Film Reviews: Jean Renoir
Une Vie Sans Joie
A solid review of the narrative plot points has been provided on imdb.com, however, what I find most interesting about Renoir's initiation into directing with Une Vie Sans Joie is the blend of two stylistic systems that Renoir employed throughout his filmmaking career. The first system clearly has influences from Gance and the French Impressionist filmmakers, where rapid editing montage sequences and prolonged angular close-up shots create pace, rhythm and tone but also insight to character psychology and emotion. The second stylistic system is the unique system that has contributed to Renoir's fame and influence as a filmmaker the world over. The long take and mobile framing are not so present in this particular film, however, there are ample opportunities taken to frame a collective of characters using great depth of field. It has been commented before that the co-directing credits of this film beg the question as to what contributions Renoir made from the director's chair. For myself, it would seem that given the two stylistic systems working in conjunction within this film, that Renoir's presence is likely dominant. I conjecture that Dieudonne would likely have been struggling to keep pace with Renoir's vision for the scenario. The film does indeed have a frenetic pace and there is a tangible struggle within the direction that heightens and reflects... even compliments the story itself. It is too modest to think of Renoir's early films as mere vehicles for Hessling's brand... but perhaps a co-directed piece was itself a sound launching point on all fronts.
La Fille de L'eau
The ambiguity of personal politics in La Fille de L'Eau replaces the ambiguity of stylistics from Une Vie Sans Joie (1924). I find it hard to determine which early idea presented by the film should then be applied for a full reading of the film... that hope springs from the unsung courage and perseverance of everyday people or that wisdom is seated in the lives of those who know to avoid being in the way of ill-fate? Is Renoir flippant in his observation of the casualness of fate and abnormality of instinct? This film leaves me with more questions than answers as it is a launching point for social themes that will be teased out throughout Renoir's career. I would like to think that Renoir cares about "the little people" but it is well recognized that he is ambiguous and ambivalent in his political expressions. This film is a good example. The 'documented views' of Vigoian social cinema have a solid application in the barge scenes of La Fille... and the milieu of the film more generally, however, the stylistic system dominates the cinematic experience (arguably like all Renoir films really). Psych-driven flashback shots and angular close-ups eventually give way to rapid editing montage sequences. The caravan scene is paced by collision montage and is then remembered diegetically by Gulune through Gancian hyper-psychological rapid montage. As Gulune undergoes further stress from her environment and circumstance, she hallucinates.., nightmarish sequences are constructed with French Impressionist techniques - superimpositions, mattes, over-exposures, surreal visuals (mise-en-scene), reverse-projection, slow-motion, oblique blocking within the frame, unnatural settings, and even mirror distortions recall Gance's Dr Tube. Gulune's being on death's doorstep seems to dominate the film's theme in a way that complicates simple "the socialist Renoir" readings of the film.
There is a specular quality to Nana that would appear to have some bearing on later Renoir films (Regle and M. Lange come to mind)... however, the affectations of the performances are overwrought as each character becomes caricature. The affectations also render the very milieu a grotesque, disdainful stage. Perhaps this was Renoir's intention - a way to express the fight against his better judgment to adapt literary sources prior to knowing the path of his own stylistic development. Nana has ample opportunities to employ Renoir's signature stylistic model, however, he refuses to liberate the camera or utilize deep staging for his multiple protagonists. Instead, we are left with theater-like tableau shots. The tableau and caricature make one wonder about how apt "naturalism" works as descriptor for Renoir's oeuvre. But the coup de grace comes with the use of studio sets for exteriors during some of the scenes at the horse races. Much is left to desire with this film and Renoir overemphasizes his ability to over-determine every aspect of the production. Again there is a near-death hallucination impressionist sequence at the end (like in La Fille de L'Eau)... is Renoir prognosticating about the death of something in the cinematic medium itself? His next film would be an ironic compliment to the Jazz Singer.
Sur un Air de Charleston (Charleston Parade)
Decidedly, we haven't heard anything yet from Renoir, as Sur un Air de Charleston is a silent short film. There is surrealist dream logic in the drawing of the phone which then becomes real, as well as Dadaist elements like the slipping on the waxed ground shot in slow motion. It is another effort by Renoir to play around with the medium... but perhaps something else is at the heart of the matter. The film hails jazz culture as being timeless and universal underscored by flipping colonialist stereotypes on their head (the white cannibal, the black space explorer/time traveler). There is a theme of savagery that runs through the film that I consider to be extremely tongue-in-cheek. I conjecture that the film was an homage to The Jazz Singer in many ways - perhaps not that particular film text per se, but more generally the hype that would have existed in the industry at the time about the shift to sound and the potential of films like The Jazz Singer to accomplish the feat. It is difficult to deny that Sur un Air de Charleston requires sound for the pleasure of spectators at the time (ironically there were none), but equally undeniable that the sound should come from a synchronized soundtrack. It seems that Renoir was imagining sound techniques prior to their industrial application. Why not release the film at the time then? My two answers are that Renoir would have been unsatisfied with the anachronistic homage (the film was silent) and that he may not have sought to offend many of his filmmaker colleagues who would soon be reeling against the introduction of sound film. Charleston Parade did not have an official exhibition or theatrical release.
La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes (The Little Match Girl)
La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes is another of Renoir's bleak portrayals of meek and meager lives at odds with their milieu. Something about it though feels like a re-hashing of earlier Renoir works (Une Vie... & La Fille... and even Nana). This piece was filmed in the Vieux-Colombier and produced by Tedesco. I conjecture (or simply fantasize) that the pair brainstormed on a film concept that was to be "suited" for Renoir and Hessling together. I imagine the idea of adapting a famous tale (Andersen's short story) as a compromise (not usually a great way to produce art)... and what you get is something not quite original in any way whatsoever. Now, that isn't to say that the French Impressionist film techniques used in the hallucination sequences are not constructed and crafted with technical precision and genius intuition... but that it was already fertile ground for Renoir (and Hessling for that matter). I have previously hypothesized that some of Renoir's silent work was prophecy and prognostication through forming a death allegory between human freedom and the film industry itself. This may have been the last time that Renoir favored a stylistic system constructed around a protagonist's psychology and showcasing avant-garde editing techniques (impossible to say without a full print of Le Tournoi available). Certainly, Renoir's next film, Tire au Flanc, would begin a shift toward a dominant stylistic system and diegetic construction characterized by great depth of field, mobile framing, multiple protagonists that marked Renoir as a unique and exceptional filmmaker. Interesting also, that it was not sound film production that spurred this stylistic shift for Renoir as Tire au Flanc was a silent film.
