The Elusive Corpus: Jean Renoir Collection

Michael Barrett
From La fille de l'eau with Catherine Hessling and Harold Levingston

This smorgasbord of "minor Renoir" encompasses and even summarizes his career from beginning to end; a bargain for the cinephile, expert or novice.

Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector's Edition is the bland title for an exciting release. Packaged in a cardboard case with a clever clapboard design, here are three DVDs with a whopping five features plus two short subjects, all directed by Jean Renoir and some never before on video, at least not in the US. Even to the average Renoir-ophile, these titles have been legendarily elusive.

This smorgasbord of "minor Renoir" encompasses and even summarizes his career from beginning to end. The first surprise for people who know about Renoir's philosophical and artistic preference for extended takes and depth of field (mise-en-scene) is how experimental, how surreal, how flashily edited, how positively Eisensteinian the young filmmaker was. The earliest four films here, all silent, are essentially vehicles for his then-wife Catherine Hessling (who adopted that name because it sounded American), but they are also vehicles for Renoir's discovery of what can be done with a camera.

La fille de l'eau, which means girl or daughter of the water but has been commonly translated as Whirlpool of Fate, is a touching little gem from 1925. The title indicates the movie's obsession with water as it follows the mishaps of a girl who lives on a river barge. This not only signals Renoir's own fascination with water, apparent in several other films here and elsewhere, but indeed the fascination of French cinema as a whole with the same, or with the Seine.

Watching certain shots, like the man walking "in place" within the frame as the barge passes underneath his feet, you can't help but feel that Jean Vigo must have seen this film before he made L'Atalante, his tale of love on a river barge, and which in turn is referenced in Leos Carax's Lovers on the Bridge. (Both Vigo and Renoir certainly knew Jean Epstein's 1923 barge romance, La Belle Nivernaise.)

The bucolic loveliness of the story is another Renoir characteristic, foreshadowing his A Day in the Country and "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe", and so is his fairness of character. For example, when our heroine meets a gypsy boy, his handsome youth and friendly smile denote him stereotypically as a positive character, while their antagonist is the obnoxious rich farmer with a sharp nose and bobbing Adam's apple. Renoir associates him with shots of a goose, a visual joke on a par with Eisenstein.

Yet the boy, for all his nice qualities, is a thief and arsonist and not a loyal friend, while the boorish farmer's behavior is basically understandable, even at his angriest. This complexity about human nature, a refusal to rely on the stereotyped image, is exactly what goes against Eisenstein and stamps this as Renoir.

The Little Match Girl

But we'd hardly think we're watching Renoir during the heroine's lengthy dream sequence, a festival of double exposures, chiaroscuro tricks and backwards motion. He clearly loves these tricks, but he got them out of his system during his Hessling period. They are the raison d'etre of the two shorts, Charleston Parade and The Little Match Girl.

The former is presented, annoyingly, without any music track; so much for the Charleston gags. It's a sci-fi burlesque about an African explorer who flies in a spherical ship, animated by stop-motion, to darkest Europe, labeled on his map as terra incognita. There he discovers a primitive girl who lives in a phone booth with an ape. She dances the Charleston, which the explorer recognizes as the ancient tribal dance of his civilization's white ancestors.

In other words, it's all a facetious reversal of racial stereotypes about Africa, although the modern viewer will be jarred by the fact that the African is dressed up as a minstrel, complete with white gloves and a white outline around his mouth. This seeming blackface is actually a sort of whiteface, since the actor is a black man named Johnny Huggins, evidently a Paris nightclub performer like Josephine Baker.

Black entertainers in Paris often flirted with racially-charged accoutrements (the jungle and whatnot), and for that matter it happened in America, too. Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's all-black musical hit Shuffle Along, a '20s cultural landmark that spawned several imitators, also used the minstrel look. Still, it's up to the viewer to decide, with or without historical homework, how much is satirized and how much reinforced.

Death, from The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl, based on the tragic (or transcendent?) tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is simply an excuse for Renoir to run wild with another extended dream or hallucination, juxtaposing different scales of size within the same shot and double-exposing horses riding in the clouds.

Hessling's greatest vehicle was Nana, a 1926 epic inspired (as Martin Scorcese notes in an extra) by Erich Von Stroheim's extravagant attention to detail and sexual fetishism, as applied to Emile Zola's novel. In this wonderfully tinted print, there are several Stroheim-esque moments, such as the startling pull-backs to reveal more and more characters artfully arranged within the scene. The hangers-on eating at Nana's table evoke the wedding dinner in Greed.

The film also strangely anticipates Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel in its spectacle of a vulgar music-hall star's conquest of aristocratic, masochistic duffers. The key tone for much of the film is satire, as everything is consciously overstated and winked at. Some might accuse Hessling of overacting, but that would be wrong. She does as she is directed and gives an almost grotesquely physical performance.

La Marseillaise (1938) emerged in the director's high period after his world breakthrough with Grand Illusion and just before La Bete Humaine and Rules of the Game. Renoir shows his command of the long mellifluous take, the probing camera that follows his men and women through fields, from treetops, out of windows, and in assembly halls. It's a collection of historical moments about the French Revolution, and even though it includes the points of view of the royalty and their minions, its primary focus is the common people.

Stop and consider for a moment how unique that is. When Hollywood tells the story, whether with Norma Shearer or Kirsten Dunst, it's naturally from the point of view of Marie Antoinette, whose regal tragedy is assumed to be what middle-class audiences want to identify with. Even A Tale of Two Cities, which focuses on ordinary people, tells of unjustly victimized outsiders in the grand tragedy of the guillotine, while the unwashed revolutionary peasants cackle from the sidelines with their knitting.

