This article was originally published in Nosferatu (Spanish), March 1995; then Cinémathèque (French) 10, Autumn 1996; then Film Comment, January 1996. The version that appears here is a slightly revised one.
Never have I seen people so offended by a movie. It wasn’t a movie that was gross or pornographic, violent or racist. It was one of the most popular – and seemingly innocuous – of movie “classics”, Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne (1936), about a family picnic in the 1890s. And it was an audience of film students, in a classroom.
What was offensive was the way Renoir was “looking at” young women – at their “fuckability”, as one student defined it.
And indeed Renoir does seem to be thinking along those lines, not only in Partie de campagne but in many of his pictures. French Cancan (1954), The River (1950), La Bête humaine (1938) and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959) come immediately to mind – along, of course, with the paintings by his father, Auguste Renoir. It is not just the women that engage us, but Jean’s attitude toward them as fictional characters – his “looking at” them. Jean’s attitude makes his presence felt, which is what an artist is supposed to do (1). But why does his presence offend?
We can watch Renoir posing his figures and putting his sexual fantasies into his pictures in the outtakes from Partie included on the BFI’s DVD. His actors struggle to express nubility in pose, gesture, eyes, and mouth. He finds the best view, frame and angle, and links their nubility to splotches of sun and shade, foliage, rippling water and flowering fields, to the universal nubility of all nature. At the end, as Henri walks beside the river, the camera tracks with him, then ahead of him, to find Henriette sitting on the ground. Rather than simply following Henri, Renoir leads his gaze – or perhaps it is the force of Henriette’s attraction that pulls Henri toward her, even when he is not expecting to encounter her.
Renoir, as Auguste’s son, was well aware that nubility, far from being a novel theme, had inspired most of history’s artists and poets, and had traditionally depicted lovers with certain poses, foliage, sun and shade, and so on. Particularly nubility had inspired his father, whose pictures Jean seems almost to be re-enacting in the same period costumes, moods, and locations.
Even his characters recognise they are engaged in an ageless rite of passage. Accordingly, Renoir is bold and vivid, as if his theme were original, as if “first love” were being experienced and depicted for the first time. When Henri puts his arm around Henriette, we feel what he feels, and what she feels too, and perhaps also what the actors Georges Darnoux and Sylvia Bataille are feeling. Is this what is offensive about Renoir, that nothing is hidden or even implicit?
What Rivette said of Rossellini is true also of Renoir: Renoir is not subtle, he is prodigiously simple (2). Perhaps to take offence is to seek refuge from Renoir’s combinations of innocence and duplicity; of sincerity and put-on; of real feelings and real actors; of cinéma vérité and re-enactments of famous paintings; of spontaneity and ageless myth. Melodrama always wants to be scandalous, particularly when its conflicts are those of nubile “first love”. Melodrama always tries to “put a face” on what cannot be denied.
Most Renoir films are about putting a face on “first love”. La Chienne, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Madame Bovary, Partie de campagne, La Bête humaine, La Règle du jeu, Swamp Water, This Land Is Mine, The Diary of a Chambermaid, The River, French Cancan, The Golden Coach, Eléna et ses hommes, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier paint a series of experiences inevitably linked: a sudden encounter; a feeling part of everything alive and sexual; and the fall that follows. In Partie de campagne the lovers seduce each other and surrender to nature, jilt each other and are jilted by nature, and go on to live naturally miserable lives apart. Renoir’s love stories rarely end happily, without duplicity. (One of his unrealised projects was to film Turgenev’s First Love, about a youth whose first love turns out to be having an affair with his sadistic father. Renoir always takes the masochist’s point of view – he too has his first love.)
The theme of “first love” is not limited to romantic relationships. “First love” is an attitude toward all of life; a Renoir character in The River will call it “digestivism”: confronting experience with innocence, openness and “fuckability”. And “first love” is how we betray ourselves by “putting a face” on experience. It embraces political action as well, obviously.
Probably Renoir inherited “first love” from Chaplin, his movie-making father, whose movies also dealt with innocence and duplicity, purity and corruption. Renoir’s Les Bas-Fonds (1936) ends with a homage to Chaplin’s Modern Times as the lovers walk off down the road of life.
King Vidor, the moviemaker Renoir most resembles, was also a Chaplin disciple. All three men combined “home-movie” realism with theatrical melodrama; documentary with star attraction; natural locations with painterly composition. Their characters are like paintings, too. They strike poses, announce themselves to the world, and, in an evolution of painting, energise their emotions in movement and gesture (Chaplin with his cane, Henriette with her fidgeting, the Chaplin-like robotisation of the body in Mélenie’s Indian dance in The River).
