Jonathan Romney looks at some of the adaptations of Manon Lescaut for the screen.
Abbé Prévost’s original novel tells us very little about Manon Lescaut. We know that she has ‘a passion for pleasure’ – the good life, but by implication sexual satisfaction too – and that her looks and manner are ‘charming’ in a way that leaves the besotted Des Grieux a helpless puppy. Such tantalisingly sketchy characterisation makes her prime material for film-makers to rework for different times and social contexts.
Most film adaptations of Manon Lescaut have been period pieces. The story was adapted several times in the silent era, starting in Italy in 1908, then in France, the US and Germany. The most prestigious early version was Hollywood’s When a Man Loves (Alan Crosland, 1927), with Deirdre Costello and John Barrymore. Another Italian version (Carmine Gallone, 1940) starred Alida Valli and Vittorio de Sica, soon to become one of the founding directors of Italian neo-realism.
Chintzy period versions of Manon Lescaut continue to keep wig departments busy – most recently a 2013 French TV adaptation – but there have also been attempts to update Prévost’s story as a modern text about desire and moral compromise. The adverts for Yoichi Higashi’s Manon (1981) show Setsuko Karasuma as the heroine Mitsuko, respectively modelling a pair of aviator sunglasses and being carried bleeding, her dress torn, over the shoulder of, presumably, the film’s Des Grieux figure.
A poster for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon – which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1949 – similarly lets audiences know that Manon is doomed, showing her lover carrying her body in his arms. Manon marked a return to film by Clouzot, one of the great French directors, whose later work includes the suspense classics The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Because he had made films in France during the Occupation – his ultra-cynical poison-pen drama Le Corbeau, 1943, was produced by a German company – Clouzot was banned from working immediately after the Liberation. But in 1947 he returned with Quai des Orfèvres, then he made Manon, a film that responds very directly to changes in French society directly after the war.
Read more in our programme, available at the theatre before all performances of Manon Lescaut. Tickets are still available for the remaining performances of Manon Lescaut on 22 and 26 June. Book here.