Thursday, February 27, 2020

MANON: Henri-Georges Clouzot's re-discovered French Classic gets Arrow's Blu-ray treatment

Mid-twentieth century French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (shown below) is, unfortunately, best remembered for a couple of first-rate thrillers -- Diabolique and The Wages of Fear -- but he was a fine craftsman and artist in any number of genres. His very dark Le Corbeau is a dissection of French provincial life like no other, while Quai des Orfèvres is an original and witty crime drama. He was able to draw outstanding, often surprising performances from almost all the actors he used (Brigitte Bardot did her best work in his La Vérité), and the man had an almost shockingly good knack for smart casting.

For one of the best samples of that casting knack, look no further than Clouzot's 1949 film MANON, and his choice of newcomer (she'd had a small role in but one previous film), Cécile Aubry (the blond shown below), as his title character.  Based on the famous (and at time of publication scandalous) novel by Antoine François Prévost), the tale has since been adapted over and over again into operas, ballets, movies and television shows/series.

If you're an opera lover, you'll probably call your favorite the Puccini version. TrustMovies is not and so stakes his claim on Clouzot's fine film, the best of the Manons that he has so far seen -- thanks to the very interesting updating, rich direction and clever co-writing/adapting, by Clouzot and his collaborator, Jean Ferry.

Clouzot updates his version to begin at the end of World War II, as his hero, Robert, a French infantryman played by the in-his-own-way-as-beautiful-as-Manon actor, Michel Auclair (below), helps prevent local townspeople from cutting off the hair of a young girl they claim has collaborated with the Germans.

The filmmaker manages to make their near-immediate love for each other not merely acceptable but so much a part of who these two are that the love quite believably lasts and grows. The film begins on a freighter smuggling a load of displaced Jews to Palestine, where our lovers have stowed away, and most of the movie takes the form of flashback, as the pair relates their tale to the ship's captain, below, right.

Clouzot had a reputation as a misanthrope (I'm not sure I buy that), but he was no misogynist, and his ability to place us into the minds and hearts of his lovers turns his Manon into something rich and moving. The filmmaker understand how her coming from poverty makes her crave money as much as love, while Robert's more-than-middle-class upbringing has insulated him so that he wants Manon and nothing else.

How this duality plays out is not simply witty but very wise. It also involves Manon's brother (a very nice turn by top-billed Serge Reggiani (above, right), along with various moneyed lovers (like the weighty lecher, perfectly played by Raymond Souplex, below left).

In one of the film's most delicious scenes, Robert follows Manon to her place of work (which she has been keeping from him) and has a smashing dialog with this very-high-end bordello's smart and classy madam (the great Gabrielle Dorziat, below).

Through it all, love does not simply endure, it oddly but strongly burgeons. And when we reach Palestine, the film -- rather like the topology we're a part of -- changes radically. As the Jewish refugees, along with our pair, make their way to where they're going, a scene as disturbing as any I've watched occurs. Not that it is particularly bloody, but it is simply so startling and horrible -- because there is nothing either the participants or we in the audience can at all do about it -- that I suspect viewers of the time (hell, even now) would have experienced little like it.

Is this one more indication of misanthropy?  No. Rather, it's M. Clouzot allowing us a brief but awful look at the world as it was. And is. What a movie-maker this guy was! He is missed.

From Arrow Academy (distributed here in the USA via MVD Entertainment) a splendid Blu-ray transfer that consistently sparkles, Manon, in French with English subtitles and running 106 minutes, hit the street this past Tuesday, February 25 -- for purchase (and, I hope, rental, too). Only two Bonus Features appear on the disc: an unfortunately un-subtitled interview in French with the director and a very nice and newly-filmed appreciation of the movie by critic Geoff Andrew

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