“René Clément: The Cinema Of Sketches,” a nearly hourlong documentary piece included on the new Blu-ray and DVD editions of Clément’s 1947 film The Damned, opens with some Clément supporters trying to address why he’s rarely mentioned as a first-rank French director. The French New Wave gets much of the blame. Clément was from the generation they rebelled against, and he didn’t fit into their definition of an auteur. François Truffaut in particular disliked his work, though, as one interview subject who worked alongside Truffaut on Day For Night recalls, he later felt he’d spoken too soon and judged too harshly. Many of Clément’s films have fallen out of general conversation, which certainly doesn’t help. His haunting 1952 masterpiece Forbidden Games, a look at World War II from the war-warped psyches of children, has been kept alive, as has Purple Noon, a stylish 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Alain Delon. The re-release of The Damned can be seen as the first steps toward correcting an oversight, and while it doesn’t make the strongest possible case for Clément’s filmography as a treasure trove of unheralded masterworks, it’s a strong, nervy, stylish thriller that’s well worth a look.
The Damned is set largely during the last gasps of World War II, aboard a submarine en route to South America, where a group of Nazis and their sympathizers plan to set up shop and prepare for another round. But as the voyage progresses, they fall prey to mishaps and infighting. A general (Kurt Kronefeld) vies with an SS commander (Jodest) for control. The commander suspects his thuggish companion (Michel Auclair)—and, it’s all but said out loud, lover—has his own agenda, which may or may not involve Hilde (Florence Marly), the femme fatale-ish wife of a wealthy Italian (Fosco Giachetti). And so on down the line of unsympathetic characters who appear largely beyond redemption.
Paying witness to their disintegration is the film’s protagonist, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), a French doctor kidnapped early in the voyage to tend to Hilde’s head wound. As a survival tactic, he invents an outbreak of a disease so the group will keep him on board once Hilde recovers. The film never makes as much of that clever ruse as it might. It never develops a propulsive narrative, either, mostly moving from episode to episode and offering snapshots of desperate characters in increasingly desperate situations. What makes the film is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread that Clément creates. Shooting, at the director’s insistence, on an exact replica of a U-boat, The Damned uses unbroken takes and cramped spaces to create a sense of people who already don’t get along, and are now forced to live on top of another. Their frustrations help humanize them; however paradoxically, though, that makes their beliefs seem much more monstrous, allowing Clément to turn the film’s final sequence, when their fortunes turn truly dire, into a vision of hell at sea. It isn’t a masterful film through and through, but its best moments bear the clear mark of a master.
That documentary, “The Cinema Of Sketches,” is a dry but illuminating introduction to Clément that suffers a bit from being unclear about whether it wants to focus on The Damned or the whole of the director’s career. A pair of Ohio State scholars of French film provide an informative audio commentary that’s frustratingly punctuated by long stretches of silence.