April 27, 2010
While the TCM Classic Film Festival was wrapping up out in L.A., I was pursuing my own personal Jean Renoir festival back in NYC. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently exhibiting a must-see retrospective that will hopefully tour a city near you. My personal highlight of the series so far is The Woman on the Beach, his last production in Hollywood, and by far his strangest, a somnabulist’s vision of a violent love triangle. Its peculiar, almost abstracted plot was aided by extensive re-shoots after a disastrous preview screening, which trimmed out the exposition, leaving only the trio of lovers’ impulsive, and occasionally inexplicable actions. Renoir had already pushed the visuals in an oneiric direction, foggy, emptied-out landscapes of hollowed-out hulls and vertiginous cliffs. He even challenged his sound man to record the dialogue at an unusually low level, to emphasize the characters’ loneliness.
The pared-down result of the studio interference then, actually reinforces Renoir’s stylistic choices, and quite possibly made it a better film. This is exactly what Janet Bergstrom argues in her superb production history: “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach”, which she published in the Film History journal in 1999. It is my main source for this post.
The story concerns a shell-shocked Navy vet, Scott (Robert Ryan), whose recurring nightmares of being torpedoed keep him in a constant state of anxiety. Attempting to banish these neuroses, he quickly proposes to his girlfriend Eve (Nan Leslie). After her skittish response, in which she is clearly shaken by his unhinged intensity, Scott begins a flirtation with Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett), who has been scarred by violence in her own manner. During a fight with her husband Tod (Charles Bickford), a painter, she accidently severed his optic nerve, blinding him for life. Bonding over their mutual traumas, they engage in a furtive affair, while Scott still manages a combative friendship with Tod. Ultimately driven to the brink of madness by their insecurities, Scott and Tod come into conflict…
Renoir recognized the strangeness of his conception of this film, describing it as “the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari.” And emphasizing that its “subject was the opposite of everything I had been working toward in the cinema up to that point.” He went on:
The Woman on the Beach was a perfect theme for treating the drama of isolation. Its simplicity made all kinds of development possible. The actions of the three principal characters were wholly stripped of colourful detai; they took place in empty landscapes and in a perfectly abstract style…In all my previous films I had tried to depict the bonds uniting the individual to his environment…now I was embarked on a study of persons whose sole idea was to close the door on that absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life.”
Renoir closes this door when he uses a dream sequence to introduce Robert Ryan. He begins as a nightmare. With the strains of “Home on the Range” ironically cooing in the background, Ryan imagines himself on a ship – followed by a massive explosion. He sinks to what looks like the bottom of an aquarium, where Eve is waiting for him in an evening gown with open arms. Right before he embraces her, there is another explosion. His war experiences are explicitly blocking him from a life with Eve, and dooming him to one of apparitions and hallucinations. He is like the character of Cesar from Caligari, motoring through his inexplicable deeds without a will of his own.
So when he begins to obsess that Tod is lying about his blindness, or insist upon a fishing trip in a rainstorm, he is operating solely on his unconscious drives – the neuroses engendered from battle. Peggy is on a similar path, wracked with guilt over stealing her lovers’ sight, and destroying his successful career as a painter. She is filled with hate for herself and with Tod, which can exhibit itself in improbably nurturing ways. As always with Renoir, “everyone has their reasons”, and it’s impossible to pin any of the characters down as the villain. All show flashes of sympathy and rage – Peggy snuggling on the couch with Tod, reminiscing about their youthful days in NYC, or Scott snapping from protective lover to vengeful cuckold. All three actors are fascinating to watch, and Renoir carefully balances their power relations in his fluid compositions [the most explicit is the interior boat shot above, where Scott and Peggy embrace inside while Tod is isolated in a separate plane outside the porthole].
Ryan is earnest and bereft, all-too-aware of his crumbling psyche and his inability to heal it. He has a seaman’s bearing that bends under the weight of the Butler household’s demands. Bickford is prickly and condescending as Tod, a bellowing ironist with an uneasy gait, his vast array of ascots unable to hold back the bile he irresistibly spews, mainly at his wife, who he delights in harming. Bennett is enigmatic and cold, her love of Tod turned to hate, but who still recognizes its original provenance. She shares her husband’s sarcasm and cynicism, but stays in the marriage because of an unshakable nostalgia and loyalty. With her melancholy eyes mixing pity and desperation, she casts the most elusive portrait of the three. Bennet was the one who demanded Renoir direct the film, after producer Val Lewton recommended Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, among others. She remained steadfast.
The film was first finished on July 1946, and a preview screening took place on August 2. The reaction was so negative that major revisions took place. The second version of the film was not released until June 8, 1947. Early in the pre-production process, the Production Code Adminstration (PCA) demanded the removal of any explicit reference to a “sex affair between Peggy and Scott and to omit any of the passionate kisses indicated in the present story.” Renoir reluctantly obliged. As Bergstrom notes:
“when ‘human desire’, as Lang would call it in his 1953 remake of La Bete Humaine, could not be acknowledged as the dominant theme, Scott’s neurosis because of his war experiences had to carry much more weight in his abrupt turn from the stability of his life with Eve toward his unsettling, moth-to-the-flame meetings with Peggy and Tod.”
Along with this repression of the sexual theme, Renoir dropped some boilerplate sub-plots that turned Peggy into a generic femme fatale.
Following some re-editing, RKO solicited suggestions from other directors. John Huston “recommended that the film tell one story and that Scott’s neurosis should be eliminated.” Mark Robson advised “going back to Renoir’s original version because the film as it now exists is too confusing and choppy to make much sense.” Neither suggestion was agreeable to the studio, so RKO hired writer Frank Davis to re-work some scenes, beginning on September 23, 1946. Renoir greeted him with hope: “I have found my ideal collaborator.”
With Davis, a great deal of footage was re-shot. Renoir tells Pierre Lestringuez that it was nearly half the film. Nine years later he told Rivette and Truffaut that it was a third of the film, “essentially the scenes between Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan.” For unknown reasons, they also re-cast the role of Eve, replacing Virginia Huston with Nan Leslie, necessitating re-shoots for all of those scenes as well. It was a laborious and inevitably annoying process, but one with curiously positive results. As Bergstrom writes, and I agree, the film becomes almost Langian in its determinism and sparseness, rare for Renoir, but an appropriate reflection of his alienation from the studio system at this time. What was originally going to be a routine melodrama of sex and death becomes something more mysterious, where a trio of damaged lovers work out their unconscious drives on-screen, turning it into a bewitching kind of trance film.