April 25, 2017
In a fortuitous sequence of events, right after I acquired Pascal Mérigeau‘s biography of Jean Renoir, FilmStruck started streaming 16 of the director’s features and shorts. I’ve skimmed over the surface of Renoir’s career, having seen the acknowledged masterpieces like The Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), but never managed to explore much beyond that. So over the next few weeks I will be discussing an individual Renoir film, providing production info gleaned from Mérigeau‘s exhaustively researched tome. First up is the hypnagogic melodrama Whirlpool of Fate (the original French title is La Fille de l’eau, The Girl in the Water, 1925), starring his Gloria Swanson-worshipping wife Andree Heuschling (using the screen name Catherine Hessling). Though he received a co-directing credit on 1924′s Catherine (aka Backbiters), Fate is the first film where he had complete control, and he used it to experiment with a range of tones and techniques, from poetic realism to flights of expressionist fancy.
The scenario for Whirlpool of Fate was written by Renoir’s friend Pierre Lestringuez, and was shot in and around Paul Cézanne’s property, La Nicotiere, in the town of Marlotte. Cézanne was a family friend, and Jean spent many afternoons there as a youth, counting his Sundays there “among my happiest memories” (as recalled in My Life and My Films). So he was intimately familiar with the grounds, and he gets a fairy tale beauty out of the streams running through the area. The film opens with a houseboat cruising down a waterway on a sun dappled morning, shot by cinematographers Jean Bachelet (who would later shoot The Rules of the Game) and Alphonse Gibory.
On board are Gudule (called Virginie in some versions, played by Heuschling), her father and her roustabout uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). The father dies in a freak accident, and Jeff squanders the family inheritance on booze, and often shows up drunk and physically abusive towards Gudule. So she runs away from home, and takes up with a small time crook nicknamed “The Weasel.” They travel the countryside together, nicking food from nearby farms when they can get away with that. Just when Gudule is acclimating herself to a new life, she falls down a steep quarry wall and loses her memory. The Weasel disappears, and instead she is cared for by Georges (Harold Levingston), the son of a bourgeois family who brings her food and drink to stay alive. Suffering from terrible fevers, Gudule begins experiencing severe hallucinations – or incredible lucid dreams, in which Renoir experiments with double (and triple) exposures, associative editing and random shots of lizards. Once she comes to, Gudule regains her memory, only to run into Jeff again. She can’t fully re-emerge into adulthood until Jeff agrees to let her go.
The film is a charming travelogue of La Nicotiere, with a barely-there episodic narrative guiding Gudule through the wooded paths. Heuschling/Hessling was a great admirer of Gloria Swanson, and she applies her lipstick into a pert bowtie shape that mimics that of Swanson’s in Zaza (1923). She admirably underplays her melodramatic role, and her calm carries the film through it’s many twists and turns. Already Renoir was operating a film set like a family get together, emphasizing fun above all. Mérigeau writes that “A team was being put together, and with it one of the essential prerequisites of a Renoir film: Jean Renoir at the head of the gang, whose members constituted a kind of family, producing a self-organizing system.” It was shot at the familial locale of La Nicotiere and filled with friends and family, including painter André Derain, who plays a distressed innkeeper with a toothache.
What reputation the film has today rests on its dream sequence, which Renoir directed “in a studio where he had had a cylinder built and painted completely black so that a camera placed on a dolly permitted a 360-degree panoramic view and could follow a horse at a gallop. On the same roll of film, he next shot superimposed clouds.” This sequence has the charm of a Melies short in its analog magic. In its most abstractly beautiful section, Gudule is floating against a black sky, her translucent gown fluttering in the wind. Then she flutters back down to earth, emerging from a columnar set from which a lizard just poked out its head. It conveys weightlessness above all, appropriate for Gudule, whose body has brought her nothing but pain and sorrow thus far. An enterprising theatrical producer named Jean Tedesco would book programs of excerpts from feature films, essentially mixtapes of his favorite sequences. In 1925 he included the dream sequence from Whirpool in one of his programs. At first Renoir was annoyed at the bootlegging, but the scene was wildly applauded at the screening, which grew even louder when they saw the duo in the theater. This for a film that had received minimal bookings in Paris, to muted response. It was the same abroad. Tedesco continued to play the dream sequence in Paris to much acclaim.
Renoir considered Nana (1925) to be his first true feature, and I will write about that one next week, but Whirlpool of Fate is not worthy of disavowal, what with its inventive cinematography (both the natural light of the “realist” outdoor sequences and the madly expressionist studio dream sequence) and the laid-back brio of the performers. Renoir already seemed to have a knack for eliciting relaxed performances, and it was a pleasure to spend time with the Renoir family on this intimate affair.