These characters are performers, self-consciously, all the time, in even the simplest things, and Chaplin, Vidor and Renoir can conceive of no greater purpose than to provide them with a proscenium, in which splotches of sun and shade, foliage and all nature, unite to enhance their presence. A woman in French Cancan shakes her dust rag out the window
and the moment is aestheticised, because first we see the empty window, then a burst of red and a play of the yellow rag waving against a green background – which momentarily takes control of space, as her singing takes control of time. Colour and song enrich the personable grace of the woman’s movements, and give her a bold and vivid presence.
Women, as amalgams of colour and sound in space/time, as paintings in motion, often impose their “show” onto the world around them, and onto their story world even more, a “show” of themselves. By their magic powers, they transform wherever they are into a set to enhance their performance, complete with men transformed into audience and supporting cast (simultaneously) or, sometimes, partners. Chaplin’s tramp had such power of transforming presence, but no mere male has it in Renoir, not even the King of France in La Marseillaise (1938). Yet when a woman appears, her art eroticises everything – trees, a room, a pitcher, the ambient sounds, sunlight, colours, air, as in similar ways Auguste Renoir’s paintings celebrate the art of his models. We share the adventures of such women, and of the men they enspell or are enspelled by. They energise space; they eroticise time.
Henriette so dominates Partie that we may forget that her story is an episode framed within Henri’s story (which itself is framed within Henriette arriving with her family as Partie begins and rowing off with her husband when Partie concludes) – the sad adventure of a morose young man who emerges from despair when the restaurant shutters open and light, music and the movie of a girl erect on a swing magically flood over the window frame and over the gloom.
From this moment Henriette will be the star whenever she is on screen. But her stardom is achieved only because Rodophe’s opening the shutters has made her an object of our collective gaze (Rudolphe’s, Henri’s, Renoir’s, mine, and yours). Prior to this moment she has not individuated herself as a character. By the time of the epilogue, when we follow Henri rowing and wandering, she will have become the object of mythic quest. Now on the swing, if Henriette herself were not already erotically enraptured, Henri would see her so in any case, just as he sees Anatole as an asshole. She is meant for Henri, she knows it; the magnetism is palpable. But she marries the asshole, commits herself to living death, and Henri plunges into permanent despair. The story’s erotic cruelty recalls Turgenev more than Maupassant, and, oddly enough, John Ford, who couldn’t have seen Partie, but three years after it treated the romance in Young Mr. Lincoln in similar terms. Like Henriette, Ann Rutledge bursts magically onto the scene, enchants the morose hero with visions of an erotic future, then leaves him alone contemplating ripples in a stream. But Henriette is more coy, more desperate for immediate consummation: no moment in cinema (one wants to say) is more erotic than the steady glance she and Henri exchange, just after she pushes him away in her life’s first physical flush of passion.
Like Henri, Renoir and us, she spends the film constantly gawking – at trees, bugs, sunshine, Henri, and emotional realities – and thus constantly asserting herself independently of her role in Henri’s story. Her feelings, her heartbreak, flood over everything.
“Renoir is Impressionism multiplied by the cinema”, said Bazin (3). Like certain other filmmakers – Vidor, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Murnau, Sternberg, Ophuls, Rossellini, Ford and Godard, each with a different complexion – Renoir combines the erotic sensibility of each of the arts in polyphonic consort.
His characters toy like Chaplin’s tramp with their own paradoxes. They may experience “first love” innocently, moment by moment; but their reactions are calculated, moment by moment; and their own perversity becomes their chief concern. They are artists, performers, both real and unreal. They want to put their face on things.
In The River, red-haired Valerie dances with polished abstraction toward her first love (Captain John);
then rhythmically chants “Yes”; then cries after her first kiss; then churlishly explains: “I’m crying because…
…I didn’t want to be real.” Renoir, empathetically, has set her ballet in a Garden of Eden and choreographed it to Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. Her dance is innocent, a flirtation with the “real”, whose invitation she is not willing to accept, and for this reason she is false. Her “first love” has also been her farce, all along. The camera pulls back on her words – from her face, from her interiority dominating the whole world, to the landscape, in which her body is an entrapped, exposed element.
The flamboyant camera movement puts a fine flourish to Valerie’s farce. But Aeschylus hides in Weber; the farce is real.
Valerie has been watching herself all the while. She doesn’t simply “undergo fate”. Renoir’s characters don’t stumble blindly into tragedy; they write their own histories. Little Bogie’s death in The River results from his hubristic presumption that he can hold in thrall the “snake in the garden”.
