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JEAN RENOIR has had one of the longest and most varied careers of all directors. Always an experimentalist, Renoir did not stop inventing new genres of film after the thirties, as The River (1950) and Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1959) show. At the same time each of his films has roots in the social and intellectual trends of its historical moment.
Within this variety is an astounding unity of vision and method. Renoir's view of people's actions and their place in the world hardly changed in forty years of film-making. The vision he imposed on his material made his films closed works of art describing a closed social order and pattern of lie. An expressive rather than an analytic director, he did not build his films around a scheme of personal development, but instead knitted all patterns of human and natural action into a single pattern within each film.
This article describes his most important films individually and chronologically in order to establish simple terms of analysis and develop them. The points made for one film can be applied to all.
THE EARLY FILMS: spirited rebels against closed worlds.
Nana's dramatic-visual technique reveals characteristics of Renoir's sensibility and style which last throughout his career. The drama depends on strong-as-possible establishment of characters. Each shot is a vignette in which background and lighting are used solely to express a character's emotions and desires.
Taken from Zola's Naturalist novel, Nana shows people's lives fatally ruled by simple drives. A cafe dancer named Nana uses wealthy men to advance her station. Her single-minded selfishness drives two to kill themselves because they can't win her; a third, Comte Muffat, goes to her bedside when she's dying despite the danger of catching her pneumonia. The fatal love of these men for Nana is simple and unchanging.
Renoir accepts this strong and simple view of motivation. His use of the entire frame to describe each character's emotional makeup means that (1) any shot of a given character looks much the same as the others, since characters' psychological makeup remain constant; (2) successive shots are disjunct because the background, manipulated to support one character, changes for another. The background has no consistency; it is not an independent entity.
A figure distant in a frame is, in general, week compared to a figure close to the camera. Changing characters' distance from the camera is a way of making them more or less strong and immediate. The characters of Nana are always coming into close shot, asserting their power. Here again the background loses out; the characters fill the frame with their personalities, or rather unchanging personal' essences.
The peculiar power of Renoir's frontal compositions culminates near the end, when characters really begin coming into the foreground. The apparition of one of the men Nana drove to suicide appears when she lies dying in bed. He points his hand accusingly at her; Renoir shoots him straight on, his hand clawing toward us. This is intercut with symmetrical frontal shots of Nana in bed surrounded by curtains--only to be followed by a symmetrical shot of Muffat entering the room. These close shots following one another push the film to a climax.
The climax is a track in on her dead body. It shows her unchanged, the same center of power and attraction she has been through the film. It vindicates her by increasing and establishing, once and for all, her strength.
Built on a view of motivation (Naturalism) that is fixed and simple, Nana is often tedious. Its immediate interest lies in Renoir's quick establishment of a particular social milieu in secondary characters--Nana's maid and manager. Its rare long shots also evoke this period. Renoir's method of establishing character is never again so unrelieved; but it never loses the immediacy, simplicity, and unchangeability from which the characters of Nana suffer.
In the very first shots of Petite Marchande Renoir overrides clear narrative progress to create quite a different effect. The superimposition of the first title on a whitish image, and the composition of the first several shots with show falling in the foreground, establish a fairy-tale world in which a white screen separates the viewer from real objects. The first three shots--a very long shot of the town, a medium long shot of it with a train running across the background, and a medium shot of the match girl's hut--are a silent film's normal way of establishing a setting and moving in to the specific scene of action. The action here begins early, with the train running and the girl opening the hut's door. But instead of showing the next step in the action, Renoir cuts to a close shot of a post swaying beside the door as if to present the essence of the action of the snow and wind. Then he cuts to a medium shot and a diagonal long shot of the hut from above. Having established the action, he is separating us from it, pushing us out into the cold. Shown the situation close up and forcefully, we are removed from it and left only with a sense of the planes and light of the scene.
Renoir uses space in Petite Marchande to create two planes, of which one (black) is real and one (white) is not. Thus the opening shots of snow falling between the camera and the girl create an entire plane, a screen that separates us from her. When she looks through a window into a warm restaurant, the window at once separates her from what she wants (warmth and company) and expresses the notion that the view is an illusion--a notion reinforced by reverse-angle shots which show only her face through the frosted plane.
