The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

October 17, 2017

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By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

King Vidor was “a little ashamed” of Bardelys the Magnificent, while John Gilbert considered it to be “Applesauce. With one John Gilbert providing the sauce.” It didn’t have the cachet of their previous films together, though seen today it’s a vibrant and funny film, one adapted from the 1905 novel by Rafael Sabatini. John Gilbert is the title character Bardelys, a womanizing adviser to King Louis XIII, he warns his servant to always let him know which husbands are in town before he schedules his assignations. But even when angry spouses drop in and challenge him to a sword fight, he flatters them so relentlessly (both their looks and their fighting skill), that they go away happy. Bardelys is such a well-known lover that almost every woman in town has been called “dark enchantress” and received a locket with a piece of his hair, meant to symbolize his devotion – they are assembled in bulk by his servants and dispensed with impunity.

The Comte de Châtellerault (Roy D’arcy) has no such luck with women. He was very publicly rejected by Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, to become Vidor’s wife after filming) before tripping over a precisely placed lunchbox and falling on his behind. The Comte becomes the laughingstock of Paris, and in a fit of pique, he makes an impossible wager with Bardelys – if Bardelys can get Roxalanne to marry him, he will receive all of the Comte’s wealth. And if he fails, Bardelys must give up his entire fortune. Bardelys is in no mood to marry, but accepts the bet anyway, as a test of his desirability. In order to win the anti-monarchy Roxalanne’s heart, Bardelys pretends to be famed revolutionary Lesperon. It is in this guise that Roxalanne’s reserve begins to crack, but soon Bardelys will have the King’s guards on his tale, and it’s more than money he has to put on the line.

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Vidor films with great agility, moving his camera in inventive ways, including dropping down with Bardelys out of a window. The most memorable shot is a ravishingly romantic one, of a canoe ride with Bardelys and Roxalanne, weeping willow branches drooping down over them like a caressing lover. King Vidor recalled the construction of the scene in his memoirs, as quoted in a post on TCM.com:

“I saw a property man wading in the lake pushing an old rowboat he had brought along just in case the director asked for one. He brushed past the lone branch of a weeping willow tree hanging in the water. I asked the head grip: ‘How long will it take you to make a tunnel of willow branches one hundred feet long?’ The leaves threw a moving pattern of light and shadow which played moodily across the faces of the lovers. The arrangement, movement and lighting of the scene were in complete harmony. The total effect was one of magic.” Vidor added that he was often asked about that scene. “They have forgotten the title, the actors, the author, even the melodramatic plot, but the magic of the camera made its indelible impression.”

Also making an impression is Bardelys’s wild escape from the gallows, a remarkably inventive bit of madcap action that has Gilbert springing around with uncanny mobility. In my favorite bit, he is trying to escape back up through a hatch, but a group of soldiers are thrusting their scythes into the opening below him. Taking this as an opportunity, when the scythes all clash together, it forms a kind of floor which Bardelys uses as leverage to leap up and out of the hatch. It is a brilliant bit of stagecraft, and manages to display the wit of Bardelys solely through action.

Arthur Lubin, who plays King Louis XIII, recalled that the set was a happy one, and speculated that “I think the reason King was so well liked was that he left the actors alone.” That convivial atmosphere really comes across on the screen, though Gilbert himself expressed unhappiness with the whole production. He told Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times that “I don’t want to be portraying this incredible ‘magnificent’ stuff. Whenever they talk ‘costume picture’ to me again, I am going to mentally translate all the characters into modern clothes and see how they would work out in say, Pasadena, today. If they don’t ring true, they are out.”

The film was a minor success, bringing back a profit of $135,000 on a cost of $460,000. But for all involved it was a minor affair, a diversion from the other work they’d rather be doing. MGM felt similarly, for when their rights to the Sabatini novel expired in 1936, they destroyed the negative. The movie would have been lost forever if not for the miraculous discovery of that print in France. Thankfully, we can now see the film for what it is, an impressively mounted off-the-cuff adventure that could give Fairbanks a run for his money.

