Cast & Crew
A news-reel like movie about early part of the Frensh Revolution, shown from the eyes of individual people, citizens of Marseille, counts in German exile and, of course the king Louis XVI, showing their own small problems.
J P Dreyfus
Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector's Edition on DVD
Jean Renoir made his filmmaking debut as writer and producer of Une vie sans Joie with actor/director Albert Dieudonné. Some sources claim Renoir also an uncredited co-director (in his autobiography, Renoir only confesses to "constantly interfering with the director"), but his true directorial debut is La Fille De L'Eau (Whirlpool Of Fate) (1924). He self-financed the film and cast his wife and muse, Catherine Hessling, as a kind of D.W. Griffith heroine, the orphaned daughter of a canal boatman who flees her lecherous uncle and finds love in the arms of a rich man's son. The estate of Paul Cezanne provided Renoir with his locations the Fontainebleu forest and the banks of the Loire and Renoir captures the landscape and the people of the land with a poetic realism that he would refine in later filmss.
Contrasting with the realism is Renoir's impulse to experiment with his new tools, playing with double exposures, herky-jerky camerawork, and rapid cutting for expressive effect, and creating ethereal effects in a surreal dream sequence. And his experimentation is not limited to the technical side. Renoir also designed the film, including the high contrast make-up on Catherine: black lips and dark eyes on a face painted in pancake white. "She became a puppet a puppet of genius, be it said entirely black and white," he wrote in his autobiography. And of her performance, he explains: "I had got it into my head, and her head, that since the moving picture depended on the jerks of a Maltese cross it must be played jerkily."
Where La Fille De L'Eau arises out of the Griffith tradition, his second film,Nana (1926), is influenced by the extravagant work of Erich von Stroheim (Renoir claimed to have seen his 1922 film Foolish Wives over ten times). Based on the novel by Emile Zola, it again stars Hessling in the lead, this time in the mercenary role of a second-rate stage actress who takes up the offer of an infatuated (and married) lover to set her up as a kept woman in the lap of decadence. Renoir co-wrote the adaptation with his La Fille De L'Eau screenwriter Pierre Lestringuez, condensing and simplifying the novel and compressing characters into a few key suitors, and hired the author's daughter, Denise Leblond-Zola, to write the titles.
Once again producing as well as directing, Renoir spent much of his father's fortune on the enormously ambitious production, but it proved so expensive that his producer arranged a co-production deal with a German company. As a result, much of the film was shot in Berlin, which provided Renoir with the opportunity to cast Werner Krauss, star of the expressionist film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), as the male lead. Renoir pushed Hessling to even an more exaggerated and idiosyncratic performance and she comes off like a cartoon of a silent movie vamp to modern eyes, at least until the inevitable downfall, where Hessling communicates the self-loathing that poisons the once pitiless woman who drove her suitors to degradation and ruin. Yet Renoir also displays a visual sophistication and a compassion for even his most grotesque and pathetic characters.
Renoir hoped the provocative subject matter and lavish production values would appeal to audiences (the pastoral La Fille De L'Eau received scant distribution), but it proved to be an expensive failure and he was forced to sell off much of his family legacy his father's paintings to pay off debts. Yet Renoir was hooked on filmmaking and, with leftover raw stock from Nana, directed the offbeat fantasy Sur Un Air De Charleston (Charleston Parade) (1926) with Hessling playing an innocent savage in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Paris who performs a courtship dance for a visiting astronaut (Johnny Higgins, a black American tap dancer spotted by Renoir as he performed with Josephine Baker). His "gesture of farewell to the cinema" is a frivolous and playful little for a lark shot over three days on a single set and it gave Renoir license to play with technique without worrying about commercial concerns.
La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes (1928), an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Match Girl, was the last production in which Renoir directed Hessling (they divorced a few years later). The short film was designed as a technical showcase and Renoir was hired specifically because of his experimental techniques. Hessling is no child but a vulnerable innocent nonetheless and as she huddles in the cold outside a toyshop window and lights the matches to stay warm, Renoir brings alive her fantasies of the toys coming to life. Renoir later dismissed the fairy-tale film as "a purely technical experiment," but it's an unfair criticism to a delightful film, with both enchanting imagery and touching tragedy, and Hessling's relaxed performance is her most effective under Renoir's direction.
In the short documentary Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember (an original featurette made for the three-disc set), Martin Scorsese calls La Marseillaise (1937): "One of the finest and richest historical films ever made." Renoir cited it as one of his favorites. Made between the enormously popular La Grande Illusion and the darkly tragic La Bete Humaine, La Marseillaise is the story of the heady, idealistic days of the French Revolution as seen from the street, through the eyes of an idealistic group of Republicans from Marseilles who march to Paris and help topple the monarchy. Along the way, the eponymous anthem spreads through the ranks of people and becomes their rallying cry and their call for reform.