The idea of her physical surroundings as an imaginary view is carried through a sequence in a toy shop. Mechanical movements of dolls in the background, huge foreground objects that destroy our sense of scale, create unreal planes that detach her and us from the action. The following sequence, in which Death pursues her and a young soldier (both on horses) in the sky, abstracts the image and physical motion still further. The background becomes pure white, a single plane. White is pushed entirely to the back, so that it no longer separates the actors from us; it is thus reduced as far as possible, so that these scenes are the most immediate and the most real of the film. The characters are most solidly established; there is nothing but them against the screen. Their struggle, against Death, is most desperate. The acting style becomes more direct and potent; the positioning of characters in the frame, the angle their bodies form as pure black shapes often in silhouette, their simple expressions and body movements completely express the drama. The means and effect of Renoir's expression are here completely united, integrated with his dramatic method.
Therefore it's noteworthy that this sequence of the struggle, of two lovers against Death, doesn't treat any kind of personal development or change. Its dramatic premise, the tension that moves it, is the unchanging opposition of their spirits to their situation. Renoir stylizes these shots to express the situation and their opposition as vividly as he can. Outsiders in a cold world closed to them, they cannot penetrate through its white screens to something real and human. They want something more than do the other characters who move doll-like through the streets. They are killed by one of their own kind--Death is as black, as real, and in a sense as full of spirit as they--who is nevertheless the executioner of the closed world that rejects them. the plot recurs through Renoir's films.
Nana is a Naturalist work, Petite Marchande Expressionist; Boudu has gained a reputation for being realistic. One of the first sound films shot on location, it is built entirely on its observation of bourgeois and hobo behavior.
In fact, Boudu is nothing but a series of episodes premised on one conflict: between the free spirit of a tramp, Boudu, and the constriction of the bourgeois home of the Lestingois. A set of skillfully linked skits (The Lestingois Eat Dinner, Boudu Seduces Mme. Lestingois), it depends for its interest on acting which establishes its characters strongly as individuals. "Strongly" means "broadly:" Michel Simon plays Boudu for slapstick, and Mme. Lestingois' character is established just as quickly through her gestures and her place in the frame. Renoir again uses lighting and placement in the frame to exploit his actors' personal appearances and establish their personalities. The maid, for example, comes in with the groceries; going to a window, she leans out and hangs them on a hook, looking up into the camera. The camera angle (high, down on her), the framing of her head and shoulders in the window, her expression and glance show that she is pretty, idealistic, sentimental, and sprightly--an impression unchanged by later events.
Renoir gives entire scenes to one character, often connecting scenes by following a character from one room to the next. This gives us a sense, otherwise absent, of the plan of the Lestingois' home. Renoir frames his shots too closely for us to see the logic of the house's plan, how it fits together. His shots instead give a strong sense of its character. The cramped shots, which often cut off actors' heads and feet, express the constriction of this home. They bring objects, usually a gauzy white, to the surface of the frame to create a china-shop atmosphere. Boudu is the bull. The spacious shots at the film's beginning and end show him in his natural milieu--they are deep and spacious. His body and movements are much too large for the Lestingois' home; he constantly bumps into things, destroys them. An outsider, he escapes unchanged into his natural place at the end.
The thematic material that crops up through the film reinforces its basic circularity, lack of progress. At the beginning a satyr pursues a nymph in a Neo-Classical setting. When Boudu and Mme. Lestingois tumble to the floor, the camera holds on a picture of a trumpeter of sexual nature. The marriage of Boudu to the maid near the end again has classical overtones (Lestingois names him "Priapus Boudu"). Each classifies the action of the characters as one pattern of the Eternal Human. These elements, inexplicable in a work regarded as realistic, becomes clear when one recognizes Renoir's indulgent attitude to people's behavior. This behavior is the sole substance of Boudu; Renoir does not move beyond its surface-patterns to an overview of its place in the world and its moral implications, but instead molds it so that it fits into his closed work. Each character has a chance to play out his part in this circular drama.
Toni is Neo-Realist in its location shooting and close observation of daily behavior. Beginning with a group of immigrants entering a southern French village, it follows them through a few years of marriage, estrangement, friendship, death--all the processes of their lives. The setting, strongly established in the first shots (of the landscape from a moving train), remains prominent throughout. The characters have a definite place in the setting, one of isolation, inability of penetrate its surface. Elements of a geometrical pattern (the two-dimensional pattern of each shot), the figures of the characters are barred from real unity, warmth, or security in the land.