Eternal Recurrence: Revenge (1989)

October 10, 2017

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Revenge (1989) concerns a vengeance that cannot be contained by time. It floats through the centuries, traveling from 17th century Korea to 20th century Sakhalin Island, a much fought over spit of land squabbled over by Russia and Japan. A free-form mass of condensed hate emerges during this period, one which causes the death of a little girl and the mission of her doomed half-brother, who is conceived and raised only to avenge her murder. A major work of what became known as the Kazakh New Wave, Revenge is elusive and incantatory due in part to the script by the Korean-Russian poet Anatoli Kim that does not provide as much of a narrative as it does a striking collage of decay. Add to this the fact that director Ermek Shinarbaev was born in Soviet controlled Kazakhstan, but after Revenge was filmed the Soviet system collapsed and Kazakhstan became a sovereign state. The film reflects the rootlessness, uncertainty and bitterness of no longer having a place to call home. Restored in 2010 thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, it is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion (in Volume 2 of their World Cinema Project series), and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

Shinarbaev studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK), the oldest film school in the world, having been founded in 1919. He was there for eleven years (1970 – 1981), but his time there didn’t overlap with the future Kazakh New Wave filmmakers (Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Darezhan Omirbaev) who all joined a workshop with filmmaker Sergei Soloviev in 1984. Shinarbaev would be lumped in with them anyway, as it was good publicity for all involved. After graduation Shinarbaev spent, as noted in Tanner Tafelski’s essential interview at The Brooklyn Rail, “three years in Kazakhstan trying to do something as a filmmaker,” and after no funding, he “decided to quit forever.”

But then he discovered the work of Anatoli Kim, who he blindly started harassing in an effort to adapt his work. They would make three films together, and their third and final collaboration, Revenge, was buffeted more than usual by bizarre production circumstances. Kim had originally written the script for a famous Russian actor to make, but it had been definitively rejected. Shinarbaev accepted the project sight-unseen, inherently trusting Kim’s talent. But the Russian state funding arm was reluctant to give money to a Kazakh filmmaker working on a Russian subject, so he was only given 30% of his proposed budget, a total of 800,000 rubles. Two directors of photography quit weeks into production, and the assistant DP Sergei Kosmanev would finish the job – astonishing considering the film’s hieratically beautiful lighting, which in his Criterion essay Kent Jones describes as the film’s “awed respect for the sheer power of light.”

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The story is split into seven parts, and the main thread follows the aftermath of a senseless murder of a young girl by her schoolteacher Yan (Nikolai Tacheyev). Seemingly unmotivated, it is an act of pure evil. The girl’s father, Tsai (Kasym Zhakibayev), vows revenge at any cost, and after his first attempt fails, he has a child with a younger woman, vowing that this boy, named Sungu (Aleksandr Pan) will be trained to seek revenge in the face of his father’s failure (this plot is strikingly similar to that of Lady Snowblood [1973], which I wrote about earlier this year). Sungu’s entire life will be focused on the murder of Yan. There is a prologue that lends a cosmic dimension to this tragic tale. It is set in 17th century Korea, during which a trifling king sentences a loyal subject to be beaten to death. His friend, and court poet, is also named Sungu, and is suitably disgusted by this act and requests to leave the kingdom. He is doomed to exile, wishing to depart “as a nothing remembering nothing, to become once again the nothing that means nothing, as I was before my birth.” Then he walks over the horizon into the blazing sun.

Violence follows Sungu across generations, to be reborn in the 19th century as a weapon of vengeance, though still touched with the spirit of poetry. Briefly anyway, for the weight of his mission grows so heavy that he makes his way eastward to Sakhalin Island, the contested spit of land that was split 50/50 between Japan and Russia, with a large population of Korean laborers. Sungu throws himself into a lumber splitting job, hoping to disappear into the routine, among other men trying to disappear in this non-place. But his past emerges as a wound, one that opens up and bleeds him dry. The film in this final section becomes ritualistically symbolic, as if Sungu had anticipated his own humiliation and was acting it out to fulfill a duty. Aleksandr Pan plays him as a blank, a tool rather than a human. The further Sungu heads toward his destiny, the darker the film gets. While his 17th century self departed into the sun, here is expires into darkness. The lights dim, flickering over the ghosts that he passes on his way to Yan’s house, surrounding a vision of his father, as well as the sister he never knew. He travels to Yan’s house the site of final reckoning, where he can collapse at last.

To Have and To Hold: Losing Ground (1982)

October 3, 2017

LOSING GROUND, Seret Scott (R), 1982. ©Milestone Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Losing Ground (1982) is a shape-shifting drama of an imploding marriage, insinuating itself into the diverging head-spaces of a pair of quarreling intellectuals. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1982 by City College of New York professor Kathleen Collins, it was one of the first features directed by a black woman since the 1920s. Distributors didn’t know what to do with a black art film, so after a few festival screenings and an airing on public television, it disappeared from view. Thanks to the efforts of Kathleen Collins’ daughter Nina and Milestone Films, this remarkable feature was finally released into theaters in 2015, and now it’s available on a lovely DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on FilmStruck.

