Arrow Video: Manon (1949) - Reviewed

French master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot just returned from a two-year exile from filmmaking after his 1943 noir masterwork Le Corbeau landed him in hot water for accepting funding from Continental Films, a German film company established by the Nazi occupation in France.  Shortly after making Quai des Orfèvres, his first feature since banishment from the director’s chair, in an almost reactionary move Clouzot turned over the 1949 Golden Lion Winner Manon, a loose adaptation of Antoine Prévost’s controversial 1731 French novel Manon Lescaut.  Told in countless languages and forms from dramas to operas and ballets, the story tells the doomed romance of Dégrieux (Michel Auclair) who runs away with his lover Manon Lescaut (Cécile Aubry) whose thirst for living luxuriously sends the hapless couple down a dark path including but not limited to promiscuity, prostitution and eventually murder.   

One of seven cinematic adaptations of Prévost’s tale of doomed 18th century romance, Clouzot’s version is unique in the ways it addresses the controversies generated by Le Corbeau by updating the time to 20th Century France during WWII and reshaping the character of Manon as being suspected her fellow village neighbors of being a Nazi collaborationist.  Co-starring Serge Reggiani as the titular Manon’s brother Leon, Clouzot’s relentlessly and uncompromisingly bleak vision of Prévost’s novel remains an incomparable outlier in the director’s filmography ordinarily characterized by suspense thrills.  Functioning as both a departure from genre trappings as well as a form of self-examination for Mr. Clouzot, Manon the film is racy and raw for the ways in which it tackles the subjects of greed and prostitution generated by postwar France while also serving up a frank examination of the gulf between spiritual and physical love.

While Clouzot is almost entirely a filmmaker of painstaking technical precision, the key to his Manon lies with the crucial casting of Cécile Aubry who imbues the French woman with childlike purity and voluptuous sexuality, often tightrope walking between the two extremes.  Though Aubry would go on to become a formidable Hollywood actress, her first big break into the mainstream came with Manon.  Playing her doomed beau is Michel Auclair who was already a major film star after appearing in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and he makes Dégrieux into a sympathetic, tragic character with more bad luck than he can keep up with.  The presence of Serge Reggiani as Manon’s brother Leon will no doubt cause Clouzot fans to further ponder what might have been had Reggiani and the filmmaker finished out Inferno together.

A large factor in Manon’s carefully composed visual modernity was the director’s frequent collaboration with French cinematographer Armand Thirard.  Also having lensed Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 and Diabolique, Thirard’s stark black and white cinematography turns a sterile lens onto increasingly messy settings including but not limited to an unforgettable crescendo in the Arabian desert landscape.  Much like Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, the terrain depicted appears suffocating in heat and humidity with the human characters at times appearing as tiny dots in the grand scheme of things.  Thirard’s use of the crane shot is especially striking on a tense sequence where Manon struggles to find a spot on a departing train, with the actors in the boxcar writhing around like packed sardines.

Among the few straightforward dramatic offerings from the French master of suspense, Manon in addition to copping the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion went on to become a great financial success in France and reaffirmed the director’s reputation as one of French cinema’s finest master craftsmen.  While dismal, oppressive and even nihilistic, in the time-honored tradition of Clouzot, the film follows its characters and situations down whichever logical path the story takes them whether we the audience are left feeling good about it in the end or not. 

Daring for its frank exploration of prostitution, greed and the unattainability of true happiness existing outside of materialism, Clouzot’s Manon remains a sharp-edged downer which simultaneously works as a straight adaptation of Prévost while also using the story to examine the social implications of postwar France in microcosm.  Most importantly for Clouzot, it answers the many questions posed by his former exile from the cinema scene.  Not unlike Dégrieux’s hopeless eloping with Manon, it answers for Clouzot whether or not embarking on Le Corbeau was such a good idea for him in the first place.  In the filmgoer’s ongoing mission to decode the mystery of Clouzot’s cinema, Manon remains an essential piece of the puzzle!

--Andrew Kotwicki