Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Eléna et les hommes

A Conversation Between Craig Keller and Andy Rector
Around Jean Renoir and His Film

The following discussion that took place recently between Andy Rector and me is accompanied by images I collected. A version of the same transcript is being published simultaneously at Andy's blog Kino Slang with different images that he collected; it's located here. Check out both configurations.

(Note: An enormous amount of images follows below — as a result, this page might take a while to load on slower connections. If any of the stills fail to load, and are replaced by the wicked "?" question-mark box, that's just a momentary error inside of the Blogspot/Blogger-brain. Reload the page and the images should appear in full and intact.)

I promised a certain large post a while back, and this is it — I didn't want to post anything new until this was complete, but various circumstances ensured we were unable to put things to rest until now. A new afterword on the discussion by Bill Krohn is set to follow some time in the weeks ahead.


ANDY RECTOR: I propose we begin by looking at two images which seem to me to say something about realism, Renoir's contrasts and audacity.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Notice the smile on Eléna, Ingrid Bergman, in the first still. She enters a composition bathed in the red light of what seems to be war. Ford used the same reds and pinks in The Civil War [John Ford, 1962] where the river was pink because it ran with the blood of soldiers. But here in Renoir it is actually maneuvers that are taking place, that is, playing at war.

The Civil War [episode of the omnibus film How the West Was Won] by John Ford, 1962:

The audacity of artificial color in Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men, Jean Renoir, 1956] has been noted before. But look at the second still frame. Those are not artificial but real (blue!) trees in an exterior shot (before Eléna and Henri approach the blood red maneuvers). These seen together remind me of something Renoir said in Jean Renoir parle de son art, that "as soon as you make a theory facts destroy it." So here, in these two stills, facts suddenly support theory: abstraction.

CRAIG KELLER: Well, based on these two frames alone, I think we're reminded of the fact that if we talk about Jean Renoir, we could go on talking not for hours — but for days, even with regard to a single film.

We're starting with two specific moments in a movie that many of our readers might not have seen — yet — but encapsulated in each are a hundred springboards to talk about Renoir, cinema, life.

So, for those who haven't yet seen the film, let me fill in a bit about what we’re looking at. In that first frame, Eléna Sokorowska — Polish princess and émigrée residing in France during la belle époque, but, above all, Ingrid Bergman — has been taken into "fake custody" during a battle-exercise for the benefit of the general François Rollan, played by Jean Marais. Rollan/Marais adores her. So does Henri — played by Mel Ferrer who is Rollan's "sort-of-aide-de-camp."

In the second frame, Eléna and Henri trot through the woods on the property of her "fake-fiancé" (fiancé out of convenience — such is life), Monsieur Martin-Michaud (played by Pierre Bertin), the head of a leather/shoe-making concern, whose wealth she arbitrarily and barely-heartedly takes into consideration upon answering his proposal with a yes (Eléna is the widow of a Polish prince/would-be-anarchist, who blew himself up with a bomb in their palace some years back — but not too many) — at the same time, Martin-Michaud hopes to marry off his dolt-son, who's currently doddering about in the military, to a pretty thing — but, of course, he also harbors a crush on Eléna/Bergman… in addition to a crush on one of the servants in the house.

RECTOR: And let me say that looking at these stills most viewers, including myself, won't have the generosity, strength, or versatility to ask, as Eléna/Bergman does when she first sees Rollan/Marais, "What does he lack?"

If we did ask that though — ask if an image lacks anything — it would seem to me motivated in particular by French films and a certain larger tradition of films that articulate political lack, that bear a weighty off-space; haunted films; a tradition which is richly continued in great recent French films where political structures permeate the off-space: Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache [Don’t-Touch-the-Axe, aka The Duchess of Langeais, 2007], Garrel's Les Amants réguliers [Regular Lovers, 2005], back to films by Marguerite Duras and Rivette's Out 1: Noli me tangère [1971] — back to Renoir's own Diary of a Chambermaid [1946] where political structures make proper appearances, as do even the masses, but the lack of historical grounding and place makes the film's society feel eternal, therefore nightmarish, a purgatory, an apocalypse. But the two stills we've posed here from Eléna are not a nightmare...

KELLER: The Renoir mechanism is fully ticking and revolving by the time those two scenes take place within the film.

In both stills we have both sides of life — the ardor of living, and the difficulty of being alive. In the first frame, the latter is at the forefront, but the details — the smile, the colors — remind us of the former. For Renoir the reds are as much about passion as they are about pain — what he does with that color throughout the film is incredible, especially during Henri's and Eléna's second night out on the town, in which the deep blood red shifts about from one part of the frame to the next with every cut — from Eléna's hat, then on to the violinist at the restaurant, then on to the curtains and wallpaper of the opera box... — he doubles up on what another Bergman — Ingmar (whom we should note is unrelated to Ingrid, although she starred in his Autumn Sonata [Höstsonaten] in 1978, and although Ingmar’s final wife, and great love of his life, was also named Ingrid) — did in Cries and Whispers [Viskningar och rop, i.e., Whispers and Cries, 1972]. In the second of those first two stills above, the ardor is at the forefront — the sobriety in the colors.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Höstsonaten [Autumn Sonata] by Ingmar Bergman, 1978:

Viskningar och rop [Whispers and Cries] by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

But that's just the colors, and not everything about them either. I would even argue that the most important feature of either still is Ingrid Bergman's smile. But we'll get into that later in the conversation, maybe.

RECTOR: The mechanism, which we could say in this film includes social and traditional types, is at work in the first 3 or 4 shots pivoting around a piano: like the colors, formally there are two forces and emotions going against each other — an opening/closing in relation to what is seen and what is heard. Spatially Eléna's room is opened up from a medium shot, then opened further by the sound of a military parade off-screen — but both elements also clash, in effect bear down on each other. A romantic ode and a rousing military march. The piano is being played by a flustered composer who is dispensed with as soon as it’s evident that he can't pay the bills. The financial difficulties of Eléna's family are thus established and solved about as rapidly as is perceivable! Barely-heartedly, as you said, but instantaneously, she changes her “outfit” made of allegiance to the composer in exchange for the “outfit” of engaging the shoe boss.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

KELLER: That's right. And this is maybe the introductory part where we can take a step back and say about Renoir: he is a god — maybe the god of the cinema — who “understands everything,” as Truffaut said in a letter to the filmmaker written years after having already gotten to know him personally (and years after having gotten to know inside-out The Rules of the Game [La Règle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939] — that is, as much as anyone can ever “know inside-out” The Rules of the Game, the film which “keeps on giving” to its spectators, maybe more than any other picture ever made).

So: the bills need to be paid — she will dispense in that very first scene of the film with he who’s incapable of anteing up, and take on he who is ‘capable’ (Martin-Michaud) — but she is not vile because of the fact. That this is so, or not so, comes about by way of two of the axiomatic miracles of the cinema: (1) Renoir's presentation of "both sides" to every protagonist he's ever devised, i.e., that full-bore elucidation of the complexity, the depths, and all the seeming contradictions of the human personality; and (2) Ingrid Bergman, whose presence, and performance, is a singularity. There’s so much more to Eléna than the mercenary — plain and simple. And at the same time not so simple at all.

RECTOR: No, we don't hesitate to go with Eléna whole-heartedly because we're seeing the reasons, the conditions of her changes, laid out in front of us, with a cacophony in the background that we, like her, would like to attend to. Later in the film Martin-Michaud presents a telling afterthought: "oh right, morality."

Going back to the sound; aurally this film has familiarities for anyone who knows Renoir's work and this recognition, as Bazin said speaking of Renoir's reoccurring themes, “perplexes more than it comforts." The military drums, which are violent in Boudu sauvé des eaux [Boudu Saved from the Waters, aka Boudu Saved from Drowning, Jean Renoir, 1932] and La Marseillaise [La Marseillaise, chronique de quelques faits ayant contribué à la chute de la Monarchie (The Marseillaise: A Chronicle of a Few Events Having Contributed to the Fall of the Monarchy), Jean Renoir, 1938], and the anachronistic horns at the château, which are strange in The Rules of the Game and La Marseillaise, are sweeter here.

KELLER: And, for that matter: cf. the sound of the horn of the little "Savoyard" in the picture on the wall in Lestingois's flat, in Boudu sauvé des eaux.

