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LionsGate's Jean Renoir collection is quite a joy: there probably isn't a single genuinely great film on it, but the seven films taken together make for a great overview of his lesser-known work.
Renoir's first feature film, the 1925 silent La Fille de L'Eau aka Whirlpool, is a highly enjoyable tale of the riverbank, which is at once an almost Griffith-esque melodrama and visually experimental: there's a wonderfully surreal dream sequence, a memorable and striking shot of a boatman walking along the barge as it drifts by the camera and some furious crosscutting in an attempted rape sequence. There's a fine sense of the life and people along the river's edge to it, and it has a good sense of humor too. All too often the Cybill Shepherd to Renoir's Peter Bogdanovich, for once Renoir's wife and muse Catherine Hessling (like Shepherd a model, in this case for Renoir's father, rather than an actress) is in her element here, neither miscast nor asked to do anything beyond her abilities as the Mary Pickford-like heroine. There are some problems with the picture quality compared to the other titles in LionsGate's Renoir Collection DVD - the transfer was taken from one of the few surviving prints - but considering the film's rarity it's more than acceptable.
Renoir's second feature, 1926's adaptation of Emile Zola's Nana, reunites many of the key players from La Fille de l'Eau, but to less effect. In many ways Renoir's take on a Von Stroheim film, there are some moments of wit - such as the funeral procession of admirers to Nana's stage door after a disastrous first night - and a lightness of touch but it's constantly undermined by a horribly miscast lead. The character is basically the town bike, and when the town in question is Paris that's quite an achievement, but it's hard to understand what it is about her that so captivates men that she drives her admirers to frustration or destruction. Introduced as `a pretty girl with no voice and no talent' (well, two-thirds right at least), Catherine Hessling proves that it takes more than just being a bad actress to play a bad actress. The irony that offstage Nana is the great actress she can never be onstage is lost because Hessling plays every scene in semaphore. It's the kind of performance that could have actually been improved by casting Pia Zadora: this is, after all, in many ways a vanity production to showcase Mrs Renoir's talents, and a typically financially disastrous one at that. The massive budget ate up Renoir's inheritance and the film's failure led Renoir to nearly give up filmmaking (though he apparently made good his losses by selling a few of his father's paintings).
Yet despite the void at the film's center, it's not a complete disaster. There are some nice visual flourishes and Werner Krauss (Dr Caligari himself) gives a grounded and surprisingly naturalistic performance as the ill-used Comte Muffat. He's not the only interesting name in the supporting cast either: Claude Autant-Lara, who would later become public enemy number one for the nouvelle vague directors and critics, also appears as Muffat's playwright friend and rival for his wife's affections while co-writer Pierre Lestringuez plays the scheming theatre manager Bordenave. There are some technical hiccups - a finger can be briefly seen adjusting the lens before an iris out while in the final scene the lights are obviously being turned out one-by-one rather than dimming naturally - and it never really justifies the obvious expense, but there's certainly enough that does work to make it worth a look, if only to see Renoir's great talent gradually emerging in fits and starts.
Made with film stock left over from the production of Nana, 1927's Sur un Air de Charleston is described as a holiday film for all concerned, and that's the best way to view it. Jean Renoir seems never to have thought enough of it to even edit the footage together. The plot is a simple reversion of racial stereotypes - in 2028 a black explorer travels to a post-holocaust Paris where a white native girl teaches him the Charleston (naturally he assumes she's a savage whose dancing is a prelude to her eating him before giving in to the seductive beat of `White Aborigine' music). There are plenty of surreal touches, be it the pet gorilla eating the flowers in Catherine Hessling's hair, the angels the girl telephones (Renoir and producer Pierre Braunberger among them) or the fact that black performer Johnny Huggins plays his part in minstrel blackface while Hessling's dancing ability is almost completely nonexistent, and there are some interesting occasional experiments with slow motion, but there's not really enough to sustain it for its modest two reels. An additional air of surrealism is provided by the fact that this silent musical has absolutely no score at all on Lions Gate's new DVD...
1928 short La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes aka The Little Match Girl also suffers from an unconvincing and badly cast lead performance from Mrs Renoir, Catherine Hessling, who looks anything but little and more than capable of looking after herself, which certainly takes the edge off Hans Christian Andersen's tale. Indeed, the film makes a couple of attempts to write itself out of the problem by portraying her as more than usually stupid, but they feel more like in-jokes than anything else. It's a shame, because the film itself is an impressively staged fantasy with great special effects and some interesting visual experimentation with camera speed and focus amid the unashamedly romantic treatment of the fantasy scenes, especially the sequence where the girl and her toy soldier are chased through the clouds by Death in the form of a relentless Hussar. If only you could care about the character. Lions Gate's transfer is rather more worn than their other Renoir titles, being mastered from a 1959 reissue with a good synchronized soundtrack.
La Marseillaise is a people's epic, and not just because it was initially backed by public subscription before budget overruns necessitated a more conventional form of funding. Even its credits proudly boast its association with France's short-lived Popular Front, while the picture is as much a celebration of the everyman's role in the great events of history as it is rabble-rousing propaganda for the impending war with Germany. Unfortunately it gets off to a surprisingly bad start. Indeed, the first twenty minutes are so poor you wonder if the film can ever recover. A stilted historical pageant in the very worst sense, with awkward editing, speech-making, initially clumsy characterization and a crude jumps forward in time, it's unpromising stuff.
