An impovershed Polish princess sets out to find a wealthy husband in Paris of the 1880's.
Robert Le Beal
Georges Van Parys
Elena and Her Men aka Paris Does Strange Things
If we were a sane species, it'd be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender. Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.
Thus, any Renoir, even the lesser canon entries, are commanding of a moviegoer's attention, just as even the slightest Degas sketch is worth a gilt frame and a few million bucks. And the films command that attention because they are Renoir's, because they are a facet in his worldview, a slice of his expression of the world. Elena and Her Men (1956), therefore, is minor-key but essential Renoir, a frivolous but sage romantic comedy - or "fantasie musicale," as the credits put it - crafted during the later, artifice-entranced phase of his career, when dizzy launches through old-school theatrical milieus provided the filmmaker with a window on social ideas of performance and behavior. In fact, Elena forms an ersatz trilogy with The Golden Coach (1952) and French Cancan (1954), as a kind of tripartite way to look at French history and French identity as a kind of performance, a uniquely optimistic dance between love and death.
Visualized as a theatrical chaos that burst its stage's borders long before we showed up, Elena is a tumult, focused on Ingrid Bergman (in her only French film, speaking lovely French) as the rather flighty Polish princess of the title, ensconced in Paris in the 1880s on Bastille Day. The target for constant marriage proposals, the princess wades down into the parade and beguiles both Mel Ferrer's royal dandy and Jean Marais's celebrity general. The context roughly mirrors the real-life rise of military leader Georges Boulanger in 1889 as a popular savior of the Third Republic after decades of insane strife and inter-party conflict, which to his opponents pegged him as a reactionary threat and the possible engine behind a coup d'etat. The politics of this heady historical moment are wound through Elena and, for an American, difficult to disentangle, but thankfully Renoir's point is that state power is the flipside of romantic desire and ego, and the maddening knot they make together is as absurd as it is, finally, predictably human.
The tale charges from there to a suitor's castle (outrageously decorated with mannequins in battle dress) to a war-torn country inn, weaving in three lovers for Elena, two would-be wives for Marais's super-general, at least three other menage a trois, a troop of Third Republic politicos, lost balloonists held as political prisoners by the Germans (this is after the Franco-Prussian War), servants and soldiers, battle skirmishes, and much more, a canvas so busy you could use a chart to decipher it. But of course Renoir trusts us to enjoy the bustling, silly throng as he does, and the movie is thick with chiffon-light schtick and physical comedy (always seen across the room in wide shot, so you might miss it if you're not paying attention or, God forbid, watching it on a "personal screen"), most of it hinging on Elena's fickle heart and her strange obsession with propelling a man, any man, to world-changing greatness. The staging and overlit cinematography tells you everything - it's a "fantasy," a daydream about history as a muddle about romance.
The personnel on hand makes Elena and Her Men even odder - surrounded by a reliable phalanx of rotund and blustery French character actors (excluding Ferrer, who's just bland), Bergman feels a bit like a nurse chaperoning a mental ward's game of charades. Always the pre-eminent Hollywood Queen of Doubt, Worry and Rue (the Meryl Streep of her time), Bergman always had a tough time coming off less than razor-bright; her success as a star had everything to do with her capable intelligence and willful gaze. Here, loosened up and running amok a little after her grave Roberto Rossellini period, she isn't as convincing in her flibbertigibbet character as she is just wonderfully herself, having fun in the hands of a buoyant master, and basking in his irreverent, all-you-need-is-love humanism.
Still, the star sometimes gets subsumed in this densely inhabited ensemble movie, and faces continue to pop out at you - a third-act intrusion of Gypsies include the startling visage of famous chansoniste Juliette Greco and the legendary Gaston Modot, veteran of French silent cinema, of Bunuel's L'Age d'Or (1930), and, significantly, of Le Regle de Jeu, of which Elena plays like a hurdy-gurdy music-hall cover version. For Renoir, the entirety of humanity's mess is more entrancing and bedeviling than the plight of any individual, and each of his films is a gift, and an inoculation against alienation and loneliness.
Producer: Joseph Bercholz, Henry Deutschmeister, Edouard Gide
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Jean Renoir (scenario & adaptation and dialogue); Jean Serge (adaptation)
Cinematography: Claude Renoir
Music: Joseph Kosma
Film Editing: Borys Lewin
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Elena Sokorowska), Jean Marais (Général François Rollan), Mel Ferrer (Le comte Henri de Chevincourt), Jean Richard (Hector), Juliette Gréco (Miarka, la gitane), Pierre Bertin (Martin-Michaud), Dora Doll (Rosa la Rose), Frédéric Duvallès (Gaudin), Renaud Mary (Fleury), Jacques Morel (Duchêne).
by Michael Atkinson
Elena and Her Men aka Paris Does Strange Things
Stage and Spectacle - Three Films by Jean Renoir
In 1953's The Golden Coach, a Peruvian engagement in the early 1800s for a group of comedy actors proves challenging for the tempestuous leading lady, Camilla (Anna Magnani). However, she soon finds her resistance to the strange environment tempered by the attentions of three very different men: a devoted Spanish soldier (George Higgins), a macho bullfighter Antonio (Riccardo Roli), and most prestigiously, the distinguished but thick-headed Viceroy Ferdinand (Duncan Lamont) whose golden coach from Europe has caught the eye of his people - as well as his possessive mistress. When he decides to bestow the lavish prize to the preening actress, pandemonium ensues.