Tire Au Flanc (The Sad Sack)
Although some of the stylistic choices in directing constrain, there are flourishes of Renoir's dominant stylistic system at work in Tire au Flanc. The opening shot of a close up on a painting is overtly tableau and the unilateral dollying back and forth from midground to foreground can induce motion sickness. In addition, the camera merely tilting and panning to re-frame shots does little to construct the diegetic space. It is certainly a far cry from the long take mobile framing of Regle or M. Lange. However, Renoir is beginning to form his dominant stylistic system in this film. Characters stand in archways demarcating three layers to the staging, while the camera allows obstructions at the edges of the frame to help construct spatial verisimilitude. For those driven to understand Renoir as a humanist, Tire becomes a solid film-these. The military officer class is juxtaposed with the working class raw recruit, yet both suffer from unique and profound ineptitude. But is the film about an "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy or is the film text purporting something more pragmatic and utilitarian? I conjecture that there is indeed a humanist impulse in this film. Human beings naturally fall into line and take on roles within systems structured around power, but they just as naturally resist, struggle with, struggle against and condemn such systems and adopted roles. Thus humans are compulsive creatures. But Renoir puts forward that "the worn out soldier sleeps heavy, while the worn out guard sleeps like a rock". And so people are activated by what interests them more (and most) and will be more-or-less inefficient when forced to do what is of no interest to them. As much as these observations, lessons and credos on human nature get a treatment through the film using the example of war, I do not believe that Renoir is necessarily looking to be exhaustive in his means. Perhaps, this idea of creative freedom ("toujours le poete") was Renoir's method of communicating with other sectors of the film industry. Although, the French film industry formed into a cottage industry (as opposed to a studio system), there would surely have been a lot of resistance and shuffling around of professional alliances at the level of production and distribution during the time when Renoir was directing his first set of films. In Hollywood today, there is no real pressure on the creativity of the director or screenwriter because there are clear expectations of toeing a line formed and enforced by the economics and business of the industry (and if you don't like it, go indie), however, France at this time may have been struggling to understand the boundaries and realms of art and business within the medium of film. All my conjecture and supposition aside, there are some final interesting points to be made about Tire au Flanc... unique extreme long shots that defy tableau definitions but also defy strict character psych-pov (perhaps shots like these are the roots of Renoir's dominant stylistic system), a film bereft of french impressionist film editing techniques, ambiguous pov shots which are at times obtrusively constructing space and of course the spectacle of a young-ish Michel Simon in drag (a rare treat!).
The opening shot is a shortened sweeping pan of an Algerian landscape begging questions of producer intrigues in the cutting-room. A montage of traditional Algerian activities juxtaposed with shots of ancient ruins. The montage continues with shots of the machines of industry and agriculture. A shot of a steam engine provides a self-reflexive nod to the audience embarking on this travelogue introduction. The opening is pseudo-documentary, quasi-ethnographic. No snide portrayals of "primitive" culture (expected from Renoir). That being said, the juxtaposition of shots tend to evoke sentiment and curiosity (imagination, if you will and atypical of Renoir's ethos on interior-exterior truths). I would characterize Le Bled (from my own research) as transitional within the evolution of his lesser known stylistic system. Low angle shots provoke psychological associations for audience identification while one-shot closeups obliquely framed further psychological effects while adding a painterly quality. Renoir also provides some development within his famous stylistic system. For example, great depth of field at the docks juxtapose staged actors in the foreground with non-actors milling about in the background - the effect is dramatic, especially within Renoir's oeuvre. Unobtrusive camerawork has novel use through positioning with obstructions in the mise-en-scene... naturally arranged to habitually eclipse views of other background objects with seemingly greater human utility (cars and houses). Renoir poses a pointed question about the inherent value and utility of nature to forming humanity's own will. Prophecy in the scenario as old army buddies reacquaint after a random run-in (Renoir would have a similar encounter during the filming of Toni, later inspiring the scenario for Grand Illusion). Good staging/blocking of actors keeps the narrative pace fluid and progresses plot without having to resort to intertitles. However, this directorial choice has Renoir again furthering a psychological identification through promoting a sense of 'photogenie' - rendering the text impressionist in more ways than one. The film, accused of predictability and banality, seemingly has subtly complex characters. A young man lovestruck then quickly affirms not needing to rush into marriage and proceeds to focus on his own inner development through toil. Some propaganda though as the film was commissioned as a centenary celebration of colonization in Algeria. A rich uncle left a significant inheritance for his niece - a fortune gained from 'nobly' tilling the land and utilizing the strong Algerian agricultural foundation to build a stable infrastructure. Despite controversial politics, it is the direction that is most interesting in this film. Renoir, is always ahead of his time (mainly due to making repetition of production practices anathema)... La Fille's collision montage sequence (admittedly influenced by Abel Gance), Carrefour's establishing the qualities of film noir prior to its application in Hollywood, Toni as exemplary of neo-realism prior to its canon in Italy, the great depth of field in films like Regle preceding Welles's Kane and Renoir had already shifted to a critically self-reflexive 'counter cinema' approach to the Tradition of Quality before Godard and Truffaut had established it themselves in features. Le Bled perhaps presents nothing new per se but Renoir's combination of technique and atmosphere is novel and elusive. Renoir's empowering the female voice is brought forth in Bled as the niece states to her hapless courter "You have no get-up-and-go. If only I were a man". This sentiment fits Renoir's oeuvre, where representing women under an ethos of egalitarianism is paramount. The mobile framing present is at the service of tracking character movement and not constructing space. It is hard to accept Renoir's denial of being influenced by the medium's ability to represent psychology in light of a provocative sequence where a mysterious battalion of the French Army arrives on the shores. However, the 'spirit' of France is not brought into question in the Gancian sense and the 'J'accuse' moment is appropriated/bastardized as a 'J'accepte' moment (this bastardizing of Zola-Gance for propagandistic ends surely irked Renoir in this commissioned film). The sequence's superimposed soldiers marching (dissolve) into tractor riding farmers in a cavalcade sweeping across the cliffs into the horizon is haunting. Reverie of France's ability to grow and progress will be tiresome for some spectators (it reminds of Stalinist SR Stakhanovite-themed films) but nevertheless the direction and visuals are immaculate (despite the historicist semantics at play). The farmer-soldiers vanish into "thin" air through superimposed dissolves. The intertitle "J'accepte" teaches nephew that Algeria is worth the effort to cultivate - it is French land! I am sure Renoir was relieved when sound came in (with his next film). The sentimental portrayals in this commission are a far cry from more subtle psychology employed for characterization once Renoir had greater control of his projects. 'Easter-egg-hunt' reveals the Pan flautist (motif) sitting merrily watching and being watched. Le Bled is three acts with the second dragging and not fusing the story into a unity. The story would have more strength if it focused wholeheartedly on Claudie (the inheritor). Her choice of suitor (one accused of "pussying out" all the time and the other acquiring a 'feeling' for the rich history of the land) is of most interest (recalls Fabri's Korhinta for this reviewer). Claudie's feisty verve infuses scenes with energy and interest. Some accused Le Bled (reductively) of being nothing more than a propaganda piece - I disagree. Bled raises some serious moral and socio-political questions ( the gazelle hunt scene frames these questions nicely). A long take centralizes a murdered baby gazelle in the frame while fallen French girl is at the edge of the frame. This scene reminds of the concepts of brutality that Aime Cesaire raised in his polemical-poetic charges against (post-)colonization of the Third World. The film ends with an exciting action sequence and seemingly tragic end. The end chase drags somewhat following the climax but when the falcons are let loose, an element of panoramic continuity is unleashed that reengages the spectator. This film has a heartfelt ending, in this reviewer's opinion. Some of the performances are a little too theatrical, but not overwhelmingly so. Highly Recommended for Renoirites.
