Ranking: #49/111

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot (France)

Genre: Noir Romance Drama   


French film critic and theoretician, André Bazin, studied extensively the adaptations of novels into films. He rated Manon, based on Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, as a “grand success” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p. 281). He highlighted the “talent and power of Clouzot’s mise-en-scène” as the secret behind this successful cinematic adaptation.

The story of Manon is based on an obsessive love relationship between a young French resistance fighter called Robert des Grieux and a vain, scheming and self-interested young woman, Manon Lescant. Their romance begins towards the end of World War 2 and continues through the chaotic aftermath of the war. It’s one of the most curious romance dramas in cinema.

Clouzot is an excellent cinematic story-teller. The movie opens dramatically with Jews, escaping from Europe and headed for Palestine, being taken on board a ship at night. The audience notes the looks of anxiety and sorrow on their faces as they board.  Once safely on board in the cargo section, the refugees begin to sing. Then two stowaways, who are eloping lovers, are discovered. It is des Grieux and Manon. They are taken into custody and locked up in the forecastle.

While the couple are being interrogated, the film makes extensive use of flashbacks to show how they met in a town in Normandy during the war and then went to liberated Paris to try a start a new life. There, they got involved with her brother Léon’s corrupt circle of friends. This sequence of their story highlights the petty criminals and con artists who flourished in the aftermath of the war. As they make more money, Manon is shown to be materialistic and a big spender. She even works secretly at a brothel to earn more money. When des Grieux finds out, he almost strangles her.

Meanwhile, Robert’s father disowns him, disgusted by the company his son is keeping.

Clouzot successfully combines a few genres, including war, crime, Film Noir, romance, social drama and tragedy to create a rich cinematic tapestry. His dramas are always exceedingly original. The tone throughout is cynical, as befits a style influenced by Film Noir. The director depicts the seedy side of post-war Paris.

The main theme of the movie is that the moral chaos of war continues to exert a corrupting influence on society long after it is over.

The story itself is dominated by the obsessive nature of the love between this young, amoral couple.

Robert begins to hate Léon after he dupes des Grieux into travelling abroad so that a rich wine merchant called Paul can pay to have sex with the desirable and flirtatious Manon. When the former resistance fighter finds out about this dubious plot he decides to kill Léon. Which brings us back to why the couple became stowaways in the first place. As a murderer, des Grieux is on the run.

Manon is a violent and sordid tale. However, Clouzot has one more twist in the plot and one more theme to explore. The ship drops off the exiled Jews, and the down-and-out stowaways, in Alexandria, Egypt, to make their way through the Sinai towards Palestine and the Promised Land. On the way, the truck hired to transport them breaks down. Now they all have to make their way on foot through hostile terrain. It becomes an epic journey of survival. Soon, they are attacked in the desert by Arabs, finding, in the end, that “paradise is too far away”.

It is very moving when Manon and des Grieux follow the Jews in this exodus, which Bazin described as “one of the film’s most beautiful moments” (Bazin, A, André Bazin on Adaptation: Cinema’s Literary Imagination, p. 282).

The cinematography is evocative throughout the film, especially in the last sequence set in the Sinai desert. As pointed out earlier in this review, in the quote from Bazin, the mise-en-scène is rich with details and texture.

The redemption in the movie is not found, as one might have expected, in the Jews safely returning to their homeland, but in the undying love Robert has for Manon, despite all her many faults. His loyalty to her until the end, however irrational it seems to be, is uplifting and touching to witness.

Manon is one of the most original, effectively narrated, film dramas I’ve ever seen.