Actually there are two basic kinds of shots in Toni. The first, described above, shows the land unpeopled or with figures clearly placed on its surface. The second is a close shot of one or more people which shows little more than their faces. The dramatic function of the close shots is to show the characters very strong, in themselves--or rather, in the grip of those immovable passions which express their selves. Their strength of character is a strength that comes from fixity. The long shots are used to show characters carrying out these passions. Their actions have a fatality and clarity which echoes the characters' alienation from the land.
One character, more passionate than the others, fights the land harder and is killed. More desperate for love, Toni is also more conscious of his isolation: he repeatedly does not know what to do (depends on Fernand's advice) or where to stand (his position in the frame is often awkward). His restlessness and wish for something more (note his dissatisfaction with Marie), and ultimately set him against the other characters, who have a stable if alienated relation to the land. One of them finally shoots him. It is the Hunter, a mysterious figure who keeps appearing at odd moments in awkward positions. He has no more stable place than Toni, but because Renoir has not established his character (in the sense of spirit: we certainly know Toni's spirit), he seems to act automatically, as part of the land. His shooting of Toni is in human terms a stupid mistake, against the gendarme's orders; but his inexplicable action is a fated act, one which the land and the plot dictate. The character most like Toni kills him.
The world of Crime is a dreamworld. The film begins with a twilight car-journey whose origins and end are uncertain. The dialogue when the car stops at a hotel tells us we have arrived at the border--from what land to what, we don't know. The couple from the car enters the hotel and goes to a room; the camera cuts to a conversation in the bar about their identity. In the middle of the men's conversation a woman, Valentine, appears. Highlighted and surrounded closely by them, she tells her story--a love-tale, the degree of whose truth we can't determine. By its end the moral urgings of the men who wanted to turn the couple over to the police have been lost. The couple departs, the men waving to them, in a dream-image of sand-flats and mist.
As the flashback device establishes, this dream is a woman's. A woman's point of view is maintained throughout. We are introduced to Lange by a pan around the objects in his room. His childish fantasies are treated more sympathetically than others' hard situations. The film accords entirely with his idealism; this world is governed not by social structure, rules, or decisions, but by people's illusions. It's a sort of Utopian socialism with Lange, the man Valentine (narrator) loves, at its center. His woman-chasing, though absurdly inept, is treated indulgently. The predominance of white surfaces and bright light (Valentine, a laundress, loves clean white surfaces) excludes a view which, including black and white, would give us a moral scheme for this world by recognizing contrary pulls, polarities of good and evil in each person and object. Instead every thing is idealized; all the women, for example, are so lighted as to tend to Valentine's type of beauty.
That the film is from Valentine's point of view explains the place of Batala, its real protagonist. Batala is a big man because he's Valentine's former lover. Every shot treats him as a sexual threat. The film's greatest artist, he is a master of connivance, of disguise, of business, and of sexual persuasion. Full of spirit, he returns from the dead to take over his business once again. Usually photographed in black clothes and dark settings, his personal power is greater than any other's.
But Valentine has taken to Lange, whose artistry--dreaming, doing good--is of a completely different nature. Therefore Batala has to go. Even in the early part of the film he is kept in his office, behind doors, within bounds. He does not fit into Valentine's plan of the world is a place friendly to Lange's fantasies. Valentine pushes her creature, a pampered artist, into the murder of a far greater artist, a capitalist who depends on nobody but himself.
"Films that take place in a prison are very convenient because the characters are automatically cut off, which is a great help in telling a story. With "La Grande Illusion," for instance, the fact that it's all enclosed within four walls is marvelous; it's a foolproof situation." --JEAN RENOIR
In Grande Illusion Renoir elevates his characters' behavior to the status themes hold in his earlier works. Every personal characteristic is made significant; each idiosyncrasy is important in the social structure that links the prisoners. A very tightly built work in which every gesture is necessary, its characters' behavior seems thin because it is so exploited. Renoir says he made the film to show "how men meet each other;" men's mannerisms create social bonds as the film progresses. By the end we see how it is possible for society to work.
