recognizes her situation as psychological entrapment in an uncomprehending society dominated by old men in “costumes” that cannot recognize either the different world of youth or sexual relationships that cannot be categorized according to institutional norms.

At a time, when Bardot was commonly known as the “sex kitten” and had appeared in undemanding entertainments such as La Parisienne (1957) and Babette Goes to War (1959), released in dubbed versions in the UK, La vérité represents one of those very rare occasions in which she was allowed to display her real acting abilities. Appearing at a time when her stormy marriage to Jacques Charrier and off-screen affair with co-star Sami Frey were common knowledge, reviewers naturally confused the celebrity image of the star with the character she played. But this was misleading. Not only did she hit the notorious director back when he attempted one of his characteristic assaults on set but also proved she could hold the screen against acting heavyweights like Meurisse, Vanel, and Fernand Ledoux, who appears in a brief scene as a doctor testifying against her in court.

Verite 02This is the type of film worthy of release under the Criterion label rather than the umpteenth reissue of Blue Velvet, since it represents a neglected example of a director’s work that needs to be seen more widely. Special features include a 60-minute 2017 documentary, Le Scandale Clouzot (2017), a 1960 interview with Clouzot about the film, and extracts from a 1982 documentary on Bardot, Brigitte Bardot telle qu’elle, in which she talks frankly about her personal life at the time of filming and her work with Clouzot. This forms a revealing supplement to the character she plays in the film. However, the 2017 documentary contains several gaps. Clouzot’s scripting of Les inconnus dans la Maison is never mentioned, nor is his 1900 period comedy Miquette (1950) that reveals a more humorous side to the director, with Louis Jouvet and Bourvil in leading roles. The 2017 documentary contains some amazingly restored extracts from Clouzot’s early work as director but it tends to focus more upon his notoriety than analyzing his work in detail. It briefly mentions The Spies but does not feature his post-Occupation influenced Manon (1949) with Serge Reggiani, who also appeared in the director’s uncompleted Inferno (1964), which was finally released in 2009. Though minor, Les Espions (1957) is an interesting comedy with an international cast, featuring Curd Jurgens, Peter Ustinov, O.E. Hasse, Sam Jaffe, and Martita Hunt in a French-speaking role, as well as Vera Clouzot. Although the documentary features clips from Clouzot’s abandoned project Le Voyage en Bresil (1950), it speculates far too often on the supposed sado-masochistic relationship between director and wife, who also appears in Diaboliques and La vérité.

One of his inaccessible and rarest films is his contribution to the four-part Return to Life (1949), in which he contributed the third segment “The Return of Jean,” featuring Louis Jouvet and Noel Roquevert, that dealt with the post-war return of a concentration camp survivor who encounters a Nazi war criminal on the run. According to Fiona Watson, this 40-minute episode “achieves the same power as his best features.” (1) This is the type of film that Criterion should be restoring.

Accompanied with a very informative folding booklet essay, “Women on Trial” by Ginette Vincendeau, this Criterion release should contribute towards understanding the deep complexity behind the director’s vision that is far more than the supposedly predominant shock effects of Diabolique. Maybe there was a “Mystery of Clouzot” concerning the director’s personality formed by life-threatening effects of his early bout with tuberculosis and witnessing the dark effects of the German Occupation, which was long denied for many decades by post-war French society until Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and The Pity (1969) and the television series A French Village (2009-2017) revealed a very different picture of human flaws, deception, and betrayal. (2) Much more work needs to be undertaken on this director who was previously dismissed as the maker of films in “bad taste.” But does not “bad taste” often arise from understanding the darker side of humanity rather than denying or disregarding its implications as distracting sensationalism? Clouzot’s entire work still awaits its analytic chronicler and critic.

References

1. Fiona Watson, “Henri-Georges Clouzot” Great Directors. Senses of Cinema 36, July 2005. http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/great-directors/clouzot/.

2. See further, Tony Williams, “Some French Films of the Occupation: The Silence of the Noir.” French Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2018, pp. 220-245.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.

Read also:

A Modern Classic Revised: The French Cinema Book, 2nd Edition, Edited by Michael Temple and Michael Witt

Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema, Tim Palmer, (2011)

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