The heat of war collides with the heat of desire in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (France, 1949).
French Resistance fighter Robert (Michel Auclair) abandons his post and his duty with sexy wild child Manon (Cécile Aubry), gets tangled up in the Paris black market to give Manon the high life she desires, and flees a murder rap in a boat filled with Jewish refugees headed for Palestine. Clouzot creates a thoroughly mercenary world where apparently everything is for sale, even Manon, the poor provincial girl who, torn between urban decadence and her passion for Robert, chooses both. She hides her double life as a high-end prostitute, which we know will not end well.
Clouzot adapts L’Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel “Manon Lescaut” with screenwriter Jean Ferry and relocates the melodramatic passions and betrayals from 18th century Paris to Nazi-occupied France and the immediate post-war culture. Think Carmen by way of Gun Crazy.
The flashback construction is ungainly and awkward and veers off into strange third act that sends his outlaws into the desert like the lost tribe of doomed lovers. But the dive into the urban underworld is pure noir and Serge Reggiani (who gets top billing for his supporting role) is superb as Manon’s opportunistic brother, a small time hood with delusions of big time talent who is ready to sell out anyone for a buck.
Clouzot’s noir sensibility and post-war attitude aside, the film is driven by a sensual young woman who uses sex as leverage but seems to genuinely love her pathologically jealous husband. Their passion is true l’amour fou, which drives all their actions; they aren’t any good for one another and can’t live without each other. Clouzot directs the film as if powered by their sexual heat.
In black and white, in French with English subtitles
The Blu-ray from arrow features the 1970 documentary Bibliotechque de poche: H.G. Clouzot and the 22-minute video appreciation “Woman in the Dunes” by film historian Geoff Andrews.