Cinema Against All Odds: Jean Renoir's "Nana" and "The Elusive Corporal"

Jean Renoir's early and late film both showcase his skills as raconteur, his realism, ambivalence around issues of class, and great empathy.
Ela Bittencourt

MUBI's double bill Renoir, Beginnings and Endings is showing September 15 - October 15, 2020 in the United States.

Above: Nana

Jean Renoir, one of the greatest French filmmakers, if not the greatest, was a passionate raconteur. Not only did he write his expansionist memoir, My Life and My Films (1974), and rendered some of his life in prose in his late novels, but, according to his biographer, Pascal Merigeau, he also had a prodigious talent for molding fact into myth.

Renoir’s dramatic story begins with his second feature, Nana (1927). Renoir adapted the tale about a striving actress from Émile Zola’s novel, to launch the career of his wife, Catherine Hessling. Hessling dreamed of Hollywood, as eventually did Renoir. Some ten years later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he lived till his death, in 1979. The film’s Nana plays hussies but dreams of a tragic role. When a theater director humiliates her, she seduces the wealthy Count Muffat (Werner Krauss), and has him mount a production with her as star. Nana then becomes a kept woman of another wealthy man, Count de Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo). She instigates numerous intrigues, is never satisfied, and drives her admirers to suicide. She then contracts a deadly disease. In the magnificent finale, Count Muffat pities the cruel, dying femme fatale.

Nana was a financial flop. In Renoir’s words, it ruined him. In reality, Renoir, who inherited a fortune from his father, the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, could afford to finance his movie, and to bear the loss. But in Renoir’s epic account, Nana steeled him for future battles. Its failure forced him to remove a number of his father’s paintings, literally from the walls, to sell and settle his debts. While Renoir tells of stripping his walls, Merigeau contends that there was in fact a large cache of paintings in the vault to sell. Nevertheless, Renoir took up Nana as a battle cry. The humiliation forever reminded him that, as a non-conformist, he’d always tread alone.

In his book on Renoir, André Bazin noted pointedly that Nana helps us understand Renoir’s naturalism not as an imitation of reality, but rather a vision that straddles the realm between reality and form. That vision was fully realized later, with talking pictures, but the silent Nana is a step in this direction. With its stark, contrasty images, stagey set design and expressive acting, it looks back to German expressionist cinema. Hessling’s fluttery, mime-like performance makes the artifice even more striking. And yet, Nana’s delights stem primarily from the contrast between Hessling’s restlessness and the inwardly implosive delivery of her co-actors, particularly the fabulous Werner Krauss as the tormented Count.

Renoir admired Erich von Stroheim, whose Hollywood production Foolish Wives (1922) also bridges dramatic closeups, on one hand, and the more naturalistic staging, on the other. In The Foolish Wives, scenes of crowds outside casinos in Monte Carlo, or by roulette tables, stranglers roam at will. This sense of breadth, bodies flowing freely, became greater as screens widened and cameras achieved a greater depth of field. These developments helped Renoir fulfill his desire for naturalism, emblematic of his cornerstone, The Rules of the Game (1939).

The Rules of the Game is also where Renoir, cast as the perennial bungler Octave, utters the dictum: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing (…) everyone has his reasons.” Bazin saw in this motto the clue to Renoir’s empathy for all his characters. Take Nana: Though ruthless and calculating, having come from nothing, she isn’t much worse than the wealthy dilettantish men who make her their plaything. In Renoir’s ironic treatment, the counts’ stunned passions don’t make them more heroic than Nana, at least not when seen today.

Emotional and moral ambivalence fueled Renoir’s oeuvre: Distant from his parents, close to his nanny, Gabrielle, Renoir was an insider-outsider. A regular in wealthy circles, he nevertheless felt he was different. Nor did he pass up on satirizing aristocratic foibles. Class as cinema’s urgent subject—the clash between masters and servants, employers and employees—extends from Renoir to Luis Buñuel and Joseph Losey, and, more recently, to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

Above: The Elusive Corporal

In Bazin’s view, Hollywood by no means co-opted Renoir’s talent, but it made him a moralist. This arc informs the last film that Renoir made for the big screen, The Elusive Corporal (1962). Renoir, who, like his father, enlisted in the army, had a soft spot for military camaraderie, which, to some extent, leveled class. Renoir first picked up on this theme in The Grand Illusion (1937). He returned to it in The Elusive Corporal, in which French soldiers, captured by the Nazis as prisoners of war, and shuffled between labor camps, make multiple escape attempts. Some pay for these attempts with their lives, while the Corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Pop (Claude Brasseur) break through to the French countryside, and Paris.

In The Elusive Corporal, Renoir resuscitates the canvas of The Grand Illusion: There’s the early shock of captivity; there’s the sequence of plaques announcing different German camps, which conveys the prisoners’ sense of statelessness; there’s also the beautifully orchestrated scene, in which downcast Frenchmen march, passed by the singing German troops buoyed by victory. What has changed then? Why did Renoir pick up the theme of war again?

It’s not enough to say that The Elusive Corporal was Renoir’s attempt to return to top form. The intervening twenty-odd years did weather him down. In Hollywood, he was too often chasing ideas that didn’t materialize. In France, Truffaut and company enshrined him as the wind in the wings of the Nouvelle Vague. But as much as Renoir appreciate homages, what he wanted most was to make fresh, provoking work. With its shriller, mature tone, The Elusive Corporal would tackle the myth of heroic nationalism, and expose the crude brutality of war.

Meanwhile, Renoir’s sense of class divisions deepened. Whereas in The Grand Illusion, an aristocratic officer sacrifices himself for his comrades, in The Elusive Corporal, there’s greater doubt as to whether, when the war ends, the upper-class men, like the Corporal, will deign to mingle with the rest. In a particularly poignant scene, a peasant tending to the field on the occupied side won’t return to his native France, where he is landless. Renoir looks beyond the film’s temporal frame to inject a higher dose of existential skepticism. Merigeau attributes this sharpening to Renoir’s lasting personal relationship with the communist film editor Marguerite Houllé, though by the time he made The Elusive Corporal, Renoir was already on his next marriage, to Dido Freire. Whatever the impetus, Renoir came a long way from the playful, even genial depiction of class in his earlier films, as seen most memorably in The Rules of the Game.

The Elusive Corporal’s greatest addition is love, portrayed not as a destructive force, but a transcending one. Indeed, while Renoir's previous relationships were stormy, his marriage to Freire, which lasted 35 years, till his death, was nurturing. In The Elusive Corporal, when a German dentist treats the Corporal’s toothache, he ends up falling in love with her daughter. She then helps him in his escape from the camp. The motif of love as a force returns at the end: When the Corporal and Pop are about to cross the border, the friendly peasant confesses that he has found meaning in the arms of a Russian war widow. The woman gives the escapees their breakfast, literally nourishing them.

Approaching his seventies, Renoir felt tired, embattled and underappreciated. He struggled to finance his films, and perhaps naturally clung to what gave him hope. This hope accounts for one of the tenderest scenes in the film, which makes it impossible to ever look the same on the painful necessity of visiting a dentist: The Corporal sits in the dentist’s chair and pets his young beloved’s hand behind the back of her mother, the dentist, as the latter prepares an injection. Renoir transforms the medicinal sting into a cupid’s kiss.

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