“Man knows so little about his fellows. In his eyes all men or women act upon what he believes would motivate him if he were mad enough to do what the other man or woman is doing.” – William Faulkner, Light in August
When we speak of the ‘humanism’ in his films, we can forget just how ambiguous the tone often is, their digressiveness [technically and/or thematically] and profanity. They don’t transcend the worldliness of their people and environs, but, on the contrary, affirm their reality. All the while startling and amusing us alternatively, if not simultaneously. It seems appropriate that, at least in his early years, two directors whom Renoir especially admired were Chaplin and von Stroheim. Their influence perhaps shown in his moving between these stations of emotion and taking inspiration from the naïve, melancholy protagonists of the former’s work, as well as the decadent cruelty of those from the latter. Though working for a number of years during the silent era, his reputation, and legacy, appear to have taken off only during the sound era. His first year working in the medium alone showcasing his opposing tendencies in an adaptation of a stage farce about constipation and chamber pots (On Purge Bébé,) followed by one centered on seduction, manipulation, and brutality (La Chienne.) Ultimately, what makes these films memorable are their ability to reveal character in the context of their environment, often unsparingly so. We see vulnerability, guilt, joy, nostalgia, humor, anger, ignorance, jealousy often in a single film, scene or, sometimes, person. Subtly reveling in our capriciousness and struggles, he seeks neither to moralise or pity.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) – Much like the Pan figure first seen toward the beginning of the film, Boudu is a spirited, strange, yet natural being. He enters from and departs to nature, with the film acting more or less as a detour. For reasons unknown, he attempts to do away with himself before his rescue from the bookseller Lestingois, whose heroics seem to garner more attention than Boudu himself. The good bookseller and household take in the tramp, attempting to ‘reform’ him and despite wrapping him up in a new suit constantly disregards the habits and lifestyle of the upper-middle class [such as questioning the purpose of ties and handkerchiefs.] Renoir’s use of location photography and Simon’s, I hesitantly say, ‘performance’ summon life into the film and a character who is constantly outlined in just how much he is not as people are expected to be and live.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) – Made during the Popular Front years, Lange becomes social commentary in the guise of cinematic fable (perhaps not unlike Rules of the Game) while focusing on the relationships and interactions surrounding this small, Parisian courtyard neighborhood. Batala and Lange, respectively, are among the few true ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’ of Renoir’s flexography, yet both roles are undermined. Batala is an outsider and callous but while he holds power over those around him, he is incompetent, his publishing business plagued by debts. For most of the film, Lange is a dreamer and somewhat of a non-descript figure, susceptible to the former’s charms and oblivious to Valentine’s. However, upon news of Batala’s death, the formation of a cooperative among the employees and financial backers (along with Lange’s stories,) allow the business not only to survive but flourish and the community shifts from individual to collective self-interest. Lange is not so much a leader, but a figurehead. It’s only when Batala’s return threatens this small-scale urban utopia that requires him to take action.
La Règle du Jeu (1939) – Admittedly it took time for me to appreciate this film, not only because the burden of “masterpiece” status is always subjected to the preconceptions of the individual viewer but also that in it’s among one of the most ambiguous in his career. Gone are the overt politics and the gritty naturalism of earlier works from the same decade which, on a superficial level, appear to have been traded for a glittering comedy-of-manners set in the elegant ‘La Colinière.’ The first time or two when I saw it, I seemed to be thrown by it’s veering from comedy to drama and in-between with the ending being an especially jarring note. Having seen a number of Renoirs since, though, I’ve begun to appreciate it’s subtleties more and would liken the film to a Mahler symphony. Seeming at once elegant, graceful but with sinister, profane undertones woven throughout, together coming across in cacophonic chaos. Not only do the antics of the servants echo those of their masters, but with individuals in each set complementing and/or contrasting others in continually evolving triangles and pairings. Behaving differently within one context opposed to another, ultimately being a gradual reveal of a society’s underlying urges that seeks to create and preserve for itself but only yields destruction.
The Woman on the Beach (1947) – The title suggests a Friedrich painting, appropriate for the sense of geographic isolation and emotional remoteness. While it doesn’t have the same boundlessness, it’s more than made up for in it’s claustrophobic intensity. Lt. Scott suffers from some a trauma, only hinted at, involving a torpedoed ship, in dreams suggestive of early avant-garde cinema. He becomes drawn to Peggy and acquainted with her husband, the now blind painter Tod Butler. He connects with her haunted aloofness, which is only outmatched by the latter’s amiable menace. Developing a strange relationship with each, one a romance which is never quite an affair, the other a friendship built on suspicion. Each man declares, individually, how alike they are to her, the suggestion is the same between themselves. They are all damaged individuals, as Rivette states, “each of the three characters is frozen in a false image of himself and his desire.” All of them stuck in a past whether haunted, paralyzed or controlled by it and projecting their desires onto another. Thus forming an uneasy triangle at once transparent yet clouded by the complications of each relationship as friend, spouse, potential lover or cuckold. Traditionally considered a noir film, even being compared with Lang, the approach to the subject is relaxed and unflinching. It’s icy mise en scène looks ahead to Cordelier, strangely enhanced by a studio re-edit which somehow manages to heighten the unsettling calmness and ambiguity. Emphasizing the blend of sympathy and cruelty in each of the main protagonists. There is something reluctant in Peggy’s desire to leave her husband, tragic in Tod’s passive-aggressive sadism, self-destructive in Scott’s ‘murder’ attempt. In the finale which unites them, the couple seem liberated from their self-imposed hell, yet Scott’s is left unknown. Tod says at one point, “Now you know all our secrets,” but the same cannot be said for the lieutenant or his epiphany.
- Madame Bovary (1933)
- Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1959)
- Tire au Flanc (1928)
- Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir (1970)
- Chotard et Cie (1933)
- Le Bled (1929)
- This Land Is Mine (1943)
- Swamp Water (1941)
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