A pivotal and divisive figure of Forties and Fifties French cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907 - 1977) made his name as a daring iconoclast through a series of hugely influential, often controversial, films whose stylistic audacity, off-beat humor and stinging critique of bourgeois society were far ahead of their time. Clouzot’s remarkable talent with mystery and thriller narratives earned him the unfortunate yet inevitable sobriquet of the “French Hitchcock” despite the two directors' notably different approach to suspense and despite Clouzot’s profound influence upon Hitchcock, with Les Diaboliques, for example, openly acknowledged as a model for Psycho. The phenomenal and lasting success of Les Diaboliques and Clouzot's other best-known film, the gripping action epic The Wages of Fear, continue to overshadow the larger arc of his risk-embracing career and major contributions to cinema. Still little known outside of France, Clouzot's other films are only gradually being rediscovered, slowly giving way to a fuller understanding of a fiercely original artist able like none other to masterfully intertwine adrenaline-igniting entertainment, trenchant political satire, ribald comedy and heartfelt tragedy.
Clouzot's film career began as a screenwriter in the early 1930s. He divided his time between France and Germany and eventually settled briefly in Berlin where he also worked as an assistant to directors E.A. Dupont and Anatole Litvak. While in Germany, Clouzot became enamored with the brooding, shadowy Weimar cinema whose masters F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang would exert an especially lasting influence. Frequently infirm, Clouzot was debilitated by a four year struggle with pleurisy, an experience which clearly fueled the obsessively recurring motifs of illness and death in his films and which left him hungry to seize the directorial reins for himself. Soon after he left the sanatorium Clouzot's Berlin connections secured him a job at the German-run production company Continental, newly established in Vichy France, where he wrote some of his finest early screenplays before directing his debut film, the stylish whodunit, L'Assassin habite au 21. Next came Clouzot's celebrated, scandalous and still contested second film, Le Corbeau, a caustic study of deceit and embittered provinciality set in small town France during the German occupation. Released to uneasy acclaim at the height of the Vichy era, Le Corbeau unleashed a wave of attacks after the war targeting Clouzot's supposedly "anti-French" Fascist sympathies and eventually leading to a two-year forced suspension of all directorial activities, despite the film's clearly anti-Petain message. Le Corbeau also set in motion a chronic pattern of misinterpretation that plagued Clouzot's films and reputation for years to come, one that lingers even today.
Upon release from his creative "house arrest" Clouzot staged a remarkable return with a series of commercial and critical successes led by his dazzling and raucous comedie humaine, Quai des Orfèvres, and his controversial ode to amour fou, Manon. Together these seminal films revealed the unusual marriage of sharp realism and eerie, oneiric imagery that would remain signatures of Clouzot's cinema. A tireless perfectionist notorious for tyrannically ruling over his sets, Clouzot often went to unexpected extremes to craft every aspect of his films, giving special attention to the meticulously detailed and atmospheric sets that so vividly evoked the dank, largely interior world explored by his films. Behind many of the extraordinary performances prominent throughout the films hovered the threat of Clouzot's unreasonable realist creed which demanded, for example, that the actors actually eat the putrid fish served in the seedy boarding school in Les Diaboliques, or that Charles Vanel sink neck deep into a pit of crude oil in The Wages of Fear. Such unyielding and extreme ambition brought Clouzot both meteoric success as well as the ill fortune that cursed ultimately aborted dream projects, including an abandoned documentary about Latin American voodoo ritual and the infamous L'Enfer, a legendary "lost" film recently recovered, in spellbinding fragments, in a fascinating documentary by Serge Bromberg.
