Wages of Fear (le Salaire de la Peur) Henri-George Clouzot (Fr 1953) Yves Montard; Charles Vanel; Vera Clouzot
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 8 Dec 2013; ticket price: £5
Requiem for white trash…requiem for us all…
Clouzot's Wages of Fear is a filmic probe into the colonial and neo-colonial relations between the West and the developing world in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although film contains superbly crafted action sequences, its power derives from two defining elements. The scenario written as a series of beautiful and powerful metaphors: insects, the dusty town, the trucks the lake of oil the fire. And secondly its action is never detached from its driving theme: exploitation.
The opening setting is in some Central American country, an arid clapboard sun bleached small town in the middle nowhere: but close to oil. The opening shot of the movie is a condensed visual symbol of the film's theme, a movement image, a tracking shot that links the initial close up to the wide perspective. In close up a clutch of insects, scorpions perhaps, murderously crawl over each other in a hollow in the ground, scooped out of the dust. As the camera pulls back we see that each of these venomous creatures is attached by a piece of string to a small wooden frame held in the hand of a small boy. The child has these creatures, which could kill him, by the balls. Distracted by something happening in the street, he yanks up the stick frame, leaving the creatures spinning helplessly in mid air. A perfect expression of what is going on in this place. Clouzot's camera, in this tracking shot as elsewhere in the film uses the shot to pull together disparate images into one idea.
The function of the town is to supply the oil industry with cheap labour. Seen through the eyes of the white trash marooned in the town, the first part of Clouzot's movie establishes the economic realities of a rentier economy. The oil company controls everything. They hold all the strings. They decide who works. The men in the town supply the non unionised cheap labor to the company: they either send remittances back or they come back as corpses. The white trash gaze on with indifference as a woman angered by the return of nine shrouds, pours out a political tirade of scorn and condemnation of the oil company. Her anger attracts and raises a crowd who temporarily overrun the company guards. But they are a demoralised people and lack the resources to sustain a prolonged struggle.
If the town and its people are the fulcrum of exploitation, then the poor whites represent an expendable but useful alternative resource: a sort of social counter balance. The whites also have lives of little value, but their need to define themselves apart from and as essentially different from the natives, gives them a certain value to the company for certain types of dirty work. Today they are mercenaries hired by companies such as Blackwater. In Wages of Fear, they are the drivers of the death trucks.
Wages of Fear divides into two parts. The first part, realist in representation, establishes the town as two groups of people with separate relations, states of mind and attitudes vis a vis the Oil Company. The second part, focusing on the whites, depicts their journey of terror as they ferry nitroglycerine to the blown out oil wells. Much of this second part is shot so that it has an abstract quality. Even the final ordeal of driving the truck through through the lake of black oil, has an abstracted metaphysical resonance. Like evil the black slime overwhelms Joe and Mario. In the image of the oil spill we see they ( and us) are drowning in forces of corporate capitalism, which penetrates into the totality of being.
In this second half of the film, the focus is on the abstracted interior of the cab of the trucks. As the landscapes ghost by in the headlamps, it is in these compressed psychic spaces where the schizo states of mind of the men play out. Living with the possibility of death at every jolt and hole in the road, goaded by the promise of a huge cash payment, the scenes in the darkened cabs take place at the intersection of the men's fear and desire; the forces that finally kill them. The forces exploited and controlled by oil.
But although the forces set to work by Clouzot have an abstract quality, his actors, in particular Yves Montard as Mario, bring,with their bodies, a raw physicality to their roles. They are flesh and blood. In contrast to Anglo Saxon world, France in the pre 60's period presented an open minded attitude towards homosexuality (at least in Parisian arts circles). Acceptance of homosexuality tended towards its quasi glamorous representation, emphasising the cerebral rather than the physical. Clouzot breaks out from these artsie boundaries. The mercenaries are rough trade. Their gender doesn’t define their sexuality. Ingenuous acceptance of homoerotic relations, is part of who the men are. Clouzot places this undifferentiated sexuality at the core of his characters. The physicality between men pressed together in the tiny cabs, is emphatically realised when Big Joe, the macho guy with the gun, adopts the passive role of the woman. Mario ends up treating Joe with the same callous indifference with which he treated Linda…
Vera Clouzot the director's wife, plays the part of Linda. With her painfully thin waif like figure she represents a terrifying but almost comic book figure of frailty. In Wages of Fear the men have scorned women, and she is little more than an object of Mario's abuse. But she is also the foil for her husband's black Bunuelesque anti religious humour, that runs through the script. As Linda prays fervently, like Viridiana, in a scene of mawkish religious sentimentality, she looks up and sees the soles of the shoes of one of the white trash who has hung himself suspended from the beam above her.
In the penultimate scene Clouzot presents his final visual metaphor. The shots of the fires at the well head. It is an apocalyptic vision of hell: raging fire, black smoke. A vision of the where the big oil companies and the world of oil, are taking us. As if to say the Gods whom we serve are implacable and will destroy us: if not today then tomorrow. Be warned.