In Renoir's version, much of which is taken from documents and letters of the time, we hear a Madame Defarge-like peasant woman expressing contempt for the queen in an assembly, but we know where she's coming from with her prejudices and grievances (nor do her slanders seem completely unjustified). We also see her courage and we sense the remarkable cultural novelty of hearing a woman speak in public at all. The film begins with a graceful shot of the changing of the guard inside Versailles (a pregnant image), and the last we see of the royal family is a touching, understated shot when the camera suddenly remains stable as they exit the frame and exit history, stage left.

The two films from the end of Renoir's career are so stripped down visually, so distilled to dramatic essence, as to make a startling contrast with his previous glories. Yet the 1959 film Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (given the silly translation The Doctor's Horrible Experiment) remains cunningly experimental in two ways.

Like Alfred Hitchcock's contemporary experiment, Psycho, Renoir used TV techniques to make a film. Some have taken it for a TV movie because the framing presents Renoir himself in a TV studio introducing the film as a broadcast. It was indeed shot with flat, static, multi-camera TV techniques and it looks as cheap as it must have been. The structure, however, is remarkable for being the only adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" that actually follows Robert Louis Stevenson's plot.

All film versions make no secret of the fact that Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde -- the transformation scenes are selling points -- and the films invent love affairs for the conflicted protagonists, who must choose between a decent woman and a whore. The films also tend to avoid Hyde's disturbing, unmotivated attacks as described by Stevenson (he attacks a little girl and an old man with his stick).

Renoir's film, which never mentions Stevenson in the credits or uses his character names (to throw the viewer off the track, presumably) sticks to the book's incidents and two-part structure, beginning with the doctor's friends being astounded by the depredations of a man whom the doctor protects, and ending with a lengthy flashback in which the secret is finally revealed. Renoir takes a few minor liberties at this point, but the basic structure, so long considered unstageable and unfilmable, is followed scrupulously just to show it can be done.

Perhaps the intent was to find out if the unsuspecting audience could be genuinely surprised. I imagine some viewers might have been, for Jean-Louis Barrault's dual performances are so remarkably different in make-up and physicality, it's completely credible that none of the doctor's friends recognize one in the other. His "Hyde" is curiously comic, skipping around with his cane like a scrofulous Charlie Chaplin, accompanied by jaunty music even when he's about to brain some bystander.

The Elusive Corporal

The Elusive Corporal was made in 1962, at the crest of the Nouvelle Vague, and looks like an artifact from 10 years earlier. Yet it's confidently, even serenely crafted as well as disarmingly comic and beadily observant. It's set in a German POW camp after the fall of France in WWII. The war is effectively over for France, but its soldiers aren't allowed to leave. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays the title corporal, elusive because of his endless, boundless determination to escape.

Scholars naturally associate this film with Grand Illusion because of the camp setting, but Renoir wasn't indulging nostalgia. This movie is too full of characters who, far from saluting the glory of the indefatigable French Resistance, give in readily to the notion that they can make the best of it; that they have nothing to escape to, that these jailers aren't so bad once you get to know them. Thus the film touches not only on historical but existential questions about our cages, our iron bars, our hermitages.

This film has more in common with three other films, two French and one American. To contemporary viewers, it followed closely on the classic French POW film, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), and another film it inspired, Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960). These are underplayed, sparely observed, meticulously detailed studies of camaraderie leading to transcendence.

The American film is The Great Escape (1963), which Renoir's film anticipates by a year -- not in the story but in the tone of Steve McQueen's portion of the film. Cassel is essentially the Gallic McQueen, an admired if isolated loner whose simple refusal to be caged leads to many frustrated attempts, until his situation takes on the character of an individual's existential quest.

It would be wrong to reveal the ending here (though it involves a river!), but it's both satisfying and restless, in a way open-ended because the existential struggle always continues. This is underlined by the haunting shot of a city street empty of people and cars, no doubt because the shot was made early in the morning precisely to avoid modern cars, yet it serves the theme and the sense of an occupied town where the citizens have hunkered down for the duration.

There's an earlier shot that shows cars on the highway in the distance. We know that if we could see them clearly, they would be '60s cars, that there was simply no way Renoir could avoid having them in his location shooting, yet again this bridge in time underlines the eternal nature of the corporal's dilemma, which links WWII to the early '60s to the new millennium.

Lionsgate has, for some amazing reason, licensed these restorations from the French company Studio Canal and put them together in this bargain-priced set at around 30 bucks. I fully support letting foreigners, probably supported by public funds, do all the work so we can get cheap editions and I wish more US companies would follow this example! The single extra is a "documentary" in which Scorcese and others say a few words about each film.

In his blog, confessed Renoir nut Michael Blowhard opines that this box is more for diehard fans rather than the novices, who are advised to begin with Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game. I will suggest another avenue. Those films, heavy with the baggage of great reputations (both have been named "best film of all time" at one point or other), may have a built-in "disappointment factor" for the novice, especially the young cinephile looking for Wellesian flash and Godardian shock, not a lot of people talking.

These films, which have no reputation but are unfailingly well-made and often beautiful, can only be a pleasant surprise. The novice will think "If minor Renoir is this good, I can't wait to move on to the really good stuff." And then, this whole box is cheaper than the Criterion editions of the other films, so it's not a bad beginning, at all.

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