Such innocence is guilt. In Partie de campagne Henriette doesn’t simply succumb to the seductions of Henri, nature and her own nubility; she makes nature her prop, like Valerie, and seduces herself and Henri along with her. Subsequently it is her own nature that brings about her miserable marriage to Anatole, not just her petty-bourgeois mores. Her final shrug of the shoulders acknowledges her responsibility – a last “oui” that is no less tragic for being part of a farce she has authored herself.
She writes Henri’s story too, and Anatole’s; just as Henri and Anatole write theirs and hers; and just as, distracted in their own stories, Harriet in The River authors Bogie’s death and Octave (Renoir) in La Règle authors André Jurieu’s death. What happens to us, and what we make happen to us, are tangled like predestiny and free will. The farces we invent create realities of their own, in which, as our own heroes, our moral responsibility is all the greater. Hence the suicide attempts (The River, This Land Is Mine, French Cancan), the murders (La Chienne, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Bête humaine), the deaths, the ruined lives with which Renoir films usually end.
Such grand gestures are vanities: attempts to “put a face” on a matter out of control. Other actors try to be foxier. Harriet grows up and writes the story of her story. “This is the story of my first love,” her adult voice tells us,
putting a face on it, a design. Similarly at the end of La Règle the Count makes a graceful curtain call, as does
Carmela at the end of The Golden Coach,
trying to put a face on events which, like events in Harriet’s story and Henriette’s story, recount the breakdown of conventions (of “face”) as protection and guide. In all these cases, and in most Renoir films, “first love” starts as a burst of purity, but reflection makes it politics, a division of power.
Renoir’s best movies are a succession of such erotic/political transactions – the interplay between honesty and duplicity. His characters, like Stendhal’s, are constantly short-circuiting their thoughts, scrambling to put a face on experience, and in the process turning into “performers” and “authors”.
Or all the world’s a stage. Indeed, most Renoir scenes are hammy solos or sparring duets. Often, as in La Chienne (1931) or Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), one suspects he was smitten at the time by the brassy self-assertion of characters in contemporary Hollywood movies (as a quarter-century later Godard and Truffault would be by ’50s Hollywood), in which the cocky pantomime of the likes of Dietrich, Cagney and Spencer Tracy in early-’30s films by Walsh, Sternberg, LeRoy, Bacon and Wellman owes more to Chaplin, or even Sennett and the commedia dell’arte, than to D.W. Griffith. Conversations become games; body language does most of the talking. In La Règle, each character’s individual pace, in movement and body language, has much to do with his or her individual drama, as one would expect in a ballet or pantomime; in consort, they are made to evoke a dance of death. The young heroines of The River and Partie de campagne dance constantly, actually or virtually, usually in courtship. Nini, in French Cancan Renoir’s supreme performer, asserts her nubility, her power, her self through dancing. She meets “first love” dancing with Danglard (she for the first time, he for the nth: for both their morals coincide with their decorum:
they dance as Chaplin might have danced, had he had a partner as graceful as himself). She tricks Paolo into sex with dancing (giving him the illusion of herself: “You are my wife”, he says, while she is dressing for Danglard).
She captures the Prince with her dancing. She will fuck all the men in the world (but only in illusion) at the Moulin Rouge with her dancing.
In contrast, her duets with the Prince are mostly performed sitting, like perverse parodies of the “first love” duets with Danglard.
And it is “first love” for the Prince, sort of, except that, even more than Valerie in The River, he wants story love, not real love. He is rich and secure, powerful and loyal, he will be a king, whereas Danglard is penniless and improvident, powerless and promiscuous. But the Prince is utterly unable to dance, and eternally glum where Danglard is eternally merry. He wants to suffer.
He sits with Nini under cherry blossoms on “la butte de Montmartre”, the hill which will soon be mythified at the Moulin Rouge in a bitter-sweet song of masochistic romanticism. For the prince is not Nini’s prince; she scarcely abides his presence, and he knows it. Yet they play a game of mock purity.
Aware that she is holding some Camembert at an inappropriate moment, she puts it behind her, but makes an obvious parody of being demure; his chances are nil but she will play along in his game.
He treats her like a queen; she lies that she’s in love with Paolo. He begs cravenly for attention; she was a laundry girl the day before, ready to sell herself to the first comer. Eventually he bungles his suicide, then exploits it into a date, which he knows she undertakes only to claim the deed to the Moulin Rouge.