Clouzot's films are renowned yet frequently critiqued for their unsparingly dark and unglamorous vision of a fallen world. Generalized claims are often made for Clouzot's pessimistic misanthropy, a simplification that overlooks the insistent, paradoxical humanism of his desperately struggling anti-heroes and the graphic realism used to depict the lower realms they inhabit. Vivid documents of the French experience of WW2 and its aftermath, Clouzot's films unfold almost entirely within the type of unsavory settings more often associated with contemporary American film noir – dingy garret studios and scruffy dance halls, decrepit insane asylums and squalid backwater towns. However, the dilapidated and dangerous world of Clouzot's films also contains a strangely enduring and even nostalgic side, crystallized in the films' small moments and objects – the Paris metro ticket saved by Yves Montand in The Wages of Fear, the simple Christmas gifts in Quai des Orfèvres. Featuring some of the great French actors of the postwar period – Bernard Blier, Pierre Fresnay, Louis Jouvet, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel – Clouzot’s films offer intense and meticulously three-dimensional, almost Balzacian, character studies; crafting rich, at times deeply moving, portraits of human frailty and desire. Twitching and uncomfortable, Clouzot’s impatient anti-heroes are “human, all too human,” to borrow a proto-existentialist phrase appropriate to the films’ overarching depiction of life as an arduous struggle against irrational forces. A cynical and darkly comic counterpoint to the realist tendencies of postwar European film, Clouzot's occupy a crucial place between the poetic symbolism of Thirties French cinema and the innovations of the nouvelle vague who would unjustly dismiss Clouzot without understanding or anticipating the lasting hold of his extraordinary films. – Haden Guest
This retrospective was co-curated by Haden Guest and Josh Siegel, Museum of Modern Art. Special thanks to Delphine Selles-Alvarez – Cultural Services of the French Embassy (New York), Marie François Osso – Les Films Osso, Sarah Finklea – Janus Films.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter Van Eyck
France 1953, 35mm, b/w, 147 min French with English subtitles
Clouzot chose the exotic and squalid background of an unnamed South American town for the keystone of his oeuvre, an angry parable about 20th century imperialism and masculinity pushed to the absolute breaking point and beyond. The Wages of Fear gave Yves Montand his first leading role as an embittered drifter and iconic Clouzot anti-hero – jaded, self-deluded and stumbling towards an uncertain redemption in a desperate gamble to return to France. A brilliantly gripping suspense narrative, The Wages of Fear uses bold existential strokes to render the Sisyphean mission of four men hired, at unreasonable terms, to drive rickety trucks of deadly explosives through the dark heart of an untamed jungle. The two-part structure favored by Clouzot is crucial to the tense division between the corrupt backwater village of the film's first section and the savage yet frighteningly indifferent jungle wilderness explored in the rest of the film. The Wages of Fear is presented in a new print acquired by the HFA from Janus Films which restores footage censored from the original US release because of perceived anti-Americanism.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Pierre Fresnay, Suzy Delair, Jean Tissier
France 1942, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot's Gothic sensibility, off-beat humor and sharp eye for realist detail are showcased wonderfully in his directorial debut, a witty variation of the classic whodunit narrative which casts Pierre Fresnay as a suave detective pitted against an eccentric cast of murder suspects. Set largely within a seedy boarding house, L'assassin habite au 21 also reveals Clouzot's fascination with the decrepit and overripe, and with extreme, at times almost grotesque, caricature. The film's dazzling opening sequence, an elaborate tracking shot from the point-of-view of the murderer, makes clear the stylistic bravura that would remain a highpoint of Clouzot's cinema. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
France 1956, 35mm, b/w & color, 78 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot's innovative spirit took full flight in his documentary homage to the infinitude of the human imagination and to his close friend, Pablo Picasso. Among the most rapturously cinematic portraits of an artist at work, Clouzot created spectacular effects by inviting Picasso to paint directly on a glass before the camera, the painters' strokes seeming almost to magically dance in the air. Each of Picasso's creations is cast as a suspense narrative, fraught with the tense uncertainties that vex even the master's hand and reveal painting to be a turbulent and enigmatic adventure. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri Decoin. With Raimu, Juliette Faber, Jean Tissier
