at the Brattle now though March 29
"FOR A LONG TIME I hesitated to bring to the screen a story of the days of the French Revolution," wrote Jean Renoir. "Such a mass of stupidities concerning that period had accumulated, the men of the times and the ideals they held had been so distorted, that I imagined I stood before some sort of heroic mummery, before howling marionettes, decked out in tinsel--and not before men. Now, in studying in Revolution, one must realize that it was made by normal, intelligent, and congenial men. The astonishing thing about these men, perhaps, is their simplicity. I hope that the public will make friends with them and that it will not regret the passing of the grandiloquent puppets which a bad tradition has imposed on the world."
Every moment of Renoir's La Marseillaise shows the idiosyncracies of the men of the Revolution, the variety of their personalities. From the beginning the plot and the Revolution are advanced by the actions of specific characters. Not only on a script level, but more vitally in Renoir's formal style, so the actions of each man make the Revolution: breathtaking camera tracks sum up their actions into a single forward motion, and the characters are thereby swept into the world of the film, the historical movement that was the French Revolution.
This extraordinary incorporation of individual into collective motion propels the film forward. We are inevitably carried from the Revolution's beginnings in the Midi to the storming of Versailles, a span of several years and several hundred miles. That Renoir can make a film of this scope which scarcely slackens its pace, while sticking closely to the passions and actions of single men, proves (if proof were necessary) his genius.
The film's world is a historical movement. Another sort of world is also presented: that of the nobility exiled in Germany. The gimcrack-filled hostel where they lodge perfectly establishes the decadence and staticity of their lives. The scene showing them is diverse in character and conduct; the variety of the aristocrats' feelings and actions is the substance of their social actions. But their entire milieu is doomed, simply because it does not move. Set against Renoir's virile shots of the revolutionaries, simple and full of strong light-dark contrast, the over-refined nobles stand no chance.
Toni used relatively restrained camera movements, at most slow pans (excepting one frightening tract), to create a world of permanence--the land, into which all the characters' actions flow. This formal method realizes the plot to give the film a feeling of fatality an fixity. The world of La Marseillaise is a world of motion. But the moral structure of the films--Renoir's view of the place of personal feelings and actions in the world--is the same. Both films are created, closed works, the setting of La Marseillaise being as purely evocative (again, one couldn't draw a map of the setting) as that o Toni. Into this setting Renoir's characters--Toni, the aristocrats--either fit to die.