It works through individual illusions which, sending characters on divergent courses of action, ultimately knit them together. Consider Boildieu and Marechal; from the beginning their actions (in the German squadron's mess-hall, for example) show that their tastes lie in entirely different directions. But their social situations eventually unite them. Rauffenstein's affectionate treatment of Boildieu shows the latter the fragility and absurdity of the aristocratic way of life in the present; he abandons this illusion for another, that of escape (but at second hand, for he ties himself to the aristocratic mode even when it assures his death). Escape the illusion which has held the French together; their tunnel-digging and concealment of their work with songs and acts have a theatrical air which completely engrosses them (they forget the man in the tunnel, who is nearly asphyxiated). Each character, in fact, plays a part more or less consciously; all are aware of their personal oddities, and maintain them because of the artificial closed situation to which they are subjected. Each is allowed to play out his part to some sort of resolution before the film leaves him.
The scenes are very stylized so that this can happen. Several begin with a shot of an object, the center of the scene (a gramophone in the messhall, a crate of food in prison) which follows. With the scene so clearly organized, characters' places also become clear. This is especially true of the scene in which Marechal and Rosenthal walk along a German road far from the last prison camp. The background is almost completely bare, expressing their freedom but also their loneliness and lack of social surroundings and definition as they quarrel over a relatively minor irritation (Rosenthal's wounded foot), almost separating for lack of society, which would push them together.
In Renoir's view the social relations he describes unite all men. The private province of the aristocrats is thus doomed, and Rauffenstein and Boildieu become the outsiders of the film. The nearest Boildieu comes to Democratic integration with the rest is by participating in the common illusion, that of escape, although his interests lie in staying where aristocratic privilege is still maintained. At the same time Boildieu recognizes that his personal style cannot be reconciled with the others. He therefore sentences himself to death. Marechal is his opposite number; less conscious of himself, he is impulsively romantic--his wish for love is a theme running through the film. He is the most devoted to the illusion of escape--an illusion which, turning out to be a reality (against Rauffenstein's statements), vindicates his democratic milieu and dooms Boildieu's. Marechal's escape depends on the democratic brotherhood of man--not only in the end, when the German border guards do not fire on him and Rosenthal but wish them well, but at the moment that they go over the wall. Boildieu is shot by Rauffenstein--the nobles as a class commit suicide--but he dies for Marechal.
The large cast of Regle means that the film establishes each character only to cut immediately to another. There is some ensemble playing, but Renoir more often cuts together scenes of different pairs or triplets of characters to parallel their behavior. As in Boudu, Renoir's superior attitude toward people's behavior as a recurrent human pattern becomes evident here. In Regle he creates types rather than characters--immediately recognizable, quickly established types who are never given the time to themselves to become characters.
Regle is Grande Illusion with twice the characters and three times the events. Where the characters of the earlier film unite in common activities (the tunnel, the vaudeville show), the common functions of Regle's characters quickly split into private affairs in different rooms. The action is so fragmented that Renoir's crosscutting creates a world of clutter and trivial detail. Though Renoir may disapprove of some actions (the rabbit-hunt sequence implies that he condemns at least the final shooting), his interest overwhelmingly lies in creating an entire society from patterns of human behavior. The achievement of a complete work of art takes precedence over moral judgments.
A man of great spirit is, as usual, opposed to this game-ruled world to explore it and create dramatic tension. His character and desires are rather adolescent--but, placed in such a decadent world, who can blame him? He is as usual killed by the society which he would rend apart if he survived--killed, interestingly enough, by the gamekeeper, whose situation (an unfaithful love) and reaction (that of the serious, morally involved) parallels his. The society envelops his death in one more of its rituals, but in so doing strains perhaps to the breaking point.
THE AMERICAN FILMS: open works shaped around the hero's development.
Renoir's American movies are certainly not so complex and tightly constructed as the last of his French films. Nevertheless, their different plot construction and intention introduces new concerns into Renoir's work which immediately changes the style and structure of his film-making. In the long run it completes the development of his films as closed works of art by making him aware of the dramatic and visual implications of his idealism.
Previously that idealism had been realized mainly in the characters of his heroes, men of more spirit than their friends. Character development in these films, frequently multiple, sometimes multi-directional (Les Bas-Fonds), was made orderly only by its integration into the whole work. From the behavior of characters the world was constructed--a world based on recurrent processes rather than mental development.