France 1942, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. French with English subtitles
Among the strongest of the late 1930s screenplays that paved the way to Clouzot's directorial career is this striking adaptation of a George Simenon crime thriller directed by Henri Decoin. An important companion piece to Le Corbeau, Les Inconnus dans la Maison offers a similarly unflattering portrait of provincial France as scandals and secrets tumble out of a town's collective closet during the course of the investigation and trial to discover who killed the corpse found in a drunken lawyer's attic. Print courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Louis Jouvet, Noël Roquevert, Jean Brochard
France 1949, digital video, b/w, 28 min. In French
Clouzot’s first film after Le Corbeau – and after his forced suspension on charges of collaboration with the Vichy regime – was this dark and startling episode within the 1949 omnibus film Retour à la Vie. A remarkable commentary on a deeper type of postwar trauma and spiritual malaise, Le Retour de Jean stars the great Louis Jouvet as a former prisoner of war who meets his Nazi torturer one lonely night in a seedy boarding house, an unsettling surprise encounter that complicates the notion of a return to normalcy.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 91 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot's most notorious and dangerous film, Le Corbeau threw acid in the face of the bourgeois establishment of Vichy-era France with its vitriolic image of a small town menaced by a series of anonymous poisoned letters cruelly betraying the dark, festering secrets of its inhabitants and unleashing a black cloud of hatred and distrust. Leading a cast of sordid characters, each more disreputable than the next, Pierre Fresnay plays an adulterous doctor thrust into the eye of the scandal and turned reluctant detective, determined to catch the malicious epistolary anarchist. Misinterpreted after the war as anti-French propaganda that almost cost Clouzot his career, Le Corbeau is recognized today as a subversive knife to the very heart of collaborationist France. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Louis Jouvet, Bourvil,
France 1949, 16mm, b/w, 96 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot broke dramatically from the bracing cynicism of his Forties films with Miquette et sa Mère, a frothy romantic comedy about a young woman determined to become a stage actress, despite her widowed mother's determination to find her daughter an eligible and wealthy husband. An anomalous entry in Clouzot's oeuvre, his only comedy is also his sole film not set in the immediate present – unfolding instead in the nostalgia-tinted belle époque. One of four roles memorably played for Clouzot by Louis Jouvet, Miquette et sa Mère is a light-hearted vehicle for the popular French comedian Bourvil. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair,
France 1947, 35mm, b/w, 106 min. French with English subtitles
Drawing a rich cross-section across both the Parisian underworld and music hall scenes, Quai des Orfèvres interweaves an engrossing policier and an unlikely Christmas tale, centered around the uncomfortable marriage of the sultry and aptly named torch singer, Jenny L'Amour, and her hapless pianist husband. Starring his own first wife as the seductive chanteuse and Bernard Blier as her sad sack companion, Clouzot describes marriage as a form of lacerating torture driven by furtive jealousy that corrodes matrimonial bonds yet inflames blinding passions. Quai des Orfèvres moves abruptly from the theater to the eponymous police station when the murder of a lecherous impresario threatens the couple's marriage, and possibly their very lives. Louis Jouvet gives a superb turn as the sharp-eyed veteran detective with a deep intuition about the murderous potential of love. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Curt Jurgens, Peter Ustinov, Otto-Eduard Hasse
France/Italy 1957, 35mm, b/w, 130 min. French with English subtitles
Veering from black comedy to stylized espionage thriller, Clouzot's gleefully unclassifiable Cold War drama is a fascinating study of paranoia revolving around a decrepit sanitarium whose incompetent head doctor unravels a dangerous conspiracy when he agrees to secretly house a fugitive atomic scientist. Clouzot perfectly captures the quintessence of the Kafkaesque by fusing exacting realist detail with a playfully nonsensical logic in order to suggest the real and the absurd as two sides of the same strange coin. Reaching for a broader audience beyond France, Clouzot ambitiously assembled an international marquee cast led by Peter Ustinov and Sam Jaffe to bring a cosmopolitan flair to this, one of his biggest box office disappointments and most unfairly maligned film. Print courtesy of Tamasa Distribution.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Brigitte Bardot, Charles Vanel,
