Bright Lights Film Journal

From <em>La Fille</em> to <em>Dr. Cordelier:</em> Character and Environment in the (Mostly) Early Works of Jean Renoir

“Renoir’s static images contain a great deal of emotional intensity — like that last lyrical shot of the sun setting in La Fille — and the sheer beauty of his two-dimensional compositions generates an emotional involvement within the viewer (like that in the viewer of a painting) and a sense of emotional treatment of the romantic material within the frame, yet preserves an awareness of the existence of a larger world beyond the borders of the frame.”

1. La Fille de L'Eau (1925) and Nana (1926)

When he discussed his first film, La Fille de L'Eau (aka Whirlpool of Fate, 1925), Jean Renoir often mentioned his stylistic indebtedness to Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922). Indeed, with the exception of one scene (an attempted rape) that employs some experimental sound montage (dramatic cuts to ringing alarm clocks and barking dogs) and another in which a montage of faces registers the effects of a fire as it destroys a gypsy's wagon, the film relies less in its overall editing on the spatial disorientation of Eisenstein's conflicting angles and images than Stroheim's compulsive concern for continuity. Like Stroheim, Renoir, in his first few films, treats romantic material without camera movement or, to paraphrase Andrew Sarris on Stroheim, tends to "anchor his camera to his compositions." But unlike Stroheim who invests static objects with intense emotional significance (such as the music box in Blind Husbands), Renoir, in his silent films, tends to convey romantic experience by the movement of characters and objects within his frames. In other words, Renoir anchors his camera but moves his compositions. For example, in one of the opening shots of La Fille, the frame contains one character who walks from one end of a moving river barge to the other. The camera does not move, but the barge does. As a result, Renoir changes his composition without changing his (the camera's) relation to it. The motion, therefore, appears almost flat or two-dimensional because the camera does not take part in it (unlike the camera's involved, democratic participation in Renoir's thirties and forties films). At the same time, however, Renoir's treatment of motion in this shot is highly expressive emotionally. As the barge moves, the man who is walking from one end of the boat to the other retains his original position within the frame. In a single shot, Renoir's static camera captures the frustrated motion of life on a river barge.

Although Renoir eventually does move his camera, both character (as in the shot just mentioned) and camera movement in La Fille and many of his other silent films tend to preserve the static quality of his images, undercutting the vitality of his characters. His camera views a world in motion but does not (as it does later in the thirties) participate in its movements. Even the tracking shots in La Fille seem to detract from the motion of the film's characters at fixed, unchanging distances from the camera (e.g., when the camera tracks with the bicycle). Again, when Renoir's camera pans across the faces of the townspeople as they watch a burning haystack, the movement seems to hold them in a sort of physical paralysis; it traps them, suggests their helplessness, reinforces their inability to move. In the next to last shot of the film, a tribute to the ending of Stroheim's Blind Husbands, Renoir's camera tracks along with a cart carrying the heroine, the hero, and his family as they drive off. A release of sorts, this movement, however, holds the characters at a uniform distance from the camera and seems to fix all the characters into an unchanging universe. The last shot of the film — a lyrical shot of the sun setting over the canal — reaffirms the splendid circularity of La Fille's world and its characters' ultimate inability to change.

In all these scenes, the synchronization of camera and character movement locks Renoir's characters into a single dimensional plane within the frame. His use of two-dimensional images and motion in which the camera does not participate (or if it does, the characters do not) reflects the director's treatment of his story, his characters, and change in his first few films. For example, the static set-ups in La Fille, the tracking shots and pans that hold characters in the same place in the frame, and that last shot of the sun setting surround Renoir's characters in a constant, unchanging universe. Like the canal that, at times, almost symbolically encompasses the forces of change (e.g., the loss of la fille's father) and later becomes purgative in effect (when it carries away the uncle) ultimately has an enigmatic quality (e.g., its dark but reflective surface when the townspeople drag the river at night looking for la fille's drowned father) that defies all logic, morality, and schematic definitions of change. Similarly, the film itself incorporates certain formal or structural elements of change on one level (narrative) but, at the same time, achieves a sense of changelessness on another (characterization, composition). In this respect, Renoir's stylistic form works against his narrative content. Although la fille melodramatically rises from canal life to an aristocratic existence and overcomes the forces of the past (her uncle) that try to hold her back, Renoir conveys her change as primarily one of social position, not in basic character. As a result, her tremendously expressive dream is more static than kinetic: it exposes rather than develops her character. Even though the rainstorm that precedes her dream has, like the canal river, a mystical effect on her, it serves only to liberate her fantasy from her reality in a sort of purification process. The last shot of the film, however, dispels any doubt that Renoir acknowledges character change. Cutting away from his characters, he returns to the canal and the setting sun and reaffirms the constancy of the world in which his characters exist by putting their actions within the circular context of nature. Renoir's setting overrides all.