On Purge Bebe (Baby's Laxative)
On Purge Bebe is a funny little story but moves at a rather slow pace. The pace is understandable as the humor derives directly from the snappy patter between characters. I'm sure that Renoir had been chomping at the bit to switch to sound film production leading up to this film. In fact, he suspends much of the development of his stylistic system in this film to focus on the 'miraculous' ability to play out a drama with use of sync sound. That being said, there are some stylistic developments in On Purge... as well as more novel uses of sound. The opening shot uses a door frame at the edges of the image frame - a technique for constructing diegetic space that Renoir was even implementing in some of his silent films. This convention is repeated in the hallway scenes which are intentionally narrow so as to include the edges of the space (the walls) as a connector to the offscreen space. These hallway scenes also present the possibility for depth of field, however, the scenario itself has limited characters who are usually unable to properly position into a deep staged setup. The fact that On Purge... is a comedy and sound film leads to Renoir framing the characters in closer shot scales. However, one of the most clever uses of sound comes near the end of the film when the famous 1930s French cinema trope of face-slapping is framed in a long shot while nothing is lost for the audience as the sound would have resonated through a spectator's mind like few other novel film sounds of the time. There are specifically French humorous moments (unfortunately lost on this reviewer for the most part). The specific "toilet" humor juxtaposed with the military milieu, ignorance of geography (or simply of 'un-French' names) ironically juxtaposed with the titular Bebe's real name (anglicized ancient French name) and the bourgeois milieu juxtaposed with the crude and forthright personalities that inhabit it all help to create a humor with serious bounce and buoyancy. What can be said of this film as it relates to the common claim that Renoir was a "humanist" above all other things political? The anti-war attitude is hailed by an incorrigible brat which (for this reviewer) sooner reaffirms Renoir as ambiguous and ambivalent both to politics and humanism. Not much mobile framing or long takes in this film which plays out in three rooms, with half a dozen characters and is more intent on framing humor through the use of dialogue and sound. It is interesting to note that with sound film, seemingly violent actions can be understood as non-violent, making the introduction of sound nuanced to conform not only with concepts of Bazinian realism but also with the integrity of an art form. Renoir has fully broken away from the French Impressionist filmmakers as no avant-garde techniques are used in the editing of On Purge Bebe. I suppose it was a tenuous relationship to begin with as Renoir went on to demonstrate that his greatest strength as an auteur lay in his unobtrusive approach to being a film director.
La Chienne (The Bitch)
The narrative frame (puppet show) of La Chienne (The Bitch) certainly defies realism, which is all the more apt since the story is told tongue-in-cheek and the characters are caricatures. The title is no cultural argot misnomer as the drama seems akin to a circus show involving a hibernating bear (the cashier), voracious anaconda (the whore), howling wolf (the wife) and vampire bat (the pimp) all thrown into the same pit together. What arises is great drama and misplaced sympathy by audiences. Der Blaue Engel (1930) is vastly more straightforward in its portrayal of paralysis and consumption (not to sound too Kracauerian). La Chienne is layered - almost convoluted, but in a subtle way. Although the puppets in the narrative frame assert that the characters are plain and the drama is amoral - they are just puppets! How plain is a woman-beating drunk? How amoral is a drama that ends in a courtroom? La Chienne is a film that would have evoked different emotions from each audience member. For some (puppet-like) spectators, the narrative frame proves familiar and reassuring while for a more engaged spectator, deeper mysteries can be unearthed. The narrative frame is thus in service to Renoir's impresario approach to film auteurship. "What matters in life is to know the right people" is a statement scoffed at by Simon's character and to his ultimate ruin. The ending itself has a utilitarian feel (a reversal of the resolution in M. Lange ). "Ca prend de tout pour faire un monde" is one of the final lines in the film and underscores the teasing out of ambiguous politics struggling between utilitarian affirmations and humanist sensitivities. As for Renoir's stylistic developments in La Chienne - there is ample use of great depth of field in key scenes (especially in Simon's art studio). The narrow hallways as a mode for the construction of offscreen space is prevalent (as in On Purge). Mobile framing creeps in at the end of the film and is ironically liberating. It's most novel use is when Renoir's camera sways back and forth with the dancing couple (pimp and whore) in the bar. There are some nice tracking shots at the police station as well. Although, Renoir is starting to liberate the camera in La Chienne, it remains in the service of character psychology and not construction of space by an unobtrusive director's eye. In this regard, La Chienne shows itself to be a reasonable midway point between Renoir's silent films and his 1930s masterpieces.
Boudu Sauve Des Eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning)
A reviewer on imdb.com noted that Simon's character in Renoir's La Chienne is a "metamorphosis" partner of Boudu. I cannot verify that per se, but it is interesting to point out that many of the stylistic developments in La Chienne carry over into Boudu. There is amazing great depth of field shots - through windows (like Chienne... or M. Lange), exteriors (the hunt for Boudu's dog is exemplary) and especially in the Lestingois house. Renoir utilizes long pans to help construct the space. Again, Renoir positions the camera in a manner where there are obstructions to a full view created by objects in the space. This technique fosters a sense of realism and spatial verisimilitude through the unobtrusive camera. Narrow corridors abound and provide for deep staged setups. Renoir is finally liberating the camera and allowing for some of his later 'signature' mobile framing shots. The long take is also being introduced into the stylistic system... one of the final shots of Boudu floating in the canal as the Blue Danube Waltz plays in the soundtrack reminds us that originality in auteurship is still borne of influence and respect (Kubrick's 2001). Renoir also pays some respect to the French Impressionist filmmaker colleagues of his from years past. His novel use of sound as bridges between scenes is as creative and compelling as the ways in which avant-gardists were juxtaposing images for transitions in the silent era. Renoir also continues with practical applications of sound which began in On Purge. He positions a police officer with back facing the camera creating an ominous sense of authority when the character is provided spoken lines. Although I am not a huge fan of Renoir's Hollywood productions, the drowning sequence in Boudu surely influenced some of the action sequences in a film like This Land is Mine (1943). The drowning sequence in Boudu is composed of a montage of shots, with unique angles and pov shots. The sound during the sequence is diegetic - traffic and crowds - which adds a suspense built around milieu realism as opposed to theatrical drama. Boudu (played excellently by Simon) is an incorrigible rascal whose physical comedy evokes laughing out loud. However, there are deep social relationships at play and it isn't so reducible to a critique of "misguided" bourgeois charity. We must be reminded that as sentimental as Boudu can be, it is also clear that he is mentally ill. I find it preposterous to believe that Renoir would be condemning a socio-economic class for diseases of the mind which discriminate against no one. My thesis for now is that Renoir is an impresario of the film medium above all else and as such sought to provide a pleasurable experience for the spectator. The treatment of Boudu remains lighthearted... enough so to not rouse suspicion of moral implications for the scenario. Again, Renoir is not so ambiguous or ambivalent in his politics as he is committed and determined to rendering a film experience that satisfies the myriad of audiences that might be in attendance. To that end he succeeds marvelously with Boudu.
La Nuit Du Carrefour (Night at the Crossroads)
Carrefour has been considered a precursor to film noir and it can be agreed that the film is all about atmosphere. Renoir uses long sweeping pans to explore the space. There is a consciousness with regards to constructing depth in the mise-en-scene. Interestingly groups of characters are organized and move around in this film slightly differently from Grande Illusion or Regle, and is more similar to Cordelier. If theses differences can be connected to two overall stylistics systems for Renoir's work, with one being more focused on psychology (I realize Renoir spoke vehemently against it), then perhaps Carrefour can be understood as a bit of a hybrid between Renoir's two dominant stylistic systems. In Carrefour, ample closeups and angular shots support this claim while a lack of mobile framing (on interiors certainly) goes further to promote this thesis. Closeups on particular objects (cigarette pack) are ambiguously pov and hint at a transcendental position (not typical of Renoir) and is perhaps explainable through the film being an adaptation of a Simenon book. Again, Renoir finds novel uses for synch sound with alternating sound design and sound used through a sense of privilege. The settings are beautiful and the nighttime scenes become eerie and displaced (the displacement is all the more provocative when piecing together a film that is missing a reel). There is a Renoirian dilemma at play in this Simenon story and Renoir's use of polyvocal systems (Illusion, Carosse) underscore it. Carrefour is not unobtrusively political in its presentation of foreigners (Danes) being blamed for the murder of a Jew. A theme of separation and disconnect permeates those 'reasons' that people have for doing what they do. Pierre Renoir as Maigret performs perfecting in navigating the layers of the drama with subtle intent and sharpened will. The employment of great depth of field (lattice of door frame, staircase through doorway) plays more on this psychological disconnect of motives for action than it does for constructing space unobtrusively. That is to say, the direction is willful and therefore driven by auteur psychology and defined by construction of transcendental subject positions. Convergence is a force that surges forward to counter the themes of separation and disconnect. Class structure comes colliding into a single plane (and for this reviewer) reveals more about what holds everyone together in unity as opposed to toying with issues of servitude/mastery. Eventually, the pace slows and the atmosphere dominates. The foggy night and dim light provide a nice juxtaposition to the possibility of elucidation on the plot of the film. Some have commented that Night at the Crossroads is impossible to make sense of (without the full working print), but perhaps even with a complete print it would defy any logical and straightforward readings.
