Decembr 15, 2016
Manon – France, 1949
“Unevenness” – thy name is Manon. In fact, this may be an understatement, for Manon seems unclear exactly what kind of movie it is and whose story it is actually telling. Even more egregious, the story it ultimately settles on turns out to be the least interesting one of the two it could have chosen. After all, given the choice between traumatized migrants looking for normalcy after their world went to hell would be much more interesting than following the exploits of two uninteresting, on-the-run slackers who are never able to make the case that the audience should care one iota whether they stay together or not – a death knell if there ever was one in a film of this sort.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon begins in the aftermath of World War II. Out at sea, we see a French ship pick up passengers from three small boats. Money exchanges hands, and we hear a crew member say that the passengers are Jewish. These clearly traumatized passengers are led down to the ships cargo area – because it is the lowest area, thereby keeping them out of sight of the French Navy – and in a scene that shows the dread that still exist in them, we watch as they hear noises from the pipes and become paralyzed with fear. One passenger breaks out into song, and even though they all join in beautifully, it is impossible to shake the sense that they are simultaneously lifting their spirits and preparing for the worst. Among these passengers are old men and women, a few children and their caretakers, and one or two couples that appear to be in their mid-twenties – newlyweds perhaps. I naturally assumed that one of these pairs would be the focal point of the story that follows.
Instead, the scene is interrupted by falling boxes, behind which is a pair of fresh stowaways. Young, French, and obviously not of the same faith as the other passengers, the two eventually bend the captain’s ear with a tale that they hope will melt his cold heart and convince him not to turn the young man over to French authorities. The man’s name is Robert Degrieux (Michel Auclair); the woman traveling with him is Manon (Cecile Aubry).
Here the story shifts back in time, and, to the film’s credit, their tale does indeed begin powerfully. We learn that Robert was a member of the French Resistance during the war, while Manon was a worker in a restaurant that catered to German soldiers. A few of her fellow villagers think more than just serving customers went on, a charge that Manon denies, but which as the film progresses the audience will be forgiven for believing. There early scenes impressively capture the chaotic aftermath of the war, when villagers turned against each other and many women who had cozied up to the Germans were beaten and shaved bald. Filmed in what may have been actual World War II ruins, these scenes have an authenticity that much of what follows lacks, and the film is almost worth watching just for them.
Luckily for her, Manon is spared the wrath of the mob, and eventually Robert is tasked with keeping an eye of her. She makes a run for it, scratches his face, and hurls insults at him; he in turn wrestles her to the ground and utters some pretty unsavory things about her, the kinds of things that no true gentlemen would think about saying, not even about a woman he completely abhors. No matter. Within five minutes, the two are professing their undying love for each other and vowing to be together at all costs. I didn’t buy it for a minute.
Part of the reason for this is by design. As Robert rushes off to do something to save Manon, the camera focuses on her. Now alone in her makeshift prison, we watch as a sinister smile spreads across her face. I got him, she seems to be saying. So far so good, viewers can be forgiven for saying, for up until that point, the film has not put its characters through anything that they can’t recover from. There’s still time for Manon to learn to love Robert, and for Robert to prove himself worthy of her love, yet, from here on in, the film can’t decide what kind of story it is telling. It devolved into a story of depravity and emotional cruelty, one part film noir, the other a distant cousin to Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman. We watch as Robert becomes increasingly weaker and Manon reaches new depths of immorality. All the while, Robert keeps pleading how much he loves her (a love that never feels earned or requited), and the object of his love keeps doing anything – and I do mean anything – for money. This would be fine if there were some altruistic cause behind it, but there isn’t. Manon simply can’t stand the thought of being poor or boring. Meanwhile, Robert becomes practically homicidal at times, much like the Man in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, yet without any of that character’s remorse and humility. Watching the two of them is like watching two trains on the same track approaching each other at top speed; you know what’s coming, and you would prefer to look away.
And then the film diverts, for no other reason than that it has to. And when it does, Robert and Manon stare into the eyes of the captain (Henri Vilbert) who must decide their fate, and he looks straight at the camera and does the equivalent of throwing his hands up in resignation. It’s like he’s saying to the director, I know what I have to do, but you’re not making it easy. In truth, I felt sorry for Vilbert, for he was tasked with making one of the most unrealistic love stories somehow worthy of support and sympathy. How he did it with a straight face is simply beyond me.
It is here that I thought the film would end, but why quit when you’re behind? Instead of fading with the word FIN, the film reminds you that there was a second story line, the more interesting one. Viewers are then asked to place the creepy story of Robert and Manon ahead of that of the Jewish immigrants trying to make it to the promised land. It is a mistake. Any one of these side characters would have made a better protagonist, and the film has the foolish audacity to remind you of that. What were they thinking? (on DVD)
*Manon is in French with English subtitles.