Boudu sauvé des eaux [Boudu Saved from the Waters] by Jean Renoir, 1932:

Two sides and more to every story, in Renoir. How many times in Eléna do we see the two dowagers mince by, proclaiming: "C'étaient les belles époques!" — of course it's funny, because: (a) it’s funny; (b) the action of the story is taking place in the so-called "Belle Epoque" — but when Gaston Modot (a recurring presence in Renoir's body of work, among other stock-troupers) turns up as the leader of the gypsies, he grumbles, twice in a row, that these are: "sales époques" — hard times, filthy times. And the punchline gets twisted that much more (a “Renoir method” as much as a “Lubitsch method”). (Of course the summit of this sort of “re-nuancing” is The Rules of the Game, wherein “memes” and “memes-within-memes” undergo constant re-evaluation, re-valuation, re-instillation, throughout the entirety of the film.)

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

RECTOR: Modot would know — he was the brunt of filthy times in seven Renoir films and several Buñuel films. Eléna is a hilarious film! In part because of its quickness (the speed of the offense and duel between Henri who says Vive Rollan! and another man who says Down with Rollan!) and what it allows the actors to do within a caricatured framework: they go further in articulation than in any other Renoir film.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

It's a delirious film, and precisely so — without sentiment.

KELLER: Well — it has earned sentiment. But not sentimentality. Just look at the final scene when all of those embraces take place. (It was Joyce I think who defined "sentimentality" as "unearned emotion.” And it was Jung who said: “Sentimentality is a superstructure covering brutality.”)

RECTOR: But the sentiment of that wonderful scene is doused quite brutally by a triad of Eisensteinian cuts: Eléna/Henri, the daisy's removal, and Juliette Gréco, the gypsy singer. Brutally but not in irrevocable cynicism.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

KELLER: Right — not to mention the fact that in the final shot (final except for the close-up of the newspaper that scrolls up-screen as mini-epilogue insert and theatrical tapestry and scrim), the one with Eléna and Henri gazing out the window, backs to-camera, Renoir desaturates the frame of color by casting the two lovers in dark clothing, then framing them by way of that sill and the dead of night beyond.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

This shot is brutal because it's true. It's everything we know about Eléna from Scene 1 taken full-circle and to its logical extreme. I don’t think I need to (and I don’t want to) spell out explicitly what this last shot portends.

RECTOR: No, like Rohmer on The Southerner [Jean Renoir, 1945] we'll just point out that a contradiction exists!

I'd like to quote Renoir on the ending:

Cahiers du cinéma: Is the conclusion optimistic or pessimistic or in between? On paper, the fact that Bergman falls into the arms of Mel Ferrer is a happy ending, but the shot in which she pulls off her daisy and the one of the daisy on the floor are heartbreaking. (........)

Renoir: That's what I was thinking. I thought that this creature who was made to bring joy to the street, to bring joy to the world, was merely going to end up in the arms of this man, and that her function had ended, that the curtain was going to fall on the marvelous show she had given to the world.

So Mel Ferrer's relatively mediocre character and performance makes this interpretation of Renoir's, and his triad, all the more stinging. Like many films of its era (Bonjour Tristesse [Otto Preminger, 1958], for example) it tells us there's no such thing as bad acting. The Nouvelle Vague directors will explore this deeply.

Princeton graduation photo of Mel Ferrer, 1939, with signature. Stills from footage shot by CK at The Yankee Doodle Tap Room, Princeton, NJ, USA, on March 16, 2008:

KELLER: Precisely. Alternatively, one could say this is not the end for Eléna — all things being relative in fate and circumstance. Just imagine if she had wound up in the arms of General Rollan! A love that would fizzle faster than... oh, I don't want to name names. But you get the idea.

RECTOR: That's tough to conceive because Boulanger, the right-wing General on whom Rollan is based, killed himself over his lover's grave after escaping his own coup d'état. Eléna is the kind of lover Rollan or Boulanger might have killed themselves over, but Renoir has Rollan reluctantly accept, so it seems, his convenient love, his mistress Paulette Escoffier (Elina Labourdette), as they're about to ride back to Paris in Modot's wagon. If Rollan indeed fully resigns himself to this love of convenience, I think it suggests he might be more successful as a right-wing General... unlike Boulanger he won't commit suicide! At the very least, it is felt that Rollan and Escoffier will inevitably disrobe from their gypsy disguises in Modot's wagon back into the robes of State duty. And Rollan looks pretty disappointed by the fact.

KELLER: Both scenarios — suicide and prolongation; or: complacency and rupture — are dormant in that final scene. Choose your mournee.

Renoir claimed that had he gone through with his first (apparently completely fleshed-out) scenario involving the life of Boulanger, it would have been a completely different, and fully superior (!) film — he only pulled-back out of concern for the living heirs of the general!

But to backtrack a bit, and then move outward a bit —

RECTOR: Yes, we'll return to the Generals.

KELLER: You brought up The Southerner above, and I just wanted to say that that film is enormous for me, in many ways — not just because it's the Renoir-film that is the intersection of John Ford and William Faulkner (and literally, since Faulkner worked on the script). It's a shame that it's so overlooked by the current and even "still-extant" preceding generations of film-lovers — and for no reason other than because it hasn’t had a “high-profile-enough” video release. It’s out on DVD, but it's kind of buried — one of those editions put out by VCI several years back, or whatever. "Watchable" transfer, etc.

The Southerner by Jean Renoir, 1945:

So: why is The Southerner great? Not just because of the authenticity of the rural setting, or of the depiction of agrarian labor — yes, those are Fordian and Faulknerian elements, but so what? Then what? What makes this film unique in Renoir’s oeuvre is not simply that he shows he understands America (of course he understood America, he was Renoir and twice an American) but that he creates a mythos by portraying reality, and creates the new reality by enacting a myth. Like in Ford we get room for all people, all their cross-purposes and contradictions and hospitality and wheedling. But the shadow on the dial comes to no easy rest — this is Renoir after all, and the satyr is rising. So it’s not enough to say, “It’s like if Renoir made The Grapes of Wrath [John Ford, 1940]” — one could argue his great earlier film Toni [1935] is the work that’s closer to Ford’s anyway. Instead to get even a little close to what makes The Southerner a small miracle we’d have to say it’s a film that passes through The Grapes of Wrath before caroming off of It’s All True [Orson Welles, 1942, unfinished]. Welles went to Brazil, and Renoir came to America — and both in their own ways stared hard into the legacy of the New Deal.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Ford, 1940:

It's All True by Orson Welles, 1942 [re-presented by Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel, and Bill Krohn in 1993]:

RECTOR: It was the first Renoir film I ever saw because of its once-easy VHS availability: It was in the public domain, I believe.

The Southerner is a film Charles Burnett mentions often and Burnett is one of the few filmmakers we could call an heir to Renoir, though he hasn't made his Eléna yet. We have the privilege of anticipating it. There's a shot of a gypsy trumpet player in Eléna that reminded me of the final shot in Burnett's When It Rains [1995]. In both When It Rains and Eléna music resolves and agitates, and can seize the film communally.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

When It Rains by Charles Burnett, 1995:


Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

KELLER: I’d like to add an important note: We should bear in mind that there is a private presence which Renoir summons in this final scene, and uses to compound its particular and extremely curious melancholy: that of Miles Davis, with whom Juliette Gréco shared a passionate, painful and ill-fated romance throughout the early ‘50s (and romantic friendship for life).

Juliette Gréco with Miles Davis. Photograph by Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, 1949:

Anyway back to The Southerner — I’d just say briefly here that it’s an important film in my life, and its mention gives us the opportunity to touch upon something I was kind of hoping to broach as a preamble: Why we are talking about Eléna et les hommes specifically, how this came about.

Essentially, we agreed that it might be a useful idea to carry on a series of conversations regarding films that were extremely formative not just for one of us, or the other, but for us both; films that embodied an overlap between both our individual tastes in films and those works we regard as absolutely vital to the way we look at cinema and so, in some sense, to our very existence as walking, handstanding, cartwheeling, breathing human beings.

Films which maybe aren't "of the current conversation" in the rat-race treadmill of the here-and-now (based, as said media-conversation dominantly is, on which new film-products are out and available and still perched on the new-release shelves, etc.), but which we feel deserve, need, to be discussed “currently,” and so maybe in the course of this discussion we’ll be able to get at something larger (or smaller, which maybe is still something better) than “having an opinion and having one now on I'm Not There.”

RECTOR: Yes let’s broach that: Why Eléna? We both agreed upon it because, for one, it was a key work in opening up other Renoir films. For my part, I could not understand The Golden Coach [Jean Renoir, 1953] or even The River [Jean Renoir, 1951] when I saw them for the first time. “What is this trifle?” I thought. I had to see Eléna to find the profundity of the others.