Although it is true that in his first films, Renoir's frames are static, this does not mean the films lack emotion. On the contrary, emotion and the subtlety of its shiftings provide the subject matter of most of Renoir's first films. However, he does not convey emotions with a moving camera; rather he suggests certain emotions statically, that is, through the lines of his compositions, image size, lighting, and framing. Renoir's static images contain a great deal of emotional intensity — like that last lyrical shot of the sun setting in La Fille — and the sheer beauty of his two-dimensional compositions generates an emotional involvement within the viewer (like that in the viewer of a painting) and a sense of emotional treatment of the romantic material within the frame, yet preserves an awareness of the existence of a larger world beyond the borders of the frame.

Renoir achieves emotional change in his early silent films not by means of camera movement (which preserves the spatial and temporal integrity of character change) but primarily by means of cutting and variation of image size. In La Fille, when a destitute orphan (Catherine Hessling) and George (Pierre Philippe), son of an aristocratic landowner who takes an interest in the orphan, sit together in an idyllic outdoor setting, Renoir shoots this intimate scene in medium shot and close-up. But as George is about to take the girl's hand and confess his love for her, awareness of their class differences embarrasses him and he pulls away. As George withdraws, Renoir cuts to a long shot of the couple, suggesting George's emotional withdrawal, the sudden disintegration of intimacy and the distance that separates the lovers. At the same time, the long shot puts them into a more realistic context, reminding them of things outside of themselves, of class distinctions. Renoir's emotional use of close-up to long shot montage, a dramatic cutting sequence that occurs frequently in the melodramas of D. W. Griffith, appears again in a similar scene in his second film, Nana (1926). After Count de Vandoeuvres (Jean Angelo) has disgraced himself publicly at the race track, he visits Nana in her room. The Count, who has just lost everything because of Nana, implores her to marry him. The scene is shot in close-up and medium shot. When Nana flatly refuses the Count, Renoir cuts to a long shot of the action, achieving about the same emotional effect as in La Fille. However, the cut in Nana to long shot creates a more public spectacle of private disgrace: the frame now contains Nana's servants who stand as spectators to the action at the other end of her chamber. The tableau of mistress, rejected lover, and lower-class onlookers completely destroys any sense of intimacy that might have been established between Nana and the Count by the earlier use of medium shot and close-up.

Although it is helpful to compare Renoir's frames and editing to those of Griffith and Stroheim, it is important, at the same time, to make some distinctions between Renoir and his two cinematic contemporaries. Whereas Griffith's and Stroheim's cutting and composition stress the three-dimensional aspect of their frames (i.e., the deep foregrounds and the compositional tensions between foreground and background), Renoir's use of the same elements accents his two-dimensional approach to composition. Everything exists on the same level of depth and appears as a single compositional structure, like an interlocking piece of sculpture. Not only Renoir's close-ups but also his long shots are two-dimensional. The space around his characters seems to be co-extensive with them. As a result, Renoir's frames in comparison with those of Griffith and Stroheim seem almost flat and free of inner (foreground/background) conflict between different levels of depth. In a larger sense, the subject of Renoir's frames — that is, his characters and his narrative material — also reflect a lack of intense conflict. In the traditional melodramas of Griffith and Stroheim, the compositions of their frames reflect a strongly moral approach to their content. The positioning of characters within the frames often depends on their moral function as melodramatic stereotypes. But the constant movement of characters and objects within a Renoir frame prevents a character's position in the frame from taking on any specific moral significance. As a result, although the formal elements of conventional moralistic (good vs. evil) melodramas appear in Renoir's silent films — for example, the struggles between his heroines and the evil uncle in La Fille and Death in La Petite Marchand Renoir's treatment of them restricts their traditional functions as moral forces and robs them of any deterministic significance in his narrative.

