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.
During the Occupation of France, Clouzot worked for the German-run production company Continental Films as a screenwriter and then a director. His stunning Le Corbeau (The Raven) (Jan. 14), transposed the actual 1920s case of an individual who wrote anonymous, terror-inducing letters in the vein of "I know what horrible thing you did last week" into a scathing indictment of small-town, Vichy-era collaboration and paranoia-fueled injustice. The film was attacked from all sides, and after the war Clouzot was tried as a collaborator and barred from filmmaking for life (his term was eventually reduced to two years).
Imagine, for a moment, his fury and despair. Directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol were marked forever by the moral weakness and callous opportunism they witnessed during the Occupation. In Clouzot's case, the wounds were even deeper, and darkened his world view -- at least as expressed in his artful and impeccably crafted movies -- into chilling nihilism.
If you wonder why contemporary neo-noirs, especially those made by American filmmakers and starring actors with perfect complexions, often feel like dress-up play-acting with nothing at stake, there's your answer. Living through war tests and hardens people. On the other hand, if the greatest betrayal a director has experienced was being dumped by a college sweetheart in a Starbucks, he's unlikely to make white-knuckle movies about moral dilemmas.
From this angle, Clouzot isn't so much a director of suspense or action as a progenitor of hardboiled postwar noir. It would be nice if some of the folks crowding the Castro for Noir City next weekend to revel in bald-faced cynicism and adult (bad) behavior would trek to the PFA for a taste of Clouzot's acid-dipped moviemaking.
Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment screens January 12-February 4, 2012 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For more information visit bampfa.berkeley.edu.