It's only with the taking of the fort that Renoir really finds his feet as one character notes that sunsets are only glorious in novels - anyone who has to get up that early for work knows that they're usually cold, damp and grey. And with that comes Renoir's real manifesto for the film: he's less interested in the confused politics of France's messy revolution than he is in the people caught up in it, and from this point on it becomes a celebration of the ordinary people whose names have been forgotten in the great events. Aside from the King (a fine turn from Pierre Renoir, the director's brother) and his court, we never see any of the great names of the Revolution. Renoir's constantly roving camera is just as likely to settle on a pair of children playing in the street than the thousands of extras around them waiting for battle to be joined, while the political satire of a shadow play is far less important to him than a soldier taking his girl out for a night at the pictures. The cinematography is often stunning, picking up small details and filling the frame at the same time with a fluidity few Hollywood pictures of the time could match.
It's also very astute on the way an army - particularly a people's army of volunteers - marches on rumor and contradictions, yet never reduces the volunteers to figures of easy ridicule. Even the royalists are allowed some intelligence and a genuine love of France, even if they are fatally undermined by the ease with which they are sidetracked from politics to trivia: after pointing out the perils of the disastrous Brunswick Manifesto, the King ends up waving it through when he insults his wife's relatives an has to smooth things over. But then, everybody has their reasons.
It's not a great film, but it is a surprisingly entertaining one once it gets going and the camerawork is often stunning, with Renoir demonstrating such a mastery of the epic form that it's a pity he never returned to the genre.
Le Testament Du Docteur Cordelier is dismissed by many as a mere TV movie (it even begins with Renoir discussing the film in a television studio: around this time he regularly filmed introductions for TV broadcasts of his films), but despite being visually a little flat due to being shot quickly with multiple cameras both to save time and money and to allow the actors more freedom, it's an intriguing attempt to remove the overfamiliarity which curses all other adaptations of its source material. It would be giving too much away to mention exactly which extremely famous novel it's based on (it's not even credited in the main titles), but despite being moved from Victorian Edinburgh to 50s Paris it's in many ways the most faithful screen adaptation to the original mystery structure of the novel. Of course, once you know the title any mystery is gone, so in a strange way changing the names, updating and relocating it is the only way to even attempt to preserve any element of surprise.
Some elements are more successful than others, and while it retains the all-important but oft overlooked front door/back door geography of the good Doctor's house, it's somewhat diminished by both entrances opening on respectable streets rather than occupying the borderline between the upper class streets and the slums. However, it is the only version that points out that far from being the victim of his good intentions, the doctor in question is in fact merely covering up his own very willing part in the crimes rather than trying to put an end to them: his only reason for wanting to end them is to end the pain that HE suffers rather than the pain that is inflicted on others. But the real triumph of the film is Jean-Louis Barrault's performance as Opale, a quite remarkable display of pure physicality offering a mass of twitches, swagger and curious movements that should skirt on the comic yet somehow combine with the character's arbitrary rage and purely opportunistic violence to create a disturbing portrait of malice that's a world away from the hypocritical and ultimately far more monstrous Dr Cordelier's public displays of rigid self-control. It may be a minor film, particularly in Renoir's canon, but it's a major performance that deserves to be much better known.
Jean-Pierre Cassel is Le Caporal Épinglé aka The Vanishing Corporal/The Elusive Corporal, a serial escaper determined to get back to Paris when it becomes clear that the Germans have no intention of releasing their French prisoners of war after they have occupied France. A Franco-German co-production (which explains O.E. Hasse's third billing above the title for his four-minute cameo as a noisily drunken German), it has an eye for the absurdities of the situation - the escapes are half-planned, half-opportunistic - and it plays dryly to the lighter moments, such as the encounter with a more experienced escaper on a train, the sympathetic German barmaid who has seen so many escaped prisoners she can spot one at sight or a collaborating French sergeant and a Nazi officer exchanging notes on punishments for skivers. Yet the few genuinely dramatic moments are still powerful, not least Claude Rich's improvised escape attempt based on the principle that "the best plan is to have no plan." Although it's a solidly commercial picture that makes no attempt to be a great one, it still has room to muse on the nature of freedom and the way that war breaks down class barriers and makes slaves equal: indeed, more than one character fears freedom because it means a return to the old social order. There are even deliberate echoes of La Grande Illusion in a sequence near the very end of the film that almost plays like a what-if to Jean Gabin's romance with the widow.
Despite its commercial success (though critics were divided), Renoir would never be able to get funding for another feature, not directing again for eight years with his final work for television, La Petite Théâtre de Jean Renoir. As cinematic swansongs go, Caporal may fall short of his earlier masterpieces but considering the disasters that ended so many great directors' careers it's not such a bad film to go out on at all. Thankfully LionsGate's DVD boasts the uncut 105-minute version in a beautiful print, though there is some background dirt on the soundtrack in places.
Rounding out the package is a good documentary featuring Martin Scorsese and Renoir's son among others discussing each of the films in this collection. The French version of this set actually runs to twelve films: hopefully LionsGate may produce a second volume to fill in the gaps!