In addition to his compositions, Renoir's editing also mirrors his non-moral approach to his characters and his story. Crosscutting in Griffith, quite often, operates on a moral level, either by opposing the actions of good and bad characters or, in a chase scene, suggesting an inevitable moral salvation that colors a physical rescue. Renoir avoids montage (including crosscutting) for the simple reason that montage thrusts images into a dialectic conflict with one another — an aesthetic conflict that has strong moral overtones. Eisenstein and Hitchcock, for example, use montage didactically, to make a moral point. Renoir, however, refrains from using montage because it tends to establish the same moral polarities in editing that three-dimensional foreground/background tensions create in compositions. As a result of Renoir's flat, two-dimensional compositions and his careful avoidance of montage, his melodramas, unlike those of Griffith and Stroheim, treat characters and emotional-romantic subject matter without the conventional moral duality of good vs. evil. In retrospect, then, the lack of conflict and the circular changelessness that we noted in La Fille make a great deal of sense — the film does not build "linearly" through moral conflict but rather circles here and there, gradually revealing the integrity of the film's universe — the oneness that its characters enjoy with its setting.

In Nana, Renoir begins to treat emotional concerns stylistically by his use of movement within the frame. Although he handles emotional climaxes by going outside of the frame with wrenching cuts, Renoir reveals less traumatic, more gradual emotional change by shifting spatial relationships and by subtle movement within the frame. For example, early in the film when George, Count Vandoeuvre's nephew, first meets Nana, he is tremendously smitten by her. As he leaves her dressing room, he passes Muffat, Nana's present lover, in a bleak, flat corridor. The two lovers pass each other in the narrow hall outside her room, George (in the shallow background nearest the wall) walking away slowly, aware of nothing but his infatuation for the actress. Muffat, in the foreground, walks toward her door briskly. Old and new cross in front of the camera (Nana is nowhere in the frame) at different speeds and at different depths, suggestive of their different qualities of emotional attachment or involvement with their common romantic illusion (Nana's absence makes this movement even more powerful). In another scene, after George's suicide, Muffat rebukes Nana for her frivolity. They quarrel and Muffat leaves her at a nightclub. Outside, Muffat sits alone on a park bench in the dark. A street lamp provides a faint, single-source light. Renoir cuts to a close-up of Muffat as he seemingly thinks about his relationship with Nana. Falling leaves periodically drift out of the darkness at him (he has just broken off with Nana). Finally, Muffat picks one of the leaves off his shoulder, examines it, and drops it to the ground. The motion of the leaves within the frame, in contrast to Muffat's seeming paralysis, conveys the emotional impact of this moment and reveals externally the internal crisis in the Muffat/Nana relationship.

Throughout Nana, Renoir seems to develop his story and his characters in terms of spatial relationships and restricted motion (like in this park bench scene). The binocular-masked shot at the theater when Muffat first sees Nana, for example, establishes, through contrasting image size (like that in the first scene of George Cukor's The Actress), the spatial distance between them. Later, at the races, a similar shot sequence (some shots also masked) reinforces that distance. The frustrating cutting (e.g., close-ups of the horses' legs) both denies us a view of the race as an event and disorients the characters spatially from one another. The spatial confusion mirrors the emotional confusion of the central characters. Again and again, Renoir conveys the emotional content of love scenes and the strength of relationships spatially and through image size. As a result, the final scene in which Nana's dead lovers visit her is particularly effective. When the Count de Vandoeuvres, for instance, appears as a ghost (in the flames of his burning stable), he looks at Nana, points accusingly at her, and slowly reaches out for her. The reaching hand vanishes into the shadows that play on the wall. One senses here the illusion of space and Renoir's manipulation of it as the distances between characters seem to collapse. At the very end of the film, when the camera tracks in on Nana (a reversal of the deep-focus track-out in the first reel after she drops her packages on her bed) as she lies sick in bed, the track brings the film full circle with the relentlessness of its movement in on her. It almost seems to deny emotional relationships in its exclusion of spatial ones (Muffat and her setting drop out of the frame). The single movement establishes, at the same time, both her romantic isolation and, as Mike Prokosch writes, "once and for all, her strength." In other words, the static circularity of Nana, like that of La Fille, is both stylistic and thematic — and Renoir's use of movement, image size, and depth visually reflects his approach to characters in a constant, unchanging universe.