Although the opening shot makes good use of mobile framing, most of the film has a more tableau aesthetic. The sweeping pans are more tied to character psychology based on their habit of re-framing and thus constructing psychological space. Angular shots (convo with clergy, faint outside window) further a sense of transcendental subject positions arranged for identification with character psychological effects. The exteriors are picturesque and painterly especially through naturalist oblique staging. There is a great depth of field and camera positions are arranged with obstructions in the mise-en-scene lending to the sense of an unobtrusive apparatus. The alternating shot scales within a scene are traditional and like Carrefour one gets a sense that this Renoir film is a hybrid of stylistic systems. Problems are compounded in this regard not simply through the film being an adaptation of Flaubert's work but also through Emma's character being so close in characterization to what we know of Dedee (Catherine Hessling). I imagine that Renoir was torn during the production of Madame Bovary. On one hand he may have felt that expressing his personal life through an adaptation that was conducive for such sentiment had a cathartic effect while on the other hand he was marring the development of his stylistics and not adequately purveying an even approach to character portrayal. The effect is that the spectator is neither fully engaged nor fully bored - creating an awkward wishy-washy audience response. This is not Renoir's most compelling film.
Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country)
Partie de Campagne is an enigma within Renoir's oeuvre. Many feel that it is his greatest film, partly due to a nostalgia created by its painterly Impressionist qualities and partly because of its hermeneutic openness through being an unfinished film. The film text uncannily responds to its ontology through the main theme of displaced temporality and the effects of passages of time on the lives of human beings. Partie has a purity and Renoir's stylistics adapt to emphasize this. There is a group dynamic that naturally provides spacing and independence while retaining an air of familiarity. A great depth of field (especially through doorways and windows) provides vantage for spectators without implying transcendental subject positions. Character portrayals are genial (the Parisians are quite naive, but they genuinely praise Provincial life). Renoir makes his closeups two-shots. The camera is not very mobile and few long takes combine to create ambiguity when juxtaposed with the shot-reverse-shot editing. This is perhaps the only disappointment stylistically. The swing shots hint that Fabri's Korhinta must have found inspiration from Renoir. The swing shots are also the visual and emotional highlights of the film. A beautiful montage introduces the storm that will provide the most gentle and endearing of climaxes. The storm is a bridge for the idyllic of the imagination and the complex of the real, where the river running under the bridge is itself allegorical for the profound experience of life.
Les Bas Fonds (The Lower Depths)
Les Bas Fonds carries some weight in the fidelity department - the production was done through the Russian emigres' Albatros Film company while Gorky personally approved Renoir's script. That being said, most academics note Renoir's film to have a significantly less gloomy atmosphere, characterization and mode of expression overall than the novel. The opening shot is a tongue-in-cheek construction of identification through pov mobile re-framing. The spectator identification with higher authority (the Count) is a method of subverting the politics that would naturally arise when juxtaposing the milieu of the flophouse with that of the bourgeoisie. Clearly, Renoir had an intention to take the political edge off from the get-go. The long take and mobile framing is employed in the opening scenes (following the drunken young accordion player, also at the restaurant). A great depth of field frames social groupings and profiles multiple characters. Renoir attempts to fully establish his more famous stylistic system as dominant, however, some expressionistic psychology creeps in. Both Gabin's Pepel and Jouvet's Baron get one-on-one treatment from the camera. Pepel walks through an alleyway with shallow depth of field and later provides a police confession basked in hi-key lighting setup, while le Baron stands in one-shot closeup to contemplate the possible error of his ways at the casino. One starts to wonder whether Renoir was ever truly political given his portrayals of social classes always retain some element of genial acceptance (I suppose it lends to discourse of his 'humanist' tendencies). Gabin's Pepel was "raised with certain manners" while Jouvet's Baron distinguishes kindness through small gestures. Clearly not all bourgeois are up-tight "ham-grovelers" while not all working class are dangerous or rowdy. Then again, exploiting the stereotypes can be amusing (which Renoir always exploits gracefully). There are some unique transitional edits in Fonds, where Renoir employs vertical wipes (as if it represented flipping the pages of a book) which lends to a more psychological identification. The themes of "putting on airs" and "shedding upbringing" are played out through Pepel and le Baron, however they would certainly evoke a powerful unconscious psychological identification with spectators. This effect is reinforced through the blindfolded children's game and the concept that we are blind to the games we play and the lies we tell ourselves and others. The story plays off of the ancient Greek aphorism "Know Thyself". The baron explains that he has "fog in the brain" and it is a confession about a universal quality of human nature. The ritualistic murder mirrors M. Lange but the collective is certainly a different 'animal' in Fonds with different aims and alms. Some have felt that Fonds fits into the category of 'poetic realism'. Pepel's rage, the gloomy mood, foggy nights, tight spots, criminal activities, working class milieu have all the makings of a Carne-Prevert entry to the subgenre. However, Gabin's apple scene with the baby provides far too much uplift as does the solidarity of the collective. The characters of Renoir's Fonds are inherently invested in their world unlike Le Quai des Brumes. Consider the difference between the painter in Le Quai and Le Vigan's actor in Fonds. Le Vigan's character considers suicide a new beginning whereas the painter hopes not only to reach an end, but to erase everything that has already happened. If the actor could do it all again he would repeat himself like an actor does with their lines, whereas the painter would change everything. It is films like Les Bas Fonds that helped build Renoir's reputation as a 'humanist'... and with good reason because he cared deeply about the reciprocity of respect and the autonomy of creativity.
The Crime of M. Lange
The Prevert-Renoir teaming provides for an exciting tale of murder, mens rea, judgment and justice. The narrative frame introduces the story straightforwardly. Great depth of field and uneven staging/blocking of characters constructs a space unobtrusively in order to make room for the free interchange of political positions of everyday people. It is difficult to deny that M. Lange is not a call for French citizens to become politicized, but one cannot overlook the contribution of Prevert to that end. Mobile framing is employed once Florelle's character introduces the past events that led her and M. Lange into the provincial regions. The mobile framing operates to connect lives that might otherwise require the conjuring of contrived connections by the audience. The fact is that these people live and work together - that is the essence of their connection, and for Prevert (and Renoir) such a connection is enough to create a demand for respect, dignity and autonomy. Batala throws a wrench in all that 'good stuff' and provides the catalyst for politicization. Is murder condoned in this film or is it representative of the sacrifice that will be made to take up a firm political position? Raising these kinds of massive issue at the time of the Popular Front, M. Lange is all about context but in the most self-reflexive manner. Even the Arizona Jim storyline has a direct conversation operating within the French film industry at the time. M. Lange isn't anachronistic but for a contemporary audience, the concept of group responsibility has become distorted and perverted into an amorphous hideous blob cranking up the volume of the latest tech trinket to drown out the screams of a Kitty Genovese in the alley below. This makes M. Lange a refreshing take on politics but a depressing one, given the contemporary spectator has the foreknowledge that WWII happened and that international corporate conglomeration (arguably Batala's wet dream) has become so dominant that an Occupy Movement on Wall Street looks more like a Starbucks-sponsored Hoedown-cum-Pow-Wow... and just wait for the time management game version of Occupy to be released on iPhone in the next three months. If M. Lange were real life in the twenty-teens we can be sure that Batala "getting his" would mean getting the highest amount of profit participation and controlling the creative accounting end of things when the box office closes on the film's run. It is beautiful to see a world fighting for what is right. Prevert was unabashed in that regard. Renoir was fighting for something else - both more personal and universal. In a true Renoir film, Batala would have been a more complex character... likely something between King Louis in La Marseillaise and Dede in La Chienne. That is to say, his return would be announced and his escape would be ensured at the expense of some poor bugger's own life... in a kind of reprehensible accident. What does the 360 degree shot mean to me? I believe that it represents a political statement about the deferral of responsibility. The Lange and Batala roles are a clever reversal of the real issue... where do you stand against the threat of fascism that will soon begin stomping faces (which it did in abundance).
