Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On Faddish Hatreds: The Cases of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Anatole France

Sonic Youth's Kill Yr Idols
Pablo Picasso once said—and I’m paraphrasing here—“All artists must kill their fathers.” And the oldish young people in Sonic Youth once said, “Kill Yr [sic] Idols” and then told Robert Christgau to go fuck himself.  And finally Ezra Pound said that a masterpiece is something that destroys an old genre or establishes a new one.  The commonality here is that artists who aspire to originality have to hate something.  You can’t follow the Poundian dictum to “make it new” if you’re quite content with the old.

But occasionally artistic hatreds become abstracted from their original contexts and take on pathological lives of their own.  This was brought to mind by my recent viewing of Henri-George Clouzot’s 1956 thriller Les diaboliques, a Hitchcockian psychosexual nightmare which was considered groundbreaking at the time but which has not aged well.  This was my third encounter with Clouzot, my first two Clouzot films being L’assassin habite á 21 (1942) and Le Courbet (1943).  Both of these tightly plotted mystery/thrillers were made under the Nazi occupation, a fact which subsequent generations would hold against Clouzot, who came to be hated by the French New Wavers associated with Cahiers du cinema (Godard, Truffaut, etc.), who, in addition to faulting him with collaborationism, found these films and subsequent works (like The Wages  of Fear and Les diaboliques) to be dull and old-fashioned and symptomatic of everything that was wrong with the French film industry which they sought to disrupt.

Now, although my own experience with Clouzot has been rather mixed, I can’t help but think that some of this New Wave antipathy is unwarranted.  Clouzot, after all, is often seen as the French Hitchcock, and the New Wavers loved Hitchcock (Truffaut later conducted a famous series of interviews with the Briton, whom he saw as an embodiment of his auteur theory of what a director should be).  And Clouzot’s films certainly have an “auteur-y” feel to them; the consistent themes of deception, betrayal, and corruption, mixed with a quintessentially noir-ish style (really noir avant la lettre) would seem to make Clouzot a shoe-in for status of New Wave hero (like the above-mentioned Hitchcock, as well as John Ford and Jean Renoir, both directors whose authorial visions fit well with Truffaut’s theory).

The irrationality of the New Wave hatred of Henri-Georges Clouzot harkens back to the Surrealists’ hatred of the refined French man of letters Anatole France, who was too “mainstream” for their tastes (truly, they were the hipsters of their time and place) and upon whose death they danced in the streets in celebration.  And Anatole France’s reputation has never recovered.  If people today know one thing about France, it’s that the Surrealists celebrated his death.  Their “make-it-new” hatred has permanently sullied and eclipsed his reputation beyond all proportion or reason.  So let us be cautious in our artistic hatreds.

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