American screenplays, however, are generally written around the development of one character, designed to illustrate that development. Entirely concerned with matters of the soul, they doubly nullify Renoir's dramatic construction. (1) A closed social world which kills the hero becomes rare, since the film takes the side of his development, and other characters are used to define (by comparison and contrast, also by struggle) his development more often than to defeat it completely. (2) the American mental drama tends continually to transcendence; it ends up far from where it began. Personal development is one way. A circular dramatic plan, which emphasizes recurrent behavior instead of the progress from one sort of behavior to a better one, is hardly well adapted to American purposes.
Renoir's American films thus use fewer characters and a well-defined background to illustrate by comparison and contrast the progress of the hero. Somewhat thin and didactic, they are nevertheless interesting in showing Renoir's ability to treat the background as an entity of psychological and moral import. His use of long shot and camera motion also changes; getting away from the quick cutting and short motions that reached a peak in Regle, his style does not return to Toni's surface-creating pans, but creates a more three-dimensional space in the composition of shots and use of tracks.
The most striking single aspect of Southerner is Renoir's visual treatment of the land. An early tracking shot toward a run-down homestead with an old woman's voice complaining is strangely interesting, especially when Renoir cuts to shots of the dilapidated house, the voice continuing. Later shots, often low-angle, of Sam (the hero, an aspiring farmer) working his land set up an intimate relation between them which remains two-term, his figure vertical and the land horizontal. Sam is neither alienated from nor assimilated into the land; he can leave it, go into the city; but when he is on his farm there is always a relation between them.
The nature of this relationship becomes clear near the end of the film. Over narration (Sam: "and I hear the land calling to me, like Nora [his wife] does sometimes") a shot of him lying in bed with his wife dissolves to a shot of the land, then back, and forth in a dissolve montage. The land is a sexual entity for Sam. His attempts to farm it at once have to conquer and to love it. The setbacks and triumphs of his relation with it develop his character, even as the visual aspect of the relation at any one point tells us the stage this development has reached.
Woman on the Beach (1947) similarly treats the land as a psychological-sexual entity. Its misty and stormy exteriors reveal as little as the principal woman of the film to the hero, in terms of whose point of view the whole movie is shot. Some wonderful bits of drama result; the hero's God-like power relation to a blind man is realized in high-angle shots down from the hero (astride a horse) onto the man and down over a sheer cliff beside which the blind man is walking. The blind man (the woman's husband) at the end burns his paintings, and his house, on which he has depended, to free himself from them and begin living again. The hero approaches their house over dune-grass, flames in the distance--expressing the new self-realization of the hero and the blind painter. But on the whole the plot's thinness and the small number of characters does not support Renoir's stylization of background and other components of the frame.
THE LATER FILMS: assimilation into a closed ideal world and work.
Renoir's later works, Cordelier at least excepted, become once more closed works in which the end affirms the same world as the beginning. But Renoir now depends less on paralleled behavior to build his works, and the identity of the world is based less on behavior than on ideals. These works' worlds are ideal worlds, distant from the present--a girl's imagination (The River), the New World in the Seventeenth Century (La Carrosse d'Or), fin-de-siecle Paris (French Can-Can). Personal change is a growth of awareness with moral consequences.
The heroes of these works, the most idealistic ones, are now assimilated into the world and the work because these have become ideal. The consequent loss of their identity is if anything more frightening than the death of his earlier heroes suffered.
The River is an experiment in ways of depicting personal development. The American films were partly unsuccessful because of their acting style. Acting for psychological description, constantly metaphorical about something larger than the character himself, is always somewhat faked; the drama, always somewhat illusionistic. Renoir couldn't build a drama of any complexity and richness of interplay from acting that had to be so clear, not to say didactic.
In The River he had all his characters underplay their parts. He used them purely as positions in the frame around which he built his drama. He thus managed to create a social milieu for the English just out of people's positions in the frame, and by inter-cutting shots which are essentially the points of view of the English, he then represented their experiences directly while his other shots illustrated their social dynamics and development. A split persists, though, between the point-of-view shots, which illustrate a recurring patterned social world, and the English shots which document development. The connection is purely ideal (as, strictly speaking, it is purely visual): the narrator's feeling that her development makes her a part of the vast process of degeneration and recreation, cyclical flow, she sees happening around her.
