The 23rd entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI is showing Jean Renoir's The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959) is August 3 - September 2, 2017 in the United States as part of the series Jean Renoir.
Jean Renoir’s The Experiment of Dr. Cordelier (a.k.a. The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment, 1959), shot using the multi-camera set-up of a television production, is a free variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal tale, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). However, Renoir’s take on this material owes less to the horror genre than to a kind of speculative, philosophical fiction.
Unlike in most screen versions of the Jekyll/Hyde duality, Renoir goes easy on the conventional distinction between the good and evil sides of a single personality. Yes, the figure of Opale, into whom Cordelier transforms himself, is destructive, bestial, cruel, and sadistic. But he is less immoral than amoral—an expression not of evil but of uninhibited, lawless instinct, an incarnation of desire unleashed.
As so remarkably embodied by Jean-Louis Barrault (famous for his portrayal of Baptiste the mime in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise ), Opale takes his proud place in a special, cinematic lineage. His physical tics, his anarchic games and wild expressions, look back, first of all, to the past. The past, not least, of Renoir’s own films, particularly Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), in which Michel Simon played the unsocializable tramp of the title, Boudu.
All tramps in film, of course, refer back to the archetype: Charles Chaplin. Even when transformed into the character identified only as ‘A Factory Worker’ in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s familiar Everyman is a zany mixture of ‘inputs’ (such as the demands of assembly-line work) gone mad, and ‘outputs’ that express, in a childlike manner, every kind of basic instinct: for food, sex, cigarettes.
Fast forward to contemporary cinema: Denis Lavant as Merde in Leos Carax’s episode of Tokyo! (2008), a character later reprised in Holy Motors (2012), pays explicit homage to the antics of Opale.
Just as Renoir downplays traditional moral distinctions between good and evil, he also eschews a comfortably humanistic psychology. Cordelier is not really some tormented, divided self. The Opale that bursts forth from him is not an individual case of unresolved issues, but the purely physical expression of a life-force—no matter how outrageous or cataclysmic the effects of this force on the constrained, public, social world.
Our audiovisual essay, inspired by the brute physicality of Renoir’s and Barrault’s interpretation of Stevenson, traces the path of certain postures, gestures, actions, and reactions that echo through this glorious Brotherhood of Opale.