Part 2: La Petite Marchand D'Allumettes (1928)

Although Renoir's treatment of movement in each of his early films changes from film to film, from story to story, from character to character, the camera's overall lack of physical participation in any of this movement suggests a static, two-dimensional approach on the director's part to movement and to the emotions that movement suggests. In addition to his static approach to emotional and physical movement in his early work, his treatment of background and foreground and the relationship/lack of relationship between the two stresses the two-dimensional, planar quality of his frames.

In La Petite Marchand D'Allumettes (The Little Match Girl), for example, Renoir's use of miniatures, back projection, flat tracking shots, screen-like surfaces, and depth of field alienates his central character, the match girl, from her surroundings. The film opens with a high-angle shot showing a town, train, and houses. But they are all obvious miniatures. In fact, the first real figure we see is that of the match girl. She is thrust out of a wooden shack by a mysterious, unidentified hand, and the nightmare begins.

When the girl goes to work, Renoir shows her movement against a flat, two-dimensional back projection of city streets. Again her setting is totally artificial and alienating. In the back projection, people pass her, walking in a direction opposite to hers. Renoir's tracking camera serves to further isolate her movement in relation to that of the background. When the match girl comes to a cafe, she looks inside through a frosted window — the glass barrier again separating her from the background, from warmth, from people. A minute later, we see her standing in front of a toy shop, again looking through a window at things she can never have, at toys she never had. Renoir sets off his central character from the background and isolates her in a bare, empty foreground. When a friendly policeman smiles at her, Renoir cuts away at the smile, as he did earlier in La Fille and Nana, from medium to long shot, distancing the action and frustrating the emotional effect of the smile. Again the medium-to-long-shot sequence reinforces rather than destroys the two-dimensional quality of the emotionally powerful image. Again and again, process shots and glass surfaces screen her from contact with the real world. Her isolation and the artificiality of her setting leave her nothing but the world of illusion that exists within her.

Later, after lighting matches to keep warm, the girl falls asleep in the snow. Renoir shows us her dream. She enters a giant toy shop, like the one she looked at with the policeman. However, the immense size (a giant ball, large stuffed animals, etc.) of the toys she sees only serves to further isolate her from them and alienate her from her surrealistic setting. The life-size dolls make the match girl seem doll-like in contrast. Her black dress sets her off sharply from the illusiveness of her white surroundings — she remains in one textural plane, her background in another.

The match girl's alienation in the dream sequence, however, differs somewhat from that in the other sequences. In the film's first scenes, the match girl's total alienation from her surroundings makes her, unlike the more or less two-dimensional heroines of La Fille and Nana, stand out against an indifferent setting and pushes the film towards a unique use of depth. In a sense, Renoir's frames in La Petite Marchand are almost three-dimensional — they contain two planes of action scenes tend to isolate the matchgirl in a desolate foreground. Similarly, the use of windows — surfaces which separate her from her desires or snowfall or billowy sheer white curtains (in the dream toy shop) screen her off into a fairytale world of her own. In fact, the snow, like the rainstorm in La Fille, thrusts her dream into the foreground of the narrative (pure subjectivity) and isolates her completely from her real environment.