Of course he puts the deed in Danglard’s name, is not invited to kiss her, and is scarcely thanked. He indulges his masochism, while she plays the role of dominatrix. She says yes by saying no, which is what she is supposed to say in their farce of reversed roles. He is the first to bow down before her stardom, and a prince makes a fitting subject. Nini sees herself as sweet. She enjoys feigning motherly emotions that she does not quite feel in reality. Thus the way she puts the Camembert behind her and the pose she strikes with the flowers, and her lie and exploitation of the Prince. And in her way, she is sweet, and thereby pays her share in an otherwise one-sided transaction.
The prince sees the truth in Nini. She is a star, and unpossessable. Danglard sees her too. The story of Danglard making Nini into a star is one of the film’s two principal plot lines.
He admires her as a show woman – a displayer of womanhood – which is his stock in trade. He is an impresario because he knows how to exploit a coincidence of finances, politicians, financiers, publicity and taste in order to make a laundress like Nini into a star. Taking the prince’s transaction as exemplifying the fashion, he encourages Nini’s desire to be a sex symbol, a promise of sweetness, a dominatrix. Like a pimp, he takes her at his pleasure, turns her into a professional, and goes on to the next woman; his enterprises depend on his love affairs.
Love in Renoir is often mutual exploitation by dominator and dominated, monetised sado-masochism. Power games. Thus, inextricably intertwined with the story of how Danglard makes a star, is the story of how Nini flirts with the new image of herself which the prince, Danglard and the cancan promote.
In effect, it is not a new role for her, and neither is it the first time she has flirted with it. She has always ruled Paolo, she has always been sweet to him, and she has always deceived him;
she is a true femme fatale, which, as with Henriette in Partie, designates one of the survival traits for women of her economic class, whose stardom is a tell-tale product of the unsavoury material realities of life in Paris. Nini’s new character is thus also the result of her will to write her own story and live it, to be captured by her own fiction. True, her rise from poverty to stardom is framed in a series of culturally-calculated reactions to innocent experiences. Nevertheless Renoir shows Nini making moral choices every moment, with the same awareness as with the Camembert – when she accepts (as she thinks) to sell herself to Danglard, to seduce Paolo, to lie to the prince, to make love with Danglard, or – the final rite of passage – to dance the cancan, which means to leave respectable society behind for ever.
Now Nini is on sale to every customer of the Moulin Rouge. She waves her pussy at us all: “Can! Can!”
But the only thing we can, is to stare at glimpses of white underwear. The trick of the show is its denial, its masochism, its illusion. Nini gives herself to no one. She’s a tease, a transaction, a commodity, like “copper on the New York exchange”.
French Cancan‘s first scene shows Danglard’s bankers in the foreground while he, in middle ground, promotes his dancer in the background.
In the ’30s, the monetisation of erotic attachments in Renoir’s films could be as crudely materialistic as ’30s Marxism (X exploits Y exploiting Z in La Chienne, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Bête humaine), and as moralistic. It is hard to say whether the triangles (like the Legrand–Lulu–Dédé one in La Chienne) becomes monetised because of the characters’ personalities, their wills to dominance and submission; or whether their personalities are a result of the monetised nature of all relationships in capitalist society. During the ’30s, Renoir leans slightly to the latter explanation.
In his postwar films, in contrast, he leans a bit toward the former explanation. Characters are more consciously their own authors. And French Cancan, for example, reflects the revitalised postwar Euro-Marxism inspired by Gramsci, in which a new hegemony is to be achieved by fresh roots in the popular classes; Danglard sees the Moulin Rouge as a place where the rich can slum with the folk, a community that crosses class lines. As a result, the monetisation of eroticism is more complex than the simple oppression of capital in the ’30s. Herbert Marcuse’s postwar Marxist writings on capitalism’s perversion of eroticism were all the rage, and Renoir was showing the “structures” of society. “Jute was the reason we lived in India”, Harriet asserts in The River, amid constant talk of money and class; the river itself is an economic factor, a conduit of jute, thus of life. Nini’s rise to fame is a series of transactions between Danglard, her mother, the Prince, the public, and her. But her story is the repetition of the stories before her of La Belle Abbesse, who is sold by Danglard to Baron Walter, and of Prunelle, who is now an old wino sleeping on the street and begging for hand-outs. The world these three women share with Renoir’s ’30s heroines is not one of happiness or children, but of constant battle. Yet Nini’s motives are more complex than Lulu’s in La Chienne. And unlike Lulu, Nini tries to feel concern for the men she deceives – who, unlike Legrand and Renoir’s ’30s heroes, no longer enjoy the luxury of righteous savagery.