The Grand Illusion
_Most hail La Grande Illusion for its overt commentary on class politics and depiction of horizontal/vertical social boundaries in the age of nationalized fascism. The film also has its subtleties - De Boeldieu knows the downsides of both aviation uniforms which is a keen distinction on his part and one that defines his bourgeois upbringing. Some would identify such distinguishing as snobbery while it must also be considered as an element of intelligence and foresight. English as a mediator language is another element of foresight as it did prove to become the international language, for all intents and purposes. What is the 'Grand Illusion' then? Is it that to conduct war with rules beguiles the essence of rank inherent to those rules? Is it that the rhetoric of fraternity ignores other roles in the genealogy of social organization? These suppositions would imply a hard Left position within the film. However, the film's direct reference to a 'grand illusion' is that the war would soon end. Renoir is positing a perspective to adopt - that war is an eternal process because of a dishonesty between internal and external 'truths'. This is best exemplified through the theatre prep scene where the 'awkward' silence hints at something being said internally that would never be admitted to externally. And so the illusion is imagination itself... we are always exercising it but only within a structured construct of the psyche. Imagination has an infinitely expansive quality but remains 'stuck' within the fixed borders of what is consciously understood (known, accepted, denied and disavowed). De Boeldieu's "What's fair in a war" echoes the greater truth of "what's fair in life". Illusion is a consistent film stylistically - great depth of field, long tracking shots, group dynamics, polyvocal dialogue superseding shot-reverse-shot construction, mobile framing, the long shot. When Gabin's Marechal is put in solitary, there is no significant closeup treatment and no attempt to draw out psychological response or evoke emotions in the spectator - despair of the individual is not entertained by the apparatus. Illusion is a powerful film which highlights that sooner than Renoir being a humanist and ambiguous politically, he is ambiguously humanist and thoroughly apolitical.
La Marseillaise depicts lesser known stories attached to the events at Versailles in 1789 which led to the downfall of the French monarchy. Renoir continues with a consistent stylistic system - great depth of field, two-shot closeups, panoramic framing of crowds, extensive mobile framing, polyvocal systems (foreign accents). In fact, aristocrats and citizens receive even treatment from the camera. The exception is with the King and Queen who receive one-shot closeups, however, this seems more in the service of a dialectic regarding the Brunswick Manifesto than it being about psychological identification. The story of La Marseillaise is both symbolic and abstract which might explain the film not being as popular as was expected by the producers. There is also a confusion for the spectator because of Renoir's humanist treatment. Bumpkins are charming, aristocrats are accepting and armies more or less fight together instead of against each other. Renoir often spoke out against violence in film and this may have been a disappointment for audiences at the time who may have read the pacifism as wishy-washiness. Most violence in the film is deferred through crafty acts of oration. The brains over brawn theme certainly lacks something of the 'common touch', it might be said. The breaking down of the song into parceled quotations reminds of the French New Wave's lyrical and intellectual modes of expression. There is a rhetoric that runs through the film regarding order versus anarchy as a value of the monarchy and its operational standard... yet there is little example of anarchy, but also no false reprisal by monarchists against citizens. This constitutes a sense of loose ends in the narrative. The treatment of war is tepid, but it just goes to show that Renoir was never comfortable representing clear political positions.
La Bete Humaine
Hereditary flaw... paying the price... suffering... committing acts beyond one's control... reasons locked deep inside. These Zolaesque sentiments and characterizations ironically put the story of La Bete Humaine beyond the poetic realist genre. This film never rises to the surface of atmosphere. Image and sound are emotionally charged from the opening scene. Hi-key lighting and soft focus cinematography on closeups create psychological identification and promote the act of gazing. The camera is often stationary and action moves past it. Closeups are often one-shots. Renoir pervasively utilizes a shot-reverse-shot system. There is deep depth of field in staging but not deep focus. The planes usually are staged with a mix of people and animals or object (horse, train) lending more power to the psychological identifications that run throughout the film. This form of layering in the mise-en-scene creates elusiveness identification effects and creates difficulty in access and privilege (perfectly matching a theme of psychological paralysis in the character of Jacques). "Feeling like a mad dog" and "haze fills my head" is psychological rhetoric lending to concepts of mental illness sooner than excuses of hereditary responsibility. The mental illness transcends the social classes (like in Bas Fonds) as the wealthy husband commits heinous premeditated acts. "It was an accident for us" becomes the credo of the characters in the film and ties quite nicely to Renoir's own philosophy on the cork in the stream. Certain avant-garde techniques creep up (the rain bucket ellipsis). The only significant use of Renoir's famous stylistic system is at the end where great depth of field and mobile framing help construct a space similar to how it was accomplished at the end of M. Lange (and much to the same ends with regard to spectator identification). The supersped up rear projection (or 'side projection') in the end scene is the most dramatic visual in the film and arguably the history of film. The themes of immobility and isolation play-out perfectly when juxtaposed with the high-paced locomotive visuals. Renoir comments "the locomotive was one of the most important characters" and unfortunately tips his hand about claims that his work does not venture into the realm of the psychological. La Bete Humaine should hopefully soon be considered Renoir's greatest film, but it first requires an understanding of the evolution and development of his two stylistic systems. This will likely lead to his later work being revered more than it is today.
La Regle Du Jeu
Regle exemplifies one of Renoir's two stylistic systems - the famous one. For Braudy, it is the system concerned with realism (as opposed to theatre). Closeups are two-shots, mobile framing and the long take constructs space unobtrusively, obstructions in the mise-en-scene support unobtrusive camera positioning, staging/blocking is uneven creating a natural arrangement, doorways and arches provide hints at offscreen space, little-to-no reframing or shot-reverse-shot prevents psychological identification and multiple characters get equal treatment through direction and the scenario on the whole - all staple features of Renoir's "collective" stylistic system. There are some interesting production notes for Regle, including that Renoir was about the last choice to play Octave (others like Michel Simon were unable to play the role). Scenes like the car crash are auto-biographical for Renoir (the death of Pierre Champagne) and reminds that Renoir is a perfect fit for the role of Octave. Many apply a Kracauerian thesis to the significance of Regle and are wrong to do so. The film is less concerned with class politics and the "paralysis" of bourgeoisie to appreciate the threat of fascism as it is concerned with events on a micro level that are beyond the influence of the players connected to them. "Everyone has their reasons" is a concession and confession for Renoir who understands that people do what they can and what they must as they pass through life but that these disparate social actions cannot always be consolidated into an orderly and fair unity. This is the essence of comedy and tragedy for Renoir. "Everyone has their reasons" connects with Renoir's personal philosophy of 'the cork in the stream'. Later (in Elena and her Men) the expression is retold as "everyone has their plans" underscoring that Renoir is flexible about his application of philosophy to human nature (hence equal development of two stylistic systems across his oeuvre). For Renoir, humans are compulsive creatures who wear masks to manage internal and external truths. The working class, Schumacher, is the most inept at managing his mask and also acts in the most reprehensible manner. His German surname is likely intentional as a comment on the rise of Nazi fascism, however, Renoir spares no social class in his critique of failed dramaturgical social strategies. The chaos that ensues is both comical and tragic. As Renoir asserted, the horizontal and vertical boundaries are illusory and will become obsolete as people realize that their internal truths are unique and external truths are false. The 'rules of the game' are that whoever you are, the management of a masked external self is imperative and at the same time false thus leading to compulsive behavior that cannot be calculated and whose results cannot be predicted. This is the gift and curse of life. Fortunately, we have more to be conscious of because Renoir shares his wisdom with all of us.