Her surroundings seem to control her now, whereas before they seemed to indifferently ignore her (the world went on as if she didn't exist, like the passersby in the back projection); now the setting begins to threaten her (the jack-in-the-box that becomes Death). In a sense, her environment suddenly becomes deterministic; her setting determines not only the substance but also the quality of the image. The objects in the toy shop surround her, entrap her (thematic substance), and, although they are hostile and somewhat alien to her, they exist in the same two-dimensional plane with her.

As a result, even though the oversized objects create tension within that plane, the image remains whole and flat, like a painting. When, for example, Death chases the match girl on horseback (a scene somewhat akin structurally to George's fight with la fille's uncle in La Fille De L'Eau), the action has no background but clouds; the image lacks depth. Rather than filming the chase as movement from one level of the frame to another, Renoir shoots it as single-plane movement from one side of the frame to another and, by changing the camera angle, from one corner of the frame to another. Much of the dream sequence, in this way, appears to take place on a single plane — the images attain a two-dimensional quality that the previous sequences (built around the separation of one plane from another) lack.

Like La Fille and Nana, La Petite Marchand has a circular construction. Like the last shot of La Fille which returns to nature, the last shot of La Petite Marchand, a long shot of the city, both recalls the opening shot of the film and reflects the ultimate indifference of Renoir's setting to his characters. The matchgirl's death, like that of the young English boy in The River (or, for that matter, that of any of Renoir's heroes — in Toni, Grande Illusion, Regie Du Jeu, etc.), exists within a context of constant change — her death matters, but, at the same time, the world (nature, society) will go on without her. What is so moving about La Petite Marchand is Renoir's juxtaposition — more exactly, his framing of the matchgirl's vividly expresskmistic dream in which her setting is deterministic, in which she does matter, between two non-deterministic, almost three-dimensional sequences in which her environment seems almost oblivious of her existence.

3. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Later Films

A dimensional study of the foreground/background relationships in La Petite Marchand or any other Renoir film ultimately has little value if it is not accompanied by a complementary analysis of a more subtle relationship: that of Renoir's characters to their environment. Often such a relationship goes beyond the simple equation of foreground equals characters and background equals environment — especially in the work of a planar stylist like Renoir who avoids dramatic oppositions of foreground and background. Since Renoir's characters and their background regularly coexist within a single dimensional plane, it is extremely important — once having seen that this is true — to examine in a more general way what goes on in the single level of depth between his characters and their environment.

Frequently, especially in his later films, Renoir uses the "background" to represent a fixed world of unchanging values: the river in The River, the naturalistic countryside in Toni, the castle-like prison in Grande Illusion, the chateau in Regie du Jeu, the palace and the aristocratic milieu that inhabits it in Carosse D'Or.

It is against the circularity of this unchanging background that Renoir's characters struggle: the petty emotions of the Englishman's children in The River, Toni's attempts to assert himself — frustrated by the naturalistic figure of the hunter who shoots him; all these struggles and, most clearly, those in Grande Illusion and Carosse D'Or take on the form of a sort of escape attempt: characters try but fail to escape the world that surrounds them. It is a pattern that appears again and again in Renoir's films, from the first to the last, and provides one of the director's most melodramatic artistic metaphors — a character, quite often a dreamer like M. Lange, tries to escape the world that surrounds him by constructing his own dream world (Arizona Jim) and wins his freedom through some form of art (the flashback story, i.e., the film itself, which the laundress, Valentine, tells to save Lange).

Yet this impulse of Renoir's characters toward liberation is often melodramatic: it comes at a high cost. For example, in French Can Can and Carosse D'Or, Nini and Camilla attain a sort of liberation through art, but they pay with their loves to achieve it. The same impulse, I believe, exists in Renoir's earliest films, and its presence provides one of the best arguments for the integrity of the director's career. But in order to isolate this impulse, it is first necessary, through a discussion of Renoir's character/environment relationships, to look at his films' dream sequences and their dreamers (= artists) and to examine the redemptive role illusion plays in each.

