Jan 17, 2016

Henri-Georges Clouzot

This month we bring you a French director, sadly overlooked by the masses despite his clear genius, forever overshadowed by Hitchcock, who I personally don’t have much time for (feel free to argue this with me). Without further ado, the real master of suspense…Henri-Georges Clouzot.


{In Praise of Henri-Georges Clouzot}
by Nathan T. Dean


“It’s swimmers who drown. It’s non-swimmers who keep away.”
– From Les Diaboliques, Directed by Henri Georges Clouzot


A woman is murdering her husband. She is doing it out of love, or hatred. It doesn’t matter. You sneak into her room, with a camera, and set up the tripod. Knife. Bathtub. Poison. Rope. Doesn’t matter. There is a woman, and she’s killing her lover before your eyes. How do you frame up the shot?
When considering the birth of a medium, one must be aware of the evolutionary steps directors have had to make to create the spectacles we watch every day. Often, when we consider the thriller, we are immediately taken into the horror of Alfred Hitchcock. We hear the painful notes of the soundtrack as aa figure nears the shower curtain, and all at once our perceptions of what a film can do are shattered; now when we get that rare and dangerous moment to film a murder, we believe we know what to do.
There is however a flaw here. Alfred Hitchcock watched films. Alfred Hitchcock at some point before creating his works saw someone else’s. It is here that we discover Les Diaboliques, The Devils, The Fiends. A brilliant evolutionary leap, before its time.
Henri Georges Clouzot broke boundaries in ways we rarely consider in modern cinema. In 1955 he was already directing a film with hypersubtle insinuated lesbianism, horrifying misogynistic abuse, and, finally, of course, the hallmark of any good film noir thriller, the femme fatale. His experimentations in representing such a radical view in horror cinema is how we have reached story-telling today. Anything from ‘The Leftovers’ to ‘Mad Men’ – from Hitchcock to Scorsese – has, consciously or subconsciously, been affected by the work of Henri Georges Clouzot. Thank the lord for French Cinema.



Les Diaboliques’ follows the story of two teachers who murder their abusive husband and lover respectively, only to find that his body has mysteriously disappeared, driving them into a frenzied madness. And more besides. Utilising chiaroscuro, a terrifying soundtrack by George van Parys, and mise-en-scene to (perhaps) die for, Clouzot performs the most crucial element of any thriller. He does not rely on the scenes of terror: he relies on the calm. He tenderly shows the inner turmoils and insanities of his characters, often through a single glance from eyes to middle distant, where he lingers for that second too long. Whilst other cinematic fields were relying on naturalism, and the performance styles of the stage, Clouzot incorporated expressionism. In this, I mean, that Clouzot could show the heart of the matter. Street shots are framed with a single faceless pedestrian, emphasising the loneliness of the other characters. The children of the school where our two femme fatales work behave in relativity to the souls of those about them; when the adults are agitated, the children misbehave (when the teachers are scared, the children hide in the corner whilst they are punished). When the murder occurs, after much development of the ins, outs, whys, wherebefores and other technicalities of how to even begin to consider a murder, the shadows lingering on the victim’s neck are deep, saturated, effervescently black. Clouzot makes you look. Hitchcock may show a knife on a curtain; Clouzot told you what the knife was thinking.
The opening of ‘The Wages of Fear’ shows further his influence on contemporary cinema. The opening soundscape to the titles – and note, I use the term soundscape, not track, revolutionary in its own right – you can easily see, over time, evolving into the same titles for ‘American Horror Story’, in itself a show honouring all of the great cinematic moments eponymous to that TV Show. And after that surge of sensation created by Georges Auric, we are shown pure apathy. Rocks thrown at a dog. And we are the dog. Clouzot is preparing us. We are a dog, beaten down, and in a moment, this film is going to beat you up too.
The Fiends are two women, expressing the dominant and the submissive (again, leading the way for future masterpieces like last years ‘Duke of Burgundy’), the scared and the confident, the insane and the incensed. They flirt and linger in their created bubble world. And it is all shown through a glance, a held moment too long, an enormous expanse of proxemics between them forever blooming larger until all you can see is the room and the space around these poor, little murderers. Remember this when you are writing or directing your thrillers. Don’t think about the knife plunging through the shower curtain, think about the moment before, and the moment after. A nightmare is scary not because there is a man in the shadows, but because there are shadows around a man. Clouzot tamed shadows in his cinema. So should you. But I bet you’re just going to watch ‘Psycho’ again, aren’t you? I tell you, you should look into the eyes of two devils first.