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.
Clouzot’s Manon begins on a ship illicitly transporting Jewish emigrants to Palestine. There are two young stowaways on board: Robert Desgrieux (Michel Auclair) and Manon Lescaut (Cécile Aubry). When they are separated, Manon shows both her passion for Robert and her pragmatic mores: she offers to sleep with a crew member if he’ll help reunite the pair.
The couple’s story, told in flashback, begins in Normandy with Robert, already a hardened Resistance fighter, entrusted with guarding Manon, who narrowly escapes having her hair shorn for fraternising with the Germans. As she tries to escape, her dress is torn in an erotically charged struggle. ‘Do you think I’m pretty? Let me go,’ she begs Robert.
Manon knows how to use her sex appeal as an instrument of survival – and in what Clouzot depicts as the jungle of post-war France, survival is foremost. When the couple first kiss, Manon says, ‘I think I love you’, and appears to mean it. What the film catches of the original Manon’s nature is that she is perfectly candid – she does mean it – and yet she is an outrageous liar, too. Sheltering with Robert at a farm, she simpers, ‘It’s the first time I’ve been alone with a man in a room,’ then adds, ‘Do you believe me?’
What follows is a tale of corruption and disillusion – not just Robert’s but, it’s implied, the corruption and disillusionment of France. In Paris, the couple join Manon’s crooked brother Léon (Serge Reggiani, who would himself play something of a Des Grieux role in the 1952 classic Casque d’or). Robert becomes involved with black marketeering while Manon does a little upmarket prostitution on the side.
In a sharply comic sequence, Robert follows her to a brothel where, the madame tells him, Manon goes ‘for pleasure’ – foreshadowing Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, in which Catherine Deneuve’s married bourgeoise does just that. Manon, however, tells Robert that she just wants to finance a better lifestyle. ‘I need fun! I need to sparkle! Je suis une mauvaise fille,’ she admits – but Robert will forgive her anything.
Manon and Robert eventually reach Palestine, only for their troubles to deepen in a hallucinatory Liebestod. At first they think they’ve found a new Eden; then, pursued in the desert by vengeful Arabs with rifles (a theme which has added to the film’s controversial repute), they soon realise, as Robert comments, ‘we were in paradise, now we’re in hell’. When Manon dies, he buries her in the sand, passionately kissing her face emerging from the dunes. This grandly morbid conclusion is another element that brings Manon close to Buñuel’s hothouse perversity.
Manon’s combination of duplicity and directness emerges sharply in the performance of the then-unknown 20-yearold Cécile Aubry. She makes Manon precociously coquettish and narcissistic, as well as unmistakably working class, although Aubry was herself from a privileged bourgeois background. Manon launched Aubry’s brief transatlantic screen career, but she eventually found her most enduring success as writer of children’s novel Belle et Sébastien, which she herself adapted and directed as a much-loved French 60s TV series.
Another modern Manon is much more narrowly a film of its time. It was directed in 1968 by Jean Aurel, best-known as a co-writer of Jacques Becker’s much-admired Le Trou (1960) and of three late François Truffaut films. His Manon 70 is a lifestyle movie filled with speedboats, Emanuel Ungaro couture and air travel (with shameless placement for the airline SAS).
Aurel’s Manon, played by Catherine Deneuve at her most glacially impassive, is a model first seen accompanying one of her lovers on a Tokyo-Paris flight. She’s spotted by radio journalist Des Grieux (Sami Frey), who gets himself an upgrade to sit near her. On arrival, they become lovers and are soon earnestly discussing sexual protocol.
Manon asks how many women Des Grieux has slept with; he won’t answer but asks her how many men she’s had. She answers, ‘It’s completely unimportant –parçe que je suis une femme.’ What counts for a woman, Manon says, is not how many men she has slept with but how many she has loved, and she loves only him. Later, the film gets into territory that it barely knows how to handle: Des Grieux rapes Manon, and she reacts by calmly saying, ‘Swear I’m the first woman you’ve raped’, then smiling in his arms.
In its glossy images of the modern beau monde, Manon 70 feels like a pot-boiler designed to tickle (rather than épater) a bourgeois audience that was then catching up with the more Sunday-supplement aspects of the 60s sexual revolution. Far from being a gauche idealist, this film’s Des Grieux dallies in Stockholm with a Swedish woman (who gives a cheery goodbye as she goes to join her boyfriend).
Unlike Prévost’s paradoxically canny ingénue, Aurel’s heroine is a coolly detached, confidently promiscuous woman of the world. She does, however, have the literary Manon’s ruthlessly clear-sighted grasp of economic necessity: ‘Our financial situation… would make fidelity a foolish virtue,’ she writes to Des Grieux. We certainly hear cynical echoes here of the voice of eighteenth-century libertinage.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Manon 70, however, is the role of Manon’s brother. Here named Jean-Paul and played with knowing mischief by Jean-Claude Brialy, he is a suave bon vivant who makes a habit of fixing Manon up with wealthy men – perhaps, it’s implied, using her to sleep with them vicariously. There are also sly suggestions of incestuous desire between the pair – a complication enriched when Des Grieux poses as Manon’s sibling, the better to fleece her latest lover. While there are intriguing subtexts at work in Manon 70, Aurel’s flat, glossy film fails to make the most of them. The film ends with nowhere to go, bathetically leaving its lovers together on the road, trying to thumb a ride. It’s a non-conclusion that casually lets the couple off the tragic hook, in a way that would have had Prévost’s Manon turning in her premature grave.