Renoir's treatment of the English and his treatment of the Indians are quite different. The Indians have no individuality; their activity is treated as a natural process. In a sequence at a jute mill. Renoir shows three men's legs moving in unison, then a line of about seven Indians carrying bundles of raw jute into the mill across the screen, then groups of Indians putting jute through machines--following the journey of the jute and treating the Indians as so much more machinery. Similarly, the film's first shots are of a man singing in a boat panning up and out to longer shots of the river with its boats; cutting to a barge and showing a gang of men rowing in unison, focusing closely on the coordinated rhythms of their limbs, then cutting to a slow pan over the river-scape. The activity of the men and the flow of the river are seen as one. The non-differentiation of foreground and its action from background is emphasized by pans, which stress the surface of the shot by presenting a series of people or objects as if they were a screen (across which the camera moves).
The visual and script treatment of the English, though, stresses their individuality. It relies on their relations to each other (whereas the Indians are lined up together like inanimate objects) and builds their personal development--at least that of the three girls. Their characters are established by camera tracks. An early shot of Captain John tracks into his figure in bed; the narration stresses his immaturity and isolation as the shot creates a special space around him. The camera track reveals his self-indulgence and passivity, a reflection of his wish to have people come to him.
In general these tracks create depth around each character by involving them in depth. Moving in or out on characters, they give them greater importance and size dramatically as visually. Dramatic placing built on this technique gives each character his own space in which he acts and interacts. More responsive to individual actions than pans, these tracks' motion develops characters. They change the relation of foreground to background and with it the moral relation of the character to us.
These social relations, the perception of the English social milieu, are colored very strongly by one point of view--that of the narrator. She is at once the most imaginative and the most isolated. The visual expression of this is an image crucial to The River because it defines one pole of the experience the film treats. The image is of her hiding-place, a hole cut out of the wall which is her personal space. In it she daydreams and writes poetry. The place of the most personal depth and isolation is the basis for the most complete personal experience and development.
The other pole of the movie's experience is the objects and people seen. Here the Indians and their land can be connected to the English: almost every sequence of Indian activity is presented as the Englishmen's experience. The flatness of these shots expresses the Englishmen's isolation from their experience. Only one Englishman tries to go beyond this vicarious experience of India, to assimilate himself into the Indian world. The little boy tries to charm a snake; he is bitten and dies. The way to participate in the Indians' world of recurring natural process is, rather through poetry and vision--vicariously, ideally. We see this not only above, but in the last shot. The three developing girls, including the narrator, line up on the veranda; the camera tracks in on them, over their heads, and down to the river. The shot at once shows their isolation from their background, their distant purely mental link to this background, and the similarity of their vicarious experience of this world to ours.
Golden Coach's plot can be summarized as a series of transformations, actors into audience and audience into actors. The Italians on stage observe and judge their Spanish audience as acutely as the Spaniards judge them. Anna Magnani continually puts off her mask only to find that she is playing a role again. The Viceroy can control his Spanish nobles as long as he maintains a style that dazzles them. When he tries to penetrate everybody's masks to find the reality behind, their material power confronts his power and he is defeated. For Renoir, penetrating is not the way to discover the sesence of others or oneself. This essence exists within the social process; one must submit to this process, play along, to understand the greatness of people.
In Golden Coach the theater is a metaphor for the social process. The Coach, for example, is a magnificent spectacle that keeps everyone in awe and in line. The symbol of power and wealth alone generates authority. The error of the Spanish nobles, the reason they are such shallow men, is that they proceed directly from the material (gold) to the symbolic, not realizing the necessity of the spiritual factor to the symbolic. The Italians, conscious of the importance of imagination, put on a far better show. They are more in touch with themselves; their consciousness of their roleplaying (Magnani looking in the mirror sees Theater) refers them constantly back to their own lives and desires and imaginations. They, in particular Magnani, show those qualities Renoir thinks essential to greatness in men. The Spaniards, who never look at themselves, are unaware that their facade is shallow and without real style.
Magnani is probably the outsider of this film. She is vindicated by a plot reversal: the Bishop is on the side of actors, the world (in terms of its power-authority structure, and thus in terms of what characters can do) is a stage after all. But to win, to survive, she has had to surrender herself to art. It seems that she has given herself to the Church--her pledge to the Bishop, her black costume. She has renounced her most prized possession, even (one feels from the epilogue in front of the curtain) renounced the world. Now she will exist only for the stage, on stage--because in terms of human greatness that is all you can have. That's because acting is a heightening of the social process--and for Renoir the social process is the only real thing in life.