Collins wrote and directed Losing Ground, shooting in New York City and Rockland County on a budget of $125,000. The film centers on the relationship between literature professor Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) and her painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Sara is cold, calculating and withholding, while Victor is impulsive, bombastic and outgoing. She has strict routines of writing and researching while Victor goes on instinct. His latest instinct is to spend a month in a house upstate so he can paint the local Puerto Rican community (especially, and exclusively, the women). All Sara wants is a library nearby so she can continue researching her book on aesthetics. Victor expects her to figure out study arrangements on the fly, placing his job, his art, before hers. The trip only exacerbates their differences, and neither gives any ground to the other. This is a movie in which neither spouse is completely sympathetic.

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This was Collins’ second feature after the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980, available as an extra on the Losing Ground DVD/Blu-ray), in which she adapted Henry H. Roth’s short story collection The Cruz Chronicles about a Puerto Rican family. Made for only $5,000, Collins recalled it was “terribly hard” to make, but it laid the groundwork for Losing Ground. She made both while a professor at the City College of New York, teaching film history and screenwriting. She had a masters in French literature from the Sorbonne, but a course she took there on adapting literature into film ignited her interest in cinema (previous to her academic career, she was a civil rights activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Collins began writing scripts while making a living as an editor for the BBC and a variety of other television stations. But she couldn’t secure any funding for her projects, recalling that “nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.” It was through the encouragement of one of her students, Ronald K. Gray, who would be her cinematographer, that she stubbornly carried on, and was able to scrape together enough funds for Losing Ground.

Victor is working through a personal and artistic crisis, as he shifts from abstract to figural canvases, he spends most of his time with a young dancer he meets in town, his model and mid-life crisis muse. Sara yearns for escape, so accepts an offer from one of her students to act in his student film, a loose adaptation of the “Frankie and Johnnie” lovers-on-the-run folk blues song. It is on that shoot that she enjoys her own awakening.

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Sara asserts control of her environment from the first shot of her lecture on existentialism. She speaks with emphatic enunciation, seeking clarity and directness. After the talk, a student clumsily tries to flirt with her by telling her he hoped her husband appreciated her. Sara pauses, a little shocked at this intrusion of her home life into this workspace – that pause indicates the barriers she erects between the two. Victor is introduced working on a canvas while drinking champagne at their apartment, totally collapsing his art and his life. It is essential for him to intertwine his work and his personal life, as one informs the other. As played by Bill Gunn (a fine filmmaker in his own right – see Ganja and Hess [1973]), Victor has bought into the idea that virility is the key to his inspiration, a machismo that he uses to justify all kinds of indelicate actions. His first act is to suggest to trip upstate, a journey that would aid his artistic practice, and one sure to delay Sara’s book project.

As Victor’s retreat looks more and more like a way for him to have an affair by other means, Sara’s reserve begins to crack. Her carefully drawn barriers between work and life collapse as Victor keeps intruding. She escapes into the film production, letting her hair down and dancing with a charismatic out-of-work actor named Duke (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead [1968]). This performance seems to free something in her, and allows her to discover creative ways out of her collapsing marriage. She begins to see Victor for what he is, and in the most brutally honest line in the movie, she spits out, “Don’t you take your dick out like it was artistic, like it was some goddamn paintbrush!” That is a line too harsh and too true to come back from. The film ends in a scene of creative violence, a gunshot in the film-within-a-film providing a definitive end to their affair. Tragically, this would be Collins’s final film, as she would die in 1988 of breast cancer at age 46.

It is thanks to Nina Lorez Collins that we are able to see her mother’s brilliant work. In 2010, DuArt was closing it’s film processing lab, and disposing of their vast archive of material. It included the original 16mm negative of Losing Ground. DuArt contacted Nina, and with the assistance of Milestone Film, the material was preserved and scanned for home video and digital distribution. It could have so easily been trashed at any step along that path, so any viewing of Losing Ground is a gift, and should be welcomed as such.

The World’s a Stage: The Golden Coach (1953)

August 29, 2017

THE GOLDEN COACH, (aka LE CARROSSE D'OR), Anna Magnani, 1953.

The Golden Coach (1953) begins with a red curtain raising on a stage, the camera pushing in until the edges of the theater disappear and the story proper begins. Jean Renoir’s feature about an Italian theatrical troupe setting up shop in Peru foregrounds its artificiality, a play within the film that is a performance for our benefit. Near the end the troupe’s star actress asks, “where does theater end and life begin?” a question Renoir had been asking since his beginnings in cinema. It is a question without an answer, but indicates the space in which Renoir prefers to operate, within that intersection where playfulness and improvisation meet the social structures that try to contain them. The Golden Coach focuses on Camilla (Anna Magnani), a dynamic stage presence who bewitches three of Peru’s most eligible bachelors, but cannot decide who she ultimately desires. She can only find clarity while on stage, and heartache off of it. So in an extraordinary conclusion, the film makes an argument for perpetual performance, instead of turning your life into art, make art of your life, regardless of the consequences.