In the ’30s, passions are paroxysmal eruptions. Despite the praise accorded La Règle du jeu (by ’60s and ’70s critics), for displaying the dissolution of upper-class morality, Renoir’s attention throughout the ’30s was on the dissolution of middle-class morality. It was the middle classes – as more and more workers and peasants ascended into the middle class and demanded its attributes – who stimulated the competition for resources, markets and security that precipitated the paroxysm of World War II. Thus, far more symptomatic of ’30s’ attitudes than La Règle is La Marseillaise (1937), which blesses violence to achieve the aspirations of the masses. Thirties Renoirs salute violence as righteous (however lamentable) when it signals revolt from societal repression – La Chienne, Boudu, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Toni, Partie, Madame Bovary, La Bête humaine. Renoir’s ’30s films suggest that our ungovernable passions can be an engine of change, somewhat as Futurism did prior to World War I. If in contrast the exception, La Règle, was rejected by public, critics and ideologues alike, two months before the outbreak of World War II, one suspects the reason was not that Renoir mocked the ruling classes and their fitness to rule, but that in this movie everything, even violence, seems futile. Renoir was no longer willing to melodramatise dissolution of class morality into a sign of necessary revolution.
The militant left never forgave him, neither in 1939, 1950 or 1968, for – as they put it – deserting his comrades and turning his back on The Good Fight. “He didn’t say goodbye”, quipped Aragon. Yet Eurocommunism made the same decision in Western Europe after the war: to cooperate with Christian Democracy and to struggle for the revolution peacefully, by changing public perceptions. And the European left’s gains were substantial. Similarly in Renoir’s postwar films, change is not the result of paroxysm or chaos inspiring individuals who personify the masses. Change is each individual’s steady commitment now. It results not from the simple aspiration for class attributes, but from a dialectical aspiration – to create a new moral hegemony (and thus material justice) by being oneself and by comprehending the identities that class, gender, age, race, nationality and religion bestow on us – “willy-nilly”, as Nan says in The River. It is this dialectical aspiration that is the drama in postwar Renoir, particularly in “first love”.
It is there in the ’30s, as well, but subordinated to more forthright aspirations, like Boudu’s Rousseau-esque noble-violent savagery, or Legrand’s joy at being a “free” bum, or the rages of the heroes of La Bête humaine, Le Crime, Toni, Partie and La Marseillaise. Curiously, many critics (including Renoir on alternate days) argue that it is not rage but social milieu that is the inexorable force in these films, so much so that it seals the fate of the characters who, accordingly, bear no responsibility for themselves or for others. And the same argument could be made even about The River (1950), in which Harriet’s bragging attempts to assert her will are constantly frustrated. She decides to “conquer” Captain John but loses to Valerie;
she tries to fly her kite but it gets caught in a tree; she tries to come out of her closet but gets caught by a fish net;
she tries to crawl under the table but gets tangled in the rungs;
she determines to be “sublimely beautiful” but her frame is ungainly, her face awkward, and her voice so harsh that Renoir compares it to a strident squawking bird. In a poem she writes that she “Saw roses there that comforted her heart / And saw their crimson petals plop apart”. Just as Renoir’s ’30s heroes punish themselves for their passions, Harriet tries to kill herself.
Yet postwar Renoir was faulted – along with Eurocommunist leaders – for emphasising “consent” over revolt in this film above all. Why? Was it so repugnant that Renoir, along with the West’s Communist leaders, was swinging toward Francis of Assisi and away from Robespierre? Had the wars had no meaning? Had not the left’s most winning face always been its fraternity and humility?
And (second objection), why was it so boring that Renoir finally discovered “the family”, which had been oddly absent, without anyone noticing the fact, from all of his “true”, French films (4), until he got to “phony” Hollywood? Surely it represents a step in maturity, a step toward reality, a step in Renoir’s decade-long recovery from his disastrous marriage with Catherine Hessling, that at 47 he suddenly found family meaningful in his art, in his view of life. Where else can the real revolution occur?
And (third objection), what kind of irrelevant feminism is it that feels insulted that a mother of seven children would express her conviction that having children is the meaning of a woman? Is no one free to verge from a party line dictated by young singles? Liberation may inspire change, but parenting is the praxis of revolution. The River is a film by a profoundly political filmmaker.
And, finally (fourth objection), why is it Pollyanna that Harriet, after being rescued from her suicide attempt, “consents” to go on living, rather than throwing herself from a speeding locomotive like Gabin in La Bête humaine? The heroes in La Chienne, Le Crime, Partie and Les Bas-Fonds also consent. Gabin is the exception. Renoir does not let his characters off the moral hook. And in the films after the wars, he is even less inclined to hand them facile, paroxysmal solutions for existential dilemmas.