France/Italy 1960, 35mm, b/w, 124 min. French with English subtitles
With La Verité Clouzot responded to the accusations of his own irrelevance hurled by the nouvelle vague upstarts who brazenly grouped him together with the so-called "cinéma du papa" of the old guard that they adamantly repudiated. Clouzot in turn cast youth idol Brigitte Bardot in one of her most popular roles as a restless Rive Gauche bohemian who falls dangerously in love with a self-absorbed and elitist composer. The extended courtroom drama that unfolds across the film's second half can be understood as a bold attempt to scrutinize the contemporary youth scene in order to understand the aims and morality of the Sixties generation. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Cécile Aubry, Michel Auclair,
France 1948, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. French with English subtitles
Exalted by Ado Kyrou as one of the purest renditions of amour fou in the cinema, the rarely seen Manon is a dark surrealist fever dream and among the greatest discoveries within Clouzot's oeuvre. Crowned by a kinetic scene of a cathedral torn apart by bombs, Manon is fascinating for its evocation of the destruction and aftermath of World War 2 and its vision of a traumatized and morally compromised postwar France. A boyish Serge Reggiani falls willing and masochistic victim to the double-edged charms of Manon, transformed by Cécile Aubry into the ultimate femme fatale, at turns a petulant angel, and others a cruel, avaricious succubus – yet bringing an awkward, childlike grace to her every act of treachery. Print courtesy of UNCSA Moving Image Archives.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Louis-Jacques Boucot, Germaine Aussey, Jean Wall
France 1931, digital video, b/w, 15 min. French with English subtitles
This recently rediscovered early comic short, the surprise twist story of a maladroit burglar, bears the strong imprint of the Weimar Expressionist cinema that was so important to Clouzot in his early years while also revealing the kind of satiric archetypal caricature that would recur throughout his later films. Print courtesy of Lobster Films.
Directed by Serge Bromberg and Roxandra Medrea
France 2009, 35mm, b/w & color, 102 min. French with English subtitles
Archival detective and world-renowned film preservationist Serge Bromberg gained rare access to footage from Clouzot's aborted and outrageously ambitious L'Enfer, a long cherished tale of dangerous infatuation starring Romy Schneider and proposed to feature what would have been extended sequences of spectacular visual effects. The story of the doomed project, with Clouzot under siege from illness and ill fortune from every direction, is gripping and ultimately tragic. Print courtesy of Flicker Alley.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Simone Signoret,
Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse
France 1955, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot has been endlessly accused of cruelly manipulating both his characters and audience because of his wildly successful suspense classic, Les Diaboliques, a work of audacious trickery that entirely reinvented the rules for mystery cinema. Clouzot once again cast a jaundiced eye upon marriage, here in the story of scandalous love triangle between a tyrannical prep school headmaster, played with steely derision by Paul Meurisse, and two women teaching at his school – Simone Signoret's brooding history instructor and his long-suffering wife, played, ironically, by Mrs. Vera Clouzot. Alfred Hitchcock zealously pursued the source novel of Les Diaboliques by the famed mystery writing team, Bouileau and Narcejac, only to be beaten by Clouzot who adopted the book into a film that inspired many important aspects of Psycho, made five years later, including Hitchcock's "Don't reveal the ending!" campaign which was closely modeled on the cunning marketing strategy that propelled Clouzot's picture into an international box office sensation. Print courtesy of L'Institut français.
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. With Laurent Terzieff,
Elisabeth Wiener, Bernard Fresson
France 1968, 35mm, color, 106 min. French with English subtitles
Clouzot's unsettling last film offers a variation of his recurrent grand theme of torturous love, here in the form of a dangerous love triangle set in the Sixties Paris art world. The story of a chic gallerist whose discerning taste only hints at the strange sexual obsessions that eventually lure a wide-eyed up-and-coming artist into his kinky den, La Prisonnière returns to Clouzot's idea of corrupt business as the driving metaphor for the 20th century, with civilization doomed by the unfair "wages,” be they pecuniary or psychosexual, that sustain yet ultimately destroy it. Clouzot's only full-length feature in color, La Prisonnière concludes with a hypnotic barrage of psychedelic Op-Art abstraction directly borrowed from his ill-fated and abandoned feature, L'Enfer. Print courtesy of Tamasa Distribution.