August 15, 2017
In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”
Jean Renoir had wanted to work with Ingrid Bergman since 1944 during his time in Hollywood, when he considered adapting Mary Webb’s Precious Bane with Bergman as the hare-lipped lead. She was eager to work with him, but it never worked out, and she recalled in her memoirs that Renoir said, “they’d have to wait until her career was in decline and then, when she was falling, he would be there to catch her.” Her remarkable films with then husband Roberto Rossellini were commercial failures, so Renoir was true to his word and offered her Elena and Her Men. It came to life in 1955 after the success of French Cancan, as producer Henry Deutschmeister was eager to get another Renoir film into production. Originally titled The Red Carnation, it was to be a loose adaptation of the life of General Boulanger, the French minister of defense from January 1886 to 1887. A widely admired figure with the public, when he was fired from his position there was a huge groundswell of support, enough to execute a coup d’état and seize power. But instead of listening to his advisers he ran away with his mistress Céline de Bonnemains, choosing love over politics. He would commit suicide at her grave, after she died of tuberculosis.
Renoir wrote the screenplay with Jean Serge – the credit to Cy Howard was purely to give the faulty impression that this was an American co-production. But close to the shooting date Boulanger’s daughters threatened to sue, and major changes had to be made to the script. All the names were changed and any reference to Boulanger was scrubbed – Renoir claims that most of the film had to be improvised. The Boulanger figure was now called General Rollan, and was played by Jean Marais. Bergman said she was happy to have a leading man who was an out homosexual, because “Those people are the only ones who play love scenes perfectly because neither prudery nor sensuality embarrasses them.” Rollan is a conquering hero who is beloved by the common folk – he is introduced first via offscreen audio, as a military march distracts Elena from the dull Abelard and Heloise composition she is playing on the piano with her composer boyfriend. Though it will premiere at La Scala, Elena couldn’t care less, she just wants to rush outside and see what the hullabaloo is about. This little bit of sound mixing brilliantly establishes Elena’s and Rollan’s characters simultaneously – she an endlessly curious student of humanity, he an embodiment of pomp and circumstance.
Elena is a Polish princess and the target of every eligible bachelor in France. She bounces from rich suitor to rich suitor, teasing marriage until she can’t tease anymore. FilmStruck presents the French version of Elena and Her Men, and while Bergman had to brush up on the language, her performance is like a hummingbird, flittering, trilling and fidgeting as she masterminds the attempted downfall of the French republic. Elena is introduced to Rollan by Henri (Mel Ferrer), one of Rollan’s old friends, a member of the idle rich whose entire job seems to be made up of flirting. New Jersey’s own Mel Ferrer got by with his French, though he was ultimately dubbed. According to Merigeau’s biography, it was the English version that imposed the greatest headaches, as the French actors just didn’t understand the language: “They had to speak their lines based on what they could understand of them phonetically, and Renoir ended up having to simplify the dialogue ceaselessly, and then do the same for the shots, and then the scenes.” This version, released in the U.S. as Paris Does Strange Things, was savaged by critics, and is no longer in general circulation.
Elena, though an incorrigible flirt, gets more pleasure out of being a muse than a girlfriend, usually dumping a beau after they achieve some goal, like the completion of the symphony or the overthrow of the government. She gives her man a daisy, which if he keeps it close to his chest, guarantees success in his venture. For Elena it is a way to make a game out of life and remain in the black. General Rollan is her greatest test yet, as he is very reluctant to embrace his inner despot, though the many yes men around him push him toward becoming dictator. While Rollan is pondering treason, Henri is more of a sensualist, his philosophy of life is “universal idleness for everyone, rich or poor.” He spends one Bastille Day evening with Elena, and becomes smitten for life. She runs off before he can get his emotions all over her. His love, it seems, is the only thing that scares her. Godard interpreted Elena to be a Greek Muse, and that to love a man would be to ensure her own death: “To be sure of living, one must be sure of loving; and to be sure of loving, one must be sure of dying. This is what Elena discovers in the arms of her men.”
Elena and Her Men ends in a joyous chain reaction of lovemaking, as a deep kiss between Henri and Elena inspires everyone on-screen, from dour advisers to little street urchins, to grab the neighbor next to them and plant a kiss (very similar to the joke in The Naked Gun  where the whole stadium starts making out). It is love as anarchy, as this orgy takes place the police have the building (a bordello) surrounded, and are waiting to arrest the General. But this is one of Renoir’s sweetest films, without the bitter sting of his other group farces, like The Rules of the Game (1939). So Boulanger’s death is unaddressed, and the film chooses instead to live in a fable-like present where a giddy destabilizing love sweeps the populace, preserves the republic and brings Elena down to earth.
This is the twelfth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.