Renoir’s films are full of preachy scenes, little dramas designed to expose social critiques, like Chaplin, like the commedia dell’arte. It’s only when we disagree with his emphasis that we accuse him of being sententious. Mr. John in The River is made to sigh: “Meditation is hard work. I’m too lazy for the big philosophies. So I invent little ones of my own [like] digestivism. There’s a magnificent peepul tree. I look at it and digest what I see”.
Yet as Bazin pointed out, digesting is the moral hook. What else is watching a movie? Renoir’s “culte du regard” – his way of looking at peepul trees and women – insists that, to understand the world, we first have to know how to look at it, and to make it give itself to our love, under the caress of our way of looking at it (5). The world has to be “fuckable”. Who are the villains in La Chienne, Le Crime and La Règle, if not characters with chronic indigestion? What is French Cancan if not The River‘s digestivism applied to socio-economic realities? Thus especially in The River Renoir is emphasising not staticity but an awesomely dynamic dialectic of digestion. “I hate willy nilly!” Harriet declares, and every one of The River’s characters fights reality without learning to “consent”. All they learn is to “go on”, as Harriet’s mother puts it. The fight is fierce. “Going on”, they refuse to quit, like the farm family in The Southerner. “Babies can be born again in games, can’t they?” Harriet’s four-year-old sister insists. Digesting is the first moment of “first love”.
Postwar Renoir, in contrast to the ’30s, represents a shift in emphasis from dialectical materialism to dialectical existence. Now individuals, not just “history”, have to perform. The melodrama shifts from acts to actor. And particularly to the female actor. In the ’30s it was usually the mousy man who revolted, while women became prostitutes to gain power and ended up victims. In the ’50s Nini and Camilla (Magnani, The Golden Coach) see themselves as highly moral and end up adored dominatrices, and now are victims of themselves more than of social milieu. Valerie, The River‘s nascent dominatrix, “was not one of us”, Harriet explains; “Her father owned the jute press. … They were rich”. Accordingly, Valerie is introduced as a smashing redhead on a smashing horse, spoiled, self-indulgent and cruel.
Girls like Harriet, in contrast, depredate their own worth in a society of work, where sons, not daughters, are assets; and Mr. John’s half-caste daughter, despite his prattle about not needing money, is fortunate to have a Brahmin suitor offer her position and status,
just as Nini’s laundress friend is fortunate to get Nini’s cast-off lover Paolo on the rebound. “Stars”, on the other hand, as someone remarks in French Cancan, “don’t have dramas, only scandals”. They can never be hurt by love the way they hurt their lovers, because as stars they become objects of indigestion. What is more political than the encounters of every day?
Nini struggles all the harder, accordingly, to put a sweet face on reality. (Renoir chose Françoise Arnoul for the part because of her ability to react in conversation with him.) But everyone tries to put their face on reality, as Octave (Renoir) declares in La Règle – “Tout le monde a ses raisons”. And this is “affreux”, he adds: terrible! Time and again, crosscut close-ups register the separate worlds that individuals inhabit in solitude (6). And two-shots stress the absence of togetherness as often as its presence. “First love” shatters because everyone is right, because everyone puts their own face on reality, and becomes a performer. Renoir saw himself as a social satirist in the line of the commedia dell’arte, Chaplin and Stroheim. But his painfully ambivalent attitudes toward women, his tendency to depict them as sweet dominatrices whom he both adores and fears, surely derives from his first wife Catherine; making movies gave him the opportunity to play a Danglard, whereas he perhaps felt more affinity with the prince. His films’ conflict is always between wanting community and wanting freedom, or, on another level, between consenting to reality and inventing reasons, between digestion and indigestion. French Cancan‘s finale may be unequalled in cinema as a Dionysian celebration of community, in which spectacle fulfils its archaic function of binding a community; but the spectacle is illusion, as Plato complained: most of us are only in the audience singing along, the prince isn’t there at all, and to end the film Renoir cuts away unrhythmically to a bum stumbling around outside the Moulin Rouge, alone in the night.
Looking at women or men or children, looking at trees, we cannot help putting a face on them. How to entangle what we see from how we see it? Renoir doesn’t try to untangle the two; he celebrates the tangle. His style of painting young women and trees is equivalent to his attitude toward young women and trees. The history of western art could be written as an attempt to grapple with the same paradox – between reality and the face we put on it, between who we are and who we think we are.
For example, the use of perspective – in Renaissance painting, to transpose real space onto two-dimensional surfaces – was a technique for getting closer to reality. And Renoir is excited by its duplicity, and plays with that duplicity just as Nini plays with the prince. For example, in The River, Nan runs across the yard to call the girls, but Renoir changes her horizontal motion into a vertical one.
She becomes a spot at the apex of a triangle (whose base is the foreground line between the two girls), and the spot grows bigger as she descends vertically down the frame.
Renoir puts a vertical face on a horizontal event. He creates a rationalised space – a space “falsified” in some respects in order to be understandable in others. The triangular composition with Nan looks like an exemplary trompe-l’œil; and to recognise it as such is to evoke not only the history of painting since the Renaissance, but the claims of western science. A traditional eastern artist would have positioned Nan’s motion quite differently, without playing with the paradoxes produced by emphasising perspective. But Renoir plays with them deliberately, here and one way or another, in shot after shot, insisting on his western perspective.
And this is precisely what some people object to about The River – that Renoir wasn’t less French and more Indian, that he came to India but didn’t put it into his film, but instead told stories, with almost no Indian characters, of a British family living there as colonialists. There was no acknowledgement of the poverty and strife of India, of the immensity of the problems confronting hundreds of millions of people who had just achieved independence. Satyajit Ray declared The River wasn’t India. But it was Renoir’s India, albeit Harriet’s India, a documentary-like gawking at India and Indians in every shot, albeit from a girl’s eye, and why do we fault Renoir and Harriet for ignoring India’s catastrophes even as they focus on life’s? Were Renoir’s father’s paintings wrong to ignore French catastrophes? Are all the American films wrong that, since 1895, have ignored American racism, labour strife, ecological erosion and imperialist policies? Cannot a film be profoundly political while ignoring all the current issues, except for the most immediate issues of all? It was Satyajit Ray who, like Luchino Visconti, declared that Renoir taught him to see (7).
Where, in ’30s Renoir, is there sociological detail comparable to that demanded of The River? (or achieved in The River?!) Where are the crises with Germany, Italy, Spain, and the League of Nations; the debate over national defence; the criminal policies in Algeria; the anti-Semitism (one or two minor allusions: nothing to presage enthusiastic cooperation in the holocaust); the corruption of the government; the grinding poverty? Where is the Depression? Where is the threat of National Socialism or Fascism? If Renoir does not show the poor and destitute in India, he doesn’t show them in France either – except for the Rousseau-like “happy bums” in Boudu and La Chienne. And the factory workers? Renoir ignores their plight completely!
Nevertheless recent academic critics – the same who dismiss The River and French Cancan with airy condescension – have canonised Le Crime de Monsieur Lange as though it were a rare instance of a politically profound film. Yet the white-collar employees’ problems in Le Crime are trivial in comparison to those of the French factory workers or of the working class men and women routinely depicted in pre-1934 American films (8), and even so are blamed on the black hearted publisher rather than on the ideological system (in contrast to French Cancan‘s studied indictment of the system) and are dramatised in terms familiar to French fiction since Balzac’s Lost Illusions in 1843. Contemporary French critics saw nothing politically radical about Le Crime, and why should they have? The film was an effort to promote the Clinton-like Popular Front to the middle classes. Its workers’ cooperative is not a factory but a dozen literary types blessed by their capitalist backer – certainly no challenge to the system! – and a gimmick so thrown away during the populist love story that neither we nor the characters are moved to wonder if the co-op will survive, now that the sole author of its success has fled into exile. If good triumphs over evil in this melodrama, it is due solely to the sincerity of the heroine, which convinces the de facto jury in the bar of the face she puts on a murder whose actual motivations are incoherent (9).
In The River, Renoir’s declaration of his inability to assume an Indian perspective is based on a philosophic dilemma shared by both western and eastern cultures: the questionable validity of human knowledge – of the stories we concoct in order to put a face on the world. But Renoir treats cinema with the tradition of Vermeer, as a camera obscura, on which is projected the image the artist will trace as two-dimensional geometry, a spatial transposition that is both true and false, without being clear about what is true and what is false; such ambivalence is part of the realism of Impressionism, of the intelligence’s eroticism. Renoir’s way of looking at India resembles his way of looking at women.
