Blu-ray Release: February 25, 2020
Audio: French LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 100 minutes
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
A village girl named Manon (Cécile Aubry) is accused of collaborating with the Nazis and is rescued from imminent execution by a former French Resistance fighter (Michel Auclair). The couple move to Paris, but their relationship turns stormy as they struggle to survive, resorting to profiteering, prostitution, and even murder. Eventually escaping to Palestine, the pair attempt a treacherous desert crossing in search of the happiness which seems to forever elude them… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
French author Antoine François Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut (French: L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut), the seventh and final volume of Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality (French: Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité), was a sensation in its era. Following its initial banning, censorship, and even organized pirating, it was adapted into operas, ballets, stage dramas, and, eventually, motion pictures. These included a 1926 silent German film by Arthur Robison, a 1927 silent American rendition called When a Man Loves, starring John Barrymore and directed by Alan Crosland, Italian director Carmine Gallone’s 1940 version, starring Alida Valli, and a loose, 1968 reimagining called Manon 70, starring Catherine Deneuve and directed by Jean Aurel. The first French adaptation was called simply Manon (1949) and was directed and co-written by future international superstar filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot.
Clouzot was struggling coming out of WWII, when his 1943 drama Le Corbeau (The Crow) was produced by a German company during the occupation and had been perceived as anti-French. He was actually banned from French filmmaking until 1947, when he made Quai des Orfèvres (Quay of the Goldsmith). That film and Manon, which won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, helped realign Clouzot’s career and led directly to his two greatest and most well-regarded films – The Wages of Fear (French: Le salaire de la peur, 1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). Clouzot and co-writer Jean Ferry relocated Prévost’s story to WWII, which, not knowing the novel beyond the Wikipedia plot description, I assumed was a simple effort to update the plot and characters for (then) modern audiences. Indeed, everything does fit quite neatly into a post-war setting; however, knowing of the reactions to Le Corbeau and the impact that fiasco had on Clouzot’s early directing career, the choice appears to be at least somewhat autobiographical, given that Manon is initially accused of cavorting with Nazis, as well as the film’s advantageous portrayal of Jewish refugees. Thus, the choice of era for the adaptation is interesting for pragmatic, aesthetic, and existential reasons.
Viewers hoping to compare Manon to the two absolute masterpieces of suspense that followed (meaning The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques) may come away disappointed by the sort of stock romantic melodrama on display. The story structure and manner in which characters are developed certainly feel antiquated, even for a 1949 release. And for good reason – the novel was almost two hundred years old at the time. However, what Clouzot lacks here in terms of dramatic credibility and innovative storytelling, he tends to make up for with visual flavor – not just flair or symbolism, though there’s plenty of that, but ingenuity. Armand Thirard’s beautiful black & white qualities of cinematography evokes the expectedly austere film noir look, but can also tilt the film into stark cinéma vérité hyperrealism and sweeping Hollywood fancifulness. These subtle shifts in imagery tend to coincide with the frequency of the performances, though in unexpected ways, as the more histrionic acting tends to be matched by the most stilted framing. The tonal change-ups and combination of old-fashioned theatrics and modern filmmaking techniques also helps prepare the audience for the impossibly bleak final act, in which Manon and Robert join refugees on a perilous and doomed trek into Palestine.
Manon appears to have never been available on English-friendly home video, which is a bit of a surprise, considering Clouzot’s pedigree and the fact that it won a Gold Lion. Aside from no-frills discs from Korea, Japan, and Spain, French speaking fans could look forward to a special edition DVD from Editions Montparnasse or a 2015 Blu-ray from Spanish company New Line Films (not affiliated with the US company), but that was it. Because Arrow didn’t master this one in-house or even near-house, there isn’t much info available about the transfer. All the included booklet says is that a 1080p was supplied to the company via Le Films du Jeudi in France. Following some fuzzy opening titles, the resulting 1.37:1 transfer is perfectly strong and in keeping with most of Arrow’s Academy line of films. Details are clear, the black & white tones are cleanly delineated without ever appearing muddy, and lines are well-defined without halo problems. Grain and other textures skew a hair mushy, but I didn’t notice any other print-based artifacts, like scratches, spots, or crushy black levels.
Manon is presented in its original French mono and uncompressed LPCM 1.0. Generally, this is about as clean as a track as we can expect from a film of this age. There isn’t a lot of dynamic range, but the dialogue and simple, mostly incidental sound effects aren’t overtly muffled, either, aside from a handful of slightly buzzy moments. Paul Misraki’s limited score has the richest sound quality, especially when it acts as the main aural element.
Bibliothèque de poche: H.G. Clouzot (46:26, HD) – In this 1970 documentary featurette, Clouzot discusses his favorite literature, its influence on his work, and how he and other filmmakers adapt books to film.
Woman in the Dunes (22:21, HD) – Time Out magazine critic, programmer-at-large at BFI South Bank, and author of Stranger Than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American Cinema (Limelight, 2004) Geoff Andrew offers a full-bodied lesson in Clouzot’s early work, his misanthropic worldview, the novel Manon Lescaut, Clouzot’s adaptation, and how it relates to the themes of his bigger filmography (I feel oh-so-smart for picking up on the Nazi collaborator angle, no matter how obvious).
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