KELLER: It’s interesting that you say that, because for me it was the others that opened up Eléna. Which, let's make sure we mention, is the third of Renoir's films that he made upon a "return to European filmmaking" following a stint in America during the war and (with The River) in India afterward, up until 1950. Each of these three films are linked by themes pertaining to performance, continental morés at the turn of the 20th century, pageantry, and love triangles — or love quadrangles — or maybe it’s best to leave it at “love polygons.”

Anyway, the three films of this semi-series are The Golden Coach, French Cancan [Jean Renoir, 1954], and then Eléna et les hommes. All three of which, I might as well say, are among the greatest of all movies.

RECTOR: Well said.

KELLER: But in talking about Eléna, we're talking about the "crux-film" of the three — the “prism-film” as I've called it once or twice on Cinemasparagus-past. In Eléna, Renoir really filters many of the concerns, many of the themes, of his earlier work into a singular resplendence.

RECTOR: I didn't find Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [Monsieur Lange’s Crime, Jean Renoir, 1936] in Eléna at first, as if one absolutely must (!), and this disappointed me. The backwards route I took to find a little of the vicissitudes of life, morality, and the cinema in Camilla (The Golden Coach) and the French Cancan dancers was the result of a certain resistance to what I perceived as frivolity in these films (which some critics still accuse Renoir of). In Eléna, this perceived frivolity is so pre-perceived that you can't "look away." So one looks all around again.

KELLER: Renoir is deceptive — in the best possible way. He proceeds through each film with a lightness of tone (even in something like La Bête humaine [The Human Beast, 1938] which revolves around a murderous Jean Gabin) that seduces the viewer into the ambiance of the world on display, into the surface charm and the smiles of the characters, into the sublimity of the colors on-screen (as in The River and the three mid-'50s films of the loose series to which Eléna belongs). But the fact remains that there's not simply more "beneath the surface" — there's more to that surface. And then beneath. And then beyond the tangible matter, that is, beyond the frame itself.

RECTOR: The simultaneous objective and subjective.

KELLER: I keep saying that Eléna is the kaleidoscope film because in so many scenes there's the conscious re-invocation of past tropes and past nuances in Renoir — but every Renoir film is a dazzling solar-system — which is to say Renoir's "lightness" is really an effortless simultaneous display of all facets of humanity. He is for cinema what Shakespeare is for drama, for literature. Or, still speaking of drama, we might say “what Marivaux is” too, especially with regard to The Rules of the Game — which, as I hinted at above, I happen to think is probably, yes, the single greatest film ever made.

But the totality and shape-shifting of The Rules of the Game do not diminish the films that come after — do not diminish Eléna et les hommes, for instance. Never mind the effortless lightness to the display of The Facets, there's another facet to the lightness too, beyond the effortlessness — another component, I should say. And that is the milieu from which Renoir emerged at the brink of the 20th century — growing up as none other than the son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. An environment of anarchy and compassion, of "l'art de vivre" in the fullest sense. All of which is exactly what we see in Renoir-the-son's films, in a "single portrait" (made of film) even more epic and far-reaching than his father's body of work in painting. So, okay, even though this is a sentiment probably shared by many, let's help get the word out further: Jean Renoir, the son of Pierre-Auguste, was a greater genius by the father. And French cinema — no, cinema in general — the very art of the movies — exists with Renoir at the hub.

La Famille de l'artiste, ou les Enfants de Monsieur Caillebotte [The Artist's Family, or: Monsieur Caillebotte's Children] by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1896:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, early 1900s:

Jean Renoir, late-1950s:

RECTOR: For me that's an impossible vision (like what happens to Rollan after the end of Eléna), that Jean was “greater” than Pierre-Auguste, because Jean is his father, at least according to Jean and his books. But I noticed you wrote "was even a greater genius by the father" — and if, in using "by", you meant it in the sense of "You did right by me, my son".... well, then I agree. But this is a subject for another talk.

Responding to your point about Jean Renoir's distant reaches from film to film — the film that came after Eléna is Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier [The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, Jean Renoir, 1959] no less! An experimental and heavy film gris more akin to Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960] than Eléna. A film that inspired the New Wave in general and, much later, the multi-camera form of Huillet/Straub's Von heute auf morgen in particular. [Von heute auf morgen, Oper in einem Akt von Arnold SchönbergFrom One Day to the Next: Opera in One Act by Arnold Schönberg, 1997]

KELLER: The Psycho comparison is really apropos, as is the mention of the “film gris” — “grey film.” For the obvious reasons, on one hand: both Psycho and Cordelier shared constrained budgets, and a resemblance in tonality that was married to their aesthetic leaps, all connected in turn to the apparatus of television production — flat lighting, three cameras shooting at once, and cuts within uninterrupted takes in the Renoir; the use of John L. (“Jack”) Russell, a DP on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, as cinematographer on Psycho, in place of Hitch’s regular collaborator, Robert Burks. Invoking the “film gris” strikes me as appropriate for less obvious reasons, on the other hand: within the term there lies embedded, I think, at least the outside longing for a reconciliation of its “split” agents (Bates in Psycho, Cordelier in Testament), projected from this tangible desire of the auteur for his “risk” (in the abstract), in either instance, to find its audience. The public was willing to face Psycho, but not The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, which has weathered the decades as a neglected, spat-upon masterpiece — even more disparaged than Eléna. With risk comes challenge, and Cordelier is the type of film that anglophone cinephiles damn with faint-praise as being "interesting," "nice," "a fascinating experiment." Fuck you. The Testament of Doctor Cordelier is a revelation and a revolution. (And the clairaudient of Psycho: Cordelier’s opening musical theme by Joseph Kosma resonates within Bernard Herrmann’s own for the Hitchcock film, which premièred mere months afterward.)

Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960:

Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier [The Testament of Doctor Cordelier] by Jean Renoir, 1959:

RECTOR: Anglophone cinephiles!? In the second part of David Thompson's BBC documentary Jean Renoir [1992] — Hollywood and Beyond — Bertrand Tavernier and Louis Malle sternly advise against fighting for Cordelier today. Tavernier says it was once necessary, indeed he admirably once did fight for it, but no more, he prescribes. He's right, things change, but not usually for the better in these matters.

And where in The River, The Golden Coach, and Eléna there's a woman and three men, in Cordelier there's one man (Opale/Cordelier) and three cameras. Thus the cinema of the body is reborn (from Chaplin) and will continue to this day.

Regarding television: as Bill Krohn told me, filmmakers should stop treating it like bastard cinema. Renoir, Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur, Rossellini, Godard and Jerry Lewis didn't...

KELLER: Wherever there are father-figures there must also exist ignorant sons. No resurrection-day will arrive for either Laissez-passer [Allow-to-Pass, aka Safe Conduct, Bertrand Tavernier, 2002] or Au revoir, les enfants [Goodbye, Children, Louis Malle, 1987], unless some reactionary cine-cell suddenly materializes to build battlements out of "the tradition of quality" — which is as ugly in 2008 as it was in 1954.

Speaking of the tradition of quality — it might do to speak about what Renoir is that other directors are not. Since I brought up 'au courant' “film-buff topics” — and I hope to god that at some point having open discussions like this will help to break films like Renoir's out of the geek-ghettos and move them into a larger public consciousness — there's a lot of talk about Raymond Bernard now that those two films of his have been released on DVD in North America. I saw both of the pictures — Wooden Crosses [Les Croix de bois, 1932] and Les Misérables [The Wretched, 1934] — a couple months ago. They're being pegged the-media-over as rediscoveries, the unearthed masterworks of a forgotten master. But they're both pretty bad films.

RECTOR: How come?

