The Controversies and Visual Pleasures of Clouzot's MANON

January 31, 2024 - 12:17pm
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on H.G. Clouzot's Manon were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new restoration of Manon will screen on Saturday, February 3, at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is part of a series of new French restorations and admission is free!

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1949), a loose adaptation of Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescault (1731), occupies a strange position in Clouzot’s filmography. The film begins aboard a ship. As a crew takes in several boats of Jewish refugees fleeing postwar Europe, they discover two stowaways: Manon (Cécile Aubry) and Robert (Michel Auclair). Robert catches the crew’s attention when they recognize him from the papers as a man on the run, wanted for murder. As he and Manon tell their story to the crew, we watch the noirish story of these doomed lovers unfold in flashback with little to guide our interpretation of their journey towards a fugitive fate. Manon is a young woman accused in her village of both sexual immorality and collaboration with occupying Nazi forces, while Robert is a resistance soldier who believes her innocence and falls in love with her. Robert and Manon are swept up in the upheaval of postwar France, trying to climb their way into high society, though Manon’s independence and Robert’s possessiveness lead the couple through a series of violent spats and passionate reconciliations. Manon is not the stereotypical femme fatale; alongside her self-interest and sexual intrigue, she is in her own way a sincerely loving partner, a double-bind that proves difficult for Robert to resolve.

This genre play of romance and intrigue—even comedy at times—comes dressed in Clouzot’s characteristic low-key cinematography. Clouzot is an exquisite stylist, making use of languid, self-consciously high-contrast camerawork from Armand Thirard, who would continue to work on Clouzot’s movies that are best-known to U.S. audiences: The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). The influence of then-recently imported American film noir and earlier works of French poetic realism can be seen in the fragmented compositions, ample shadows, and silky smoke that decorate Manon. These stylizations are cut by postwar film movements like Italian neorealism and the German Trümmerfilm that use location shooting to add a gritty realism to the whole affair.

Robert and Manon’s story ultimately collides with the displacement of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, a significant move for Clouzot considering his own ambiguous politics while working under the Occupation-era French film studio Continental, work that saw him reprimanded for collaboration and banned from filmmaking. He was reinstated after two years following support on his behalf from artists and intellectuals like Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre alongside arguments that his film Le Corbeau (1943) allegorized and agitated against Occupation policies. As Richard Neupert notes in French Film History, 1895–1946, “It is still unclear how much Clouzot supported the Occupation, but his cinematographer, [Nicolas] Hayer, secretly organized a resistance network among cinematographers.” Within this context, Manon can be viewed as a complicated attempt to clarify Clouzot’s political concerns and support a postwar ethos. Its finale, set in Palestine, is a politically flattened depiction of the region’s settlement (filmed in Morocco and released after the Nakba in 1948) and remains an object of critique among scholars of the film.

In French film scholarship, Manon remains an oddity, receiving just a brief mention in Alan Williams’ foundational Republic of Images and a fairly blistering critique in Noёl Burch and Geneviève Sellier’s The Battle of the Sexes in French Cinema, 1930–1956, who call it “[a] typically ‘revisionist’ film” and “a very good example, coming from a right-wing filmmaker, of how anti-Arab racism can replace anti-Semitism so as to draw a veil over the complicity of the French in the Jewish genocide.” Despite these contemporary views of the film, Manon was wildly popular upon its initial release and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Manon marks a more explicit political turn in Clouzot’s filmography and remains striking as a document of his development as an auteur. Like Le Corbeau, this film focuses on a village’s accusations and recriminations, here in the form of the femme tondue: a shaven and marked woman paraded about as punishment for collaboration with Nazis and a phenomenon later depicted poignantly in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). On a technical level, the movie provides a showcase for Clouzot as a director equally capable in exquisitely detailed interior scenes and sequences set on sprawling locations. Manon is particularly memorable for its odd angles, high-contrast silhouettes, and Hollywood-style backlight sculpting using stray sunbeams on location. These stylistic innovations in Clouzot’s oeuvre would pave the way for the tense nitroglycerine delivery through the mountains in The Wages of Fear and Diabolique’s gothic psychological drama set in a dingy boarding school.

Manon is a work as ambivalent and complicated as the director behind it. The politics behind the film’s violent finale in the desert remain inscrutable, and at the same time the sequence provides exquisite stylistic pleasures when Clouzot adds his characteristic shadows, textured images, and poetic details to such a bright expanse. The film is a troubling work on its own and especially as a document of the ambiguities after Occupation, yet it holds an important space within the development of one of France’s most refined stylists of the moving image.