Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wages of Fear

Henri-Georges' Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece features Yves Montand and a cast of pan-European ne'er-do-wells in the throes of physical and moral decay in a sleepy Central American town. Montand was a charming nightclub singer in Paris. For The Wages of Fear he had to become an unlikeable misanthrope.

The task for these men, put to them by a morally bankrupt American oil company, is to drive trucks full of nitroglycerine over a mountain range in order to put out a fire. It's a suicide mission, but one they all throw themselves into, so desperate are their straits. This film has a similar resonance to The Deer Hunter--an unflinching gaze into the abyss of human error.

The long prologue establishes the characters although it denies the viewer background information: how did they get to Las Piedras, what drove them here? They banter in a resigned linguistic soup--stateless postapocalyptic vagabonds in an environment of half-naked child-sadists.

You don't have to be a master dot-connector to see the anti-Americanism in the depiction of the oil company's merciless grip on the people and the place. But Clouzot's scorn does not stop there: the European hero/victims are just as cruel and selfish and arbitrary as their American manipulators.

The filmmaker claimed that a brush with death in a sanitarium turned him into an artist, although you've got to think Nazi Occupation and French collaboration were not far beneath Clouzot's bleak view of the world. The director received a lifelong suspension from French cinema for his purportedly anti-French Le Corbeau. It was later reduced and Clouzot returned to his depictions of sinister deeds.

Like so many French movies (Pépé le Moko, Mon Oncle), there is a yearning for an absent French essence. Jo and Mario talk about the streets in Paris they lived as they drive to their demise. The Wages of Fear was actually shot in the Camargue, the arid flamingo habitat in Provence.

Although the scorn may be spread evenly--blame directed at institutions and individuals alike--the demonization of American private enterprise feels like a touchstone in European leeriness. American foreign policy and unchecked industrial capitalism would continue to divide Europe and America.