Beautifully mounted from its meticulous framing (with even the real life scenes appropriately smacking of staged compositions) to its exquisite color design and jaunty Vivaldi score, The Golden Coach (based on a play by Prosper Merimee) would be little more than a diverting trifle were it not for the chance to savor an unadulterated vehicle for Magnani, who performed the role for variations in Italian, French, and English (the last of which is presented here in accordance with Renoir's own preference). She's a wonderful presence; though not a typical cinematic beauty, her radiance and star power carry off a wonderfully showy role as an actress on every possible level.
Made two years later, French Cancan (also released as Only the French Can) offers a fictionalized look at the Moulin Rouge and its cultural influence through the tale of Nini (Françoise Arnoul), a gifted woman working as a scullery maid. Fortunately she's discovered by a promoter, Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin), who's trying to launch the Moulin Rouge. Romantic complications ensue between the pair, with the presence of Henri's prior lover - spitfire dancer Lola (Maria Felix) - offering even more comic twists and turns as amour complicates the path to success.
Designed primarily to showcase its splashy musical numbers, this equally colorful thematic successor offers less star power than the other two films in the set but compensates through sheer technical virtuosity and a freewheeling spirit that keeps one distracted from how little is really going on. Equipped with barely enough material to keep a sitcom episode afloat, Renoir loads up his tree with the finest ornaments imaginable (including a singing cameo from Edith Piaf and an entire third act devoted to the music hall's opening that feels like a French counterpart to Visconti's ball in The Leopard) and pulls off a sumptuous entertainment from start to finish.
It takes quite a stretch to connect the third film, Elena and Her Men, with its more theatrical companion pieces, though one can connect the dots thanks to its fascination with role playing, perception, and dissembling as a way of life. Here the artifice belongs not in the theater but in the real world where Polish noblewoman Elena (a luminous, French-speaking Ingrid Bergman) keeps her eye out for wealthy eligible men despite her technical engagement to a footwear entrepreneur (Pierre Bertin). Among her suitors are the dedicated Henri (Mel Ferrer) and the most attractive prospect of all, General Rollan (Cocteau regular Jean Marais), whom she meets on Bastille Day and quickly entrances with her beauty and charm. The various lovers real and frustrated circle each other in a series of comic misunderstandings as political forces intervene to control the actions of Elena and the military man she could either make or destroy.
Inspired by the life of noted French general Georges Boulanger, this film was intended as a music-studded romantic drama but transformed at the last minute into a frothy bedroom farce. The strain shows at times, but Bergman's charisma keeps the film afloat even when it doesn't all hold together. Some of the mishaps and bedroom shenanigans could have slipped in as Pink Panther outtakes, not what one normally expects to find in a Renoir film. That said, it's an aesthetically stunning film and proves the director could guide even a damaged vessel into port.
Despite a solid pedigree in the arts thanks to biology (as the second son of renowned painter Auguste Renoir) and environment (growing up in Paris at the height of its cultural post-Impressionist revolution), Renoir suffered quite a bit throughout his motion picture career. Even his undisputed masterpieces, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, were beset with difficulties and rocky receptions, while his years in Hollywood proved frustrating as well. With these three films marking his return to France, one senses Renoir cleansing his creative palette by diving into fantastic worlds filled with color, beautiful women, dashing but vulnerable men, and unexpected laughter around each corner. Though not really milestone works, these are enjoyable romps that show a master kicking back and enjoying his craft within the confines imposed by the producers.
In a box set dubbed Stage and Spectacle, Criterion gathers the three films in superlative transfers boasting razor-sharp detail and vivid color better than one would probably find in most revival screenings. The quality ascends with each title; Golden Coach looks solid but reveals some inconsistent blacks and occasional fluctuations in color; French Cancan looks excellent; and Elena and Her Men features one of the most dazzling Technicolor transfers on DVD to date, rivaling many of Warner's elaborate restorations.
Extras are modest but enjoyable, putting these films in their proper context. In keeping with his frequent practice, Renoir filmed introductions for two of the films (The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men) in which he chats with the viewer about his working relationship with the leading ladies and his general intentions for the project. Martin Scorsese turns up for a new video appraisal of The Golden Coach in which he understandably focuses on Italian screen goddess Magnani as well, while the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich offers his thoughts on French Cancan. (Fortunately he's more bearable here than on his Hitchcock DVD supplements.) Other extras include a three-part series hosted by Jacques Rivette, "Jean Renoir parle de son art," spread out over the three discs, along with a segment of a BBC documentary, "Jean Renoir - Hollywood and Beyond," and an interview with French Cancan production designer Max Douy.
For more information about Stage and Spectacle, visit Criterion Collection. To order Stage and Spectacle, go to TCM Shopping.
by Nathaniel Thompson
Stage and Spectacle - Three Films by Jean Renoir
Released in United States 1956
Released in United States September 12, 1956
Released in United States July 1990
Shown at The Public Theater (Renoir Retrospective) in New York City July 20-21, 1990.
Shooting took place between December 1955 and March 1956.
Released in United States September 12, 1956 (First shown September 12, 1956.)
Released in United States 1956
Released in United States July 1990 (Shown at The Public Theater (Renoir Retrospective) in New York City July 20-21, 1990.)