I found myself struck down quite violently by Henri-Geogres Clouzot’s Manon. A director usually more recognised by his ability to draw nail-biting tension within his more well-known films (Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques), I was quite struck by how dark his feelings towards human nature were. Wages and Les Diaboliques hold untrustworthy characters and downbeat endings, however, his cynical nature feels compounded here in Manon.
Loosely based on the 1731 novel by Abbe Prevost, this contemptuous piece moves the action to the more contemporary era of Post-World War II France. Robert (Serge Reggiani), a handsome yet soft man is a stowaway on board a tanker smuggling migrant Jews. His company is the titular Manon (Cecile Aubry), a babyfaced blonde who Robert had first met being persecuted as a Nazi collaborator. She along with Robert tell their woeful tale about how they got on board to the ship’s blunt but receptive captain.
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Characters who are tough to love are one thing, but the lead couple here do their utmost to make themselves impossible to love. These are characters designed for pure frustration, yet it is this very thing that makes the film so difficult to set aside. To watch this couple bait and demean each other is an act of masochism, yet their desire for each other to push on with their charade of a relationship is magnetising. These people punish each other viciously as if post-war life has markedly left a power vacuum of vileness.
Robert is simply unable to keep up with Manon’s excessive taste and promiscuity. Manon harbours a love for Robert, but the film enjoys wrong-footing its viewer so we are never sure if we should believe her. When she is introduced within the film’s main chunk of the narrative, through flashback, it is alleged that Manon could be a Nazi co-conspirator. This claim is purposely never truly confirmed and primes us to Manon’s unpredictable, sometimes bratty behaviour. Robert’s self-righteousness gives him appeal but is also his undoing as he falls for Manon’s manipulations time and time again. We hurt the ones we love; in Manon’s case to love is to hurt each other. Become a burden. By the end of the film, this becomes the most literal metaphor. By moving the period Manon comes across as a particularly damning indictment of materialism and wayward morality within a post-war France.
Manon is beautifully staged throughout. The opening stages of the film have Jewish migrants hauntingly singing as they’ve reached one more step towards their goal of freedom. The crumbling ruins in which Manon and Robert first find each other are not only picturesque but hint at the dark clouds which blight their relationship from then on. As does the film’s score, which moves from dashing romance to doomed bleakness on the turn of a dime. Much like the titular character, it is a score that flirts with moods, depending on what the film wants to extract from the viewer.
Arrow’s Blu-ray extras have film critic Geoff Andrew noting Clouzot’s sourness in his visions of humanity, along with his remarkable dedication to his cinematic craft. The most notable aspect of the Manon disc is the crisp transfer of the film itself. Andrew remarks of the film’s difficultly in distribution despite being one of the most famous adaptations of the Manon story. This makes Arrow’s release of the film one of particular significance. For those wishing to delve into more of Clouzot’s dark views on humanity, this is a solid place to start.
Manon is out on Blu-ray on 24th Februrary from Arrow Academy.