KELLER: There was a reason no-one wrote about Bernard in the Cahiers in the '50s, or after — because he's the Clément of Forbidden Games [Jeux interdits, René Clément, 1952] — with chiaroscuro. As “a film about the horrors of war,” Wooden Crosses is obviously no better than Lewis Milestone, but a lot of comparisons are currently circulating, powered by nothing but dumb spectacle-awe, which attempt to place Bernard’s film on the same plateau as Renoir's The Grand Illusion [La Grande illusion, 1937], thanks to the pictures’ WWI settings, similar themes, the fact that each depicts a band of character-comrades, etc.… Yet recently I’ve seen nothing, and I mean nothing (and this takes in the whole Thirty Mile Zone) more embarrassing than that scene in which Bernard lets loose with his exposition of the characters in Wooden Crosses, — wooden crosses indeed! Each of the men gets his little zest of dialogue, his “distingushing characteristic,” his angle — in sum, receives his respective death-sentence for the trench scenes in the reels to come. It’s so base! The looks in the eyes of all the actors betray this sense of ‘needing to please teacher,’ that is Bernard (and our humiliation on their behalf gets exacerbated by the movie’s neatly apportioned editing scheme), rather than giving one the sense that he or she is watching a group of men operate and contribute as equals-in-craft to the director, technicians, etc., within the production. All they can seem to do is concentrate on hitting their marks and waiting for the next order. So maybe this is the best way to present “war films” after all, I don’t know — the endpoint of ‘meta’. But, by contrast, note how Renoir elucidates the world in the camaraderie — and competition — of his characters (and with an eye on both sides of the war) in The Grand Illusion. The details in the Renoir are enormous, the observations wry, astute, — (Rauffenstein in full regalia at Boeldieu’s deathbed; B: “I didn’t think a bullet in the stomach hurt so much…” R: “I aimed for your legs…” B: “…at 150 meters with poor visibility; besides, I was running…” R: “Please, no excuses. I was clumsy.” B: “I’m not the one to be pitied. For me, it will be over soon. You’ll have to carry on.” R: “Carry on a useless existence.” B: “For a commoner, it’s terrible, dying in the war. For you and me, it’s a good solution.”) — each making room for the validity of its opposite because even if there are no ‘answers’ in the conventional sense of the term, even if reality is fleeting, unfixable, Renoir is always objective about the primacy of the subjective — it’s his one reality, and it’s his moral code. So one never has the sense in watching his films of receiving either a platitude as lesson, or a patronizing, “conciliatory” take on the nature of ‘the world.’ In the case of Bernard and his Wooden Crosses, we have an empty film, and its treatment of "the war" and the fight is as offensive as Pontecorvo and his Battle of Algiers [La Bataille d’Algers, Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966].

Les Croix de bois [Wooden Crosses] by Raymond Bernard, 1932:

La Grande illusion [The Grand Illusion] by Jean Renoir, 1937:

As for Les Misérables, it's completely banal; even at five hours the pace is rushed and full of clever-touch telescopings of plot-points. Bernard doesn’t so much transform Hugo's novel into cinema as into a one-dimensional framework stripped of all the oddity and the breathtaking idiosyncrasy and the ethereal insights that imbue the novel with the air of a true "fairy-tale for grownups.” I don't know if you've read the novel or not, or seen the film, but the picture is impossibly pathetic — even just on the level of dramaturgy. I'm thinking off the top of my head of the Jean Valjean character lifting a fallen horse-cart up off the pinned bodies of a couple of citoyens. It's not just a matter of "implausibility" — that means nothing on a plot-beat level — the scene collapses out of a rhythm so crude, herky-jerky, so "discretely presented and exposed" and contained and therefore static — actually, forget it, even thinking about the shittiness of this cinema is making me sad. Because if the same drum-beaters for Renoir beat the drum for Bernard, it means they're probably not seeing what makes Renoir Renoir. So what goes wrong? Is what they cherish in Renoir really as interchangeable, on the level of content, as the demon of “nice cinematography” in Bernard? Does Bernard’s version of “cool shots” stand in nicely for actual content, purpose, worldview, meaning? Which, look, you and I both know what is meant by my denigrating ‘cool shots,’ that is, I’m not savaging non-eye-level / non-full-shot compositions across-the-board by any means — Akerman and Welles and Burnett and Assayas and Straub and Hou and Dreyer and all good and great fillmmakers have their “cool shots” too, and constantly, but what’s happening in Bernard is more akin to what’s happening in any scene on The Shield. Cinema gets reduced to the pictorial, i.e., these shots and scenes of Bernard's exist in an unlinked flow; they’re no portrait of humanity or, let's be a bit broader and more exact — there are no secrets.

Les Misérables [The Wretched] by Raymond Bernard, 1934:

RECTOR: You mentioned cleverness, Renoir avoids it. He doesn't need to spruce up a character's “introduction”; they are as they proceed and don't make little pleas. Exposition is flat on the table — Rollan's mistress, Paulette Escoffier, arrives and is immediately an “obstacle” for Eléna, not only in her attraction to Rollan but to the thought-form of the entire film. Escoffier says, "I can't stand crowds," (and we haven't mentioned the astonishing crowds of the film yet) and Eléna replies, "And I feel like kissing them all."

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

KELLER: I'm glad you bring up the crowds. Would you care to begin with that, or should I? Well, I'll just say... uhh, well, if I were to pronounce, "Here's a key to the film," or, "Here's a key to Renoir," it would be saying nothing, because the crowds in Eléna — which are a distillation, or 'expansion' I should say, of the "bustle" that runs throughout every Renoir film — are not a single — click! — "contemplatable thing" — they're society, community, and, again, to re-use the phrase, "the world." So, that said — speak a bit about the crowds in Eléna.

RECTOR: The crowds were everything to me on first viewing. They are ostensibly there to greet a single man, Rollan, but the crowds are a society, a brilliant narrative tide, forms of abstraction, a force that one cannot avoid, a historical sweep. A crowd member in this near riot says to Eléna, "So princess, mixing with the commoners?" "Isn't that why you stormed the Bastille?" she replies! So it's a bit of a political place and it’s proclaimed immediately. A collective forceful crowd appears in Renoir's Hollywood-malade revolution, The Diary of a Chambermaid. In Diary of a Chambermaid, the crowd's collective energy overwhelms a right-wing opportunist. In Eléna the collective energy greets the arrival of one (although as an opportunist, Rollan is a complete failure — hence one of the most likeable characters). Renoir would probably call it the same thing, like when he said silent film intertitles would flash up not necessarily for the meaning of their words but for the pleasure and rapture of seeing words juxtaposed with faces.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

All the same, I think that Renoir shows a trust in masses of people as strong as Rosa Luxemburg's, i.e., an atomic trust in these masses at the revolutionary moment, i.e., practice, in which the surge, the dynamic movement of people, is as crucial as ideology in the transformation of social relations. Is that the point of the scene in Eléna? Probably not. But it's a way to show the swirl of forces inside and outside Eléna, to show a history, to show her love and offerings, her ebullient stirrings and the many contradictions within society. Bazin said Renoir followed traditional French historical portrayals of the period and their presentation of reality while also restoring a total dimension of change and time. The “...commoners”/”...Bastille?” dialogue could've been a violent one, but it isn't. Instead, with the throng, we get a few precious seconds where the Declaration of the Rights of Man [1789] is observed; all are equal in the face of a society that does not observe those rights. It turns out this is funny. In the crowd scene there's a proto-Tati gag where a child is confused for a periscope in the space of the bustle.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

To start at the beginning of the crowd scene wherein Eléna/Bergman ultimately joins the crowd: at first she's protected from them, trying to cut through them in a carriage with her new fiancé, the shoe boss, Martin-Michaud. Inside the carriage there's an interesting frame within a frame: the crowd is seen through the window of the carriage, the camera being positioned inside. Renoir may have been responding to Rossellini's Voyage in Italy [Viaggio in Italia, 1954] here. This insofar as Renoir's whole urge to make Eléna seems to have sprung from a desire to “see [Bergman] laugh — to see her smile on the screen” and “to enjoy and have the public enjoy” her “sexual abundance” — at long last after all those Hitchcock and Rossellini films.

In Rossellini's Voyage there is a crucial shot inside of a car — a frame (the car window)-within-a-frame (of the shot) — where Bergman is driving through Naples, drawn and repelled by its otherness to her. In both Eléna and Voyage the crowds peer into the camera from the outside.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Viaggio in Italia [Voyage in Italy] by Roberto Rossellini, 1954:

After these frames-within-frames, in both films, Ingrid Bergman gets swept away from “her husband” by fanatical crowds. The mammoth difference between the films being this: in Voyage the panic of this moment among the crowd is drenched in modern embarrassment, alienation, helplessness, fear. In Eléna it is a liberation, literally from the undesirable Martin-Michaud, and generally a liberation over to the gravity of the crowd: "I want to kiss them all" in Eléna — looking away from the crowd and kissing only George Sanders in Voyage.

If Renoir wanted to make a film where Bergman smiled it's because Rossellini didn't make them (even in The Chicken [Roberto Rossellini, 1953] — based on a light anecdote told by a Chaplinesque Bergman that turns out to be a summit portrayal of modern embarrassment and stress). Why didn't Rossellini make them? Because of the war, because of a certain post-war condition that he dealt with in those Bergman films. Deliverance from that condition depends on sudden miracles in Rossellini. But what I want to say is that with Eléna, Renoir resists this post-war condition in a brash manner. He avenges the war with gaiety, the boldest colors the cinema has ever known, the most potent contrasts...

Bitterness, sorrow and outrage are constants in Renoir's work, one wants to say these elements stay at the same rumbling pitch throughout his entire oeuvre — and Eléna is no exception — but it is with the post-war films made after leaving the U.S. that he heightens joyous convocations to near abstraction. This was a need.

Rumer Godden said that Renoir was very disturbed by the war and that, for Renoir, her book The River [1946] was a book of reconciliation. “An act of love towards childhood and India.” Renoir has said that The Golden Coach was a post-war "desire for civilization.”

Alain Renoir (Jean’s son) said that Renoir wanted to make life livable (for those whose lives are destroyed in World Wars as well as everyday wars). He said that Jean Renoir didn't make films against war, and was not a peacenik — he was after relationships between people (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Boudu, Diary of a Chambermaid, and This Land Is Mine [Jean Renoir, 1943] all evidence the violence of necessary revolutions; Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir [The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, 1970] the softer revolts).

I used to think a film might be able to stop a war (retard its progress, lessen its atrocity and timespan...) and this idea comes from Renoir himself, his strivings with The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion, even Partie de campagne [House Party, aka A Day in the Country, 1936] (the war of the city on the country). Godard's Origin of the XXIst Century [De l’origine du XXI siècle pour moi (Of the Origin of the XXIst Century for Me), 2000] is so moving precisely because of the hard conviction of its montage, warning all of humanity (like Artavazd Peleshian's films) and the entire approaching century of its inhuman pallor.

But I'm not so sure a film is for hindering war. Perhaps a film is for making war. Pedro Costa has said that he doesn't make films “against” but “for” — his films are absolute beacons of this idea — nevertheless I get the impression that his films also declare war; against callousness, for example.

KELLER: Well, the "external" wars are the wrong ones. Given the choice as one is — to choose one's own battles.

RECTOR: Anyhow, Eléna was a major artillery for one war: auteurism. There are few films that get mentioned as often in the yellow Cahiers as Eléna. It's on most of the Cahiers ten best lists of that year and its impact sustained (and arguably still sustains deeply into Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache). In the pieces on Renoir by the Cahiers crew, Eléna is always a reference point.

Eléna was crucial as a surprise attack in the way it answers the question of what is a free film? What is an aesthetical film? What is a political film?

Nicole Brenez reports: André Bazin's last published essay, “Cinéma et engagement” [“Cinema and Engagement”, 1957] was initiated by a debate between himself and Jean Carta of L’Esprit who attacked Eléna for portraying the love life of a proto-fascist general when French cinema as a whole lacked the courage to fight political censorship and address contemporary issues such as the war in Indochina, the Suez crisis or the Algerian question. Bazin's essay argues that a film's importance should not be judged by its content alone but by its aesthetic rigor and ambition. So Bazin was staking his argument on a film Renoir himself did not think his most ambitious. (In fact, the task of improvising Eléna while shooting with two sets of actors for French and English versions simultaneously plunged each day and everyone into “a black hole,” Renoir said.) This courageous stake of Bazin's (different for us as we speak about the film today), for me, points up the importance and trenchancy of a policy of authors — how it can expand a film's meaning and policy in the world, bounding backwards and forwards.

Certain productions of Renoir and Rossellini have been described as “nightmares” by their participants. So, in spite of two kinds of nightmares, artistic and political (the lack of contemporary political address that Carta rightly asks for) we can still say today: their films illuminate freedom. Both kinds of nightmares are ultimately addressed, perhaps redressed, by the films themselves.

KELLER: Since you mention Renoir bringing to light the ‘relationships between people’ in the context of the crowds of Eléna, I should home in on one of the quick secret moments that occur in this context, of the sort that happens fairly often in Renoir — Eléna raises her arm in excitement for the phenomenon that is General Rollan's appearance during the Bastille Day parade, and her hand, aloft, clutches (or I should say ‘loosely retains’) her purse — which is promptly plucked by a passerby in the mass — to little disapprobation from Eléna. It's just a passing-off from one individual to another — call it a passing-off of wealth, call it whatever you like — it's indicative of the "circulation," the exchange, between all men in Renoir's universe, which is ours as well.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

And let's not forget that much of this crowd-frenzy over Rollan — what he 'represents,' what his appearances are supposed to signal — plays into a sort of national (I'm maybe not going as far as 'nationalist' but then again...) mythmaking by The People, for better and for worse, for worse and for better, and he, Rollan, becomes a sort of dream incarnation of Roland, as in "The Song of Roland", a variation of which gets belted out early in the film in the middle of that 14 July celebration and picked up by the crowd en masse. Obviously, and for all intents and purposes, the pronunciations of "Rollan" and "Roland" in French are virtually indistinguishable.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

RECTOR: The line “Vive Rollan!” is uttered hundreds of times in this film and it means something different every time. Sometimes a social grace, sometimes a political correctness, sometimes an impassioned cry, sometimes patriotic, sometimes individual. More than once is it said exactly the same way as “Heil Hitler!”

KELLER: France's national literature rears its head also at the beginning of the film with the opening invocation of Héloïse and Abélard — Héloïse being a 12th century abbess-scholar, Peter Abélard being her lover (of the pre-abbess years) and one of the foremost logicians of the era, their correspondence being one of the great epistolary documents of our civilization. The invocation comes at the opening of the film, by way of a setting-to-music of the H + A story that Bergman and her would-be,-soon-to-be-dismissed,-paramour play four-handedly at the piano. Also note that the story of Héloïse and Abélard represents one of the many "venerations" upon which Emma Bovary sheds her devotion in the early part of Flaubert's novel (adapted by Jean Renoir in 1933 for his own Madame Bovary).

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

(Side-note: There’s a translation by Betty Radice available from Penguin of Abélard’s and Héloïse’s letters, and more. I want to share this passage from Abélard’s Historia calamitatum [The Story of His Misfortunes, c. 1132] which is included in the collection: “…I was so carried away by my love of learning that I renounced the glory of a soldier’s life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to kneel at the feet of Minerva. I preferred the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosophy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts of disputation instead of the trophies of war.”)

RECTOR: To sum up my above paragraphs about aesthetics/politics/morality, it's Godard who really says it in a few words in his Eléna article:

"To the question, What is cinema? Eléna replies: More than cinema."

KELLER: And let me quote from an earlier section of that same piece by Godard, which, for our readers, comes from a special issue of Cahiers du cinéma devoted to Renoir in December 1957. In Tom Milne’s translation:

“To say that Renoir is the most intelligent of directors comes to the same thing as saying that he is French to his fingertips. And if Eléna et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it is because it is the most intelligent of films. Art and theory of art, at one and the same time; beauty and the secret of beauty; cinema and apologia for cinema.

“No doubt the beautiful Eléna is merely a provincial Muse — but a Muse in search of the absolute. For in filming the descent of Venus among men, for the space of an hour and a half Renoir imposes the view of Olympus on that of mortal man. [Godard is in all likelihood invoking the words of Renoir in a then-new interview that appeared elsewhere within the same issue of Cahiers, in which he said: “For a long time I had been dying to make something gay with Ingrid Bergman. I wanted to see her laughing and smiling on the screen, to enjoy — and to let the public enjoy — that sort of rich sensuality which is one of her characteristics. In other words, I was thinking very much of Venus and Olympus.”] Before our eyes, the metamorphosis of the gods ceases to be a classroom tag and becomes a spectacle of profoundly moving comedy. Through the most splendid of paradoxes, in fact, in Eléna the immortals seek to die. To be sure of living, one must be sure of loving; and to be sure of loving, one must be sure of dying. This is what Eléna discovers in the arms of her men; and this is the strange, harsh moral of this modern fable in the guise of a comic opera.

“Thirty years of improvisation have made Renoir the world’s finest technician. He achieves in one shot what others do in ten; and where they make do with one, Renoir can do without. Never has a film been so free as Eléna. But deep down inside of things, freedom is necessity. And never, too, has a film been so logical.

Eléna is Renoir’s most Mozartian film. Not so much on the surface, like The Rules of the Game, but in its philosophy. The Renoir who had just finished French Cancan and was preparing Eléna is, spiritually, a little the same man as the one who had just finished the Concerto for Clarinet and was beginning The Magic Flute. In content there is the same irony, the same disgust; in form, the same daring and masterly simplicity.”

And then Godard ends on the words you quote above.

To backtrack a bit, and somewhat tangentially, we can trace the aforementioned “literary thread” out of Renoir's film and forward into the work of Eric Rohmer, whom you brought up earlier — that is, we can talk about his adaptations, and the "literary" concerns that ground his cinema work and his criticism, and with specific reference to his latest film from 2007 (which is also what we must assume to be his final work), Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon [The Loves of Astrée and Céladon, being distributed in English-speaking territories as The Romance of Astrée and Céladon] based on the 17th century text (of over 3,000 pages) by Honoré d'Urfé. I'm thinking in Renoir’s Eléna of the scene in the carriage, and the recursive windows that nevertheless "expand" through smaller portals into larger space — these links between one class (in the interior of the carriage) and another (those beyond the portals) (and, thus, another handing-off) appear in a relatively recent Rohmer film — albeit in an inversion of "sympatico" — namely, the shocks of Grace Elliott (the marvelous Lucy Russell's character) attempting to make her way through the insurrectionist crowds in L'Anglaise et le Duc [The Englishwoman and the Duke, aka The Lady and the Duke, Eric Rohmer, 2001].

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

L'Anglaise et le Duc [The Englishwoman and the Duke] by Eric Rohmer, 2001:

RECTOR: Interesting...

KELLER: But let's place everything that we've just said in relief against the larger vista of Renoir's conception of the world. Here's some dialogue that crops up something like midway through the film, and which is meant, both by the character and by the author, with utter sincerity and, at the same time, on the part of the author, with disarming irony:

"Perhaps it's a form of civilization. When it comes to drilling oil, or choosing governments, or manufacturing explosives, — perhaps we're not the best. But when it comes to the art of living — you can count on the French."

RECTOR: I'll counter that with a quote from The Golden Coach: a man asks the arriving theatre troupe: "How do you like the New World?""It will be nice when it's finished." This echoes Gandhi on western civilization, Renoir having just been to discover for himself a civilization he quite liked, Hinduism.

Bazin, by the way, didn't like that speech and said something like: “as if the Italians didn't know how to live and love."

What you're quoting comes from Mel Ferrer, correct?

KELLER: Yeah. Far be it from me to tit-tat Bazin, but I don't take the punchline of that speech at face-value. The set-up that comes before it, and the chaos of the interchanges from the first minute to the last, hardly speak to some zenith of refinement. It's closer to the lies of Louis in Rossellini's La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV [The Rise to Power by Louis XIV, 1966] or Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968].

RECTOR: Yes, Renoir's humility toward every statement in this film is notable. Same with the Héloïse and Abélard musical composition on the piano. Bergman is clearly bored with it (her boredom expressed through facial moves both ineffable and clear — Renoir always starts on the tips of things) but it's not ridiculed and we're sorry to see the young composer go. The point is that Eléna has accomplished her mission (of getting the composer's piece performed) and the show must go on.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Her whims outside of love are also disarming. I'm thinking of the scene on the stairs of the bordello towards the end where she loudly proclaims her disappointment that a brutal solution to the problem of stealing Rollan away from the bordello unbeknownst to the crowd outside has been nixed by vote in favor of a masqueraded and peaceful solution. There's a similar problem discussed in Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Paris does strange things.

The general chaos thickens every statement in the film.

The tropes and traditional farce of the room-to-room sequence at the château doesn't even seem light. The respective roles (lovers, chivalrous beings, singers, masters, servants) are deformed in their exaggerated performances. It's almost like a separate film-within-a-film/film-within-each-shot and, in this way, close to Chaplin (who made the most graceful of room-to-room comedic elegies: A Countess from Hong Kong [1967]).

KELLER: It’s like Straub explained to his actors during the rehearsals for Class Relations [Klassenverhältnisse, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1984], drawing a direct comparison to The Golden Coach — both as a reference to a compartmentalization of many “performance styles” or traditions within the film, each radiating outward, ultimately uncontainable (one possible definition of Renoir = a network in which the interstices are the nodes); and as a remark upon the idea of “Golden Coach-style” as a conceivable style in and of itself — this kind of expressive, radiating performativity — within the network of performance styles that is the Straubs’ film, in which (as in all their pictures) every body hums. Pedro Costa calls their films “the fastest, and the most furious,” and that life-force, those same resonances, are at the core of the phrase “the show must go on" — an ethos that permeates The Golden Coach and French Cancan. By the time of Eléna et les hommes, what the "show" is and what its "going on" + its "must-be-going-on" imply opens up, more subtly and more explicitly, onto even larger problems — of personal loyalties, of the place of the individual within a society and within a community, etc. (cf. Straub-Huillet, cf. Costa).

Arbeiten zu Klassenverhältnisse von Danièle Huillet und Jean-Marie Straub [Working on Class Relations by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub] by Harun Farocki, 1983:

Klassenverhältnisse [Class Relations] by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1984:

The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir, 1953:

But let me just pause to draw attention to that moment in Renoir in which the show-going-on, in its literal and metaphorical sense, assumes its most viscerally cosmic dimensions — really, truly, absolutely so: the climax of French Cancan, at the performance of the cancan in the Moulin Rouge —

— a sequence of such ecstasy, release, spectacle, "pure entertainment value," artistic command, of the sort that any filmmaker dreams might one day crown his or her work, hoping, perhaps, that it comes later rather than sooner so as to… "cap things." It's a sequence I can’t help crying at, every time I see it — its splendor renders me helpless, reduces me to insignificance then redeems my existence all over again. It's one of the apexes of the cinema, the true utopic vision. By the way, Tag Gallagher puts French Cancan in his top-three-films-of-all-time, and that's totally understandable.

French Cancan by Jean Renoir, 1955:

RECTOR: There's also a profound “hanging around” in “the show”, which is of course part of the show, and the “voici...” of showing, in Huillet/Straub and Costa as well; perhaps lingering to see if the tiger's leap into the past is still possible (I'm thinking of the moments when the Straubs’ camera/microphone will hold on an actor long after they've spoken their piece, or their war) — or in the hope of discovering a certain kind of redemption of existence in this world today. This “stopping to hang around”, for example, is on top of the soil of class struggle in France and Egypt in Too Early Too Late [Trop tôt trop tard, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1982], and, in Costa, in the neighborhood of Fontainhas.

One of the aspects of Eléna that stalls release and the resolutions of lovers, but inaugurates the room-to-room spectacle (a “hanging around” in farce) is the other love triangle of the film: Eléna's "domestic", Martin-Michaud’s son, and Rollan's peon. This triangle is given quite a lot of treatment, more than we've let on.

KELLER: Well what we have in The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Eléna et les hommes (to say nothing of The Rules of the Game) are these interlocking love-triangles, or -circles, or -polygons, however you want to describe them, in which the woman-protagonist sets into revolution about her a group of men-courtiers, with all the disequilibrium of real morality, l’esprit. But of those three ‘50s films, this “music of the spheres” is at its most complex in Eléna, wherein there's one disposed-of lover (le musicien), Martin-Michaud (le faux-fiancé), Rollan himself (le faux-homme), Henri, and, lastly, the link common to the aforementioned circle, Martin-Michaud's son. Then, focusing on Rollan, we observe that he would have both Eléna, and Paulette Escoffier — and, more broadly, would ‘have’ "la patrie", too. (That's “homeland” or “fatherland” of course, but note the article.) According to his little committee, at least: "Sometimes a man must choose between professional duty — and civic duty!"

Just like Rollan's soldier-lackey and Martin-Michaud's son, by the way, both Rollan and Henri engage in an "interchange," via the gypsy costume, and an implied "rapport" with the Juliette Gréco gypsy.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

(Who, let's not forget, exists partially as a sort of songbird conscience of the film — a role that Renoir underscores by having her take on the most "naturalistic," practically "non-acting," acting-style in the picture, as though she stands outside of the world to which she notionally belongs. It's interesting too because in one sense she exists "outside of the circle" that Magnani in The Golden Coach stands resolutely inside. Even though she has her harlequins at the end, it's not like she's necessarily 'circumscribed' — Superman II style, if you dig it.)

The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir, 1953:

RECTOR: Gréco's bearing is a shock to this film's system. Yet another way of being.

There's also a secret geometry around Henri, seen in this magnificent composition:

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

These women are literally undressing in front of Henri in this still. They all know Henri is studying Poland (that is, Princess Eléna). "You think we don't understand?"

KELLER: Those women who come into Henri's room are "desaturations" of liberté - égalité - fraternité.

RECTOR: Rivette/Truffaut in the 1957 interview say that the harlequins/gypsies brought back Picasso's blue period.

KELLER: So this might be a good time then to bring up a couple of the "refractions" of the Eléna prism, although we've probably touched upon quite a few already —

(1) In Henri's flat, for example, his servant is played by Léon Larive — a Renoir stock-trouper who is reprising a role from Les Bas-fonds [The Lower Depths, Jean Renoir, 1936], La Marseillaise, La Bête humaine, and, still as “help” albeit a cook here instead of a valet, The Rules of the Game.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Les Bas-fonds [The Lower Depths] by Jean Renoir, 1936:

La Marseillaise, chronique de quelques faits ayant contribué à la chute de la Monarchie [The Marseillaise: A Chronicle of a Few Events Having Contributed to the Fall of the Monarchy] by Jean Renoir, 1938:

La Bête humaine [The Human Beast] by Jean Renoir, 1938:

La Règle du jeu [The Rules of the Game] by Jean Renoir, 1939:

RECTOR: That I didn't know.

KELLER: (2) The "marguerites" — i.e., daisies — of Eléna find a precedent in the belting-out of "Marguerite" during the prisoners' show in The Grand Illusion. (Holding my nose for a second, I'll also mention that the song is performed in Bernard’s Wooden Crosses — but the whole practice comes from the Great War era anyway, so whether Renoir saw Bernard's film or not, let's just say that Renoir's installation of the tune in his film eclipses the corresponding Bernard scene by such a degree that Bernard's corpse probably shivers in its coffin with every present-day screening of Illusion.)

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Grande illusion [The Grand Illusion] by Jean Renoir, 1937:

RECTOR: It's worth pointing out a missed refraction of French cinema in regards to Eléna: Gérard Philipe was approached to play Rollan but he turned it down saying, "It’s weak, politically speaking." Philipe who not long after turning it down was in Luis Buñuel's La Fièvre monte à El Pao [Fever Rises in El Pao, 1959] playing not a General but a Secretary to a Governor — his only love is not for a woman but for reformist policy toward a brutal South American dictatorship. He dies of this love of reformism.

And Renoir's project immediately after Eléna was not Cordelier but Carola. [Renoir directed the world-première of this play during the second semester of the 1959-60 school year at the University of California at Berkeley with an all-student cast.] Carola is an overtly politicized variation on the polygon — we see an actress and stage manager about to put on Musset during the Nazi occupation of France. It's a backstage drama where theatre itself trembles on the edge of real love and real war. Carola, the actress, has to choose between renewing a former relationship with a man who is now a Nazi officer considering "going easy" on the theatre (depending on Carola's attitude), the theatre manager, or a resistance fighter hiding in the hallway. The choices of the occupied and occupier. Syd Field played the theatre manager in one of the first performances!

In 1973 Renoir was to direct Carola as a tele-play but became sick and Norman Lloyd laudably directed it (it's on DVD). Mel Ferrer played the Nazi officer.

KELLER: (3) The aerial crash — of Captain Vidauban’s balloon — and the French nationals' subsequent custody as they’re taken by the Germans recalls the crash of Boeldieu and Maréchal and their imprisonment by Rauffenstein in The Grand Illusion.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Grande illusion [The Grand Illusion] by Jean Renoir, 1937:

(4) The “life-as-performance” and “power-as-performance” themes (and vice-versa for both) that run throughout French Cancan and The Golden Coach reverberate throughout Eléna as well, with the German and French accounts of Vidauban’s crash and subsequent captivity; the military exercises; the subterfuge of the kisses in the window in the final shot; Bergman’s felicities; and on and on.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

French Cancan by Jean Renoir, 1955:

The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir, 1953:

(5) Henri's night out on the town with Eléna recalls the "wooing-sequence" that takes place as the prince (Giani Esposito) ‘tries on the costume’ of Nini's (Françoise Arnoul's) affection in French Cancan.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

French Cancan by Jean Renoir, 1955:

(6) The fervor of the committees and Rollan's speech before the council recalls the revolution's assemblage in La Marseillaise.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Marseillaise, chronique de quelques faits ayant contribué à la chute de la Monarchie [The Marseillaise: A Chronicle of a Few Events Having Contributed to the Fall of the Monarchy] by Jean Renoir, 1938:

(7) Martin-Michaud's son Eugène, along with Eléna's domestic, Lolotte (Magali Noël, as awesome here as she is in Fellini), re-enact the pursuit of Marceau/Carette for Lisette/Dubost in The Rules of the Game.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Règle du jeu [The Rules of the Game] by Jean Renoir, 1939:

(8) The inanimate soldiers recall the toys-come-to-life in The Little Matchgirl [La Petite marchande d’allumettes, Jean Renoir, 1928].

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Petite marchande d'allumettes [The Little Matchgirl] by Jean Renoir, 1928:

(9) The décor of Rosa's room invokes the India of The River.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

The River by Jean Renoir, 1951:

RECTOR: (10) Martin-Michaud's son becomes a one man military satire in the vein of Tire au flanc [Shirker, Jean Renoir, 1928] and Michel Simon. That is, as soon as he dons the uniform.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Tire au flanc [Shirker] by Jean Renoir, 1928:

KELLER: And so on. I’ll cap it off with an: (11) The bodies and pursuits in and out of the rooms are a reconfiguration of the mad transits (which is to say, the celestial pivots) of The Rules of the Game — in Eléna and the two preceding films, like I suggested above, Renoir does something fascinating and, I think, unprecedented — he reshapes the ensemble-piece from a free-form mass into a mass that revolves around a "nucleus" of a woman in each film.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

La Règle du jeu [The Rules of the Game] by Jean Renoir, 1939:

To be sure, what happens in both The Golden Coach and Eléna et les hommes specifically is that we're presented with these "WOMEN IN FULL" — women who are (and are necessarily) loved by all men / everyone, but who can belong to no-one. The result is in one part at least an extension of the metaphor of The Star in general — and Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman in particular. These are two women who, when they “settle down” (in their roles on-screen as Renoir-characters), do so quasi-arbitrarily... Although (and this is a big 'although') we have to note that both Magnani and Bergman were involved with Roberto Rossellini — and thus became (and, again, necessarily!) arch-enemies, opposite poles...

The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir, 1953:

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Most poignant — maybe — is Eléna's line to Henri:

"You could be initiated."

That phrase is so coy, but explosive, and devastating — it says everything. Not only about Eléna but — I'll go so far as saying — the reality (I will not say anything as crude as "power struggle," because that doesn't even scratch the surface), the reality of things between Men and Women.

RECTOR: Venus. Renoir called Eléna Venus. Venus who, it is not known, was either Aries the God of War's daughter, or born from the foam of the sea.

(12) Martin-Michaud has all the shrillness of appearance and interests as Henriette's (Sylvie Bataille’s) bourgeois dolt husband in Partie de campagne, that film of such pre-war energy.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

Partie de campagne [House Party] by Jean Renoir, 1936:

KELLER: The converse of this comes earlier on — the impotent converse, I should say — when Rollan, mind's eye gazing upon Eléna, remarks:

"Every charm has its secret — and I must learn this one."

RECTOR: On the other side of charms and secrets, poor Martin-Michaud who hasn't the poetry of the lines you've just cited can only shrug and point out the obvious when he discovers Eléna and Henri in a non-staged embrace at the window. The camera pans Martin-Michaud out; again, brutally. He's basically a horrible man who is "protectionist" or "free market" whenever it serves his shoe profits (echoes of Brecht's Mauler in Saint Joan of the Stockyards [Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe, 1932]), and after one of Martin-Michaud's bouts of asset management, Renoir puts this line into his mouth: "Vive libre!”!! He's the definition of a neo-liberal!

A horrible man but this pan is very sad.

KELLER: He blows with the wind, and he’s no King Lear.

So this might be a good place to bring things to an end, then.

RECTOR: I agree... any last words?

KELLER: The thing I’d like to draw attention to in close, not that it needs my help, is the aspect of the film I talked about earlier in the conversation — Ingrid Bergman's smile.

RECTOR: Her speech-hymn to perfect idleness in Eléna... contrasted with her words in Voyage in Italy: "Italy poisons you with laziness." But above all her smile.

KELLER: Like Rivette said once, brashly bravely and justly, "the evidence is there on the screen" — so I'm not going to rhapsodize Ingrid Bergman. Except to give what I think is one of the biggest compliments, which is to say her laugh is contagious. You always hear friends and family and legends say that once you have children, the greatest sound you’ll ever hear is the laughter of your kids. I venture to say that Ingrid Bergman's laughter is much better. It doesn't hearken back through mists of innocence or pretend that kids are the point-blank bomb, that they're awesome to tote wobbling into coffeeshops, that their screams are actually chuckles — it's a fully adult laugh, of a wide-eyed adult in full. All woman, ample, and ultimate intelligence, — invitational, pan-ic, and motherish — that is, she takes care of her lovers and can cut them in three with a glance and a moderately sharp word. And when and if she decides she wants to make babies, who someday will undoubtedly do that laugh-of-children singsong, well, those babies, they grow up to be Isabella Rossellini.

And Ingrid Bergman's cinematic essence was completely atomized in Hitchcock's Notorious [1946] and Renoir's Eléna et les hommes. She was the most brilliant and the most beautiful — a sum-total, and an easy genius of the soul.

RECTOR: That's it.

Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men] by Jean Renoir, 1956:

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  1. Craig, Andy -
    This certainly LOOKS great. It will take some time to read this longuish discussion/dialogue of much more than "Elena" or even Renoir (associations work a bit like in "Histoire(s) du Cinéma"), and to compare two different sets of images, but I am under the impression that it may be a major breakthrough in film criticism (or at least "film comment"), in a way specific for the Internet. At first sight - congratulations,
    Miguel Marías

  2. This is really amazing work guys! I've only begun to work my way through it, and I look forward to giving it more, and repeated attention in the days to come.

    Can you talk a bit about your divergent choices of images?

  3. Craig & Andy,
    After reading attentively all you wrote, and looking with the utmost curiosity the different sets of images you built, I must again congratulate both.

    I think I like better your choice of images, particularly because I thing they are more respectful of their ratio and grain, but about your comments, with which I usually agree, may I ask you a question of economy? Why waste time & space attacking (a bit too harshly, I might add), without the slightest need, poor old, mostly forgotten Raymond Bernard, which is of course not a peer of Renoir's - and no one to my knowledge can pretend such a thing nowadays -, but not a bad film director, but rather the typically efficient pro (either plain and flat or over-emphatical and decorative) craftsman who is not (even when he often wrote or co-wrote the screenplays and sometimes initiated the project) a real film author, whereas Jean Renoir might (sometimes) not write a word, perhaps out of sheer laziness (he COULD write, witness his VERY GOOD novels, plays and memoir books), and could even follow more or less closely someone else's tale (Flaubert's, Simenon's, whoever) but was always the author of his films, of everything the films have which is not a tale, a plot, but cinema. Which could be still an interesting academic subject (although I must confess I am amazed this issue is being debated as yet in the U.S. and on the net!!!), but out of place in your dialogue about "Elena et les hommes", which shows why and how Jean Renoir is a creator of FILM, and one of the greatest, even in reputedly "minor", commercially unsuccessful films like many of his. He changes in style as much as Rossellini, Dreyer or Godard, and yet all the films of each of these filmmakers (and several others, but not hundreds of them, not anyone we happen to like) are unmistakeably theirs... (which, by the way, OF COURSE doesn't automatically make them better or greater, but only more personal, and in theory interesting even when flawed or compromised - true authors are those which allow to generalize a bit and state things such as "Hawks' films, Ford's films, Hitchcock's films" are "simple, swift, intricate, deep" or whatever they are, while I find quite abusive and self-deceiving to pretend anything general (of any interest) about Henry Hathaway or Gordon Douglas, Vincent Sherman or Steven Spielberg, however good can some of their films be (even if many of them are good). Of course, "auteurism" (why the French?) can be easily ridiculed if people begin to speak of Wes Anderson or Roger Corman or Mike Nichols or Michel Deville as film authors, or write about "T.A. Andersonian" cinema or the Coen Brothers style. Best,
    Miguel Marías

  4. Hi Miguel,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I agree with your thoughts on auteurship — for me, the term (why the French, instead of 'author'? I suppose just because time has lent it a metaphysical [phenomenological?] connotation, after Truffaut's article and the 'policy' in general) is less a sort of qualitative 'coronation' ("You have arrived, Artist") than an uncomplicated descriptor of a kind of temperament that must express itself via a specific type of artistic sensibility... that aligns with my own interests, or temperament... so, maybe incommunicable, too internal, nothing to do with affecting the vote for a filmmaker's canonical membership. That's okay. Mostly, I guess what can be communicated, as a viewer, is to say that in an auteur, one sees the personality of the individual/filmmaker — no more, no less, at least as far as I-myself am concerned — and, not being too concerned with canons, that's maybe enough. I couldn't care less whether so-and-so thinks Doctor Bull or The Rising of the Moon are more "minor" than The Searchers; they each exist as complex artworks in terms of their ideas (and who says "more complex" should always be more important for me? why not "more graceful"?), but moreover they're conduits for the personality and obsessions and privilegings of John Ford. That is, each is a sentimental education in the man, each a mnemonic, feature-length, for something outside of the film, and I'm moved by this diffusion of a human, of a psychology. We know what it means when John Wayne puts his hand up to his arm in the last shot, but not necessarily what it means when he picks up Natalie Wood in those colors, or why she has pigtails, as opposed to no-pigtails-at-all. In the films which become us, "the films of our lives," there is always, to take Godard's phrase from Eloge de l'amour: "QUELQUE CHOSE" (the corrective to King Lear's "NO THING"). Like with any good education, the auteurs' films can only lead us, — we'll sense a presence, — we'll stare into it as into a recess of our own; we'll see a reflection in the pool..

    You know, as for Bernard, I don't see any presence, and for whatever reason, I just absolutely hate his films and all their noble intentions, and pretensions of communicating 'something' (in the non-Godardian sense) and, whatever that something is, to a mass public foremost. I had seen them a few days before Andy and I had our discussion, and they irritated me a lot, seeming the vulgar lie of war next to the Renoirs, which I'd been rewatching, and an ugly parody of Les Misérables, which I'd recently read. Maybe/probably the flaw is my own, this lack of sympathy for the journeyman filmmaker or the craftsman; this whole business of elevating the "beauty" of "the lost art of film 'craft' and 'film grammar'" (which was the standard PR-meme on the Web and in print for these recent DVDs of Bernard's films that came out in the US) strikes me as a cover for conformity, or for a lack of psychological complication. That he was being instituted as some lost pillar of the French cinema disgusted me, too, because for me the French cinema has always been the cinema that meant the most and has been the body that resists more than any other. So, in the course of my and Andy's chat it came to my mind to talk about the Bernard pictures, maybe an unpleasant after-effect too of my own astonishment at my own feeling of alienation from the rest of these idiot American 'film-buffs', who get more excited about the latest thing with a 'plot' and 'dramatic efficiency' than the latest thing by, say, Harmony Korine or Ernie Gehr with each passing day. Which is totally insupportable, in my view, but then again I could just stop reading the Internet, or go back to finishing my own films.

    You're right, though, he's of no consequence. But those were my thoughts about the guy on the day. I now give him back to Tavernier.


  5. daniel,

    re: the choices of the images..... I just wanted to make sure the evidence was there to back up some of the observations, or assertions... that's it, really. I don't like the idea of illustrations-for-their-own-sake, so hopefully something comes out of these that has some utility... and of course it helps that Renoir's films are very very beautiful! (I forget which film it was that I saw once in which 'mise en scène' was translated in the subtitles — and I can't remember either if within the context of the scene this was accurate or grisly — as 'window-dressing'!)

    I like that many of Andy's images are stills taken directly facing the television set; — can't fight the film. I think I mentioned to him that I was surprised to find so much of Eloge de l'amour inside the images from Weekend... Anyway, AR carries on with this vein of relational poetics, and arrest-under-images, within his superb essay in the forthcoming French DVD/book release of Costa's In Vanda's Room (which will be similar in format to the ECM Godard/Miéville release), and which I'll have more to say about here once it's released. The book is 180 pages, two-thirds (or maybe closer to three-quarter) of which are an interview with Costa by Cyril Neyrat, and the remaining portion (interspersed throughout) is Andy's essay. It's going to be one of the greatest DVD releases, like, ever — really.



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