Abbé Prévost's famous novel, Manon Lescaut (volume 7 in the Mémoires et aventures d'un homme de qualité / Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality series) has been adapted many times in different mediums since its publication in 1731. Initially banned in France, the book's themes of lust, obsession, denigration, and sexual freedom were a particularly hot combination, and while it's unsurprising that it was filmed by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, one can imagine how the book's most provocative elements would've been toned down, inferred, or deleted to suite Hollywood's tightly corseted Production Code, should a studio have dared to produced a film version.
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The film's finale would've appealed American censors, however, since Clouzot and Jean Ferry's script balanced the increasingly naughty & morally destructive behaviour with an ending that pretty much foreshadows the gravel pit journey Yves Montand takes in order to deliver a lethal cargo of nitro glycerin in Clouzot's 1953 thriller, Le Salaire de la peur / Wages of Fear (1953). Hallucinatory, tortuous, and ultimately dooming, it's a finale that also seems to have influenced Sorcerer, William Friedkin 1977 remake of Wages, with driver Roy Scheider being taunted by voices as he passes by weirdly surreal ‘mineral trees,' much in the way spiny desert palms tease and break down Manon's lover before his collapse in the desert.
What's most intriguing about Manon, however, is Clouzot's decision to completely update, transfer, and adapt the basic story and characters to wartime France and the couple's flight to Palestine in place of the novel's French and concluding Louisiana settings.
Just as intriguing are the textural politics that start the film: during a midnight rendezvous, a small shipping freighter smuggles aboard Jews fleeing the Nazis for a trip to Palestine . A crewman discovers two lovers hiding behind a baled cargo, and during the captain's interrogation, their story of love and hatred unfolds in a flashback structure, establishing their masochistic relationship as a manipulative town sexpot rescued by a malleable resistance fighter who believes her claims of sublime virtue, and slowly adapts to her demands of fine clothes and multiple partners, even when she works in a brothel when Leon can no longer afford the scandalously lavish lifestyle they've established in postwar France.
The brothel scene is also where Leon ultimately loses his will to the peroxide monster, and any hope of converting her to a faithful creature with some level of compassion. Leon 's illegal smuggling has sustained their lifestyle, but she moves on, and jealousy and betrayal result in a murder that forces the couple to ultimately flee the police and head for Palestine , camouflaged among Jewish refugees.
Arriving at the edge of the desert, the group must trek through deadly terrain, only to be slaughtered by Arabs. In the novel, Leon (the Chevalier Des Grieux ) mistakenly believes he killed Manon's suitor, and the couple flee into the bayou, where Manon dies from exposure to extreme elements, and Leon heads back to France and becomes a priest, but Clouzot leaves no hope for his couple, and perhaps goes for a finale that logically punctuates a tale of masochistic, obsessive love: after Manon dies from a single gunshot wound, Leon carries her by the legs through the desert, with her body draped over his backside, facing the camera. (Clouzot even allows a bit of nudity to slip through Manon's torn frock in shots that would've been a major no-no in Hollywood .) After burying Manon up to her face, Leon offers a final kiss, and curls over her body, and offers himself to the lethal desert elements.
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As an adaptation, it's a fascinatingly topical effort for 1949; in Hollywood, it was the film noir genre where ruder conflicts happened, raw sexuality was inferred through dark lighting and form-fitting costumes and bare-chested men, and all perpetrators of elicit acts had to end up incarcerated or die for their shameful misconduct (the latter certainly occurring in Manon ).
Dramas such as the Best Years of Our Lives (1946) may have chronicled the traumas of returning soldiers, but in Manon we see some of those nightmarish images: bloodied bodies being carried through the ruined French towns, and women accused of co-mingling with occupying Nazis being dragged through the streets with their heads shaved, wearing sullied undergarments – the latter part of a central plot point in Malena (2000).
Alongside France, other European countries such as East Germany and Poland acknowledged dispossessed and persecuted Jews in social dramas like Die Mörder sind unter uns / The Murderers Are Among Us (1946) and Ulica Graniczna / Border Street (1949), respectively, while Hollywood seemed to feel Jews could only exist on film as local folk being ostracized by smiling, ignorant gentiles in rare social dramas like Gentleman's Agreement (1947).
In Manon, the Jewish refugees speak a mix of French, German and Yiddish, whereas Yiddish was seemingly isolated to specific films produced by independent filmmakers for specialty audiences, and the plight of specifically Jewish refugees didn't seem to reach screens until the late fifties and sixties, when the Diary of Anne Frank (1949), Morituri (1965), and Exodus (1960) made persecution a central element.
Clouzot's film, however, is flawed mostly because the lead couple are generally dislikeable creatures who deserve the final fates. Their meeting/teasing/romancing/declaration of love happens within minutes and is completely improbable, and the brothel scene has Leon tease, spit, and strangle Manon before an eruption of passion flips a murderous rage into immediate surrender and lovemaking. Collectively, they're straight movie conventions, but these flaws are also heightened forms of melodrama, and are just plain ridiculous.
The film's sets and locations are first-rate, and Armand Thirard's black & white cinematography is truly gorgeous – masterful compositions enhanced by fine dramatic editing, and melodic but straightforward orchestral score from Paul Misraki (a prolific and underrated composer who would later collaborate with Thirard in Roger Vadim's sumptuous CinemaScope dish, Et Dieu... créa la femme / And God Created Woman in 1956).
After making her debut in Manon , the baby-faced Cécile Aubry was cast as Tyrone Power's waifish love interest in The Black Rose (1950), before she returned to France and appeared in a role beautifully suited to her energetic and mischievous persona and acting style, Barbe-Bleue / Bluebeard (1951).
Currently unavailable in a Region 1 DVD, this is another intriguing Clouzot work that begs for a definitive Criterion release.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan