Another Day in the Country: Picnic on the Grass (1959)

August 22, 2017

PICNIC ON THE GRASS, (aka) DEJEUNER SUR L'HERBE,LE, (seated)Paul Meurisse, 1959

For Jean Renoir Picnic on the Grass was both a return and a departure. It was filmed in and around the country estate of Les Collettes, his late father’s land, where he had grown up as a child. It is the perfect setting for this back-to-nature comedy in which a scientist (and hopeful presidential candidate), is lured away from the world of the mind for that of the flesh. But instead of using this return to indulge in nostalgia or reiterate the naturalistic style of his still-famous triumphs – Renoir pushes further into farce and caricature. Picnic on the Grass is a broad and joyful comedy that was inevitably compared with Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), which had been restored and re-released around the same time, and so Renoir was compared to his previous self, and found wanting. Jonas Mekas, writing in The Village Voice in 1960, had a profound experience watching Picnic on the Grass and was baffled by its failure – he wrote: “I hear the critics did not like it. Who are the critics? Critics like to talk big – poor nearsighted things! They do not see beauty even when it is there.” FilmStruck presents us with another opportunity to see this beauty, so I attempted to find it there.

Picnic on the Grass was marked by the death of Gabrielle Renard, the nanny who raised Jean Renoir and became one of his father’s models. She brought Jean to see his first film in 1897 at the Palais des Nouveauté. Biographer Pascal Merigeau relates that the screening “threw him into a panic” and that Gabrielle had to rush him outside to calm down. She was a beloved figure in his life, and he devotes many tender passages to her in his memoirs, including these memorable closing lines:

As I bid farewell to the landscape of my childhood I think of Gabrielle. Certainly it was she who influenced me most of all. To her I owe Guignol and the Theatre Montmartre. She taught me to realize that the very unreality of those entertainments was a reason for examining real life. She taught me to see the face behind the mask, and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché. My farewell to childhood may be expressed in very few words: ‘Wait for me, Gabrielle.’

Gabrielle passed away on February 26, 1959, and Picnic on the Grass began shooting in July in Les Collettes, where they had originally formed their bond so many years before.

PICNIC ON THE GRASS, (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe), Paul Meurisse, Catherine Rouvel, 1959

Renoir had been working on the script since 1958, when he registered a 32-page treatment. The story concerns Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse), a television-famous scientist whose main political position is mandatory artificial insemination as a way to increase intelligence in children. Despite this frightening proposition, through complete voter apathy he is likely to be the next president of Europe. That is, until he takes a fateful picnic with his equally ascetic bride-to-be/girl scout leader Marie-Charlotte (Ingrid Nordine). A satyr-like shepherd plays his flute for his goat, conjuring up a strong wind that blows past Etienne’s party and magically juices their libidos. As friends and assistants start canoodling under the trees (reminiscent of the scene in Elena and her Men [1956] with a mass-peasant makeout session), Etienne and his new chambermaid Nénette (Catherine Rouvel) begin an extended flirtation that might bring down his entire candidacy. While his advisers continue to set-up a wedding with Marie-Charlotte, Etienne’s eyes keep roaming to Nénette, a disarmingly direct farm girl who was seeking artificial insemination because she had never found a man worth her time.

Renoir cast Catherine Rouvel after being introduced to her after a screening of Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948). She had just turned nineteen, and Pascal Merigeau believes she reminded him of Gabrielle: “Returning to Les Collettes and his father’s house, among the olive trees, on the banks of the river, Renoir recommuned with his youth, rediscovered Gabrielle’s former features and soft curves, as well as Dedee’s, his first love, in Catherine Rouvel.” There is a resemblance, at least going by Auguste Renoir’s many portraits of Gabrielle, and Rouvel dazzles in the part, presenting Nénette as supremely self-confident in her naïveté – a completely charming creation.

Now in the twilight of his career, he was struggling to secure funding for new projects, and would end up producing Picnic on the Grass himself, necessitating a lower budget and tight shooting schedule. It was filmed over 20 days, reusing the studio and crew from The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), his TV adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which he had completed earlier in the year. Precise blocking was drawn out with chalk on the floor, and the actors had to follow them. Renoir later regretted the restrictions the budget required, complaining that working in this way “kills something extremely important, which is the actor’s surprise at being faced with the scenery.”

But Renoir tended to rate his own features based on financial returns, and the film was essentially ignored upon release, and gave Renoir “a pathological distaste for all the processes relating to film or television.” But looking at it outside of the pressure cooker of Renoir’s box office expectations, it’s a film that lives in the zone between the ridiculous and the sublime, happy to look the fool in search of what Renoir valued in life – which according to this film is, in no particular order: lazing about the riverside, eating heartily and sex (preferably outside). Renoir is deeply discouraged by modernity, opening on a parody of the evening news – which spends more time on his pending nuptials than his grotesque plan for population control. It is prescient in depicting how news was sliding ever closer towards entertainment.

Renoir’s POV comes through most clearly in a monologue by a priest out on a walk, telling Etienne what he thinks about his technocratic capitalism.

“Tomorrow you’ll send us to the moon. And, pray tell, what will we do up there on the moon? Do you think we’ll be happier there than under the shade of our olive trees? Scientific dictatorship will be a fine mess. We built the Notre-Dame, we built Chartres. We covered the Earth with cathedrals and churches. You? You’re covering it with factories. You must admit that the smoke from our incense is less damaging to the atmosphere than your atomic radiations. It appears that men enjoy being poisoned.

But, as Renoir well knows, whether or not he disapproves of the flow of history, it will flow on anyway, so you might as well get pleasure where you can. So Etienne and Nénette find themselves in each other, and that will have to be enough.

This is the thirteenth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.

Wrapped Around Her Finger: Elena and Her Men (1956)

August 15, 2017

ElenaandHerMen_Paris_Strange_1956_i

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.

ElenaandHerMen_Paris_Strange_1956_k

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.”

ElenaandHerMen_Paris_Strange_1956_m

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 [1988] 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.

India Song: The River (1951)

August 1, 2017

The River (1951) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Adrienne Corri (right)

“In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality.” – André Bazin

I have long been tantalized by this Bazin quote, which Dave Kehr included in his capsule review of The River for the Chicago Reader. It seems absurd on the face of it, as Renoir’s 1951 feature is blatantly artificial, shot in blazing Technicolor on a mix of studio sets and a refurbished Indian home. Bazin does not mean to say the film is documentary in any way, but that it captures the reality of the artifice, or to put it yet another way like Picasso, it is a lie to get to the truth. Renoir took a coming-of-age memoir and peeled back so much incident and plot that what remains is more reverie than narrative, leaving time to linger on faces and landscapes and the ever flowing Ganges. The emblematic images for me are a montage of naps which Renoir zooms in on with swaying drowsiness, aping the drift into unconsciousness. The film as a whole has the same kind of lulling effect, and if you lock into its tempo the screen will drop away as it did for Bazin, revealing eternal verities. If not, you’ll see an uneventful travelogue with pretty cinematography, which still isn’t too shabby.

Renoir started thinking about The River in the fall of 1946, when he read about a new book by Rumer Godden that was written up in The New Yorker (she also wrote Black Narcissus, adapted by Powell and Pressburger in 1947). It was a coming-of-age tale about an English girl growing up in India. Pascal Merigeau, in Jean Renoir: A Biography, reports that Renoir pitched the idea to David Loew and Enterprise Productions later that year in a letter: “I know that few people are going to realize the wonderful possibilities contained in this story, but I feel that it is exactly the type of novel which would give me the best inspiration for my type of work — almost no action, but fascinating characters; very touching relationships between them; the basis for great acting performances; and an unexpressed, subtle, heart-breaking, innocent love story involving a little girl and a physically broken-down, morally sick, but still hopeful, wounded officer.” Loew turned him down, saying, “we are going commercial.”

It took five years before the project got off the ground, thanks to Kenneth McEldowney, a florist shop owner in Los Angeles who wanted to start his own production company. A born salesman, he was able to cobble together investments from the Indian government, Indian Princes, and the British National Film Finance Corporation. The financing of the film was dependent on it shooting in India, so Renoir and crew would go to Calcutta. The decision to shoot in Technicolor was an onerous one, as equipment had to be shipped from the UK, and footage couldn’t be seen for weeks because it had to be sent back to England for processing. Renoir was largely shooting blind, and his cameraman, nephew Claude Renoir, Jr., had never worked with Technicolor before. It was a daunting task for any filmmaker, but Renoir was invigorated by the challenge, and fascinated by the Indian culture he barely knew. When he returned from his first trip to Calcutta he wrote that it was, “one of the greatest inspirations of my life.” There is certainly a travelogue feel to the film, with explanatory insert shots of Diwali and the Festival of Colors. Rumer Godden, who collaborated on the screenplay, was annoyed by these inserts, decrying them as commercial pandering, which they certainly were. However they were effective, especially with the added voice-over which helped to explain the story, which had been cut to the bone in Renoir’s extended editing process (over 10 months).

M8DRIVE EC002

To stay under budget they did not cast any stars, with the main female role of lovestruck Harriet going to Patricia Walters, a gawky Australian school girl who never acted in film again, and the part of her crush, Captain John, was given to Thomas Breen (son of infamous censor Joseph), who would stop acting after the production. Captain John was a WWI veteran who lost a leg in battle, and ran away from the U.S. to avoid all the suffocating pity. Breen had gone through similar suffering – he lost a leg in WWII – and while Renoir worried about what the publicity department would put him through in promoting his disability, still cast him in the role.

It is not just Harriet who has fallen for Captain Jack, but also her more mature teen neighbor Valerie (Adrienne Corri), whose flirtatious confidence soon catches the Captain’s eye. Harriet is no more than 14 or 15 years old, and has been dreaming of her first great love. Captain Jack treats her like a puppy dog, but for Harriet her whole world is shifting. And so it is with the whole of her family, which consists of five girls, a boy, and trusty mom and dad. The father (Esmond Knight), is the foreman of a jute press who is always putting a brave face on things, while his regal wife (Nora Swinburne) is more of a realist, telling Harriet she has an “interesting” face when Harriet asks her if she is ugly.

The most notable actor on hand is John Ford repertory player Arthur Shields, who is on hand to play Mr. John, the closest neighbor to Harriet and family. Mr. John has totally assimilated into Indian culture, having married a local Indian woman and raising his daughter Melanie (Radha Sri Ram) on his own. All of these characters drift in and out of a thinly sketched story. The main thread is Harriet and Valerie’s blossoming love for Captain John, but it is not moved forward, problematized, or resolved. Their love just sits there as a fact, while Renoir glides onto other things, like Harriet’s retelling of the story of Ramayana, visualized through a fantasy sequence in which Melanie transforms into Lady Radha, the feminine aspect of God, and performs a traditional Bharatanatyam style dance. Renoir films it in a long shot with little movement, only slightly reframing to capture the more drastic movements.

The River (1951)Directed by Jean Renoir

The entire film is more restrained in camera movements than most of Renoir’s work – Bazin claims there is “not a single pan or dolly shot in the entire film.” The last shot of the film is a dolly, though his larger point stands, for the most part he stays static. Though this was likely necessitated by the heavier cameras required by Technicolor, it also presented an opportunity for Renoir to experiment with stasis, incorporating that style to match the philosophy of the film, which is encompassed in the last dolly shot that moves towards Harriet and then rises above her to the river behind. The everyday troubles, from minor annoyances to major tragedies, are subsumed in the flow of time. The voice-over ends the film with, “The day ends, the end begins.” This final shot, and these final words, try to isolate that perpetual state of becoming possible in every present moment. The movie ends and has become a part of our life, the screen has disappeared and there is nothing left but reality to greet us.

This is the eleventh part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.

This Land is Your Land: The Southerner (1945)

July 25, 2017

Southerner_1945_6

Jean Renoir considered The Southerner (1945) to be his “only work of a personal nature carried out in Hollywood.” Adapted from the National Book Award winning novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, it follows a year in the life of a struggling Texas tenant farmer and his family. A lyrical portrait of do-it-yourself Americanism, it was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Billy Wilder would win for The Lost Weekend). Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) is passionately, almost irrationally obsessed with farming a plot of land, even if he’s working it for another owner. So he quits his cotton-picking job and enters into a tenant-farming agreement with his boss, tilling a plot left unworked for years. For him it’s a kind of freedom, though he is gambling that he can harvest enough crop to feed his family and begin to save for a better life. He’s a more responsible version of Boudu from Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), both seek a way off the grid and find it in rural sections of the country. But Sam has family responsibilities, while Boudu only answers to himself.

(Full Disclosure: I work for Kino Lorber, who released The Southerner on DVD and Blu-ray)

After the Nazi occupation of France, Renoir secured a United States visa and arrived at a dock in the port of Jersey City on December 31, 1940, where he was greeted by Robert Flaherty, who had facilitated his arrival. His first Hollywood production was Swamp Water (1941), a Georgia outlaw romance, on which he regularly clashed with producer Daryl Zanuck. He wrote of Zanuck: “Our story was feasible, more or less. He’s managed to turn it into something I find totally stupid” (quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau). Though a financial success, Renoir was not pleased with the experience. He then signed with Universal, who assigned him to the Deanna Durbin vehicle The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943). He worked on it for fifty days before he left the production, citing pain in his leg, which was a cover for his unhappiness with the project, though Durbin was ” a nice girl.” He would jump from there to RKO, to direct the Dudley Nicholas penned and produced This Land is Mine (1943), about the resistance movement in an unnamed Nazi-occupied country. Nichols was passionate about the film, which starred Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders, and controlled the production tightly. He didn’t allow the use of a crane, citing budgetary restraints, and disallowed any improvisatory deviation from the script. Renoir directed it, but was not in full control.

Southerner_1945_0

The Southerneron the other hand, proved an ideal film for Renoir because the producers had little interest in it. Robert Hakim, a friend and producer of La Bête humaine (1938), asked Renoir to read a proposed screenplay of Hold August in Your Hand, by Hugo Butler. He was intrigued by the possibility, and after going back to the original novel, agreed to direct if he was allowed to come up with his own script – which would also pass through the hands of Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner. Zachary Scott later claimed that Faulkner wrote the entire script, but Merigeau’s biography indicates Renoir wrote the majority, and that Faulkner reworked two scenes, on in which Sam Tucker lights the stove for the first time, and the sequence where the family catches a giant catfish. Hakim secured distribution through United Artists, who sent David L. Loew to be a co-producer. This was not a prestige title for Hakim or Loew, and so Renoir was pretty much left alone to recreate a Texas farm at the General Service Studios, located between Santa Monica and Las Palmas.

Initially Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee were sought to star, but they eventually cast Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Sam and Nona Tucker, the husband and wife who would try to transform a fallow pile of wood, rocks and dirt into a working farm. Scott spends most of the film shirtless or nearly so, his character exhibiting a serious buttoning phobia.  The lithe Scott is the object of adoration for the women of the town, and for good reason, as every other eligible bachelor is either a drunk or a kindly old timer. The Tuckers are introduced in a massive field picking cotton, when their uncle Pete collapses and with his final breath urges them to farm their own land. Sam takes him at his word, and convinces his boss to become a tenant farmer on one of his disused plots. The house is collapsing, the ground overgrown, and his neighbor Devers (J. Carroll Naish) is a bitter old bastard with a violent streak and a crazed son (a feral Norman Lloyd).

MBDSOUT EC002

But the Tucker family, rounded out by son Jot, daughter Daisy, and Granny (an obstreperous Beulah Bondi), perseveres through any and all  disaster, from Jot’s Spring Sickness to a storm that wipes out their crop. It is a movie about endurance and that peculiar brand of insanity called the American Dream, where people seek their fortunes in the face of calamity. For Renoir protagonists Sam and Nona are remarkably straightforward or true, neither touched by Boudu’s wanderlust but similarly attached to the idea of nature-as-freedom. Though in this case Sam is far from free – he is a tenant farmer, still working for a boss, however distant, and his responsibilities lie with his family whose health and happiness depends on the success of this mad enterprise. For it is entirely mad – the farmhouse is a wreck, and the family freezes in the winter and soaks during summer rains. The well is dry so Sam has to ask Devers for fresh water, and he is nursing a variety of wounds against the world, his wife and child having died while he was building up his plot of land. His is the nightmare side of the dream, gaining wealth while losing your life.

Renoir is very adept at blocking out scenes of group revelry, and there is a giddy wedding party sequence that acts as an oasis between emergencies, joining the entire town on bootleg liquor and dance. Sam gets clocked by one of his many disappointed suitors (he’s a one woman man) while Granny nearly lights the place on fire while making tea. Everyone laughs in a blissful state of forgetting. But then a storm hits, and it’s back to disaster management. Though this is mainly a film of static setups, Renoir does utilize his skill with moving camera early on, when the Tuckers first move into their dump. The camera breaks free of the family and enters the home, a free-floating Tucker POV that pokes its head in the door and peeks around corners. Absent of human presence, it presents the house as a blank slate that the Tuckers can fill with all their pain and laughter and failure and fleeting successes. The Southerner is one of Renoir’s most direct, most simple films, and certainly one of his most moving.

The French Revolution: La Marseillaise (1938)

July 18, 2017

LA MARSEILLAISE, left: Maurice Toussaint on French poster art, 1938.

“It took me some time to understand that, for him, ideas had little meaning in themselves, and that all that mattered in his eyes was the personality of the individual expressing them.” – Alain Renoir on his father

La Marseillaise (1938) was made under intense political pressure, both from the censorious right and the Popular Front left, who partially funded this depiction of the French Revolution. Jean Renoir ended up making a film that pleased neither, depicting not the broad strokes of history but the idiosyncrasies of its individual actors. As Andre Bazin put it, Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.” It obscures the larger political movements but pauses for details like how the soldiers pad their boots or what Louis XVI thinks of tomatoes (he’s pro). After the supernova success of Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir had big plans to capture a larger panorama of the revolution, but kept whittling it down to a few engaging personalities, until we are left with a couple of hotheaded revolutionary Marseilles comrades and the aloofly charming Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir), who seems oblivious to the power shift happening right outside his doors. And yes, this marks the triumphant (?) return of my Jean Renoir series, which will run through August.

The film was proposed to and supported by the French Communist Party and the national trade union CGT (Confederation generale du travail), to be produced with Henri Jeanson. The original funding scheme was like a proto-Kickstarter, as posters and leaflets proclaimed that “for the first time, a film will be sponsored by the people themselves through a vast subscription drive.” Ambitious (and impossible) goals were set, like having teams of writers creating dialogue for different sections of the country. Jeanson and others would write for the Paris inner suburbs, while Marcel Pagnol was to write dialogues between Robespierre and Brissot. These never came to pass. Renoir and Jeanson would air their concept of the film in public meetings with Popular Front representatives, which were composed of “a hundred socialists, a hundred Communists, a hundred Radicals.” They all offered differing criticisms, one wanted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen read at the open, another was opposed to the title, while a third insisted upon a happy ending. Their suggestions were duly ignored.

They received 50,000 francs from the CGT, and 20,000 from the Union des syndicats, not nearly enough for a feature as sprawling as the one they were planning. So in the end, the feature was very traditionally funded by the production company Les Realisations d’art cinematographie (RAC), represented by Albert Pinkovitch, who had supported Grand Illusion. He pre-sold La Marseillaise for a million francs to various European and North African distributors, and Renoir received a guaranteed 400,000 francs. Jeanson considered this a betrayal, and held a grudge against Renoir for the rest of their natural lives. But it is highly unlikely they would have raised enough money through the CGT and other Popular Front groups to ever make the film.

It begins in the summer of 1789 as the King is informed of the storming of the Bastille. We see nothing of the dramatic event, only Pierre Renoir as Louis XVI, chowing down on his chicken and cheerily discussing the day’s hunt. In his appealing doofiness he recalls Hugh Laurie’s Wooster (from the BBC Jeeves and Wooster [1990-1993] adaptations). He is something of an imbecile, but is so unselfconscious it becomes charming.  In 1790 Marseilles the townspeople start hearing about the storming of the Bastille and the formation of a revolutionary volunteer army. What passes for central characters are two of these villagers, the mason Bomier (Edmond Ardisson) and a toll clerk named Arnaud (Andrex). Bomier is hotheaded and impulsive, while Arnaud is the more calculating intellect, in touch with the shifting political alliances happening in Paris. Both sign up for the army and march to Paris, where they get into scrapes with some Royalists while reluctantly facing up to the fact that this will not be a bloodless war. For much of the film’s running time the revolution seems like a lark, a thrilling adventure for two poor kids, an excuse to travel the country. But during the storming of the Tuileries Palace blood starts to get shed, and the two men witness what it means to be collateral damage to your principles.

LA MARSEILLAISE, Louis Jouvet, 1938

Renoir, though known for his brilliance with character, was also a master of screen space, and there are some remarkable battle sequences. You can see it in the first shot, guards twirling in diagonals across the screen, that Renoir can make soldiering look dynamic. The Tuileries sequence shifts on a dime from the thrill of comradeship, of the national guard joining the Marseilles volunteers, to the inhuman lineup of gun barrels positioned out of windows, as men are cut down like bags of flour dropping out of a delivery truck. It is striking how that switch registers, from the chaos of celebration, of embraces and chatter, to the rigid order of the war machine, with its perfect geometry and deadly logic. The Marseilles volunteers are pushed out, their loose band not having the same kind of brutal logic as the Swiss regiment holding out inside.

It is the Swiss who remain because the King had been spirited out. The King watches it all like a spectator, a man already outside of time. He is concerned about the angle of his wig and the taste of a tomato as the monarchy tumbles around him. Pierre Renoir plays him with such innocence and naiveté, that it’s hard to believe it’s an act. The King might just be a lovable foe, a tool of history rather than its driver. It is a film that leaves things unfinished – the King walks out of the Tuileries, his fate uncertain. He remarks upon the state of the leaves – they are falling more quickly this year. Arnaud and Bomier split up, Bomier nursing his wounds while Arnaud disappears into the fog of war. The film ends on a note of half-hearted triumph. The Tuileries has been won, but so much has been lost, and the war is just beginning.

This is the ninth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.

Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)

The Lower Depths (1936)

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)

La Bete Humaine (1938)

 

The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

July 11, 2017

LadySnow2-grabs_0003_Layer 10.tif

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

Lady Snowblood, aka Yukia Kashima (Meiko Kaji), was born for vengeance. Her mother, desperate to kill the gang who murdered her family, gets pregnant with the sole purpose of training this heir for revenge. All Lady Snowblood knows is blood. So after the conclusion of the first film, in which her birthright revenge has been fulfilled, she is left adrift. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance takes place a decade later, where she makes a living as an assassin. The film opens with a bravura long take down a winding road, as she slices up an anonymous horde of men. Lady Snowblood works with catatonic ease, the act of murder like rolling out of bed. This opening shot, while technically impressive, is clearly boring Snowblood to death. Eventually she gives herself up to the police, preferring state execution to a life without purpose. But then, on the day of her appointed death, she is violently rescued. The rescuer is Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida), head of a shadow government operation intent on shutting down resistance movements.

LadySnowblood2_1974_790_791_image_01

Kikui hires Snowblood to monitor, and eventually kill, the anarchist intellectual Ransui Tokunaga (future director of Tampopo, Juzo Itami). She poses as his maid, and looks on his daily routine as he reads, makes impassioned love to his wife and generally minds his own business. When the time comes for her to slit his throat, Ransui reveals he was aware of her true identity all along – and makes a pitch for her allegiance. Ransui claims that there was no organized resistance, and that Kikui used a random bombing as an excuse to crack down on all anarchist/revolutionary thinkers, regardless of their threat to the state. Considering that Kikui is a plasticine-looking psychopath and Ransui an agreeably unkempt professor-type, Snowblood agrees to switch sides. It isn’t clear whether she is doing this for political reasons, amorous ones, or simple boredom. Meiko Kaji keeps her face a mask at all times, but for whatever the reason, wherever she points her sword there will be blood.

And there are some strikingly composed slayings here, from the opening tracking shot down a winding road to the buckshot killing of a police underling against a canvas landscape. But the sequel lacks the original’s simple, non-stop pacing – hacking from one revenge killing to the next.  Love Song of Vengeance is more dilatory, as it tries to flesh out the backstory of Ransui, his wife and his estranged brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada). It often feels like Snowblood is a supporting character in her own feature, as the battle between the Tokunagas and the government dominates. And they are far less compelling characters than Snowblood’s enigmatic killing machine.

So while it doesn’t live up to the original, it still makes for satisfying viewing, especially for those interested in imaginative killings. There is a first person POV of Snowblood tearing through Kikui’s garish mansion, decades before the first first-person shooter. One poor corrupt police underling has a shard of glass shoved into his eyeball, and then after he equips himself with a stylish eyepatch, gets the other one gouged out by a fireplace poker. He receives the most picturesque death – getting plugged by a shotgun blast while framed against a wooded landscape painting hanging on Kikui’s wall. Director Toshiya Fujita is able to conjure enough of these arrestingly violent images to keep the film lingering, despite its frustratingly Snowblood-less narrative. Another image I keep returning to is from the beginning of the film, after Snowblood dumps the last body of her massacre into the lake, he floats away beatifically, as if at rest, until a pool of thick blood collects around his neck. The blood looks like paint, the man posed for a picture. The film aestheticizes violence, makes it beautiful. It is an exhausted beauty, like the title character, who can’t wait to get the killing over with. But then there’s the question of what lies after.

Vengeance is Hers: Lady Snowblood (1973)

July 4, 2017

LadySnowblood_1973_790_791_image_02

Lady Snowblood (1973) is an aria of arterial spray, gushing in myriad patterns against a variety of white fabrics. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s tossed off comment that the blood in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is “Not blood” but “red” to its logical conclusion, a festival of artfully composed throat-slittings and torso hackings. Blood spits out of human bodies like when Mentos are dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke. It frames killing as pure artifice, executed with impassive grace by the beautiful Meiko Kaji, seeking revenge for the mother she never knew. The story is faithfully adapted from the original comic book, of a child marked from birth to be a vengeance machine, to hunt down her mother’s tormentors regardless of the sacrifices to her own life. One of the greatest comic-book adaptations, it serves as the template for all subsequent female one-man-army films, from Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) all the way up to the upcoming Atomic Blonde (2017).

Lady Snowblood was originally published in 1972-1973 in the adult mag Weekly Playboy, and has remained in print ever since. It was written by Kazuo Koike (the creator of Lone Wolf and Cub) and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura. Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub was adapted into a film series starting in 1972, and so Lady Snowblood grabbed the attention of independent producer Kikumaru Okuda of Tokyo Films (the film was produced by Okuda and distributed by Toho). Okuda had mob affiliations, and according to Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, he cultivated a relationship with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, for whom he helped to recruit customers and collect debts for its Japanese clientele. With the help of two enforcers, he would chisel millions from gamblers, inflating their real debt numbers and collecting the difference.  He was eventually arrested by Tokyo authorities in 1975 for extorting millions. His last producing credit is on the 1976 Kris Kristofferson film The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.

Regardless of the dubious source of funding, the production had the support of Toho, and a talented crew was hired. Director Toshiya Fujita and star Meiko Kaji were plucked from Nikkatsu, having both worked together on two of the popular female gang Stray Cat Rock movies (Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo [1970] and Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 [1971]). Kaji  had most recently finished the violent women-in-prison flick Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), which cemented her as the exploitation actress of the moment. Fujita was gaining admirers as a director of sensitive youth-in-revolt films like Wet Sand in August (1971), but Lady Snowblood would eclipse everything else in his career, rightly or wrongly.

LadySnow1-grabs_0016_Layer 17.tif

The story concocted by Koike is a corker. Meiko Kaji plays Yuki, a stone-faced killing machine who was born in prison in 1874 during a snowfall, early in the Meiji period of growing Western influence. Her mother Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) ended up in prison because of cruel fate. She had once had a family, but stood by helplessly as they were slaughtered by a group of swindlers. The gang was promising peasants they could avoid the draft if they paid them a fee. During this period there was a feared group of government agents who always wore white – Sayo’s husband (the new elementary teacher) – happened to be wearing white while the gang was swept up in anti-government fervor. So they killed him and their child, and subjected Sayo to rape and degradation. From here on out white is a symbol of death, all it is good for is to be a canvas for blood.

Sayo obsessively seeks revenge. Her plot spans lifetimes. After killing one of the gang members in flagrante delicto, she is sent to prison. Knowing she will never get out alive to finish off the four remaining gang members, she instead focuses on getting pregnant, and then training the baby to carry on her vengeance for her. Instead of lullabies, Sayo tells her baby daughter Yuki: “do not fail to destroy our enemies.” A prison pal smuggles Yuki out to train in martial arts with Priest Dōkai (Kō Nishimura), who drills her relentlessly until she can roll down a hill inside of a barrel without crashing. Yuki becomes a vessel for Sayo’s hatred, what she calls a “asura,” a Buddhist demigod entirely subject to their passions, sort of a saint who submits to the seven deadly sins. Yuki invokes the “asura” to efface her own humanity, for if she is a demigod she has no need for earthly passions or relationships. Pretending to be divine is what is keeping her sane.

Yuki kills with effortless precision and grace, hiding her blades inside of gorgeous kimonos, flashing out of her sleeves before the aghast victim stops admiring her beauty. The violence is always quick, the killings faster than the blood spurts that follow – and my goodness the blood flows like wine, in a wide variety of spray patterns. There is the fine mist of a throat slit, the goopy entrails of a torso slash and the slow river of a sword into the gut. And invariably the blood splashes against a white background, creating instant Jackson Pollock like art. Tarantino very clearly borrowed the structure of Lady Snowblood for the flashback segmented Kill Bill, but also retains an enthusiasm for the explosive fake blood squib, seen to gargantuan effect in Django Unchained (2012).

And while Lady Snowblood delivers the exploitation goods, it is also a remarkably affecting character study, of a woman denying herself to fulfill her mother’s wishes. What Yuki will have left over of herself after committing her deadly deeds is an open question. What we are left with is more blood on the ground, a snowfall soaking up her wounds as she grasps towards a dwindling future. Next week – I’ll see how she recovers in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance.

Shore Leave: Querelle (1982)

June 27, 2017

QUERELLE (1982)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder passed away on the morning of June 10, 1982, three weeks into the editing of his final feature Querelle. The New York Times reported that, “a video-cassette machine that he had been using was still running at 5 A.M., Munich time, when Miss Lorenz [Julie Lorenz, his roommate and editor] discovered his body.” He died of an overdose of sleeping pills and cocaine – he had long been pushing his body to extremes while shooting some 45 features in 15 years. Querelle is not a summation or a final statement, as Fassbinder was constantly shifting, poking and exploring his stylistic palette. New paths emerged within every film, and Querelle is just another fork in the road before his heart gave out, but it is a feverishly beautiful one. Querelle is a free adaptation of Jean Genet’s 1947 novel Querelle of Brest, about a dope-dealing seaman involved in a murder while on shore leave, while grappling with his repressed and newly emerging homosexual desires. Frankly erotic and garishly artificial, shot on horizonless soundstages and bathed in orange and blue filtered light, it is both ridiculous and sublime.

Fassbinder said that Genet’s novel transforms a “third-class tale about a criminal” into an “astonishing mythology.” And so while Fassbinder follows the the general movement of Genet’s plot, the declamatory performance style and minimalist sets draw attention away from the story and towards the iconography. These are Tom of Finland sailors, perpetually oiled up and shirtless, buffing anything near at hand, while hilariously phallic towers thrust upward around the docs of the port town of Brest. The highlight of Rolf Zehetbaur’s set design though, is the bordello, a dense Art Nouveau space of mirrors/curtains/Greek pornographic paintings. Fassbinder collaborator Harry Baer described the sets as “an artistically presented dream-fabric-reality,” comparing it to Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).  It is in this slick atmosphere that Querelle (Brad Davis) floats into town, a sailor on a boat led by Lieutenant Seblon (Franco Nero), who harbors a secret crush for his employee. Querelle uses his job as a convenient way to smuggle dope to the local brothel, the Hotel Feria Bar, where he discovers his brother Robert (Hanno Pöschl) has been sleeping with the Feria’s owner Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau). Lysiane’s bartender husband Nono (Günther Kaufmann) doesn’t mind because he’s more interested in bedding young sailors. With each new patron of the bar he bets on a roll of the dice. If they lose he gets to have sex with them, if they win they can choose the prostitute of their choice.

After Querelle completes a drug sale, he cold-bloodedly murders his accomplice underneath a papier-mache moon. An investigation erupts and Querelle is a suspect, so he begins to deflect blame onto another criminal – Gil (also Hanno Pöschl, but sans moustache) – who killed a co-worker for accusing him of being gay. Querelle confusedly falls in love with Gil, who looks exactly like his brother Robert. Querelle claims, “I never loved a boy before. You’re the first one.” But Querelle is opaque, even to himself, and is only now allowing himself to indulge in his true lusts. His first homosexual experience was intentionally losing the dice game to Nono, who introduces him to the way in which sex can be used as a power game, and Querelle accepts it with masochistic pleasure. Querelle, whose whole life is some kind of con, quickly learns that seduction is its own tool, and learns how to play both sadist and masochist in order to advance his own interests. As Steven Shaviro notes in The Cinematic Body, “Fassbinder shows obvious contempt not only for…a ‘politically correct’ – which is to say, idealized and sanitized – depiction of sexuality. He refuses to provide ‘positive images’ of either straight or gay sex. On the contrary, he willfully aestheticizes the most troubling moments of his narrative, those when male sexuality is explicitly associated with power and domination, with violence, and with death.”

Querelle_1982_27974_Alpha

Querelle and Robert have a love-hate relationship that leans towards the latter, peaking during a spectacular fight sequence in which Fassbinder circles inside the bar in 360 degree pans as the two embark on their endless chase. With Gil, Querelle finds a Robert doppelganger, one he can love without reservation (the fact that he is a murderer, in Querelle’s eyes, only makes him more desirable). But when Querelle told Gil that he had never loved a boy before, that was another of his lies – he loves, and still loves, his brother. After convincing Gil to rob Lieutenant Seblon for escape money, Querelle forces him into a disguise. In a Vertigo-esque costume change, Gil dresses up as Robert, complete with fake moustache. This works on a double level, as it allows Querelle to seamlessly divert his emotions for Robert into Gil, as well as frame Robert for the robbery – for Gil looks more like Robert than himself. The Lieutenant will later identify Robert as the man who mugged him, leaving his fate unclear, as he is last seen drowning his sorrows with Lysiane, wishing that Querelle never existed.

It is an idea that would appeal to most of his friends, all of whom he betrays or backstabs to some extent or another. Only Lieutenant Seblon, who is unaware that Querelle ordered the heist of his suitcase, remains loyal to the end. Seblon records his thoughts on a tape recorder, a voice-over by other means, and fills it with thoughts and reflections on his overwhelming infatuation, one that is nearly debilitating in its intensity. In his presence his authority evaporates, becoming subject to Querelle’s ever-strengthening will to power.

Oh the Humanity: Dirigible (1931)

June 20, 2017

Dirigible_(1931)

Summer movie season is already upon us, with superheroes saving the world from various varieties of destruction. I’m turning back the clock to 1931 to look at a disaster film that uses the same playbook, Frank Capra’s blimp inferno Dirigible (For the throngs of readers who have been following my Jean Renoir series, it is taking a month-long break, returning on July 18th). Dirigible‘s thrills are premised on scale, on framing the enormity of these cruising zeppelins against the sky, and realistically rendering the chaos of such a behemoth coming apart at the seams. This was a million dollar production, with a lot of effort at authenticity, and much of the flying footage was shot on real Navy blimps with the compact Eyemo camera (cinematographer Joseph A. Walker says only two insert shots – of a train station and a sealing ship – were stock).  The movie alternates between these awe-inspiring feats of technological wonder and a rote love triangle that barely gets off the ground. This is a movie about the machines, not the people, which makes for dulling drama but stunning spectacle.

Dirigible is the second story credit for Commander Frank Wilbur Wead USN, a WWI veteran and aviation speed freak who advocated the Navy take part in races against Army planes. He would go on to serve as a test pilot before he broke his neck falling down a stairwell in 1926. It was then he turned to writing, becoming an in-demand scribe for air adventures large and small, from John Ford’s Air Mail (1932) and They Were Expendable (1945) to Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero (1936). Ford would memorialize Wead’s life in The Wings of Eagles (1957), where he was portrayed by John Wayne. But for Dirigible, Wead seems to have lifted some story elements from the 1929 independent film The Lost Zeppelin, which follows a journey to the South Pole shaken up by a love triangle.

Dirigible follows that story to the letter, except in this Columbia feature the woman (Fay Wray – two years before King Kong) stays home while the men go off and nearly kill themselves. Fay Wray plays Helen Pierce, the buzzkill wife of daredevil pilot Lt. Frisky Pierce (Ralph Graves). Helen had previously been wooed by the more straitlaced Commander Jack Bradon (Jack Holt), but in the end she chose Frisky. Frisky and Jack remain friends somehow, and Jack’s picture remains on Helen’s mantel. In previous drafts one imagines an open relationship was implied (Lubitsch’s Design For Living would base a whole movie on that subject in 1933), but here everything is prim and above board, assuredly to appease the Navy, who cooperated with the production and let them shoot on their massive dirigible Los Angeles. 

The Navy partners with explorer Louis Rondelle (Hobart Bosworth) on a journey to the South Pole, and Jack convinces them both that blimps are the safest way to get there. Helen begs Jack not to take Frisky along on the dangerous mission, and Jack agrees, which breaks Frisky’s adventurous heart.Midway through their trip the explorers plow through a vicious storm which tears the blimp in half as if it were papier-mâché. Through judicious miniature work matching the aerial footage, the crash is harrowing stuff. For the aftermath, in which the hulk of the blimp heaves out of ocean water like an alien monolith, Capra shoots in soft focus with an extra layer of matted-on fog. It looks like an etching or woodcut, disaster brought to its elemental basics. While that sequence is artful, almost impressionistic, the majority of the film is after authenticity. Capra was obsessed with the idea of the actors breath being visible on film during the South Pole expedition, even though they had assembled the Antarctic ice cap in the San Gabriel Valley where the temperature was pushing 90 degrees. So Capra went to his pal Professor Lucas at Caltech. “Dry ice, Frank. In the actors’ mouths. That’ll make the breath condense. Put a piece of dry ice in a tiny wire cage.”

Capra went along with this scheme and had his dentist create little wire cages, which he would stick to the roof of your mouth with false-teeth glue.  Capra recalls the results:

“Hobert Bosworth, a noble actor of the old, old school, unfurled the grand old flag, stuck it in the ice, and eloquently announced: ‘In the shname of the Shnooni — Stoonited–“.” He stopped, pulled out the wire cage, and “plopped the square piece of dry ice into his mouth as he would a big pill.” Bosworth would lose three back teeth, two uppers, part of his jawbone, and much dead tissue.” No other actor tried the stunt, and the breath isn’t visible in the finished film, though they do smoke a lot.

Obsessed with the journey he missed out on, Frisky quits the Navy and raises private money to do the trip with Rondelle. This time they will use his trusty biplane to putter their way to the bottom of the Earth. Helen is dyspeptic about this latest scheme, convinced Frisky just wants to get away from her, their life, and his responsibilities at home. She looks longingly at the portrait of Jack, of the stable, boring life they might have had together. So she writes Frisky a Dear John letter, but makes him promise not to reach it until he reaches the South Pole. Helen is a thankless character, the woman-as-killjoy reigning in man’s self-destructive tendencies. And the 23-year-old Fay Wray can do little to enliven a character whose main role is to sit at home and nitpick her husband, but for the split-second she writes this letter, she gains a personality.

But of course Frisky carries on anyway, and this second journey is far more successful, getting them to glide right over the pole. But it’s not enough for Frisky who wants to set foot on that virgin land, but his attempt to land the plane flips it over, stranding them in the true middle of nowhere. The only thing that can save him and their stranded crew is the new supersize blimp, the Los Angeles, which has to motor down to the pole and hope the crew hadn’t frozen to death in the process. The only one who can save them, of course, is Jack in his new supersized blimp, the Los Angeles. So he motors down apace, trying to get there before they all die of exposure. These final sequences in the snow remind one of any number of survivalist mountain climbing movies, including the recent Everest (2015), where the hubris of their cocky leader brings about their own demise.

Dirigible is a durable construction, that, if it was in color and starred Pierce Brosnan, would air with the same regularity as Dante’s Peak (1997). The actors don’t have much to work with, but the effects, in this case real life navy dirigibles, are the stars of the show. And DP Joseph A. Walker and his daredevil cameraman Elmer G. Dyer make them larger than life when in the sky, and as fragile flesh when tumbling to the ground.

Jean Renoir: La Bete Humaine (1938)

June 13, 2017

91gTQK+Wu7L._SY445_

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise (which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine. The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

Though Renoir was in a position of much greater power, La Bête Humaine was another project he came onto late, after it had been developed and dropped by numerous other artists. As detailed by Pascal Merigeau in Jean Renoir: A Biography, the film had begun its life with director Marc Allégret and writer Roger Martin du Gard in 1933. Producer Philippe de Rothschild sold the screenplay to Marcel L’Herbier, who was also unable to get it off the ground. On a separate track, Jean Gabin had agreed to star in a project called Train d’enfer, as it was a long-held dream of his to drive a locomotive. Jean Gremillon and Marcel Carné successively passed on directing it, and in leaving Carné suggested that if Gabin wanted to be a train engineer, producers Robert and Raymond Hakim should just film Zola’s La Bête Humaine. In acquiring the rights they gained access to Martin du Gard’s script (he had since become much more famous since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature), which Renoir trashed upon taking over production. He wrote his script in a self-reported twelve days. Martin Du Gard moved Zola’s time period from 1869 to 1914, but Renoir’s version brought it up to contemporary times, thinking that, “such action taking place amidst trains standing on wheels high above the ground and around wooden rail cars would have lost some of its dramatic intensity….Also, because the France of today isn’t that of Napoleon III, because of the way it is now, its qualities as well as its flaws, I believe it deserves to be defended through and through by its children.”

The screaming futurism of the coal-belching iron train is integral to Renoir’s vision of the original text, which at various points he has claimed to have never read all the way through. He was probably joking, but in any case the film version places the central character, Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) in the train engineer’s cab, his face blasted with soot as he sticks his head out the window like a panting dog. Lantier has a history of depressive, violent episodes, which he ascribes to inherited guilt from his alcoholic ancestors. As the Zola quote at the head of the film says, “He felt he was paying the price for the generations of his forefathers whose drinking had poisoned his blood.” He can’t drink a drop himself, but still enters violent fugue states which he cannot control. And so he has segregated himself from society, choosing to live alone, preferring to engage with the world as a blur outside his train window.

But then he gets entangled in the affairs of Severine (Simone Simon), an unhappy young wife to stationmaster Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux). Severine has a tangled past of her own, and when Roubaud discovers it he enters a murderous rage, killing Severine’s godfather on a moving train. Lantier was on that same train car when the murder took place, and saw Severine exit the cabin at the time of the crime. Entranced by her wounded catlike beauty, he lies to the police and hides her secret. He falls in love with her, and she with him, though both are drawn to self-destructive acts. Severine becomes convinced that the only way out of her predicament is for Lantier to kill Roubaud, and then they can escape together…somewhere. But murder only begets murder, and Severine and Lantier set loose their demons on each other until the only escape is death.

Lantier is a devilishly difficult character to portray, a victim of fate and genetics who still, in the end, commits heinous acts. He is something of a monster, and yet Gabin’s sensitive, wounded, and defeated performance imbues him with what amounts to a soul. He shows a man who fought against and instincts and lost, now playing out the string until he does himself in for good. He is soft-spoken, almost mumbly, his words receding as soon as he says them. It is a proto-Brando performance, and turns makes Lantier a sympathetic monster instead of  a pathetic one. Simone Simon has less to work with, her character is more of a means to an unfortunate end -but exudes a wounded, capricious spirit.

In a film of great performances, one sequence stands out. It is Renoir himself playing the character of Cabuche, drifter and former childhood friend of Severine. He is the one unjustly fingered for the murder on the train, for some uncouth comments he made afterward. He is brought in for questioning, and this rather brusque fellow, who killed a man in prison, launches into a nostalgic reverie about picking strawberries in the summer, looking for chestnuts in the fall, walking through the forest hand in hand with this girl who was nice to him when he was otherwise shunned. His soot-covered face softens, his head bowed with the weight of his memories. It is one of those diversionary Renoir moments when the entire life of a minor character blooms forth, overspilling with love and admiration. It is this kind of love that Lantier and Severine don’t seem to be capable of, weighed down as they are by their mutual maladies and disgust with the lives they have been given. Oftentimes I would wish the film would wander off more like that Cabuche monologue, pull itself free of the ever-constricting doom enveloping Lantier and Severine. But those two star-crossed lovers free themselves in their own way, the only way they know how.

This is the eighth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)

The Lower Depths (1936)

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)