Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Conspiracy Theories

12/07/2011 4:00 AM |

Henri-Georges Clouzot
December 8-24 at MoMA

It’s fitting that Hitchcock considered Henri-Georges Clouzot to be a serious rival. The two even had a bidding war over who would get the rights to adapt Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More (Clouzot won, adapting the book into Les Diaboliques in 1955). Clouzot’s grim thrillers toy with the prolonged struggle to avoid the inescapable, absurd and mostly miserable circumstances of life. Clouzot’s characters often discover conspiracies that exists solely to keep one in one’s place and characters never realize just how limited their agency is until it’s too late. These are highly entertaining movies about existential uncertainty.

That thematic throughline can be seen in Clouzot films as diverse as The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942), his directorial debut, to the screenplay and detailed notes he’d prepared for L’Enfer, a troubled project that Claude Chabrol made into Hell in 1994 and which Serge Bromberg partially reconstructed in his 2009 documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno.

The Murderer Lives at Number 21 is a light-hearted whodunit about a series of killings committed by someone identified only by the calling cards, reading “Monsieur Dumond,” that are left at the scene of every crime. A struggling singer (Suzy Delair) and her equally fame-hungry husband (Pierre Fresnay, who had previously starred in Hitchcock’s 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much) go in search of the killer just to get their names in the local newspapers. They eventually discover, though, that just as “Dumond” is the name of a line of faceless, weapon-wielding dolls, the real killer is not a single person but rather a conglomeration. The murders aren’t a plot hatched by a single someone but rather a collective of anonymous someones; you could call it a conspiracy, or simply society in miniature.

The minute anyone in a Clouzot film assumes they know something and can do anything about it is the minute you know they have something bad coming to them. In Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), anonymous poison pen letters accuse Dr. Remy Germain (Fresnay again), a local doctor looking to leave town, of sleeping with wealthy patron Dr. Vorzet’s (Pierre Larquey) wife and conducting back-alley abortions. Germain suffers from the accusations because he believes that everything happens for a reason and that morality isn’t relative. Vorzet haughtily cautions Germain that he has “the atheist’s self-assurance,” preferring “cautious” religious faith to Germain’s foolhardy self-reliance. The film ends with Germain realizing that he acted based on a false presumption and wound up inadvertently hurting someone else. Now, knowing that he’s already been manipulated by people he trusted, Germain realizes just how little control he has over his own life. And he looks aghast over the town knowing that it’s the setting of a myriad other similar little betrayals.

“You can’t always choose,” one character blithely explains to another who aspires to make enough money to start a new life in The Wages of Fear (1953), about four men who take a job driving trucks full of nitroglycerine across dangerous jungle roads. Formerly boisterous men with nothing to lose, the drivers realize the limits of their influence (“I’m not nitroglycerine, I’m not dangerous…not anymore.”) and the power of others (“You knew you were running over me. But you went right ahead.”). “There’s nothing,” one character exclaims, just before he dies.

Circumscribed choices are also at the foundation of Les Diaboliques (1955), wherein battered beauty Michel (Véra Clouzot, Henri-Georges’s own wife) teams up with her husband’s mistress (Simone Signoret) to get rid of the abusive boor (Paul Meurisse). Michel’s nightmarish public performance as a dutiful wife comes to a head when her hubby forces her to reluctantly chew and swallow fish while dining with their peers. Leave it to Signoret to get the last word: “Some things are hard to swallow. I’m not talking about the fish.”