French Thrillers Come In Threes

La prisonnière (1968)

For a year in which I’ve decided to delve into several Alfred Hitchcock deep cuts it seems fitting that I take a detour down some dark roads with France’s own master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot. Making the most of the inclement weather I settled down with Le Corbeau (1942). As a string of poison-pen letters shake a small, provincial town to its foundations. Duplicitous lies and secrets have sat malevolently beneath the bedrock and it doesn’t take much to corrupt the community with devastating effect on the lives of those it touches. Fractured relationships, wounded hearts, thieves and murderous intent permeate the town with a mystery centred on “Who is sending the malicious letters”?

I was felled by the bluntness, candour and familiarity of the characters that reside in the small town of St. Robin. Their dialogue sounds particularly modern to my ears considering the era in which this film was made. The directness and explicitness of the conversations is fresh and believable in ways that are far ahead of Clouzot’s contemporaries of the period. There’s already the sense of duality we would later see in Les Diaboliques. The use of a school at the heart of the mystery and wickedness is something we would also see again.

Pierre Fresnay (who we saw in Hitchcock’s early version of The Man Who Knew Too Much) is an interesting case. His character has a duality to him in which I’m certain his performance will be better served by repeat viewings but for the first time, I found him cold and mostly unlikable in his pessimism, which is at once at odds with the nurturing side we see slowly develop. His Doctor Rémy Germain is the antithesis of both Ginette Leclerc’s Denise and Micheline Francey’s Laura, who are both warm and inviting, both vying for Germain’s affections. The complications of these relationships are part of a fascinating interplay between this trio, subverting expectations in the final reel, which must have shocked the audience in 1942.

Having recently seen a town brought to hysteria in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1971), there’s a similar scene here that causes equal damage to the community and exacerbates the mayhem. The use of poison-pen letters to cause a stir in the community through accusatory means and insinuation is masterful. In an era of “Lose lips sink ships”, Le Corbeau seemingly denounces the act of whispers and collusion but 75 years on, the central message is one of greyscale and perhaps not championing the message of the Nazi regime who helped fund the picture.

With a far more comedic bent, Quai des Orfèvres (1947) passes itself off as a Whodunit, but at its core is a story of love, longing, jealousy and hope.

Suzy Delair is iridescent as a woman who knows what it takes to break into stardom. She is conflicted yet headstrong. Confident but overly so. Honestly, there are more dimensions to her character than one would usually expect from a female protagonist of the era. There are more understated performances from Bernard Blier who plays her jealous, yet meek husband, and Simone Renant. This trio are bound by an affection that complicates our emotions as an audience because we don’t want to believe that any one of them is capable of murder. Jealousies, yearning and half-truths play out among the three, with an investigative focus drawn upon them by Louis Jouvet’s Inspector Antoine who must solve the death of wealthy businessman to which the trio are linked.

Set amidst the backdrop of the music hall and brandishing a frostily crisp wit, this film over any other of Clouzot’s works, bears remarkable similarity to Hitchcock’s earlier films (The Pleasure Garden, Murder! Young & Innocent) in that a staged world inhabits the screened one. The duality of the player’s world both on and off the stage and the artifice conjured to belie the true motivations of the protagonists is something created for the on-screen audience, Inspector Antoine and those watching the film.

When considering that this was Clouzot’s return to filmmaking after a 4-year ban, he lost none of the refreshing and progressive mind-set he demonstrated with Le Corbeau. The dialogue is remarkably keen, the sexuality of its lead is overt, and the lawmen are nuanced and multifaceted. Perhaps the only element that dates Quai des Orfèvres is the conclusion, which wraps itself up in a neat little bow, perhaps serving as some kind of penance for the public opinion of Clouzot’s previous feature.

Starting out very much like 50 Shades of The Secretary, La prisonnière (1968) evokes the likes of Belle de Jour, Blow Up and Peeping Tom with more than a splash of The Duke of Burgundy. It’s upsetting that this is Clouzot’s only colour film as he and cinematographer Andréas Winding make the most of the era’s vibrancy, zesty designs and “far out” visuals.

What starts as an exercise in seduction, leads to Josée (played with phenomenal poise by Élisabeth Wiener) discovering the hidden depths of her desires. Breaking through the “normalcy” of her open marriage to Gilbert (Bernard Fresson ) into what really makes her tick. Initially she seems to exchange one male driven fantasy for another as she learns the world of the submissive to the tall, dark stranger, Stanislas (Laurent Terzieff) but the film’s final act offers a more empowering, if melancholic arc for Josée and the two men in her life.

This is most certainly a romance of three acts, but even as the final reel descends into melodrama, Clouzot pulls the rug by administering a stunningly psychedelic dream sequence that gives Kubrick’s 2001 a run for its money. There’s beauty in every scene, from the art direction to the three lead performances. Fresson and Terzieff are convincing as the men that Josée must inevitably chose between, their final scene together is a palpable moment of male impotency that showcases a barrage of inner-turmoil, finally externalised.

Of the three films I have had the pleasure in viewing this week I would say La prisonnière is the most resonant for me. It’s a departure from the Hitchcockian motifs that permeate many of Clouzot’s other films but it is this raw, sensual earnestness that offers a tantalising insight into the director’s soul. This is a film about power. Each of the three leads has a fulfilling arc that satisfies fully when that power is considered for each. What makes this all the more special is the fact that it has never been released in the UK beyond its original theatrical run.

Whether it’s the man torn between the unfaithfully serene Laura and the free-wheeling Denise in Le Corbeau, the married couple and their faithful female companion in Quai des Orfèvres or Josée finding love with both Gilbert and Stanislas in La prisonnière, complicated relationships are the beating heart of each of these films. These aren’t all love triangles in the Bridget Jones sense. Each manages to bestow depth to both female and male characters, humanising them. Making us ache for their plight, wince at their misgivings and yearn for their longing. After all, these relationships in cinema are more emotionally satisfying when they come in threes.

New 4K restorations of these films are released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on 5th March.

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Regular type person by day, film vigilante by night. Spent years as a 35mm projectionist (he got taller) and now he gets to watch and wax lyrical about all manner of motion pictures. Daryl has got a soft spot for naff Horror and he’d consider Anime to be his kryptonite.