The period setting of Golden Coach establishes it as an artificial drama. Renoir handles the sets so as to allow each character his personal part; there are endless blind walls and corners in which one-minute acts are performed. The shooting style also presents the characters vividly, bringing their acts across as it tends to close shot vignette of the heroes and facade-emphasizing medium shots of the Spaniards, who remain at a distance from us and never become full people. Toward the end of the film, though, Renoir begins to dismantle his sets, tracking for example across the interiors of three rooms (sitting room, anteroom, and council chamber) as the Viceroy's conflicting parts takes him from one stage to the other. Renoir cuts in close shot of Magnani fullface in the scene where all her lovers come to visit her; she seems alone and nowhere, none can reach her. The next scene, of the plot reversal and Magnani's self-sacrificing triumph, is mostly in long shot with motions tending to ritual--Renoir is beginning to separate us from his characters and abstract the drama. The final abstraction comes when he tracks out from his last shot, only to have the curtain fall and Magnani come out before it. Isolated on a bare forestage, no depth behind her, she delivers her last lines to us. Her self-awareness has reached a new height, and she has accepted her part in the play, which means that she cannot penetrate beneath its surface but must remain part of its flow. Her last lines apply to Golden Coach as well as to herself, and thus make the film self referential and completely closed.
French Can-Can also describes the assimilation of a person, in this case a young girl, into the world of Art. Set in Paris of the late eighteen-hundreds, it tells the story of an old showman who decides to invent a new dance routine and build a new night club, the Moulin Rouge, for it. He gets together a troupe of girls--young, for the dance demands suppleness--and painstakingly trains them. After great difficulty he reaches opening night--and the head of his troupe catches him kissing an older woman. Having believed he loved her, she throws a tantrum and refuses to dance. The showman/artist tells her, in a long speech at the heart of Renoir, that Art is bigger than her narrow desires; she may quit, but she will never be an artist. She decides at the last minute to go on, thus losing her other lover. The last shots of the film show the dance beginning.
Despite the similarity of its theme, Can-Can is an entirely different movie from Golden Coach. Renoir builds a period world, a background which has a life of its own. Whereas all Golden Coach's backgrounds were at least three-dimensional sets, Renoir actually uses painted backdrops in some scenes of Can-Can. They evoke the era with a coloristic grandeur--the film has been called "Impressionist", but is bigger in scale than Impressionist paintings--and give the foreground action a real background. The spirited activity of the characters has a last found a worthy setting. The background colors the action of every shot and shapes the characters to its gay, idealistic quality.
Renoir's magnificent use of angled long shot climaxes in two crucial scenes. The first shows the principal girl when she has just turned down an offer of marriage from a young nobleman. She goes out of the frame, leaving him standing against a column in a huge hall; the scene is shot long, at an angle, so that he is completely alone, yet surrounded by a sympathetic seting. The deep setting maintains great, deep space around him which at once isolates him and gives great freedom of movement; its colors and columns echo his figure and make his situation, rather than simply barren, one with many possible choices. This depth-filled scene shows a moment of strong emotional experience and important personal decision. Renoir cuts outdoors and we hear a pistol shot.
The film's last sequence, of the dance, is shot in the same hall, now darkened and intensely colored as it is filled with spectators. Into its center jump the girls--one from off right, another from the balcony. Their white and red dresses pick up the light and they become a mass, distinguishable yet unified, of forms in motion. They are set in the middle of the long shot; Renoir cuts closer and farther, but each shot maintains a balance between the dark forms in fore ground and the light ones in the center, and integrates the two through color. Characters and background remain two terms defining each other, yet they harmonize perfectly. The physical motion of the sequence sweeps us into a transcedent motion whose visual appearance completely carries its ideal quality. Everything, every spirit, is incorporated into the work of art in motion.
"Art is born from constraint, lives through struggle and dies through liberty." --ANDRE GIDE
In Dejeuner Renoir expresses his central theme, of the recurring eternal nature of human social processes, through an unstructured melange of broadly presented themes, wild overacting, and plot which doesn't get beyond slapstick skits. The result is a truly horrifying mess.
