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

August 15, 2017


In its time Elena and Her Men (1956) was something of a disaster for Jean Renoir, a succession of problems (contested rights, fevers, bad accents) for which he struggled to find solutions. It was a box office and critical dud, and ended any hope of Renoir returning to Hollywood. To read its production history in Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography is akin to attending a wake. And yet the film itself is an effervescent thing, an improbable farce about a coup d’etat that positively shimmers with invention. For years Renoir had tried to find a project for Ingrid Bergman, and attracted her with a chance to do light comedy, not something she’d had many opportunities to perform. But due to the stresses of filming both French and English versions of the film (in the U.S. it was titled Paris Does Strange Things), Renoir was miserable during its production and considered its box office failure the final word, dismissing it in interviews. But I would tend to agree with Jean-Luc Godard, one of the film’s only contemporaneous defenders (along with André Bazin), who wrote that Elena and Her Men is the “French film par excellence.”

Jean Renoir had wanted to work with Ingrid Bergman since 1944 during his time in Hollywood, when he considered adapting Mary Webb’s Precious Bane with Bergman as the hare-lipped lead. She was eager to work with him, but it never worked out, and she recalled in her memoirs that Renoir said, “they’d have to wait until her career was in decline and then, when she was falling, he would be there to catch her.” Her remarkable films with then husband Roberto Rossellini were commercial failures, so Renoir was true to his word and offered her Elena and Her Men. It came to life in 1955 after the success of French Cancan, as producer Henry Deutschmeister was eager to get another Renoir film into production. Originally titled The Red Carnation, it was to be a loose adaptation of the life of General Boulanger, the French minister of defense from January 1886 to 1887. A widely admired figure with the public, when he was fired from his position there was a huge groundswell of support, enough to execute a coup d’état and seize power. But instead of listening to his advisers he ran away with his mistress Céline de Bonnemains, choosing love over politics. He would commit suicide at her grave, after she died of tuberculosis.

Renoir wrote the screenplay with Jean Serge – the credit to Cy Howard was purely to give the faulty impression that this was an American co-production. But close to the shooting date Boulanger’s daughters threatened to sue, and major changes had to be made to the script. All the names were changed and any reference to Boulanger was scrubbed – Renoir claims that most of the film had to be improvised. The Boulanger figure was now called General Rollan, and was played by Jean Marais. Bergman said she was happy to have a leading man who was an out homosexual, because “Those people are the only ones who play love scenes perfectly because neither prudery nor sensuality embarrasses them.” Rollan is a conquering hero who is beloved by the common folk – he is introduced first via offscreen audio, as a military march distracts Elena from the dull Abelard and Heloise composition she is playing on the piano with her composer boyfriend. Though it will premiere at La Scala, Elena couldn’t care less, she just wants to rush outside and see what the hullabaloo is about. This little bit of sound mixing brilliantly establishes Elena’s and Rollan’s characters simultaneously – she an endlessly curious student of humanity, he an embodiment of pomp and circumstance.


Elena is a Polish princess and the target of every eligible bachelor in France. She bounces from rich suitor to rich suitor, teasing marriage until she can’t tease anymore. FilmStruck presents the French version of Elena and Her Men, and while Bergman had to brush up on the language, her performance is like a hummingbird, flittering, trilling and fidgeting as she masterminds the attempted downfall of the French republic. Elena is introduced to Rollan by Henri (Mel Ferrer), one of Rollan’s old friends, a member of the idle rich whose entire job seems to be made up of flirting. New Jersey’s own Mel Ferrer got by with his French, though he was ultimately dubbed. According to Merigeau’s biography, it was the English version that imposed the greatest headaches, as the French actors just didn’t understand the language: “They had to speak their lines based on what they could understand of them phonetically, and Renoir ended up having to simplify the dialogue ceaselessly, and then do the same for the shots, and then the scenes.” This version, released in the U.S. as Paris Does Strange Things, was savaged by critics, and is no longer in general circulation.