Throughout the first half of La Fille, the environment works to imprison the girl; the barge itself becomes a visual metaphor for that prison, locking the girl in its motion and separating her from physical contact with the rest of the world. It also represents her class; the shot of George riding his horse near the canal reminds us of the barrier between her class and his. When the girl runs away, she finds a freedom of sorts; but it is not until the rainstorm that she undergoes the sort of purification that facilitates her later ability to cross class boundaries.

The hallucinatory dream sequence in La Fille begins as an escape from a rainstorm. The girl, exhausted, falls asleep in the rain and dreams surrealistically (several slow-motion shots accentuate this) of walking over a dry countryside, of riding a white horse, or of entering through the pillared doorway of a great house. The girl's rescue by George not only saves her life but also fulfills part of her dream (the horse, the house). Although the illusion in La Fille completely takes over the foreground of the narrative and pushes the real world of the rainstorm into the background, Renoir does reestablish the real world: the girl wakes up and the story returns to the realization of her escape (the final shot of her leaving with George's family).

The ghosts at the end of Nana also recede; but before they do, they take their toll on the film's heroine. At the end of the film, when Muffat arrives, Nana can no longer tell the difference between illusion and reality. The theater that was so much a part of her life haunts her death; Nana's death, shown visually by a cut to a three-bulb lamp on the wall that slowly fades out into blackness, only reaffirms the confusion between theater and real life.

In Petite Marchand, the match girl, unable to sell her matches, finally takes refuge from the snow under a board near a fence. Someone removes the board and deprives her of her shelter against the cold. She lights matches to keep warm and finally begins to hallucinate on seeing the match light. She falls asleep and her dream begins. Unlike in Nana, the nightmarish dream sequence at the end of Petite Marchand never really recedes. The match girl's death — the ultimate form of escape for a Renoir character — ends her dream. Unlike in La Fille, the girl makes no return from the artificial world into which her dream has led her. Even though Renoir returns the narrative flow of the film to the real world of the girl's environment — we see a shot of her buried in the snow — its central character has totally surrendered to illusion. Given the unchanging nature of the match girl's environment, death becomes her only escape. Yet her death is not wholly tragic because Renoir treats it as if it were a religious liberation; death purifies and redeems.

The redemptive nature of death, though somewhat obscure perhaps in Renoir's silent films, becomes clearer through a comparison of the deaths at the end of two later films, Boudu and Le Testament du Dr Cordelier. Boudu's gradual assimilation into bourgeois society (saved by Lestingois, he puts on his clothes and mimics his manners) is highlighted by his marriage to Marie (Lestingois' maid and former mistress). Celebrating the marriage with a boat ride, Boudu, reaching for a flower floating in the river, overturns the boat and floats away himself. Boudu's earlier, more primitive personality is reborn in the water. His wife and the Lestingois family consider him drowned, and when the new Boudu emerges from the river downstream, he casts off his bourgeois clothes, exchanging his suit for the rags of a scarecrow. The religious implications of the whole scene, made all the more obvious byRenoir's comic image of the scarecrow/cross, reinforces the redemptive nature of Boudu's "death."

A similar metamorphosis occurs in Cordelier — but this time Renoir reverses the formula and turns a sophisticated doctor into a grotesque monster. M. Opale, a Boudu-like creature who becomes the outlet for Dr. Cordelier's fantasies,represents the dream world of illusion, the embodiment of the doctor's desire for freedom and escape. But the reversible nature of the transformation tortures Cordelier/Opale. As a result, the escape through Opale is not a true one. Unlike Boudu, who can revert to his former self and thus find redemption, Cordelier/Opale's instability reflects an inability to purify or redeem himself through a mere physical transformation (like Boudu's change of clothes). The only way for Cordelier/Opale to find redemption is through death, a death that has religious overtones.

The spiritual purification of Renoir's characters — either through death (Petite Marchand, Cordelier) or through assimilation into art (French Can Can, Carosse D'Or) — occurs, in various ways, in each of the films I've discussed. Characters either become part of the background of unchanging values, as la fille does when she goes off with George and her new family or as Nana (partially) does through her romantic theatrics; or they die, like Nana and the match girl, escaping their environment. But whatever happens, they escape morality and time — mysteriously purified as a result of their struggle with their backgrounds.