- (1907-1977)Director and screen-writer. Henri-Georges Léon Clouzot got his first taste of film, no doubt, from his father's passion for photography. Clouzot's father, who owned a bookshop, also introduced him to literature and, most important, the theater by sending him to Paris at the age of fifteen specifically to see plays. Clouzot got his start in cinema assisting first the German producer Adolphe Osso. He also began writing screenplays, and so, during the early 1930s, his connections to Osso and his screenwriting talents enabled him to work with directors such as Jacques de Baroncelli on Le Dernier choc (1932) and Georges Lacombe on Le Dernier des six (1941). Clouzot also did a number of French adaptations of German works with directors such as Pierre Billon on Faut-il les marier? (1931) and Anatole Litvak on La Chanson d'une nuit (1932).Clouzot's first directorial project came in 1933 when he assisted Joe May on Tout pour l'amour. His first feature-length film as a solo director came quite late in his career, when he directed L 'Assassin habite au 21 (1942) for the Nazi-owned production company, Continental Films. There would be only ten more films that followed. And yet, for a director with a relatively short body of work, Clouzot remains one of the most influential directors in French film history, a director, somewhat like Robert Bresson, whose impact and significance cannot be measured in a mere number of films.Clouzot's second film, Le Corbeau (1943), is perhaps his master-piece. An Occupation-era film made during censorship, the film explores a climate of suspicion and denunciation in a small village, and reflects quite accurately although obliquely on the political climate during which it was made. The film was regarded as scandalous at the time it was made. The source of scandal was as much political allegory as it was the film's subject matter of abortion and the underlying issue of female sexuality. The film more or less assured that Clouzot did direct again until after the Liberation.Clouzot's third film, Quai des orfèvres (1947), shares with Le Corbeau a critical gaze at the hypocrisy of society, particularly bourgeois society, and the thriller-type plot. The film is the story of music-hall singer Jenny Lamour (played by Suzy Delair) and her jealous husband. The film is also widely considered a classic and rivals Le Corbeau in critical appraisals of Clouzot's work.Manon (1949), Clouzot's third film, cemented his reputation as a formidable filmmaker and established definitively the style that would come to be seen as his. Manon is an adaptation of the classic Abbé Prévost novel Manon Lescaut, but which adapts the story to a post-Occupation setting, and which, like Le Corbeau, visits the thorny issue of collaboration and resistance during the occupation. The decision to adapt Manon to the screen says a good deal, in fact, about Clouzot's filmmaking in general. Manon is, like Denise in Le Corbeau, an extremely problematic heroine whose own moral and ethical status is extremely questionable. And yet in Clouzot's films, we are asked to consider less how we should judge such characters than how we should judge them with respect to the society in which they live, a society that is always more deeply flawed than the very flawed characters through whom we see it.Moreover, what has elevated Clouzot's films to classic status, apart from the technical superiority of his films and the smooth, even flow of the narrative, is the pointed neutrality of the camera. His very neutral and distant filmic gaze shares much with Robert Bresson, though it is less stoic, and with René Clément when he was at his best. It is not a moralizing gaze, but one which looks very clearly and very coldly on the world as it finds it and asks the spectator to draw his or her own conclusions.Clouzot's fourth film, Miquette et sa mère (1950), starring Danielle Délorme, returned to the world of the theater. Unusual for Clouzot, the film is a comedy, and not typically considered the best example of his work, although it is a particularly beloved film in France. Following the experimentation in Miquette et sa mère, Clouzot returned to form with Le Salaire de la peur (1953) starring Yves Montand. The film is the story of four mercenary-type adventurers on a dangerous mission in Latin America and marks a return to the suspenseful realism verging on naturalism that characterizes much of Clouzot's work. One unusual aspect of this film, however, is its focus on male characters, and one might say on certain characteristics of masculinity. Many of Clouzot's films, particularly those considered his best, focused on female characters.A case in point was Clouzot's next film, the legendary Les Diaboliques (1955), which has been remade by Hollywood in recent years. Starring the legendary Simone Signoret, Les Diaboliques is the story of a wife and mistress who together plot the murder of their tyrannical lover and husband. The husband, however, manages to disappear after being killed, and to reappear at hauntingly inopportune moments, raising the question of whether the tyrant is really dead. Like all of Clouzot's best films, the substance of this one is in the exploration of the moral universe of the society in which the entire story unfolds.Following Les Diaboliques, Clouzot made four more feature films, Les Espions (1957), La Vérité (1960), L'Enfer (1964), and La Prisonnière (1968). Les Espions is the story of a director of a psychiatric clinic who agrees to give cover to a spy. La Vérité, which stars Brigitte Bardot, is the story of a woman with a questionable history who is on trial for the murder of a famous musician. L'Enfer, starring Serge Reggiani, is the story of a man who is obsessed with the fear of his wife's infidelity. La Prisonnière is the story of an attraction between a gallery owner's wife and a troubled and troubling artist. L'Enfer was remade by Claude Chabrol in 1998. All four films are solid Clouzot films, suspense-filled, deeply psychological, and socially critical. None, however, reaches the level of his earlier works.Like Bresson, Clouzot did not leave a vast catalog of films behind, and probably for the same reasons. He was known, like Bresson, to be a perfectionist, and he was known for wanting total control over his films. Unlike Bresson, Clouzot achieved a measure of commercial success during his lifetime, and this afforded him many opportunities to make films, most notably in Hollywood, which he declined.His desire to make films that were true to his own vision superseded the desire to make a large number of films, and that is the way he will be remembered.
Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. Dayna Oscherwitz & Mary Ellen Higgins. 2007.
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