Representations of Femininity in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Le Corbeau’

Image 1: Le Corbeau (1943)

The palpable sense of hysteria and panic that accompanied the establishment of the Vichy regime in Southern France is brilliantly captured in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 film Le Corbeau. One of the most controversial films of the era, Le Corbeau is a dark parable about the detrimental impact of paranoia on the human psyche. While nearly all of the characters of this film warrant individual study, it is Clouzot’s depiction of women that continues to be a source of debate among scholars today. Alan Williams feels that Le Corbeau shows female characters as “figures of both knowledge and redemption…[representing] an almost visceral grasping for light in the darkness and hope at a time of deepest despair.”1 In contrast, Evelyn Ehrlich feels that the film rejects this idealized view of women, arguing, “No other film made during the occupation was so fundamentally opposed to all values and principles of the Vichy regime.”2 To Ehrlich, Le Corbeau rejects the idea of the woman as a beacon of hope and a source of moral purity and instead shows the fraudulence and degeneracy behind this ideal. The film shows the duplicity of all human beings, and women are no exception. One of the best examples of Clouzot revealing the corrupt nature of seemingly virtuous people is seen in the character of Dr. Vorzet’s wife, Laura.

Laura, Le Corbeau

In many ways, Laura is the embodiment of the Vichy ideal. The audience is introduced to her as she is tending to the sick of the hospital with all the love and tenderness of a mother caring for her children. She even shows reluctance at having to leave her patient during visiting hours. And while she does carry on a questionable relationship with Dr. Germain, Laura still remains quite loyal to her much older husband, Vorzet, by concealing his identity as the poison-pen author known as “Le Corbeau” (“The Raven”). As Vorzet continues to deliver his mysterious “Raven” letters, which publicly reveal the unsavory personal secrets of all the townspeople (including extramarital affairs, unknown illnesses, and unlawful activities), Laura’s loyalty remains unwavering. This protection of her husband continues until the last minutes of the film, when she finally reveals Vorzet’s actions to Germain. This scene represents the only time in which Laura directly challenges the patriarchy and yet she ultimately takes the fall for her husband (though it is clearly against her will).

While all these components of Laura’s character seem to support Williams’s theory, as Ehrlich explains, this is just the surface of the character: “Beneath the virtuous exterior, [Laura’s] sexual frustration soon becomes apparent. She either is, or wishes to become, Germain’s mistress; she once stole her sister’s fiancé and attempts to frame her rival, Denise, in order to sustain Germain’s attention.”3 Examining Laura from this light reveals a character that is much more calculating and self-serving than the symbol of maternal integrity that the Vichy regime would celebrate. After a second viewing of the film, Laura becomes increasingly difficult to trust. She not only knows The Raven’s identity, but even confesses to writing the first letter and taking dictation for the subsequent ones. By remaining silent she allows The Raven to continue spreading vicious rumors, thereby leading to the suicide of a patient—the same one she cared for at the beginning of the film—and causing the townspeople to reach such a level of hysteria that they virtually crucify her sister, Marie Corbin. It is only when Laura is in danger of being punished that she finally reveals the truth. In this respect, Laura may represent the most dangerous character in the film: she is an angel with a devil’s motives.

Denise, Le Corbeau

In direct contrast to the seemingly virtuous Laura is the seductive Denise. Ehrlich describes her as a “symbol of that ‘degeneracy’ that weakened the moral fiber of France and led to its defeat.”4 One of the most unapologetic characters in the film, Denise makes no pretense in her dealings with the other characters, even stating, “It took me five years to get where I am, but every man I wanted, I got. Me, the cripple! Each time it’s my revenge on life. Do as you like but know who you are dealing with.” Not only does she freely admit her scandalous past, she celebrates these experiences as evidence of her strength and willpower, as a soldier might boast about the heroism he displayed in battle. This type of openly sexual woman was far from what Vichy celebrated as the hope for France.

While it may be easy to categorize Denise as a morally bankrupt character that offers definitive proof of Ehrlich’s argument, Williams explains, “Le Corbeau puts its faith in women…[especially] those who have suffered like Denise, from her deformity.”5 At first glance Denise may be wholly without scruples or common decency, but in her ability to speak honestly she represents a glimmer of hope against the plague of deceit facing the town. In a time when no one’s word can be trusted and even the closest of friends are not beyond suspicion, Denise is the only honest person left. Even Ehrlich admits, “It is Denise alone who maintains a sense of justice, refusing to condemn a suspect without proof, and it is she who puts the matter in its proper perspective.”6 Denise may not represent the ideal woman in its traditional form, but by refusing to give weight to the Raven’s claims, she shows that there are people strong enough to resist hysteria and bring France back to what it was before the Occupation.