Elena, though an incorrigible flirt, gets more pleasure out of being a muse than a girlfriend, usually dumping a beau after they achieve some goal, like the completion of the symphony or the overthrow of the government. She gives her man a daisy, which if he keeps it close to his chest, guarantees success in his venture. For Elena it is a way to make a game out of life and remain in the black. General Rollan is her greatest test yet, as he is very reluctant to embrace his inner despot, though the many yes men around him push him toward becoming dictator. While Rollan is pondering treason, Henri is more of a sensualist, his philosophy of life is “universal idleness for everyone, rich or poor.” He spends one Bastille Day evening with Elena, and becomes smitten for life. She runs off before he can get his emotions all over her. His love, it seems, is the only thing that scares her. Godard interpreted Elena to be a Greek Muse, and that to love a man would be to ensure her own death: “To be sure of living, one must be sure of loving; and to be sure of loving, one must be sure of dying. This is what Elena discovers in the arms of her men.”


Elena and Her Men ends in a joyous chain reaction of lovemaking, as a deep kiss between Henri and Elena inspires everyone on-screen, from dour advisers to little street urchins, to grab the neighbor next to them and plant a kiss (very similar to the joke in The Naked Gun [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.



As WWII was winding down, the most popular character in America was the singing priest Chuck O’Malley. As portrayed by Bing Crosby, O’Malley was an amiable reformist, trying to bring Catholicism out of the cathedral and onto the streets. Created in collaboration with director Leo McCarey, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) were the highest grossing films of their year, and amassed ten Academy Awards between them. Adjusted for inflation, The Bells of St. Mary’s made more money domestically than The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Father O’Malley is a kind of Catholic superhero, trying to modernize the religion before it lapses into irrelevancy.

Following Going My Way, McCarey was one of the highest paid men in America, and he could call his own shots. He formed a production company, Rainbow, and started planning the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, which he sold to RKO (Going My Way was distributed through Paramount). He developed the story with screenwriter Dudley Nichols, which focuses on the efforts of Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) to acquire a new building for her crumbling school, which will soon be shut down because of code violations. Father O’Malley is the new parish priest who must try and corral her ambition.

Bergman was under contract with David O. Selznick, so RKO had to pay him $175,000 to borrow her services, as well as sell him the rights to Little Women and A Bill of Divorcement. Bergman recalled how Selznick attempted to dissuade her from accepting the role, arguing that she “would just be a stooge for Bing Crosby’s singing.” She was enraptured by McCarey’s energy, though, and felt that, “If you didn’t like him, there was something wrong with you.” It was a hefty sum for RKO to pay, but Bergman had just won the Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight, and teaming her up with Crosby was the safest box office bet in town. Crosby was an altar boy as a teenager, and attended a Jesuit secondary school, but dropped out of Gonzaga to pursue a career in music. Conversant with both laissez-faire parishioners and strict observers, he was the ideal personality to bridge the gap between the traditionalist and progressive wings of the Catholic church.

While the episodic Going My Way has a tendency to meander, The Bells of St. Mary’s is anchored by the bubbling rapport between Crosby and Bergman. In a reversal of traditional gender roles, O’Malley is presented as a tender nurturer, while Sister Mary is strict and assertive, even teaching a young boy how to box. Crosby is introduced to St. Mary’s school through a series of humiliations. He is chastised by the maid (Una O’Connor), who clucks “I see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns”. In Going My Way he owns every room he’s in with his laid back charm, whereas when he lays back here, he accidentally hits a buzzer and rouses the whole convent. Upon entering the conclave, he proceeds to sit down on a shrieking kitten. And when he gives his welcome address to the nuns, another cat toys with a straw hat behind him, causing the sisters to erupt in laughter.

Despite these indignities, Father O’Malley is still eager to assert his masculinity, so after two kids end up in a brawl, he expresses pride that they stood up for themselves. He tells Sister Mary, “On the outside, it’s a man’s world.” Mary replies, “How are they doing, father?” Their shifting power relations are expressed through the direction of their gaze. Mary begins her retort with modesty, eyes looking down, but by the end of her pointed phrase they drift up and stare straight off-screen at O’Malley, with the edges of her mouth curling into a grin. In his reaction shot O’Malley exhales and looks down, mumbling, “not doing too good” under his breath. This oblique reference to the horrors of WWII is also a decisive moment in their relationship. From here on out they exchange roles – Mary will exert aggression, and O’Malley compassion, accepting his subordinate role in the school’s pecking order.   He becomes a matchmaker for an estranged husband and wife whose daughter attends the school, while Sister Mary teaches her kids how to swing a baseball bat and throw a punch.

