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Films Le Grand Theatre de Jean Renoir

By Mike Prokosch

Retrospective at the Orson Welles Cinema over the next two weeks.

INRENOIR'S mature works every formal device brings the actors closer to the audience. His camera pans and dollies to let them move easily, instead of staying put and obliging them to play within its frame; his compositions are a series of stages on whose multiple playing-areas the actors express their personalities. The informal appearance of Renoir's films, especially those before his American period, consists in this: such clearly formal cinematic means as framing and tracking are incorporated into the playing of a scene instead of signifying the scene's import directly to the audience, as in most film art.

In the thirties this method created movies which are before anything else triumphs of performance. Bonda Sauve de Eaux (1932), for example, has scarcely a well-matched cut in it, for Renoir uses each new shot as an opportunity to restage his actors, according to the new relationships that have evolved among them. All that carries the drama smoothly from shot to shot is the force of their playing. Each character takes a different acting style (melodramatic heroine, slapstick clown) to an extreme; and the series of comic reversals which their conflicts of style engender becomes a social process so vivid that it overrides the startling disjunction between one composition and the next.

While later masterpieces like Le Crime de M. Lange (1936) and La Marscillaise (1938) are more consistent on a directly formal level, they still depend on acting for their impact and, indeed, are still films about social acting. This becomes transparently clear in La Regle du Jeu (1939) and its kindred masterpieces of the fifties. Throughout Renoir's films all characters' actions are social in nature; scarcely a man performs an action by himself, or for himself; every act is a species of public performance. Even when Michel Simon awakens in La Chienne (1931) and goes to shave, a window behind him reveals the courtyard of his apartment building, and beyond that another window in which a woman does her laundry. Nobody in Renoir's movies is alone; everyone performs his personal actions for society. Those individuals who, like Toni and Andre Jurieu, find this omnipresence of society an intolerable constraint, end being killed by their social milieu.

IN THE FIFTIES, though, a change in the nature of society commutes their deaths. During his work in America in the forties, Renoir's conception of character and social process became more idealist. The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) outlines a society after the moral directions of its various members; The Southerner (1945) creates a natural environment whose processes of dormancy and growth Renoir identifies with the sleeping and lovemaking of his heroes. The River (1950) links every living being in the cycle of life and rebirth that fascinates its adolescent heroine. And the heroines of his next three films end by giving themselves to the social worlds in which they find themselves, for these societies have taken on the characterization of works of art.

More specifically, they are works of theatre, as The Golden Coach (1952) explicitly states and French Can Can (1952) and Elena et les Hommes (1956) elaborate. In these works the personal acting styles of the characters become extravagant to the point of farce. Like the aristocrats of Regle, those of Elena dash about with an apparent anarchy whose larger order imposes melancholy on the film, since this order limits them to acting in a social farce instead of letting them express their individual passions freely. The emotions that end Elena rank with the most complex in cinema. for the film develops Renoir's thesis, that all behavior is social-theatrical convention, to its fullest.

Elena picks up the relation between privileged performer and plebeian audience where the ending of French Can Can leaves it, namely in a state of joyous common participation in a social spectacle; it transforms this relation into one of sorrowful class distinction. The ending of Elena forces its high-born heroine to adopt the dominant mood of her whole social surrounding, but it denies her a role within it. The inner door-frame, which in early Renoir let privileged heroes pass into the free milieu of the street, here becomes a window that locks the aristocrats into their milieu of greater individuality and privilege.

Renoir is fully aware of all the theatrical conventions he employs-in this case, the individualist basis of melodrama. Rather than attack them, he uses them to his purposes, often subverting them comically as in Bondu, in Elena sustaining them tragically because they express the class limitations of his protagonists' behavior. The aristocrats are doomed to act in an aristocratic mode; in La Marseillaise they dance minuets while the rebels consolidate their partial victory; the characters of Regle circle as politely as the figures on the Marquis's music boxes. The masses, for their part, behave en masse.

WHERE THE theatricality of the thirties sometimes hampers Renoir's formal consistency, his works of the fifties come full circle by so formalizing the theatrical behavior of his characters that every action fits into the blocking of the totality. In his late work the floating atmosphere of Une Partie de Campagne (1936) disappears; one now sees a world as deliberately framed as any stage, quite devoid of casual camera movements and improvised bits of action.

To break out of this Hollywood-derived rigor, most apparent in French Can Can, Renoir tried in the sixties to free actors again from the false god of the camera. Le Dejeuner sur I'Herbe (1959) is an experiment in theatrical anarchy; completely anti-naturalistic, it throws together absolutely irreconcilable acting styles with frightening abandon. The more naturalistic masterpiece The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1960) was shot from several angles at once so that each scene could be played integrally, not broken down shot by shot. Paradoxically, this shooting method gave the cutter more control than ever over the action, and Testament is one of Renoir's most precise films, full of a depth that befits the careful distinctions of its Jekyll-and-Hyde plot.

The Elusive Corporal (1963) finally covers its action in long takes, the camera generally far from the actors; the film seems more to have been recorded than shot. The camera's detachment from the actors' social process finally allows them free action. At last there is no ultimate conflict between the idealist drives of the hero and the confinement of his social milieu. The chaos and destructiveness of his prison camp not only justify, but make possible, his escape from a social order to which he is radically opposed.

It may appear that the unification of Renoir's work is primarily thematic and dramatic, not specifically cinematic. While this is true, it does not prevent his films from attaining that formal consistency traditionally characteristic of the greatest art. Renoir's films are visually so well-designed that a description of the style of each particular film constitutes a description of its particular meaning. What more can a formalist ask?

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