The Pacific Film Archive treats us to not one, not two, but three essential filmmaker retrospectives spanning this month and next: Austere Perfectionism: Robert Bresson, Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man, and Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment. Any movie lover would be well advised to stake out the Berkeley theater and put the rest of his or her life on Pause (the new Hold). Laughs will be a precious commodity, as the series titles suggest, but that's often the price of seeing human nature without blinders.
Hawks and Bresson are well-fixed in the public eye, but Clouzot requires some reintroduction. On the basis of his well-known mid-'50s films, The Wages of Fear (Jan. 21) and Diabolique (Jan. 27), his reputation in this country is of a director of suspense. Now there was a time when directors of thrillers were viewed as low-aiming entertainers. That all changed when the Cahiers du Cinema critics elevated Alfred Hitchcock from accomplished genre filmmaker to artist of the first rank. Clouzot's stock rose likewise, at least in France, but all these years later the pendulum has swung back and craftsmen of suspense (Hitch excepted) aren't held in high esteem.
The Wages of Fear
Clouzot has been pigeonholed and underrated, I think, because it's too painful to confront the simmering, shattering pessimism of his films. "The Cinema of Disenchantment" is a reference to David Thomson's typically astute and pithy assessment of Clouzot in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. As bleak as that view is, I submit it doesn't go quite far enough. Clouzot was bitter and angry -- and with good reason.