Copiously researched ("I can almost say that I didn't have to write the dialogue in La Marseillaise," Renoir claimed, "almost all of it is taken from existing documents"), it's at once a pageant (the lavish costumes for the aristocrats and monarchs was provided by Renoir's friend, Coco Chanel), a socio-political debate, a call to arms, and a celebration of social justice that echoed the spirit of the short-lived Popular Front government. Renoir called it "a film by the people for the people," and initially it was to be financed by subscriptions from ordinary citizens (a more traditional financing model was found when the subscriptions came up short).
The monarchy is not completely forgotten in Renoir's inspired approach Pierre Renoir (the director's older brother) plays King Louis XVI as an oblivious boob while Lise Delamare (of the Comédie Française) plays an appalled and vindictive Marie-Antoinette but the traditional shakers of the French Revolution (Marat, Saint-Just, Danton, Robespierre) are nowhere to be found. Most of the film happens in the streets and in the meeting halls of the ordinary citizens. "What I want to show is the greatness of individuals in a collective act," he explained to an interviewer in 1937. Francois Truffaut later described the film as a collection of newsreels, capturing the people as history happens around them.
The box set leaps ahead a couple of decades for the final films in the collection, both among the last films directed by the Renoir, who was finding it difficult to find backing for his projects. For Le Testament Du Docteur Cordelier" (The Doctor's Horrible Experiment) (1959), a revision of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" set in contemporary Paris, Renoir turned to live TV techniques shooting scenes in long, continuous takes in a studio with multiple cameras and concealed microphones to bring the budget down. For exteriors, he shot cinema verité style while passersby either ogled or ignored him completely. The production was completed in under a month, most of it for rehearsal, and Renoir planned for a simultaneous release on TV and in the theaters, but in a devastating twist the film played nowhere for two years, thanks to a boycott by theater owners.
Renoir's technique combined theatrical performance with filmed drama to bring a different, more organic performance dynamic to his cast. In the case of Jean-Louis Barrault (star of Children of Paradise), it was a complete success. A trained mime, Barrault brings such a complete transformation of being to the roles of the good doctor and his bestial alter-ego that you might assume another actor has taken over when the Hyde character, called Opale in this film, swaggers on screen. The nasty little troll of a man almost dances down the street while absently twirling a cane and looking out for potential victims of his brutal bouts of senseless violence. The film itself shifts tones and rhythms almost uncomfortably (which some critics chalk up to the split personality of its main character) and Renoir's moralizing, while somewhat ironic, sticks out in a way that you never saw in his earlier films, making it interesting, if lesser, Renoir.
Le Caporal Epingle (The Elusive Corporal) (1962) came Renoir's way because the producers thought that the story, of a dogged French corporal's (played with great charm by New wave star Jean-Pierre Cassell) repeated attempts to escape a German World War II POW camp, was similar to Renoir's celebrated La Grande Illusion. The parallels are unmistakable but Renoir flips the dynamic with his tale of middle- and working-class soldiers trapped in a situation less hostile than absurd, toiling away in work camps as their homeland is under German occupation. The tone is light and the repeated escape attempts are played with a comic undertone, yet behind the humor is the feeling of dignity lost and the reality of death in every dash for freedom. There is a sadness under the resilience. Renoir shot it quickly and cheaply in Austria and it became his most successful film in years, yet it was eight years between Le Caporal Epingle and his next (and final) film, the elegiac Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir (1970).
The films in the Jean Renoir Collector's Edition are mastered from restored prints from the archives of France's Studio Canal. The least of them such as the somewhat worn La Fille De L'Eau -- are perfectly fine, while the best of them the beautiful restoration of Nana and the excellent prints of the final films in the set are superb. The box set also features the original production Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember, a brief collection of observations on the seven films in the collection by film scholars and Renoir's son Alain Renoir. It's far from a full-fledged documentary, but the commentary is full of interesting insight and background and Martin Scorsese brings both passion and authority as host of the production, sharing his love of the "vastness" of Renoir's films and the different "colors" of his career.
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by Sean Axmaker
Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector's Edition on DVD
Released in United States 1938
Released in United States July 1990
Released in United States May 2003
Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 14-25, 2003.
Shown at The Public Theater (Renoir Retrospective) in New York City July 13-14, 1990.
Released in United States 1938
Released in United States May 2003 (Shown at Cannes Film Festival May 14-25, 2003.)
Released in United States July 1990 (Shown at The Public Theater (Renoir Retrospective) in New York City July 13-14, 1990.)