An ironic theme runs through this first American Renoir film - Fear Nature! Obviously, Zanuck and 20thC. Fox could have cared less about what Renoir had developed in his oeuvre up to that point. What mattered to them was the basic fact that he had a reputation. Of course, in effect Zanuck could have found out Wayne Gretzky was a great athlete and so handed him a baseball bat requesting grand slam home runs. Despite the troubles with the ignorant Hollywood producers, Renoir managed to direct a film and tell a story that is endearing and enduring. He also purveyed as much of his stylistic grace as was possible under the conditions (but it wasn't much). Great depth of field is utilized but conformed to a Hollywood brand of the specular - the gaze of the Other! Overall, Renoir has his hands tied as shot-reverse-shot systems, one-shot closeups, plan americain shot scales and decoupage classique continuity dominate the film. Even rear projection is used for the sky! When the camera isn't sneaking through the swamp representing the gaze of the other, the story is allowed to be told fluidly. Brutality versus chastity, God versus Nature, redemption versus utilitarianism, all have strong precedent in Renoir's oeuvre. The themes of brutality and chastity in Swamp Water play out at the bar much the way they do in some of Renoir's silent films such as, La Fille de L'Eau. God & Nature constitutes a everlasting dialectic in Renoir's oeuvre, especially through the tropes of the river and the Pan character, while in Swamp Water prayer can miraculously heal snake bites. Redemption or utilitarianism framed the moral concerns in La Chienne, M. Lange, Bas Fonds and Marseillaise, while in Swamp Water it is appropriated for familial relationships where one father uses his reputation to protect his kin and another father must redeem his reputation to do the same. Perhaps the Renoirian thematic could be considered effectively 'dumbed-down' in Swamp Water. I believe that familiar Renoirian discourse is employed at the service of an audience that promotes film as escapist first and foremost. Therefore, the themes are played out with depth, but require some bushwhacking and personal exploration to access those deeper meanings. This film gets a lift from great acting (thank Renoir for that). Polyvocal systems from films like Illusion are replaced in Swamp by polytonal systems of Ben who speaks one way with the tom-girl (big papa), another with the blondie (suave romantic) and another with his father (whipping boy). This polytonal form contributes to added psychological identification. The rear projection was surely enjoyed by Zanuck while he was making love to his blow-up doll and munching on a corner of cheese slice off of his Big Mac. The ascetic-based answers provided for issues of freedom and justice are quaint for a contemporary viewer but certainly in lock-step with Hollywood politics during the war. Another inversion from Renoir's French work to Swamp Water is in its politics of justice where crime of necessity (M. Lange) is domesticated into crimes of opportunity and the revolutionary spirit of agitation disrupting order is neutered into a status quo agitation ordering disruption. It might seem that this film is common, corny or campy... but Swamp Water somehow makes it out alive (like its characters from the swamps). For a North American viewer, the fluid direction of Renoir leads to clear narrative that has inherent appeal for a New World value system and is ironically relayed better through a Frenchman than through a more indigenous and veteran Hollywood director.
This Land is Mine
He comes down the stairs to his mother's insistence, carries the cat, drinks up his milk as requested, wipes his pudgy mouth, is helped into his clothes while listening passively to his mother's latest diatribe on gossip about town, is told to hurry up before being late for school and is kissed on the cheek and seen off. A perfect portrait of a mama's boy prompts an adequate definition for a born coward (ironic because Renoir claimed himself to be a coward). But there is a catch! The cat does not belong to "mummy". The pudgy school teacher 'fancies' his neighbour in fact... but a love triangle will get in the way... and all with Nazi stormtroopers goose-stepping through the quasi-romantic, over-determined melodrama. That's Hollywood... and totally inappropriate for Renoir (whose own melodrama WW2 film astutely and intuitively made no direct reference to the Nazis whatsoever). The story of This Land lacks in subtlety... the 'united front' is saccharine and cheesy leaving an awful taste in the mouth. The stylistic system allowed for Renoir is no better - one-shot closeups and tableau-like depth of field in cinematography, shot-reverse-shot suture editing systems, uncreative use of exteriors in the mise-en-scene. The film won an Oscar for sound?! Was it the heavy-handed employment of a children's chorus as bombs drop on the roof of their flimsy shelter? My niece cries when the dog barks, begging many questions about the hardened constitution and shameless bravery of the children in This Land. The film purveys a warped sense of manifest destiny and has a real Stalinist Socialist Realist feel to it. Some will defend that a united front bound by hope and uplift was necessary at the time, but why the moral highfaluting for Renoir? One feels forsaken. And why the insidious cardboard-cutout villains? "Heroism is glamorous for children" gets an add-on later by Keller who claims "America is a charming cocktail of Irish and Jews. Spectacular but childish". The only grace that this film would have is if it tripped over its own shoelaces and fell flat on its face. Even Renoir must have recognized the flaws as he implements a bit of sloppy directing to match up (shot one of hands about to go in pockets/jump cut to shot 2 of hands firmly planted in pockets). The loss of continuity is reflective of Renoir's misplacement in the production. Or perhaps it was the producer's choice...a kind of Hollywood branding. Sure enough, dreams make little sense and have no real continuity. There are a couple of exciting moments and good directing when a high angle shot frames urban rebellion in deep space which leads to traceur stunts in a parkour rooftop escape sequence. Another moment occurs later when said rebel executes his ultimate escape plan (reminds of Boudu). Like La Chienne, Albert (reluctant mama's boy) provides a speech to a courtroom. This 'resistance' speech is a far cry from the realism of poison pen letters in Le Corbeau, but it is an understandable heavy-handed device given the impetus for the theme of the film. If I were living in France in 1943 and knew of the film, I would hail This Land is Mine as wonderful support for the Allied war effort. I would be proud that it was directed by a fellow Frenchman and I would hope that it would bring France and America even closer on issues of liberty and the fight for freedom. Given that I was born in 1979, I simply expect either clever allusions and allegories or realistic blood and guts portrayals of the experience of war. Somehow the quasi-romantic melodrama panders to a subverted discourse on the horrors of war in a questionable way.
Based on all the historical evidence, Renoir was granted independence in the making of The Southerner and it shows in his direction and control of stylistics. The pastoral setting is explored with great depth of field, while characters are staged in depth through windows like in many of Renoir's French films (M. Lange, La Chienne). The story is the epitome of apropos - "if you're working for a big outfit, maybe you don't get rich but you still get your pay even if the crops is bad. But the little guy who is growing his own, if his crops is ruined, he's got nothing left". This warning given to Sam Tucker sets up the drama of the story while also commenting on the methods of production for the film itself. The mobile framing and long take pans accompanied by voice-over dialogue would be quite unconventional for a Hollywood audience and are much more in tune with the kind of 'documented eye' in the Social Cinema that Jean Vigo promoted. As much as the stylistics are European and Renoirian in origin, the story is a corny slice of Americana - to live on the land you own, catching trophy catfish while grandma frames the passing of time from her rocking chair on the porch. It speaks to America... even ironically lies to America. "Land needs rest like a man. That's why the Lord invented Sunday" is of course ridiculous given that Sunday was invented by the citizens of the French Republic. Renoir makes the most of the realism that can be achieved through exterior shooting on location and not on the studio sets. The house that is used literally sits on a crooked foundation creating impact on the viewer where skewed perspectives juxtapose with the hopes and dreams of the characters that exist within its walls. There is no class conflict in this film... the conflict plays out within the working class. Renoir falls back on some decoupage classique but frames a great fight sequence through it. The most "un-Renoir" element of the film is the portrayal of the wife who supports her husband 100% and at no point creates even the slightest amount of stress or strife for him... she is in effect a cardboard cutout representation of "woman folk". For all the massacring of Renoir's films in the cutting rooms by Hollywood producers (and in France for that matter), The Southerner could do with the removal of anachronistic misogynist traditional values (the same can be said of many of Renoir's Hollywood films). Renoir always believed in egalitarianism for women, so one can see that as much as The Southerner is considered "indie", Renoir was still bound by the puritanical values of the society to which his film would be distributed and exhibited.