McCarey modeled Bergman’s character after his aunt, also named Sister Mary Benedict, a member of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood. Bergman portrays her with impish exuberance, an admitted tomboy who still finds pleasure in upsetting the expectations of how a nun is supposed to act. Bergman is very loose and inventive, and contributed eagerly to the improvisations that McCarey encouraged. Off-hand gestures, like how she flips a baseball off her wrist in a sporting goods store, or exaggerates her footwork during a boxing lesson, were made possible by McCarey’s improvisatory process. During down time, the director would sit at a piano and spitball ideas with the cast, encouraging acts of wild spontaneity. Bergman was already feeling free, not having to worry about her figure since she was clothed in a nun’s habit for the entire feature. “I was like a child with money”, she recalled, “and in the country of the greatest ice cream.”

McCarey put this improvisatory process on the screen with the Christmas Play, which Sister Mary is overseeing. She lets the children write it themselves, and informs O’Malley that, “Every time they do it, the dialogue is different.” The children are clearly making it up as they go along, as Bobby (the son of musical director Robert Emmett Dolan) hems and haws his way through the story of the birth of Jesus, ending in a tableaux of golf-club wielding shepherds. Instead of closing with “O Holy Night”, the kids sing “Happy Birthday”. Despite being set at a Catholic school, The Bells of St. Mary’s is quite secular, presenting the church as more of a social services organization than a religious one.

This is made explicit with the subplot of Patsy Gallagher (Joan Carroll), whose single mother pays the bills through prostitution. O’Malley takes her in as a student without asking questions, and tracks down her errant pianist father. This whole section plays like canned melodrama, a staid commercial for the value of church in the community. It almost seems as if McCarey included these scenes so he could get away with the more subversive antics of the rest of the movie.

One of the next turning points in the film occurs during a secular song. Sister Mary is singing a traditional Swedish folk tune by the piano with the nuns gathered all around her. O’Malley is attracted to the scene by her lilting soprano. He steps towards the circle, and McCarey cuts into a shot from his POV. It is the most artful composition in this otherwise classically framed film, in which two black habits join in the foreground to make a “V” shape, with Sister Mary’s face centered in the middle, as if in a cameo necklace. It is a devotional image, but this is not a religious psalm, but a love song.

Her eyes are shaded downward as she trills the lyrics, which roughly translate to: “Spring breezes whisper and caress loving couples/Streams rush by/But they are not as swift as my heart”. As she winds the song to a close, her voice lowers. But she inches up her head and finally sees O’Malley, which makes her voice fly up the scale to hit her highest note, which breaks up into a chuckle and a grin: “Oh, Father O’Malley!” In recognizing his gaze, she breaks the spell, but the tenor of their relationship has changed.

Their reciprocal glances continue to build in intensity, as word comes down that Mary will be transferred to another convent out West. It is ordered by her doctor, but O’Malley has to pretend it was his decision. This betrayal of trust triggers her shift from secular to spirtual, folk song to prayer. Before her departure, she kneels in in the chapel. Her eyes are directed upwards as she pleads,“Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart”. It is a rare acknowledgment of God’s presence in a film otherwise occupied with the physical. As she passes by O’Malley outside the doors of the convent, her stare is unwavering, as she searches for some flicker of regret in his face. But there is none.

As she is about to depart, her prayer is answered. O’Malley calls her back, and gives her the truth. He did not order her re-assignment. Sister Mary closes her eyes in ecstasy, a beaming smile lighting up her face. She simply says, “Thank you, father. You’ve made me very happy.” They hold each other with their gazes, neither breaking away. For the first time their looks are equal. This is as close as they can come to a declaration of love.

Aware of the erotic tension of this goodbye, Ingrid Bergman planned a practical joke on the final day of shooting. In one of the last takes she threw her arms around a stunned Crosby and kissed him passionately on the lips. Reportedly one of the priests on the set jumped up and yelled, “You can’t use that!” McCarey didn’t, but this missing negative should be as sought after as the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Something else to pray for.