Le Corbeau also features an extremely important supporting character known simply as “La Mere du Cancéreux” (The Mother of the Cancerous One). The first time that the audience is introduced to the character she is doing her duty as a French woman of the time: tending to her sick son. Her whole world centers on the life of her son, whether it is caring for him when he is ill or grieving for him after he is driven to suicide by the Raven’s cruel letter outlining the hopelessness of his condition. She has no other identity than as a mother, which is punctuated by the fact that the audience never learns her actual name. Williams feels that, just like Denise, the Mother represents the type of suffering woman that the film puts its faith in. As he explains, “This is a work, after all, in which the first people we see are old women grieving, and the last image is of the avenging mother walking away down the street.”7 Williams feels that the film not only sympathizes with the avenging mother but also embraces her actions against the Raven as moral and justified.

One scene in particular seems to show the Mother as the protector of moral order. Soon after Dr. Vorzet shares his thoughts about the conflicting motives of good and evil, Germain stumbles upon the Mother as she comes to clean the school. During this scene, the Mother not only foreshadows the end of the film but also shows her inner strength in the face of her son’s untimely death:

The Mother: When my son is avenged, I’ll sleep again, and soon.
Germain: You know who was behind his death? Who do you suspect?
The Mother: You’ll find out soon enough…
Germain: You have no right.
The Mother: Oh no? I’ll take the right.

By placing this scene directly after Vorzet and Germain’s discussion about moral ambiguity, Clouzot shows a strong contrast between the unsure male Germain and the confident female mother. Unlike the rest of the town, which has been blinded by speculation and hearsay, the Mother knows who is to blame and is guided by her own sense of morality when deciding how the culprit should be punished. By avenging her son’s life she also shelters other innocent people from the Raven’s cruelty. In this way she becomes the ultimate symbol of maternal protection, acting as a mother to the town as a whole.

Viewing the scene in this way supports Williams’s claim that the film puts its hopes in women to act as guardians for future generations, but it can be seen in a different light as well. As Ehrlich explains, “The cancer patient’s mother, far from embodying the maternal virtues of patience, resignation, and humility, is the avenging angel who murders the Raven in cold blood in repayment for the death of her son.”8 The Mother usurps the position of the traditional male police and takes justice into her own hands, an act which is hardly something that the Vichy government would have condoned. Besides this resistance to patriarchal authority, Clouzot never makes it clear how the audience should feel about the Mother’s act of murder. At the end of the film, Germain rushes back to Vorzet’s office only to find him dead (murdered with the same razor that his vicious words caused the cancer patient to use on himself). Germain’s only response is to say, “So it was Vorzet!” The last shot of the film shows Germain gazing out of the window as the Mother, dressed fully in black, walks down a cobblestone road away from the scene of the crime. By having Germain say nothing regarding the murder—focusing instead on Vorzet’s identity as the Raven—and failing to show the Mother’s emotions after her revenge is complete, Clouzot neither condones nor condemns her actions, allowing the audience to make their own decision regarding the mother’s position as the keeper of moral order.

This open-ended conclusion is representative of Le Corbeau as a whole. Ehrlich’s view that the film undermines the Vichy idealization of women as symbols of hope and morality can be seen in the duality of Laura’s character, while Williams’s position that the film puts its faith in women can be seen in Denise’s resistance to the hysteria caused by the Raven. Clouzot approaches Le Corbeau’s subject with a sense of moral relativity that leaves the audience conflicted about who and what is good and evil. Perhaps this was Clouzot’s intention, to have viewers make their own decisions regarding the nature of the film’s characters. Dr. Vorzet, the Raven himself, puts it best when he says, “One has only choices you know.”

Image Credits:

1. http://martinklasch.blogspot.com/2010_01_01_archive.html


NOTES

1. ^ Williams, Alan. “Le Corbeau.” The Criterion Collection: Le Corbeau. Ed. Heather Shaw. 2004.
2. ^ Ehrlich, Evelyn. Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking under the German Occupation. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 183. Print.
3. ^ Ehrlich, 181.
4. ^ Ehrlich, 182.
5. ^ Williams.
6. ^ Ehrlich, 182.
7. ^ Williams.
8. ^ Ehrlich, 182.


Author bio:

Jessica Fowler is a recent of graduate of UCLA’s Master of Arts program in Cinema and Media Studies and will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the fall. She received a B.A. in Film Studies and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hollywood films produced for the international market during the early sound era and the impact of Top 40 radio on television productions of the late 1960s.

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