The Diary of A Chambermaid
The Diary of a Chambermaid is a transitional film in the development of Renoir's lesser known stylistic system. Braudy would later distinguish Renoir's two systems as being tied to theatre and realism respectively (although there have been compelling arguments about these categories being either reductive or simply misnomers). Goddard is the focus of the story (much in the same way Renoir later uses Magnani, Arnoul and Bergman). The camera tracks her action, her closeups are one-shots, there are alternating shot scales in single scenes to emphasize her character's psychological reaction to events, studio exteriors help idealize the framing of her screen personality and high/low angle shots purvey her psychological perspective on group dynamics. Celestine (Goddard) has an ambiguity to her motivation that heightens psychological identification. It is unclear as to whether she sees the world divided by class or sex, or both. The ending is a happy one, and the politics is further subverted through jovial, emotionally-charged, highly-individualized characters. Non-diegetic soundtrack is employed to increase distinctions in the emotional responses of different characters. Depth of field is at the service of Celestine's staging while obstructions in the mise-en-scene become incorporated into the plot. In this respect, the camera is not an unobtrusive one. There is an inconsistency in the use of stylistics, where on one hand re-framing pans are fully at the service of psychological identification and privilege the transcendental subject position while the long take, mobile framing of the July 14th celebration reminisce on M.Lange, Illusion and Regle. Diary is a melodrama with comedic elements to round off the edges of relationship dynamics, but when the master of the house reads in the morning paper "another woman murdered in Paris, another woman cut to pieces" there is no doubt that Renoir is infusing a consideration for the plight of women in a misogynist society. This was very important to him and perhaps the dark undertones of this film have something to say about the repression he experienced working in Hollywood during the war. How Burgess Meredith factors into all that remains to be seen.
The Woman on the Beach
Foggy describes it best. The Woman on the Beach had some hitches during production and a great supporter of Renoir's in the RKO studio (Korner) passed away before the film was completed. Renoir commented later that he might have stayed at RKO until the end of his career had Korner lived. The film implements some avant-garde techniques... superimpositions, slow-motion and dissolves which directly connect to character psychology (dream logic, in fact). There is a shot-reverse-shot system at work and closeups are one-shots. Noir lighting and a fog-filled mise-en-scene create a sense of loss. This plays well with the theme of blindness. There are some confusing allusions to alcoholism and hysteria (no explanations gleaned in my research). The film centers on a single protagonist and investigates his psychology. There is shallow depth of field, no long takes or mobile framing. Doors close and space is cut off. One gets the sense that the direction is self-reflexive and may have something to say about Renoir's relationship with his own family. "Painting has nothing to do with the brain. It's the eye. Painting is like a woman, she either thrills you or she doesn't" begs many questions about how Dedee and Pierre-Auguste map onto the playing out a reverse Oedipal relationship through this story. Although the story is not one of Renoir's, it was a story which had occupied his thoughts for a long time prior to finding an outlet through its production as a film. There is a sense of distance, loss, separation, darkness and anger that renders The Woman on the Beach far from pleasurable. This experience of watching is valuable though and Woman is a film worth watching for its powerfully suppressed authorial voice.
The River is all about the construction of space and how people find their way through the labyrinth of life. Filmed in India and in color, the spectator is immediately invited to the exotic. The title cards are imprinted into the diegetic world through scrolling long take, fusing the authorial biographical voice with the fiction of the narrative. There is a theme of auteurship in the story of The River that dominates the subplot of first love. The idea of first love is played out objectively but the authorship frames this discourse. The portrayal of India is ethnographic but also biographical. The great depth of field serves a sense of pseudo-documentary. Identification is confounded somewhat through a lack of closeups. When there is a closeup, it is a two-shot. The adaptation of Godden's novel beguiles an otherwise obvious example of the development of Renoir's famous stylistic system. Candid honesty in characterization is the dominant rendering the realism of group dynamics similar to Regle or M. Lange. However, the adaptation renders the literary directly to painterly while the authorship in voice-over narration retains a pure psychological focus on Harriet. One might say that there is some nuanced ideology that permeates the text. Captain John is the object, but that which provokes jealousy never has its own position elucidated. The voice-over narration gets intriguing as Harriet's character knows of events she was not present for. Harriet's diegetic character then narrates a story whose events are shown on-screen rendering multiple diegeses. When we believe we have returned to the first layer of diegetic, unpredictable events beg the question of whether we have slipped into a deeper 'secret layer' conjuring conjecture as to the nature and purpose of the labyrinthine spatiotemporality of the text. The power of the authorship of Renoir and Godden combined subvert a true political or ethnographic root for the story. We are forced to submit to the coming-of-age-love-story alone. These self-reflexive characteristics of storytelling have a strong connection to Renoir's Woman on the Beach. Again, many characters are underdeveloped highlighting the power of the authorial voice as a non-Transcendental 'Other'. According to Renoir, the universal element of The River was dance, however, I found its tableau framing to be inert in an unattractive way - certainly not fluid and graceful. Perhaps I am too much of a control freak to submit fully to a powerful authorial voice and as such The River is a film best left to those who love being taken along for a ride. Of course, this statement has a deep irony in Renoir's own philosophy of the cork in the river.
Le Carosse D'Or (The Golden Coach)
Renoir brought a new authorial voice to his work with The Diary of a Chambermaid which carried over into the "trilogy" of Carosse D'Or, French CanCan and Elena. The trilogy therefore is a bit of a misnomer despite Diary admittedly being more transitional than the three color productions which soon followed. Renoir introduces Carosse as a 'fantasy' in the 'spanish style' and it was at this time in his life where he was ready to dedicate himself to theatrical modes of representation in his directing and filmmaking. The opening shot is a fantastic reflective juxtaposition of the theatre stage and the cinema screen. Deep staging is important to the mise-en-scene, but there is little in the way of the long take and mobile framing. One-shot closeups, pov shots and shot-reverse-shot editing systems create a sense of psychological identification. The polyvocal system is less logical than Grande Illusion and more at the service of Magnani (much in the same way that Goddard was the focal point of Diary). A montage of shots connected through dissolves as well as the static camera solidify a sense of tableau - fittingly given the specular quality of the commedia dell'arte theme of the film. The viceroy is Camilla's muse sooner than the more standard inverted characterization. He provides a sensitivity that reminds of Le Baron in Bas Fonds... and his fascinations are just as patronizing and unsettling. There is a voyeuristic theme within the specular structure which raises questions about the great depth of field relating to privilege as opposed to realism. Renoir would take a new look at this at the end of Cancan when Gabin rehearses the performance in his mind from backstage. The Golden Coach is very much a film these for Renoir as he plays out the most important elements of his personal philosophy - that of internal and external truths and the masks that people wear to manage their relationship and mode of expression socially. For a fun, light film there is a lot of powerful expression in Carosse D'Or.
