Friday, October 14, 2011

Things fall apart: The cinema of Henri-George Clouzot at TIFF Bell Lightbox

It’s commonplace to describe Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) as one of cinema’s great pessimists, so brimming with rot, despair and entropy are his films—but what makes Clouzot’s pessimism great? Perhaps it’s a matter of conviction. Some within the Nouvelle Vague characterized his films as sterile and immaculate, efficient, without life or discovery, but such accusations sound an awful lot like mistaking classical rigour for lack of engagement or inspiration. His films functioned as well-oiled machines precisely because they described the inescapable machinery of fatalism; inevitability was crucial to their moral theses. But within their strategies lies a mine field of erotic curiosities, odd detail and dark playfulness—the inevitable can’t seem inevitable while it’s unfolding; only in retrospect. Thus second and third and fourth viewings of Le Corbeau (1943), The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955)—of which you can read much more hereretain their peculiar suspense. Clouzot’s camera fully attends to the latter film’s unlucky co-heroine (played by the director’s unlucky wife, who would perish from the same ailment as her character); its deep interest is as unmistakable as it is useless. Her fate is sealed.

Clouzot’s films literally made his actors ill; he drugged them to sleep or plunged them into miniature lakes of crude oil, creating his cinema’s single-most summarizing image and giving each of his leads a case of conjunctivitis. Machinery broke down during production and sets collapsed. The resonant doom of his best films seems to have wreaked a certain havoc on its participants in some Faustian exchange for its gloomy power. Hopefully no such bad luck with befall those of you with the good luck to see Clouzot’s films during TIFF Cinematheque’s The Wages of Fear: The Cinema of Henri-Georges Clouzot, which runs at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox until November 29, 2011. The retrospective includes all his Clouzot’s films save Retour à la Vie (1949), as well as Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009)
of which you can read more about here. Run, do not walk, to catch these films—just take care to look both ways before you cross the street.


Bunched Undies said...

One of the best summations of Clouzot's style I've read. Good work. No oily lake for you!

JB said...

Thanks, Bunchie. I grew up in Alberta, so I figure I've had enough oily lakes for a lifetime...

Things have been hectic over here, and as a result this wound up being a too-brief piece, and probably not very helpful if you don't already know Clouzot. But I really wanted to post something as close as possible to the start of the retrospective for any readers able to attend. Very glad that you were to get something out of it in spite of all that.