May 2, 2017
Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production. It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.
This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.
According to Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the production company Films Renoir was incorporated on September 1, 1925. The previous month Nana had been announced. Renoir was still negotiating with the Emile Zola estate, but eventually paid them 75,000 francs for the rights to the story. In order to secure German funding, they needed to cast German actors. Through the help of producer Pierre Braunberger, the role of Count Muffat, Nana’s main suitor, went to Werner Krauss, known today as Doctor Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). They also cast the German actress Valeska Gert (The Joyless Street, 1925) as Nana’s maid, Zoe. This helped convince Delog Film Kommanditgesellschaft, Jacobi & Co. to pay for the costs of the German shoot, since there would be a built-in local audience. It didn’t pan out that way, but it allowed for the film to continue.
Gert would later describe Hessling as “an authentic Parisian, chic, capricious [who] used a outrageous amount of makeup, which, at the time, only Gloria Swanson was doing.” Hessling was an untaught talent, and had no intention of taking lessons, unless the Americans called. She told her friend Alice Fighiera that if they called, “it will mean I’ve got talent. If they don’t, none of it’s worth the trouble.” She is introduced rising above the stage on a winch, in one of the first dolly shots of the film. Renoir and his DPs Jean Bachelet and Edmund Corwin use the technique as a slow reveal, a setup and punchline. Catherine is raised but cannot descend all the way to the stage, a knot keeps her dangling frustratingly above solid ground. Her flailing struggles make her look like a puppet. After the show a few suitors are shown waiting at her dressing room. The camera slowly dollies backward to reveal that the whole floor and staircase is clogged with potential paramours.
Only one manages to shoulder his way inside her room, the wealthy Count Muffat, who has enough cash to underwrite Nana’s career at the struggling theater. A blooming fetishist, Muffat becomes aroused by the hair stuck in her comb, and is at her beck and call the rest of the feature – by the end she has him on all fours barking like a dog. Like Charles Foster Kane, he funds her dramatic work, only for her to be laughed off the stage. Nana is completely without self-criticism, she truly believed her flouncy over-affected caricature could fly as a portrait of an upper class lady. When her life as an artist flops, she begins her second, more lucrative, life as a courtesan, with a group of lapdogs on her string. The other most notable victim is Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo), the last remaining scion of a distinguished family. He sullies his name in a poorly thought out racetrack swindle; to win Nana’s heart is through her pocketbook, or so he believes.
But there is no way to Nana’s heart, for even she doesn’t know the directions. Hessling plays her with an armor of artifice, always playacting to the room. One never knows what is authentic emotion or simply a flirtatious technique. Emblematic of her capriciousness is a shot where Nana wields a pool cue, lines it up against a fine piece of china as if setting up a shot, and then smashes it. Renoir would write in My Life and My Films that “In Nana she carried it [stylization] to the uttermost extreme. She was not a woman at all, but a marionette. The word, as I use it, is a complement.” This doll crushes every man like that fine china, not that they don’t deserve it. Muffat is a dour married man who blows up his marriage out of boredom and a hair fetish. Vandeuvres is another of the idle death-wish rich, using Nana as an excuse for self-incineration. The only cad worthy of pity is a callow youth named Georges (Raymond Guérin Catelain), whose love seems innocent and true, and his delicate constitution can’t handle seeing Nana play pseudo S&M games with the masochistic Muffat.
Nana is surprised by her own emotions at the loss of two of her suitors, both of whom take their own lives. During an extraordinary sequence at a Parisian ball, Nana tries to recapture her previous decadence, losing herself in a feverish can-can, an attempt to sweat out her emotions. But she cannot stop them. Renoir ends the film with some of his most complicated and basic techniques. There are double exposures revealing ghosts of lovers past, haunting her with their modes of demise. Her body, unused to such feeling, shuts down. And without depicting a dramatic collapse, or giving her one last command performance, Renoir simply turns out the lights.