Renoir’s pictorial art takes control of the world (of India as much as of nubile women); art is always arrogant, which is why it gives offence. And Renoir does it consciously. In the process his films reveal the presence of things that are not art, that are beyond human control. In The River, the story starts when Captain John arrives, as grown-up Harriet relates in voice-off, while adolescent Harriet watches Captain John arrive. (Renoir would have noted the same scheme in Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in 1941.) But what Renoir shows is not adolescent Harriet’s subjective view, singling out and focusing closely on Captain John the man. What Renoir shows is a prodigious tree dominating a vast landscape;
and secondarily, a river, boats, workmen, women – a Breughel-like evocation of the life, economy, flora and mood of a world (“Little house, our village, Bengal, India, the eastern hemisphere, and the world,” young Harriet defines it), dominated by a prodigious tree; and thirdly, very thirdly, two tiny specks traversing this vast landscape under that prodigious tree (less conspicuously than Ford’s stagecoach traversing Monument Valley). Here the paradox is between the story detail (Captain John arriving) and the composition (tree and landscape: the world; and a tiny speck). The composition overwhelms the story, turns it into a different story, a story of incidents which occur within the context of nature, which Renoir defines as rhythm.
Always he insists on rhythmic music, rhythmic movements, rhythmic compositions and rhythmic montages, rhythmic speech (whose rhythms often deliberately impair understanding – which critics haughtily misattribute to the clumsiness of the actors and Renoir’s inability to direct them properly!). Harriet speaks of the rhythms of our lives, the seasons, life and death, and the river itself, the sacramental current of life that is always bringing things: boats and hemp, and water. The bass rhythm is work.
Men strain at the oars in the opening scene; work is in the background of every scene;
the Indian girl who grows up in Harriet’s story is shown working constantly from earliest childhood. The River begins with a fugue – a rhythmic motif in the raga on the music track which passes from one phase to another, and is echoed by a rhythmic motif in the work-motions of the people on the river which passes from one to another of them, as the pan of Renoir’s camera gradually expands space from an individual boy, to the boy and his boat and his father, to rowers on the boat behind them, all at work – the world, as Harriet calls it, “the world of the river”.
In the India that Harriet recounts, saints meditate beside the river and women go to the river and the peepul tree to ask for the blessing of a son; the river brings a young man and the peepul tree takes a son; and Harriet will try to dissolve her self in the river and will find rebirth instead. The River, like Partie, is about the faces we put on reality, and the come-uppances that result.
Little Bogey is the one who dies trying to charm the snake in the garden, but everyone tries. Nan is forever uttering adages. Harriet declares, “I hate willy nilly!” Captain John fights his loss of a leg. Melanie frets over being half-caste, and Valerie and all of them fret over being sexual. Protest is farce, and pain makes it real, and we go on. The rite of passage for a Renoir character (as for Zeke in Vidor’s Hallelujah, 1929) is always the discovery that life is beyond control. Their awe at discovery is essentially the same, whether they find they become murderers, escaped prisoners, tragic lovers, a public sex act, or a writer. But is it life that is out of control? Or their own story?
- “It is tempting to explain the difference between ‘significant form’ and ‘beauty’ – that is to say, the difference between form that provokes our aesthetic emotions and form that does not – by saying that significant form conveys to us an emotion felt by its creator and that beauty conveys nothing”. Clive Bell, Art, Capricorn, New York, 1958, p. 43.
- Jacques Rivette, “Lettre sur Rossellini”, Cahiers du Cinéma 46, April 1955, p. 20.
- André Bazin, Jean Renoir, Champ Libre, Paris, 1971, p. 128.
- With the frankly commercial exception of On purge bébé in 1930.
- Bazin, pp. 139-40. Bazin’s notion that cinema is “ontologically” an “imprint of reality” is consistent with Renoir’s “digestivism” – and with the Catholic mixture of phenomenology and social engagement which had been an increasingly important theme in French culture since the ’30s – and which in the ’40s and ’50s helped inspire strains of Italian neo-realism.
- In contrast, close-ups in series indicate unity, an absence of solipsism, for example, the 12 rapid close-ups climaxing French Cancan or, in The River, series of close-ups among Harriet and her sisters.
- Every culture resents the films foreigners make about them; Rossellini’s India was condemned for the same reason, as were Ford’s films about Ireland and Native Americans, Vidor’s film about France, or Antonioni’s film about America.
- During its first 40 years much of the American cinema was a product of progressive working-class outlooks that denounced capitalism, government, organised religion and discrimination against women. Hollywood became Tinsel Town only after 1934, when a new Production Code forced progressive voices underground, as a result of the studios’ loss of independence to Morgan/Rockefeller interests during the Depression.
- One interpretation is that Lange murders Batala cold-bloodedly in order to save the co-op. Renoir likens Lange to his cowboy hero, Arizona Jim, and suggests that a better world can be created simply by killing off the baddies (a lesson Hitler and Stalin took to heart). In fact, by his lawless murder of Batala, Lange makes himself into an outlaw and destroys the co-op, which cannot survive without his Arizona Jim stories. But as the heroine recounts the events, Lange is motivated by passion: Batala is physically molesting her just before Lange shoots him.