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December 04, 2018

La Prisonniere


Henri-Georges Clouzot - 1968
Siren Export DVD

Is Henri-Georges Clouzot due for more reevaluation from English language cinephiles? There are certainly some ripples in that direction with the recent home video release of six features on which he served as one of the writers, a set that includes his short film directorial debut from 1931. Add to that the upcoming home video release of La Verite from Criterion, as well as new blu-ray releases from the British Studio Canal. There is also Serge Bromberg's Inferno, made up of excerpts from the 1964 film that was abandoned by by Clouzot, for me the most fascinating study of a film never to be completed since the 1965 BBC documentary, The Epic that Never Was, about Josef von Sternberg's trouble plagued attempt to film I, Claudius in 1937.

Josee (pronounced like Josie) is a young film editor at a TV station who is working on a documentary about women who have been in relationships with men that teeter in a gray area between abuse and consent. She lives with Gilbert, who creates abstract sculptures made up of boxes. Stan runs an art gallery that shows Gilbert's work. Stan privately is a photographer, close-ups of single words by famed artists and authors, as well as erotic images of submissive women. Josee accidentally sees one of Stan's erotic photos and is initially repelled, later to become one of Stan's models and briefly his lover.


As in his previous films, Clouzot examines marital fidelity as well as the nature of truth, especially the truth of what is being observed. As far as Stan is concerned, everyone is a voyeur. The main characters here are all involved in manipulating images, whether it is the creation or selling of art, editing film, or as a model being paid to be a visual object. The English language title given to this film is Woman in Chains, though most of the chains here are psychological. The original French title, which literally means "The Female Prisoner" is more accurate, though the prison that Jose is in at the film's conclusion is both cruel and heartbreaking.

Setting aside the narrative, Clouzot continues what was begun with Inferno with a continued interest in abstract and "experimental" filmmaking as it was expressed in the mid to late 1960s. Gilbert plays with his own sense of monovision, alternating with one eye open while the other is closed. Clouzot shows a series of point-of-view shots with the same exit sign seen at slightly different angles. Gilbert also plays with waving his fingers in front of his eyes, again with the view seeing the action, followed by more point-of-view shots. While Josee and Gilbert ride a train, Clouzot has a montage of train tracks and electric lines. The final montage is a succession of extremely short shots, some subliminal, of Josee reflecting on past events. At one point, Josee and Gilbert are seen behind the patterned glass of a bathroom, reduced to small squares of light and color. A sex scene is filmed as a series of extreme close-ups of eyes, lips, and legs.

There is also the recurring motif of color. I wonder if the writer Charles Willeford was at all familiar with La Prisonniere. He wrote a book about chicanery in the art world, The Burnt Orange Heresy, about a legendary painting that may, or may not, exist. That novel came out in 1971, two years after the U.S. release of Clouzot's film. What links the two for me is that the color, which I will identify for lack of a better term as "burnt orange" shows up in almost every shot. It's first significantly noticeable as the color of cloth covering the windows of Stan's apartment and then Gilbert's little Citroen. Later we see the color as part of a character's clothing, as part of some of the artwork, and even incorporated as part of the exterior settings. In addition to the color, the art that visually informs the film is that which uses circles, squares and grids, recalling among others, Piet Mondrian and Frank Stella. That this film is set among art and artists is also fitting for the man who made The Mystery of Picasso,

Clouzot may have also made the character of Stan somewhat autobiographical. Some actors have refused to work with Clouzot due to the demands he makes of his actors, as documented in Inferno, both psychological as well as physical. When Stan appears to be in love with Jose, he is seen briefly with pipe in his mouth, as was Clouzot. That Stan sees himself as being misunderstood by both Gilbert and Jose also could be applied to Clouzot. With the exception of Francois Truffaut, Clouzot was rejected by the Nouvelle Vague, but neither were his films part of the "cinema of quality". Clouzot would famously be misunderstood with his political allegory made in Vichy France in 1943, Le Corbeau, making a popular film that simultaneously angered both the left and right wing pundits. As for what turned out to be his last film, Clouzot had stated" ""I know that La Prisonniere will hit, shock. horrify some spectators. We will cry provocation, scandal. However, believe me, perversion exists, and to describe it in its oppressive and tragic aspect, I had to go as far as possible, without fear of traumatizing the public."

This post is part of the "Late Show" blogathon hosted by David Cairns and Shadowplay.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 4, 2018 08:11 AM