Colour or black and white?

9.00 yesterday morning. The view south from Pont Joubert, five minutes’ walk from our house.

***

There are times when you become aware, if only dimly, that you are living through history; when you realise that current events will be closely studied and speculated on for generations to come. They become ‘a thing’. I think the last such ‘thing’ was the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. An event of such significance that, very quickly, its date was sufficient to identify it and give it a name. Like an earthquake, 9/11 had an epicentre, in New York City, but the seismic waves spread rapidly throughout the world, and one can argue that they continue to do so.

The current ‘thing’ is different. The events of 2020, and now 2021, are more like an eclipse than an earthquake: an unscheduled eclipse slowly spreading over the world, catching people unawares at first, but gradually becoming a new normality. In films, sometimes, the transition of time, or some other form of progress, is marked by changing from black and white to colour. At present we seem to be going through the reverse process: everything slowing down as days become increasingly dull and repetitive with, for many of us, little or no reason to bother leaving home. The colour gradually drains from life.

I once thought that Brexit might be the next ‘thing’ I would live through. It is, of course, a significant event, but it’s been overshadowed by what is being increasingly referred to, with some justification, as ‘the plague’. On January 1st, whatever your view of Brexit, you were probably more interested in the latest set of hospital statistics or news about the roll-out of vaccines. If nothing else, the current situation helps give one a sense of perspective. This ‘thing’ will pass eventually, and a different sort of normality will slowly emerge. Time will tell how different it will be from the pre-2020 world. Hopefully, it will be in colour.

***

Oddly enough, in an attempt to escape from the current gloom, I’ve been immersing myself in old black and white films, in particular French films of the 1940s. I’ve been interested in finding out how French filmmakers coped during the Occupation and to compare their work with that of their British counterparts working under very different conditions.

The first film I’ve been looking at is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), made in 1942.

Contemporary poster for Le Corbeau

The story centres around a doctor who starts receiving poison-pen letters accusing him of carrying out illegal abortions and having an affair with the wife of another doctor. Similar letters are then sent to numerous people throughout the town. The situation becomes increasingly serious when a hospital patient commits suicide after receiving one. In a skilfully depicted atmosphere of mounting tension and increasing malevolence, suspicion falls on various people before the truth is revealed. The film is a gripping Hitchcockian thriller that stands up very well today. There’s a trailer on YouTube, and the DVD, with English subtitles, can be bought for about a tenner.

I’d started looking into the actual making of the film in more detail, but I’ve the attention span of a moth, and I got completely sidetracked when I discovered that the plot is based on a series of events that occurred in a town called Tulle about 130 miles from Poitiers.

In 1917, during the Great War, many of the town’s prominent citizens began to receive luridly detailed anonymous letters accusing them of immoral behaviour. The letters were signed ‘l’Œil du Tigre’(the Eye of the Tiger). Over the next six years, more than 300 of these letters arrived. A town clerk is said to have killed himself after receiving one.

In 1922, a letter appeared in front of the municipal theatre, charging fourteen prominent married citizens with carrying on illicit affairs. Efforts to find the sender were stepped up. A hypnotist and a medium were brought into the investigation. Embarrassed, the Tulle police proposed taking fingerprints. (They received a mocking letter: ‘The Eye of the Tiger wears rubber gloves’.)

Eventually, suspicion fell on Angèle Lavale, an unmarried woman in her thirties. Both she and her mother, Louise, had received letters. Angèle’s had claimed that Jean-Baptiste Moury, a previous employer of hers, was ‘a seducer’. It was rumoured that Angèle had a crush on Moury, who had spurned her and was planning to marry another woman. The police suspected that Angèle wanted revenge on Moury, and that the other letters, including the ones to herself and her mother, were merely camouflage.

Finally, Angèle agreed to be examined by a handwriting expert.

A still from Le Corbeau

After hours of her copying block-printed letters, he concluded she was indeed the Eye of the Tiger. She was charged with writing most of the letters (some were obviously written by cranks). Angèle and her mother became social pariahs and were booed and hissed at in the street. People refused to share their church pew. Finally, tragically, Angèle and her mother made a suicide pact and tried to drown themselves. Only the mother succeeded, and Angèle was rescued by two passers-by. There is some doubt as to whether she actually intended to honour the agreement.

Angèle left town. When she reappeared in a nearby village some weeks later, Tulle’s citizens demanded that she return to face trial. Some months later, she did so, wearing a black mantilla over her face in mourning for her mother. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty, given a suspended one-month prison sentence, and fined a total of 300 francs.

Slowly, public opinion began to shift. The whole affair was a tragedy; Angèle was a pitiful creature who never really meant to hurt anyone. The Paris newspaper Le Matin described her in the dock as ‘a poor bird who has folded her wings’. The affair brought her celebrity status throughout France, and numerous Frenchmen ‘of good position’ offered to marry her. She accepted none of them. After an appeal against her sentence was denied, she went to live with her brother in Tulle. Apart from a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, she rarely left the house until her death in 1967.

It’s a terrific yarn, and in reading about it I’ve discovered various other interesting strands to follow, but for now I want to get back to the making of Le Corbeau. I will pick up that story in a future blog.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

From 1912 to 1948, painting was an Olympic event. In 1924, Jack Yeats, brother of the poet W. B. Yeats, took the silver: Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medal.

In the film industry, a ‘mickey’ is a gentle camera move forwards. It’s short for ‘Mickey Rooney’ (a ‘little creep’).

In 2012, a missing woman on a vacation in Iceland was found when it was discovered that she was in the search party looking for herself.

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