While the standard-bearers of the nouvelle vague were off making stuff like The Soft Skin, Contempt, and Muriel, le cinema du papa was cranking right along with this historical potboiler, a romance about the lavish and dangerous love shared between Angélique (Michèle Mercier), the daughter of a poor nobleman living in the French countryside, and Joffrey de Peyrac (Robert Hossein), a wealthy count with a reputation for deviltry who essentially buys her hand in marriage. Peyrac takes Angelique away from the common people she loves — and from Nicolas (Giuliano Gemma), the strapping young fieldhand who first took her fancy — but wins her over by declining to force himself on her. Instead, the cold, cold cockles of her heart are thawed when the limping, scarred Peyrac manages to perforate the chest of a rival in a swordfight. By contemporary standards, this is hilarious stuff — yet somehow it’s still stirring, swooning through its melodramatic paces with the speed and slippery, unstoppable heft of the proverbial greased pig. Think of a Francophone cross between Gone With the Wind and Barbarella.
Michael Haneke’s latest shot across the bow of the bourgeoisie is a suspenseful yarn about a middle-aged French couple who find themselves under surveillance by person or persons unknown — videotapes start showing up at their doorstep, some of them accompanied by crude, vaguely threatening drawings that seem to make all too much sense to the husband who quickly attempts to take matters into his own hands.
This sounds like the kind of thing that would have delighted Hitchcock, and Haneke’s execution crosses one of Hitch’s riveting narratives with the forbidding clinicism of Kubrick. The result is almost spectacular in its pure showmanship and simultaneously devastating in its formal control.
Le Corbeau, only Henri-Georges Clouzot’s second feature film, feels slightly less assured than its follow-up, Quai des Orfèvres, though it may be less compromised as an expression of the director’s decidedly bleak worldview. Casting a dark eye on human tendencies toward gossip and defamation, Clouzot explores the psycho-emotional havoc wreaked on a small town in the French provinces by a letter-writer whose anonymous poison-pen missives, signed “le Corbeau” (the Raven), claim to identify a wide variety of debaucherous activities on the part of various citizens. Most of the film’s characters, of course, seem to have both opportunity and motive to author the letters. Even Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay), who’s the locus of the virtiolic accusations, is a likely suspect.
Just when I declare that Benoît Jacquot seems “incapable of making an uninteresting film,” Seventh Heaven (Le Septiéme ciel) opens in American movie theaters. Watching this one was a little too much like seeing a Woody Allen movie that’s been dubbed into French and then subtitled in English, with all the wit and most of the story lost in the translation. Jacquot’s tale of a shift in the balance of sexual power between married Parisians who submit to the scrutiny of dubious psychiatrists has a gentle touch but is either too obvious or too obscure for my own taste. Continue reading