Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Bitter Taste of Vichy

The Siren has seen only a handful of movies since posting about Jezebel, and two, by pure coincidence, were connected to Vichy France. One was Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot's film about the effect of a poison-pen writer. Made during the occupation for the German-controlled Continental Films, it pinpoints mob psychology and collaboration so effectively that it managed to unite right and left in France by offending the hell out of both groups. The other was Un amour à taire (A Love to Hide), a telefilm made for France 2 in 2005, that shows the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis. Clouzot's movie, itself made under circumstances of collaboration and without a single scene of Nazi atrocity, makes far more telling points about the era, but that isn't surprising. The comparison between the two films is somewhat unfair and the Siren admits this right off the bat. It's like watching CSI: New York and sitting down to compare it with The Naked City. Taken together, though, the Siren does think Le Corbeau and Un amour à taire highlight the problems she has with certain fictionalized Holocaust movies.

Le Corbeau would easily have made the Siren's Top 25 Foreign Films had she seen it in time. Set in "the present," it shows a small French town convulsed by a series of poison-pen letters, many of them directed at the place's popular young gynecologist (Pierre Fresnay). On this simple framework Clouzot and his co-screenwriter Louis Chavance build that rare and precious cinema specimen, a genuinely subversive film. Clouzot gives the audience clue upon clue about the identity of the letter writer, who signs the missives "Le Corbeau" (The Raven), and the movie forces viewers to identify with the suspicious locals and make the same mistakes they make. At one point, a key character theorizes to the town doctor that the Raven has a physical deformity. In walks another character, and for the first time you see her pronounced limp. An obvious visual joke, but at the same time Clouzot has guaranteed that neither the doctor nor the audience will ever view the disabled woman in the same way.

The doctor's practice dries up, as previously fawning townsfolk suddenly discover they aren't so sick after all. Wonderfully typical is the local seamstress, whose apologetic tone turns to petulant anger when the doctor refuses to pretend he understands her decision not to come to him. How dare the doctor make her feel bad about her cowardice? She is just the first of a series of aggressive innocents.

Clouzot underlines his points with several recurring motifs. Several times the letters float down from the sky, like bombs, but they are seized eagerly, not avoided. The doctor accidentally drops a particularly incriminating letter into a courtyard and runs to retrieve it. The wide-eyed child who denies having found the letter devours it line by line as soon as the doctor is safely out of sight. As befits a movie about mob psychology, the crowd scenes are particularly memorable. Children burst from a schoolyard, a funeral cortege turns into an ugly rally against a suspect. Eventually, as the consequences of the letters grow more dire and the town's frenzy grows, the final group of suspects are herded into a schoolroom and forced to take dictation (an extremely French form of writing practice that the Siren herself experienced in high school French classes). Dark echos of other roundups occurring when the film was released in 1943 compete with the nasty but undeniable humor of adult "students" bending head over paper and carefully writing out, "Slut! Whore! What about your abortion?"

No such morbid humor occurs in the painfully well-intentioned Un amour à taire, shown on the US version of TV5 recently with a capricious set of subtitles (now you see them, now you don't). The Siren doesn't question the motives of anyone with the spiritual fortitude to tackle this godawful subject matter. The fate of gay men under the Nazi regime hasn't been much dramatized, aside from the groundbreaking play Bent, which the Siren read some years back (she hasn't seen the movie). Somewhere there may be a film that does justice to this part of history. Un amour isn't it, though.

In occupied Paris two gay men, Jean and Philippe (Jérémie Renier and Bruno Todeschini) are busy concealing their affair and trying to stay clear of the Nazis. The childhood friend of Jean, Sarah (Louise Monot), is arrested with her family; as Jews they are all scheduled for deportation. Sarah manages to break free, and Jean and Philippe help her hide. But the safety of all three is jeopardized by Jacques (Nicolas Gob), Jean's brother, who loves Sarah and hatches an underhanded scheme to get her. Eventually Jean is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and the movie includes a long sequence showing the horrors endured by the gay prisoners in the camp.

At this point, the imperative to remember the Holocaust, always, seems in no danger of being violated by Hollywood, as the crimes of the Third Reich are regularly filmed in one form or another. It is probably no coincidence that most of the fictional movies the Siren considers artistically accomplished--from Enemies to the precise reenactment of The Wannsee Conference--avoid actual depiction of the camps. The effort to dramatize what took place in Auschwitz and its ghastly siblings is always in danger of devolving into melodrama. Melodrama has a fine cinematic heritage but this subject, of all subjects, does not need it. In fact, the stark facts of the Holocaust scream at you to avoid melodrama at all costs. Melodrama, however, is what Un amour serves up, with Nazis interrogating Jean in a manner that owes more to Hitler's Children than Shoah. When Jean befriends a young gay man in the camp, you cringe for what lies ahead, knowing that the companion will die, and die horribly. But this victim's brief appearance in the movie cannot adequately move the audience. He does not have enough presence or life to be more than a way station to Jean's own depressing fate. And if a filmmaker cannot make this death more than that, then the Siren would rather he not show it at all. The death agonies of this human being--just one, mind you, among millions--should wrench an audience to its soul.

Instead of provoking thoughts about what savagery lurks under any civilized surface, or the huge, echoing "Why?" behind the millions of deaths, movies like Sophie's Choice or (god help us) Life Is Beautiful cater to our desire to tease some sort of meaning out of the carnage. It isn't just millions dying a senseless, horrific death under circumstances you weep even to contemplate--it's also a plot device to bring a writer to maturity, to enshrine a father's love for his dewy-eyed child.

