Tuesday 17 March 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes the Arrow (UK) edition of Henri-Georges Clouzot's MANON (France, 1949)

It was as long ago as 1731 when the French writer, Abbé Prevost published his high class potboiler, “Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux, et de Manon Lescaut”. The novel was perhaps the very first example of the “noble gentleman” coming undone by a “woman of passion”, or even a predecessor to the Femme Fatale, to put as non-judgmental a spin on the material as possible. It would be another century and the flowering of the Romantic era in literature and art before this sub-genre of picaresque romantic tragedy grew legs, starting with the English (who else) and Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” among other great billowing novels. 
By the twentieth century the material had proved irresistible to composers, writers and filmmakers. There are no less than three operatic versions of Manon, the first by Daniel Auber in 1856, the second, and perhaps the most beloved of opera cognoscenti, Massenet’s great operetta of 1884, and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” of 1893. 
Arthur Robison made a silent film version of the novel in 1926 with Lya de Putti in the lead. Carmine Gallone also made a movie in 1940 at Cinecitta which I have never seen. And most notably the great Henri-Georges Clouzot who made this Manon, with an adaptation substantially written by himself released in 1949.
Manon is the fourth of Clouzot’s feature movies, coming shortly after his masterpiece, Quai des Orfèvres. In it he seizes the opportunities for hugely broadened geographical, character and narrative scope, all of it enabling an extraordinarily caustic portrayal of the venality of the French collaborators and other “friendly followers” during the war and Occupation, and the even more appalling complicit hypocrisy of the self-anointed “Free French” after the war who spent the next decade settling scores, pointing the finger and condemning thousands of bystanders to undeserved reprisal. 
This is core, central Clouzotian pessimism and it is a sight to see and hear. As if this was not enough of a hothouse of emotional architecture, he writes a final (fifth) act for Manon, replacing the novel’s original New Orleans setting with what was then still Palestine, in which the lovers fleeing the horrors of wartime and postwar France join a group of Jews who have also sought transportation from European hell to the “Promised Land’. Palestine itself sets the stage for one of the most incredible climaxes, 25 minutes long in French movies, of l’amour fou
The last act belongs in a class of its own, while sharing so much with the Liebestod finale of Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and several other movies. But Clouzot’s visual setting is unique in cinema – an essentially wide open desert, with the promised mirage of safety never really within its grasp, and a shock mass murder, which in itself speaks to the appalling politics that the British and French were playing with both the Palestinians and the Zionist Jews who were fighting for a place in the Middle East. 
The catastrophe which envelopes the picture ends with one of the most extraordinarily moving images in Clouzot’s work. Manon, now dead from a bullet is seized and carried like a slab of meat by her lover des Grieux across the remaining dunes until he too dies after burying her body in the sand up to her face. In the final three shots he talks to her and kisses her, like a madman and relinquishes his own life to the glory of their long fatal passion. This climactic scene looks nothing less than Bunuelian, as much as Clouzot, at this point of intensity. 
Indeed watching the movie I found myself both astonished and moved by the staging and playing to very much the same degree as watching the climax of Bunuel’s sublime 1954 melodrama based on “Wuthering Heights", Abismos de Pasion, in which Alejandro played by Jorge Mistral hurls himself into Catalina’s grave to follow her into death. It’s very hard not to believe Don Luis had not seen Clouzot’s great film and burnt the final liberation of that movie into his own mind. 
The supporting cast includes the wonderful Serge Reggiani, and the male and female leads were cast for their amazing looks, and considerable skill in responding to Clouzot’s directorial whip. Des Grieux is played by Michel Auclair who had already begun a career playing romantic leads in French postwar movies. He was, dare I say one of the hottest looking men of any nationality to grace a screen but he subdues his machismo into tonal range and incredibly refined delivery. Fans may remember him with affection for his Professeur Flostre in Donen’s Funny Face. Auclair also displays enormous physicality, in the final shots of him dragging Manon’s body across miles of sand dunes in long takes. For Manon herself Clouzot set up a “contest” to find the ideal newcomer for the part. He found her, and how, in the form of 20 year old Cécile Aubry. She next made The Black Rose for Hathaway the following year but little else. She was and is a gift to cinema for this movie alone. 
Manon is something of a shock even to hardened Francophiles, like myself who only remember it from pretty unwatchable bootlegs over the years. The new 2K restoration has been brought over by Arrow with English subs and is an essential disc. This label, along with the Powerhouse duo is doing all the hard yakka Criterion should be doing but doesn’t any more.

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