Following the completion and success of The River (1951), which I wrote about here, Renoir was eager to get another project off the ground, preferably one where he could do a similar job of location shooting. After many starts and stops, including a drawn-out pre-production on a never made adaptation of Camus’s The Stranger, he received an offer from producer Robert Dorfmann, with a project ready to shoot. It was an adaptation of Prosper Merimee’s Carrosse Saint-Sacrement, which had been in development with Luchino Visconti, who had left after arguments over the script. Anna Magnani had already been cast in the leading role and production money had been lined up, so Renoir agreed, with the understanding it would be shot in dual French and English versions, and have some location shooting performed in Italy and Mexico. After some reshuffling of the budget, it turned out it would only be shot in English, which Magnani could only speak phonetically, and it would be shot entirely in studio.

Renoir reluctantly adapted to the lessened circumstances, and it’s quite possible having more authentic locales would have worked against the film’s ode to artificiality. But though it worked out artistically, the director complained mightily beforehand, and was also struggling with a wound in his leg that had become infected. This delayed shooting for months, and in the meantime he had growing doubts about his star, writing to producer Prince Francesco Alliata that (as quoted in Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau), “In my discussions with her, I’ve had the impression that Anna didn’t understand my screenplay. Moreover, she has had so much work that she wasn’t able to work seriously on her English. That represents such a handicap that I feel discouraged about it already.” But despite all of these pains, worries, and concerns, filming “made him forget his weariness and fatigue, and then he would display a staggering amount of energy, carried away as he was by the pleasure of making films, the enthusiasm of those around him, and his confidence in the film he was making.”

Renoir’s treatment of the Merimee play is very fanciful – the play takes place entirely in a Viceroy’s office and runs barely over an hour. Renoir pushed it more in the direction of the burlesque libretto by Meilhac and Halevy, from which came Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera La Perichole. The story concerns a troupe of Italian actors who are traveling to the New World, landing in Peru to put on some shows. Their lead actress is Camilla (Anna Magnani), a magnetic performer who draws men’s attentions regardless of their station. Spanish officer Felipe (Paul Campbell) had followed her from Europe, making the journey along with a garish golden coach. The coach is intended for Viceroy Ferdinand (Duncan Lamont), who hopes to deploy it as a symbol of Spanish power. But instead it becomes a pawn in his affections for Camilla, after he sees her bewitching performance in the palace. And finally there is the local top toreador named Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), a handsome brute who charms with his straightforward style. Camilla juggles the three men around until they are all ready to snap. The Viceroy is close to getting usurped by an aghast clergy, newly spiritual Felipe wants her to run away to India and Ramon simply wants to manhandle her. But Camilla cannot choose, they each offer her varied parts for her to play, so instead they engage in an increasingly frenetic farce in which she keeps stashing men in different rooms until they stumble upon each other and erupt in jealous swordfights. Camilla will either have to choose a man to settle down with or just stay true to her inauthentic self and continue to perform for everyone.

The closing sequences are a tour de force for Magnani, who overcame all of Renoir’s fears. Though not fluent in English, she managed to speak it well phonetically (as she did in Bellissima, 1951), and at 44 years of age is more than enough woman for all of the male actors of the film combined. In the final sequence she first plays a willowy pushover to flatter Ramon’s battering ram approach, then a sensitive artist to inflame Felipe’s Indian awakening (“They are better than us”) and finally a calculating manipulator with the Viceroy, trying to flirt him into a fight. But despite all her best efforts, the men discover her ruse and leave disconsolately, desolately aware none of them will be enough for her. Her one final trick is to appear as a religious penitent, donating the titular golden coach to the church to help the Viceroy out of a scrape. Camilla doesn’t seem to have a true self, but Renoir suggests that that is her glory – an acceptance of inauthenticity allows for more freedom, not less. In the final scene the troupe leader calls Camilla to the front of the stage, as she is saying goodbye to reality and returning to the theater:

Don’t waste your time in the so-called real-life. You belong to us, the actors, acrobats, mimes, clowns, mountebanks. Your only way to find happiness is on any stage, any platform, any public place, during those two little hours when you become another person, your true self.

Camilla says the names of those she has lost: Felipe, Ramon, the Viceroy. They have disappeared, become part of the audience. Does she miss them, the troupe leader asks? Magnani looks straight into the camera, and with a look of Mona Lisa-like inscrutability softly says, “a little.” It is one of the great line readings, encompassing the bone-deep sadness of abandoning her multiple loves as well as expressing the immense power she possesses by standing center stage ready to take on her next role.

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

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.

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

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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.

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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.