Worse, the camp scenes themselves, as intensely as they make the audience feel, play to its smugness. I'm not a Nazi, you think, as you look at the ghastly violence on the screen. I'm too civilized for this. Never again! Can anyone honestly say we have earned that sense of superiority? Surely the Siren doesn't have to go through the sad catalogue of further crimes against humanity committed since World War II. She often thinks of writer David Rieff's bitter remark, "'Never again' might best be defined as 'Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.'"

A movie like Un amour invites you to identify with the courageous gay men and the strong, supportive Sarah, not the sniveling, two-faced brother. Le Corbeau tells you, in no uncertain terms, not to lie to yourself. For every Jean Moulin and Gilbert Renault, there were thousands in France who kept their heads down and tried not to make waves. When it was all over, they took out the pent-up frustration on some who were genuinely monstrous, as well as others who made convenient targets but may have been far less guilty, such as the women who had affairs with Nazi soldiers. While they were marched through towns with heads shaved, others like Maurice Papon managed to continue their lives with tidy, Vichy-free biographies. In this, too, Le Corbeau is eerily prescient, as a young woman is carried away screaming in a van, even as the guilty party prepares his final letter.

Postscript: This piece is now cross-posted at Newcritics. Of the things she read while preparing this post, the Siren is indebted to this piece about Le Corbeau at Raging Bull and this one at Jigsaw Lounge.


Peter said...

Have you seen Safe Conduct by Bertrand Tavernier? It made me re-think what it was like for those French artists who tried to both work and keep their sense of integrity in occupied France. I saw Clouzot's film a couple of years ago also.

Campaspe said...

Peter, Tavernier was interviewed as part of the Criterion extras; I watched only part of it but he was quite insightful on Clouzot's association with Continental.

Karen said...

Another great post, Siren. I think your point about melodrama and the Holocaust is quite well put. One of the many reasons I don't like Spielberg as a director, for example, is his decision to include the little girl in the red coat in Schindler's List. I have often been heard to refer to Spielberg as "The only director who thought the Holocaust wasn't poignant ENOUGH."

Campaspe said...

Ah, Schindler's List. The elephant in the room. I couldn't include it, it needs a whole other post and I would need to rewatch it which I deeply do not want to do. I have had many arguments with people about that little girl. She didn't bother me, because I thought she was a way to solve a key dramatic problem of the narrative--conveying the moment when the Jews begin to exist for Schindler as individuals. The ghetto liquidation sequence for me was the strongest part of the movie. But yes, I agree that in many places Spielberg gave in to his most sentimental impulses. A rose on a grave? that's the fadeout?

Now I am looking around for my friend Goatdog, because I know Schindler's List is his favorite movie.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I still quite admire Schindler's List, even if it turns sappy in the closing stretch. Lots of Hollywood masterpieces from the 30s and 40s turned sappy in the closing stretch (due to studio impositions at least as much as poor judgment) and they've trained me to filter out the sappy interruptions any time I'm struck by a singular and vivid overarching vision. This is what happened to me with Schindler's List, whereas I had exactly the opposite reponse to Polanski's List.

In the meantime, almost every contemporary queer film makes me feel suffocated (not unlike every contemporary Holocaust film), so I'd rather focus on the bits that made me happy about your post: how much (naughty, thought-provoking) fun is Le Corbeau?! It gives me a warm feeling to see it not only brought up in a discussion but praised even, and for all the right reasons.

Campaspe said...

Goran, my husband loved Le Corbeau too. It was so darkly humorous and bleakly true.

Dan Leo said...

Even though "Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique" are two of my favorite movies, I've somehow managed to miss "Le Corbeau", a lack I now intend to rectify as soon as I can. Sounds like it might make up half of a great double-bill with Bunuel's "Diary of a Chambermaid" which I just watched for the first time in many years -- such an unsparingly unsentimental and unsurrealistic film from Bunuel, and one which I would love to read the Siren's thoughts on.

I'm with you on "Life is Beautiful" and "Schindler's List". For me Spielberg's predilection always to go for the obvious and the sentimental also wrecked "Pvt. Ryan" and any other of his "serious" movies that I've seen. And Benigni, please, this man should not be allowed to deal with any even faintly serious subject.

Noel Vera said...

Against Resnais' Night and Fog, Schindler's seems soppy by comparison.

The Piano was interesting for the inward journey as much for the outward details.

Campaspe said...

Noel, Night and Fog is still the most effective film on the Holocaust that I have ever seen.

girish said...

Sorry I'm commenting here a bit late, but as always, a terrific post!

Has the Siren seen Chabrol's Story of Women (1988)? A good Vichy film, with one of Isabelle Huppert's all-time best performances. Just watched it again over the weekend. Also, Chabrol made a highly regarded documentary in the early 90s (I've never seen it) called The Eye of Vichy.

Campaspe said...

No, I have not, but it's in my Netflix, as I catch up slowly with Chabrol. I get such enjoyment out of each Chabrol film I rent. The last was The Flower of Evil, which was as good as you and Flickhead said. I also loved that it had the closest thing to a happy ending (ha!) that I have yet encountered in a Chabrol.

Lapin Agile said...

Outstanding post and glad I found it as I am knee deep in my 4th book on Vichy, the funny war and all the rest. Thanks.