Manon Lescaut is not an easy woman to love, but Robert Dégrieux cannot help himself, obsessed, jealous, possessive, fully aware of all her faults but blinded to them by his passion for Manon, vain and selfish, inconstant in her affection and flexible in her morals. His first glimpse of Manon as a prisoner of the villagers who regard her as a collaborator with the vanquished Nazis, Robert rescues “the wicked girl” who danced for the German soldiers and they escape for Paris.
Based on the 1731 novel L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prévost, the inspiration of over a dozen ballets, operas and films, it is the 1940 version directed by Les Diaboliques‘ Henri-Georges Clouzot which has been which is presented on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy, adapted by Jean Ferry and Clouzot and starring The Day of the Jackal‘s Michel Auclair as Robert and The Black Rose‘s Cécile Aubry, later a children’s author and the creator of Belle et Sébastien, as Manon.
Gloriously shot by Armand Thirard, Manon is not as avant-garde as Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer but is still striking as it shifts locations from the ruined coast of Normandy where Manon sheltered in a bombed-out church, gazing upon the broken statue of the Madonna, to the cosmopolitan aspirations of Parisian life and then a further escape as fugitives across the sea to march across the desert in the company of refugees.
A former soldier of the Maquis, moving across France in the wake of the US army, Robert is not a wealthy man, but Manon has a taste for the best which challenges her lover; simultaneously naïve and manipulative, despite growing up in the occupation she cannot comprehend why her fraternisation with the enemy engendered the enmity of the villagers, but with men she knows what to get what she wants.
Despite moving through the motions of a thriller, touching upon the black market, the smuggling of goods and people, the turmoil of the immediate aftermath of the liberation of France, these are largely a backdrop against which the fractious relationship drama plays out, the revolving door of supporting characters such as Manon’s equally dubious brother Leon (Napoléon‘s Serge Reggiani), the brothel madame and Manon’s wealthy suitors Paul and Ralph as ephemeral as Manon’s loyalty.
Built entirely around Aubry and Auclair, both are excellent but are playing characters who are essentially unlikeable, though whether they were damaged by the war or always were doomed to this life is unexplored and possibly irrelevant, making Manon more a film to be appreciated than enjoyed, though the new edition contains the obligatory Arrow video appreciation, Geoff Andrew’s Woman in the Dunes, and an archive documentary on Clouzot.