Manon (1949) – Film Review
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cast: Serge Reggiani, Michel Auclair, Cécile Aubry
by Sarah Morgan
Henri-Georges Clouzot is widely regarded as one of the finest French directors who ever lived, one who, despite not being a member of the New Wave, should be mentioned in the same breath as Godard and Truffaut.
He’s more likely, however, to be dubbed the French Hitchcock thanks to two thrillers – The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboloques. Hitch had, ironically, wanted to turn the novel that formed the basis for the latter into a film, but on discovering the rights had already been snatched up, made Vertigo instead.
Several years before either of his masterpieces were made, Clouzot directed Manon, a loose adaptation of Abbe Prevost’s novel Manon Lescaut. He co-wrote the screenplay with Jean Ferry and updated the setting from the 18th century to shortly after the Second World War.
The tale begins aboard a French cargo ship bound for Alexandria, where it will deposit its passengers, a group of Jewish refugees en route to Palestine. Hiding among the goods the vessel is also transporting are two stowaways – former resistance fighter Robert and his wife Manon.
The captain discovers that Robert is wanted for murder back home in France, and is hoping to start a new life. Although initially hostile to the couple, the officer agrees to listen to their story and, clearly a romantic, allows them to go free.
And that ought to have been where the film ended. Instead it lasts for another half hour or so, in which Robert and Manon’s progress through the dunes, following in the footsteps of their Jewish travelling companions, is followed.
It’s an arduous journey involving perilous terrain, a lack of supplies and danger from the hostile locals. By the closing frames, you’re desperate for the film to end, for the duo to be put out of their misery while also asking, ‘what was it all for?’
The downbeat ending is a bitter disappointment after investing what feels like a lifetime in the story, while the central characters are unsympathetic, particularly Manon herself – why anybody would put their life on the line for somebody so feckless is a mystery.
Still, fans of fatalistic French cinema will probably be thrilled by it, and as hinted before, the movie would have benefited from having its running time trimmed by losing the final reel.
• Original 1.0 mono audio
• Optional English subtitles
• Bibliothèque de poche: H.G. Clouzot, an archival documentary from 1970 in which Clouzot talks of his love of literature and the relationship between the page and the screen
• Woman in the Dunes, a newly filmed video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew
• Image gallery
• Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork options
Manon is released on Blu-ray by Arrow, £24.99