The action of Dejeuner has no direction. It does not follow any deep personal change. The conversion of the scientist into a man of passion is absurd as far as acting style and visual realization are concerned; only because Renoir tells us so do we say that he has become a new man. It's impossible to take his action after his conversion as a serious change from his behavior before. Nor does it create a closed social milieu, or even an outdoor world of any consistency. It simply presents Renoir's themes in unprocessed, unstructured form for their own sake. We have the feeling that vaudevillians have been set against a screen and told to do their bit. The feeling comes both from the acting, which creates characters that are simply cliches, and from the visual treatment, which shows how awful a description "purely evocative" can be.
The acting style of Dejeuner is the broadest possible. Characters are built not from accurate observation of real types but from some parody of those characters as they appear in bad films or poor plays. The Girl Scout leader, for example, is solely a figure of fun with no personality. There is no subtlety in the portrayal of a chemical manufacturer, his wife who diets strictly to show off his products, or his brother, an equally greed "pure" scientist. They follow their given directions (their greed is too simple to be called a motivation) until, with the piping of Pan, all restraint is thrown off. They then instantly change (or else do not change at all) into manic characters -- the wife, for example, begins gobbling food. This either/or behavior has no middle ground, no development. None of the characters are in the least complex. They seem not to affect each other; automatons, the lack of any depicted social restraint means that their behavior will ignore the possibility of another course of action.
The visual style has no more order. Renoir's selection of close and long shot seems entirely whimsical. Shots are slapped together with little smoothness. His frequent cutting-in of thematic material (notably Pan and his goat) is just irritating. The grainy red color deprives the landscapes of any harmony and beauty; every square inch of the frame, sharing the same color quality, grates on one's eyes. The film is a long sequence of shots which oppress us by their constant clashing; the film seems to be cut for unrelieved conflict on a very low level.
Renoir is at least consistent. All these qualities make sense in terms of the themes he wants to express in Dejeuner: the irrepressible vital force of the world and of human desires, the world's natural processes as a constant small-scale battle of one entity against another, the virtue of unreason and natural conduct, the unity of flesh and spirit. But it makes no sense in personal terms. It is totally unconcerned with why men act as they do. Renoir, appealing to vague eternal concepts (Pan, the mistral, sexual lust), tries to express his views directly, without using his work of art and its structure as a medium. The result is something which is consistent but is not--an certainly not for Renoir--a work of art.
In the opening shot of Testament a little girl in medium long shot is walking down a deserted street at night. The camera is angled so that the distance of her walk is emphasized. Behind her, beside the sidewalk, is a high blank wall. She hears the tapping of a cane and, glancing behind her, begins to hurry from street-lamp to street-lamp. A grotesquely lanky, bent man overtakes her. Cornering her in the angle between the wall and a shuttered house, he beats her to death with his cane. The alarm is raised, but he escapes in the night.
The sequence knits everything into one--sexual threat, potentially traumatic childhood experience, fear, the possibility and reality of sin and death. Every image of the film sustains these themes to create Renoir's first really American movie, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Cordelier begins as a young psychoanalyst who had denied himself all diversions to train hard and marry well for a successful practice. He thus chose for himself a respectable society which would not tolerate irregular conduct. One day he administers a sleeping draught to one of his many female patients. Seeing her unconscious on his couch, he cannot restrain himself from fondling her breast. This practice grows, but he soon realizes its dangers, and instead begins to look for a way to create a second identity. An accomplished experimenter, he invents a process for transforming his appearance, and begins to haunt the streets at night. At length discovered, he has already committed suicide upon realizing that the change was becoming permanent.
The film, instead of building a social milieu, creates a clear and consistent background against which Cordelier's actions take place. He is placed in free space against black and white. The symbolism is clear: Cordelier dresses in white and appears in brightly lit surroundings; his alter ego, in black at night. But as the film progresses Renoir places the double in daylight and Cordelier in the dark; the two are one.
The one dissolves into the other in Cordelier's laboratory, a shed barred to everyone else and filled with chemical apparatus. Here Cordelier had found a way to divide his personality and desires; he made himself two different people in two milieux. For Renoir this split cannot be tolerated. Cordelier's sexual desires were not wrong, his way of realizing them was. Escape from his society through the work of his mind only drove him to terrible acts -- tripping up cripples, murdering a child. One cannot change one's identity; one must take one's desires as they are. Trying to realize them in the world as it exists, one will lose something of one's identity by integrating it into the overall process of life.
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