Criterion Sunday 244: Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956)

There’s a lot of flustered rushing about in this film that feels familiar from Jean Renoir’s work (like The Rules of the Game most famously, of course). It’s all bright and colourful, and so very very French in its way. Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with her many suitors is a delight, too. I’m not sure it’s Renoir’s wittiest film, but everyone comes across as a bit of a fool, even (and especially) the grandest of military and political men, when compared to the effortless charm of Bergman’s Elena, and that feels like the point of the film really. And it’s a good point to make once again, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Serge and Renoir | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

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Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée) | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019

Criterion Sunday 241: “Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir”

Like the Bergman “trilogy” earlier in the collection, this trio of films by Jean Renoir isn’t formally constituted as a trilogy, but are three films he made upon his post-war return to filmmaking in Europe, which are united by a certain theatricality to their presentation. All of The Golden Coach (1952), French Cancan (1955) and Elena and Her Men (1956) have an almost camp style, with period settings, flamboyant staging and bright Technicolor cinematography. The key extra for the box set is Jean Renoir parle de son art (1961), an hour-long chat between Jacques Rivette and Jean Renoir in an outdoor cafe split across all three of the discs (as it was apparently made in three parts for television). It is pleasant enough, though it never really touches on Renoir’s own films precisely. It’s more of a chat about the philosophy and technicality of making films, as Renoir espouses some ideals that Rivette then teases out further. There’s also the second part of David Thompson’s 1993 BBC documentary on the filmmaker, which deals with his post-Hollywood output (the first part was on The Rules of the Game disc).

Criterion Sunday 239: Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)/Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) || Director Jean Renoir | Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff | Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019

Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) || Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Isuzu Yamada | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, DVD, Thursday 14 February 2019

Criterion Sunday 216: La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939)

Ah, “the game”, it’s a terrible thing isn’t it? A lot of “all-time classics” can seem a little tired with age and endless plaudits, but La Règle du jeu, while it has elements that are very much of its era, still seems to hold up. It can be as furious as a slapstick at times, but underlying it all is this sense of the decadence of the bourgeois: switching partners, shooting animals, and beating each other up with no sense of consequences involved at all. Even when one of the servants, a gamekeeper, goes berserk with a shotgun, everyone treats it as just a bit of fun for a party. The magic is that Renoir, who stars as one of wealthy set, orchestrates this all without the sense of simplistic judgement or finger-wagging. It’s evident what’s going on, but there’s an indulgence to it that I think would be difficult to present today when observing the same kind of people. The staging, too, is fantastic, with some deep shots recalling Tati’s best work, and fluid sequence shots that track around all the cameras with lithe choreography. It still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Carl Koch | Cinematographer Jean Bachelet | Starring Nora Gregor, Marcel Dalio, Paulette Dubost, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir | Length 110 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 August 1999 (and earlier on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, September 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Monday 14 May 2018)

Criterion Sunday 1: La Grande illusion (Grand Illusion, 1937)

There’s something almost a little unfashionable, it seems to me, about filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps because fashions and lifestyles in the lead-up to world war were just a little more buttoned-down and less flamboyant, and stories had to keep pace with dolorous political events. But this also means it was a time when stories of great humanity and soul were being made, not least by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, whose great masterpieces of this era still sit solidly near the top of ‘best ever’ film canons. La Grande illusion is Renoir at the top of his form, crafting a beautifully-shot story of class antagonism set at a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. It depicts a changing world, where the aristocrats in charge (Pierre Fresnay’s de Boeldieu, and Erich von Stroheim’s von Rauffenstein) find that the extreme events of war have united them with people they’d not usually fraternise with (Jean Gabin’s mechanic Maréchal and Marcel Dalio’s Jewish nouveau riche Rosenthal, among others). It’s clear that each has different ideas of the value of war and about how it should be conducted, and ultimately the film sides with the lower-class characters, implying that aristocratic values are increasingly irrelevant and doomed to disappear. (Would that this had been proven true in the real world, where Renoir’s warnings about war’s futility were hardly taken on-board, and where our current ruling classes hardly seem to have moved on in some respects.) It’s all beautifully filmed in shimmering monochrome, and in the end somehow uplifting, despite the setting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with these early Criterion DVD releases, there are some text-based extras, although the Press Book essays are fairly informative.
  • There’s a brief demonstration of the film’s restoration, and indeed the print is sparkling and gorgeously-toned.
  • An audio excerpt of the film winning at the 1938 New York Film Critics Awards has the voices of Renoir and von Stroheim.
  • A trailer presents not the film but instead Renoir talking about the film and his experiences making it (looking back from the late-1950s).
  • Finally, Peter Cowie’s commentary is attentive to the film, giving some background and discussing some of the issues that Renoir raises.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak | Cinematographer Christian Matras | Starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Dita Parlo, Erich von Stroheim | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 October 2014