Lumière Festival: Henri-Georges Clouzot, an Appreciation

A retrospective of Clouzot, a titan of mid-century French cinema, screens at this year’s Lumière Festival, as France celebrates a Clouzot Year

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Nobody is innocent. Nobody is guileless. Nobody is good. Welcome to the seamy, sardonic cinema of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose retrospective at the Lumière 2017 Grand Lyon Film Festival lends a malevolent dark sparkle to a festival named after light. Part of the Cannes-launched “Year of Clouzot,” the selection comprises all 11 of his directorial features, as well as screenwriting credits, his first short and several documentaries, including “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” which not only explores his unfinished folly “L’Enfer,” but gives great insight into the mercurial, meticulously misanthropic director.

“The awful thing about life is that everyone has their reasons,” goes the famous quote from “Rules of the Game” by Clouzot’s diametric opposite, Jean Renoir. Yet it’s a worldview that these antithetical titans of mid-century French cinema share. All Clouzot’s faithless wives and foolish husbands, all his pious priests and prim school-teachers, from the working stiff to the prideful professional to the grasping bourgeois, all have their reasons. It’s just they’re always bad ones: selfish, venal, narrow.

After prolific screenwriting work and a precociously stylish short “La Terreur Des Batignolles,” Clouzot made his “Thin Man”-indebted debut with “The Murderer Lives at Number 21,” in 1942. It’s an atypically lighthearted lark; while a licorice-black humor slices through even his most pessimistic stories, this would certainly be the last Clouzot film to feature a ditzy singer (Suzy Delair) clambering over her detective boyfriend (Pierre Fresnay) popping blackheads from his face.

“Murderer” and his terrific follow-up, “The Raven,” which details the unraveling of a small French town during a spate of poison pen letters, were both made for the German-run company Continental. This led to accusations of collaboration that saw Clouzot suspended. But “The Raven” was denounced by both the left and the right: Two films in and Clouzot’s prickly moral ambivalence was already established. He rallied with 1947’s excellent crime drama “Quai Des Orfèvres,” then came odd-duck Venice-winner “Manon,” and “Miquette” a film whose breeziness Clouzot could no longer convincingly invest in. However, he met his wife Véra on set, and she would go on to star in his two inarguable masterpieces.

The impossibly riveting “The Wages of Fear” and the heart-stoppingly eerie “Diabolique” will always be the cornerstones of Clouzot’s legacy. They established him as a master of suspense to rival Alfred Hitchcock, though ironically the French New Wave critics who so embraced Hitch would, woundingly, entirely disdain Clouzot. His subsequent titles “The Spies,” “The Truth” and “Woman in Chains” would never quite attain those heights. But his facility with tortured psychologies, expressionist-influenced compositions and gripping, tension-based cutting never deserted him, nor did his interest in institutions, and the people in them, caged like birds, battering themselves to exhaustion against the bars of their baser natures.

Clouzot was born 110 years ago, in 1907, and died 40 years ago in 1977. But more than any unsatisfying numerology, this is the perfect time to revisit his superlative canon because it now feels almost modish in its scathing view of humanity’s foibles and faiblesse. ‘L’Année Clouzot” is a celebration of perhaps the finest cinematic misanthrope of the classical era, so how appropriate that it falls in 2017, a year that has made misanthropes of us all.