French Cancan is introduced as a 'musical comedy' and lives up to the billing in some ways, but also feature many dance numbers. Renoir was still expressing himself regarding the universality of dance he had affirmed after the production of The River. The depth of field is again appropriated to layer the staging much like in theatre. Mobile framing evokes the position of non-diegetic audiences. The pan across the mob fight unravels before the viewer like a comic strip or emaki scroll. There is specular themes like in Golden Coach where Gabin's character asserts "artists are slaves". The film remains lighthearted and humorous and it is no surprise that of Renoir's later films, Cancan was the strongest at the box office (Arnoul is delightful in her role). The mise-en-scene is designed with expectations of a painterly aesthetic. The color scheme is lavishly rococo to the point of tackiness. Gabin's character later states "we are at the service of the public" and implies that this is all that matters. Sarris comments that Gabin's character as impresario serves as an alter ego for Renoir and reminds us that it would be an "oversimplification to describe him as a humanist." I cannot disagree with Mr. Sarris on those points but Renoir's oeuvre plunges even deeper into reflection, representation and meaning than what would be implied by the role of the impresario.
Elena and Her Men
Renoir introduces Elena as a 'fantasy musical'. The opening scene is in an artist's studio while a piano is being practiced on. There is a superior use of depth of field but Bergman is the focal point (Renoir was quite smitten with her as evidenced by their years of personal communication). There are shades of Nana, however that may have marred positive response to the film upon release. Bergman's character is not imbued with a clear motivation that brings everything around her into focus. It is simply her external self that is focused on. Well, that wasn't good enough in 1926 and nothing much had changed thirty years later. Is Bergman's Elena a symbol or a mere good luck charm? Hard to tell at first viewing. Again multiple cuts replace the long take while tableau panoramas of the mise-en-scene replace mobile framing. Elena is certainly not in the realm of 'realism' attributed to Regle. Point in case is when an old military jacket is commented as being tattered yet is clearly immaculate and was freshly dry-cleaned at the other end of the studio minutes earlier. The immaculate aesthetic created through the mise-en-scene and color scheme of Renoir's "trilogy" is a psychologically-based construction and operates as a reflective process for the spectator to find pleasure in an unblemished vision of reality. In effect, Renoir has shifted from letting a story tell itself through his direction to directing how the story is projected down to fine details. "Everyone has their plans" replaces the old Renoir credo of "everyone has their reasons" and the distinction fits nicely with my own thesis about Renoir's two stylistic systems. In Carrefour, the camera investigates through the lattice work of a door's window creating a layered space whereas in Elena an idle courter bangs in futility at a door with similar lattice but no great depth of field to explore the interior from outside. For Faulkner, it is a conflict of private and public spheres at play where the woman's power is effected through performance. It seems unlikely that this theory plays out cleanly given Renoir's consistency with empowering female characters through a variety of means in his oeuvre. Elena has more significance and less entertainment value the more you know and understand of Renoir's films.
Le Testament Du Docteur Cordelier (Experiment in Evil)
There is a quasi-prologue to introduce Cordelier, which goes a long way to connecting this TV-based production with other self-reflexive films Renoir made late in his career. Space is not explored or constructed in the same was as films like M. Lange or Regle, while a lack of mobile framing maintains psychological identification with the characters. There is deep space, but not deep staging as the camera frames long corridors and archways but not groups of characters within the settings. There are situations where groups of townspeople move around together but it is a group held together tenuously and usually motivated by reactions to an event. The women in the building knew of Opale but found no reason to report his odd behavior underscoring that the milieu is very different from that of Lange, Illusion, Fonds or Regle. Some of the performances suffer from affectation which tends to diminish the impact of the Barrault roles. Dr. Cordelier has a moment while reading the newspaper where the audience is privy to an internal monologue - heightening the psychological dimensions of the narrative. There is some splattering of the famous Renoir stylistics when the doctor's party is thrown and later when the collective of workers attempt to stop Opale. Soon after, a flashback sequence puts things right back into the realm of the psychological (theatrical) as opposed to the social (realist). The themes of sexual perversion are somewhat muted (or perhaps they require a more 'European eye' to appreciate). The freedom that Cordelier experiences through subscribing to chaos has interesting political implications. In some manner, I feel that Cordelier is one of Renoir's more clearly political films. The narrative frame returns Renoir to the screen and the story-world diegetic. The compulsion in the nature of humanity (questing for the rights of the soul will be punished but will lead to true freedom) echoes the true significance of a film like Regle - these films are connected philosophically, if not also thematically. Cordelier is well worth watching for the dynamic combination of Renoir and Barrault using the multiple camera shooting system. There is an even flow to the storytelling that renders the text engaging.
Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe (Picnic on the Grass)
An unusual intro sequence involves layering the diegetic world through an odd specularity utilizing newsreel interviews and binding characters to varied milieux. There are a plethora of tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions of science and nature which reminds one of Makavejev's oeuvre (especially in the link being sexuality). Rare Renoirian soft focus accompanies one-shot closeups while the self-reflexivity leads to a near-mocking of the famous Renoir stylistic system. Depth of field is arranged where characters continuously 'pop-up' in the different planes of staging. Groups are framed in long shots. Dejeuner sur L'Herbe is almost bizarre in its referencing to the French New Wave and the Tradition of Quality. The FNW is treated as a horizon running perpendicular to the tight-rope Renoir traverses toward it. The ToQ is set up as a gorge below this perpendicular discursive dialectic which has a perverse inversion as it reflects upon itself as if positioned in the clouds above. This film is pure dialectics, irony and self-reflection - it is a sum of all loose ends which Renoir left in his oeuvre. Renoir seems to make a journey of this film as it embodies the Vuillermoz quip that "every film is a confession". The Pan flautist is a famous Renoir motif and appropriately placed in Dejeuner where Renoir as auteur becomes a force of nature - he becomes the milieu (and perhaps always was). The picnickers seem indifferent to the Pan character's supernatural powers revealing a cynicism that has popped up many times with Renoir. "In every man a satyr sleeps" is no revelation, but a warning about the internal and external truths which become convoluted and sundered through the individual's attempts to manage them. It has been noted that Dejeuner lacks in subtlety. I believe that it was the intention of the film to be self-reflexivity and demand conscious consideration of open hermeneutics in film spectatorship generally. The Damascus reference troubles me, while the Hitler-orator allusions and scooter ride seem all too obvious as components of an autobiography. This film is important for understanding Renoir as an auteur.
Le Caporal Epingle (The Elusive Corporal)
Le Caporal opens with a montage of WWII documentary footage. "Honor and glory to the survivors" provides a credo that plays nicely with the themes in Grande Illusion and more personal philosophies regarding the condition of the human race (Renoir's 'humanism'). The drama moves at a relatively slow pace and the performances are full of affect. More documentary footage has a voice-over narration in French but from the perspective of the Nazis creating a strange juxtaposition for deeper contemplation. There is an element of self-reflexivity to the film not just through the use of documentary footage and a more psychologically-based stylistic system but also infused into the themes of coercion and resistance. Le Caporal is more concerned with individualism than Grande Illusion, a film that focuses on group dynamics. This is underscored by the obsessive compulsive worry that one character shows for the safety of his cows, regardless of what is happening in the moment. The story does not track the multiple characters but instead folds their offscreen progress in with the corporal's journey at regular intervals. The corporal becomes a transient in their lives (hence his elusiveness). There is a disconnect and repetition in the narrative structure. The graceful allusions in Regle with Schumacher as a form of messianic scapegoat are replaced by purely cynical portrayals of Germans (the drunken warmonger states "I'm probably a better German than you all"). Scorsese commented that Le Caporal Epingle is "in a different emotional key than La Grande Illusion".