What will become of Camilla? A character who is unsupported by theatrical context must cease to exist; when the curtain falls, the characters are unleashed from aesthetic dimensions. Renoir makes clear the tenuous nature of the people in his films; they are figures with no external relevance, who gain meaning only through their proportional relationships within the frame.
* * *
- Renoir Restarts the Clock
In 1961, Jean Renoir makes the following pronouncement: that from now on, all films should take place in the year 1900, thus eliminating the need for research and historical accuracy. In his view, the transition should occur “very simply, just like that,” and with a sense of excitement: knowing that from this point on, “we’d be set.”1 What would be the effect of such a radical reset? The idea of a film as a graph that plots outwards from zero coordinates – in which acts are meaningful only in terms of their distance from an arbitrary starting-point – raises a number of questions about a film’s content. Given the random selection of period and locations, what would constitute the subject of such a film? Should we be looking for contemporary ideas clothed in the manners and dress of 1900? By labeling history and plot as generic, Renoir diverts us from the signs by which we usually recognize what a film is “about.” This leads us into a search for the director’s style, potentially in his use of color, tempo, actors, lighting: wherever his true “subject” might be hiding.
A rough date for the beginnings of cinema is 1900: Renoir seems to be imagining that a character could stroll onto the frame, as simply and casually as if for the first time, with no baggage. On the face of it, a 1900 setting takes away all urgency and deadlines, leaving characters free to meander around the graph, without the pressures of a timeline. Getting rid of suspense renders the present enormously full and spacious: so much is possible when there is no token drama to limit our appreciation of the actors. Yet the suspicion remains that Renoir has his own, mischievous reasons for proposing an absolute blank canvas: as an energizing conceit, if not an achievable reality.
What kind of art starts from nowhere? Fairytales begin at year zero, with the understanding that all openings are merely entry-points into a series of strong images. You could argue that the Dogme movement was an attempt to rewind art to zero, clearing the stage for a new understanding of behavior and gesture. A diverse range of films have experimented with sudden resets, such as Wai Ka-Fai’s brilliant Himalaya Singh (2005), where the characters literally regress into cave-dwellers at the end, and Alain Resnais’ Les Herbes Folles (2009), which offers the viewer a number of possible exits before its finale. These two films make abrupt lurches into plotlessness and timelessness, where it’s clear that the plug can be pulled at any moment.
However, the desire to restart is more commonly a modernist gesture of exhaustion: a denial of the present moment, and a retreat into “pure” style. The concept of creating a weightless work of art – dispensing with psychology and characterization – is usually associated with a total rejection of realism. But even though Renoir proposes an art that springs from no culture, no context, he hasn’t dismissed realism altogether. Look at the nature of the people in his universe. The characters in Renoir’s late films are not merely interchangeable counters, as in a Thomas Pynchon novel; they are far from the two-dimensional ciphers of Todd Solondz or Wes Anderson. The paradox of Renoir’s characters is that despite their generic status – people are called “countess” or “laundress,” but otherwise have little backstory – they are firm and fully molded: as richly beautiful and affecting as any in cinema.
The fact is that, in dreaming of a future artist who will release cinema from historical accuracy, Renoir is describing the director he already is. Even though they are not literally set in 1900, almost all of his late films are constructed according to his model of timelessness. The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) is a stunningly stark fable that treats rural France as a mere backdrop: although the characters wear period clothes, there is nothing rustic about this tale, which is as coolly modern and linear as its heroine. The Golden Coach (1952) shows a community disrupted by the appearance of a troupe of actors, whose costumes, gestures, and antics fictionalize every exchange. Both French CanCan (1954) and Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1959) are marked by severe opacity: the climaxes of these films are achieved through color and movement rather than plot, and there is no desire to advance the characters beyond their pictorial reality. The former is ostensibly the story of a laundress who becomes a dancer, but Renoir approaches the notion of “subject” in the way that a painter might. Just as an artist might paint a pomegranate for the chance to express structure and color, Renoir selects a laundress in order to depict this figure’s stance and silhouette. For Renoir, a subject is not what “happens,” but a theme that radiates pictorial possibilities. Most strikingly, Elena et les Hommes (1956) is Renoir at his most liberatingly artificial. While the setting is the turmoil of 1880s France, all of this historical intricacy is upset by the appearance of the princess Elena (Ingrid Bergman). Elena, whom Renoir envisioned as Venus on earth, is a goddess smiling on stories of human folly: a figure of serenity and timelessness, she renders every mortal action redundant.
These five films have a curious lightness: underneath every plausible, engaging drama, there is some fragment of unreality that shows up the ethereal nature of the plot. As Eric Rohmer has suggested, Renoir viewed the cinema as “a good place to play clichés, which a paradoxical mind such as his loves to nurture,”2 and many of those paradoxes relate to time: for instance, the way that in Elena et les Hommes, classical elements exist alongside minutely particularized events. When eternity intersects with “real time” in these films, there is no obvious disconnect: the universal and the specific co-exist harmoniously. At the same time, the characters seem to gain from the removal of temporal context – the fact that the plot motor is arbitrary gives every movement and gesture an added resonance. These films possess an incidental richness that arises from their dramatic spareness.
The mystery of Renoir is that even though his subjects are conceived in terms of theatrical acts or painterly tableaux, the resulting scenes nevertheless have the flow of a film, an unceasingly graceful and river-like rhythm. This is evidenced by the gliding ribbons and feathers in French CanCan, which reveal that even images that appear to be static compositions are buoyed by a whirling momentum. The films are so continuously energetic that the camera has the ability to sail around and pick up any figure as a protagonist – as seen in The Diary of a Chambermaid, Elena et les Hommes, and half a century later in Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (2007).
Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon is a film that could have been constructed according to Renoir’s principles of time. In this adaptation of a seventeenth-century pastoral tale, the representation of history is denaturalized at every point: mythic figures are portrayed with a specific, modern gawkiness, while characters stiffly recite eternal truths. It is a film that creates an aesthetics of untimeliness, suggesting the awkward presence of myth in the modern world. Rohmer, who extensively studied Renoir’s work, felt that one of the latter’s major achievements was that “his classicism is not spontaneous … but voluntary.” In other words, Renoir deliberately gave topical stories a classical and implacable aura: he made the decision to choose, if not 1900, then some other period that might be seen as equally generic. Like Renoir, Rohmer upends expectations about time: given a formal and courtly tale, he highlights his version with stark incongruities. Conversely, modern social dilemmas are presented as age-old fables of love. Rohmer’s characters are assigned token social roles – his nymphs and shepherdesses are much like Renoir’s countesses – but these clichés only show up the actors’ tics and quirks.
- Where Is Style Happening?
The quest for banality has been a preoccupation for a range of filmmakers, from Manoel de Oliveira and Roman Polanski to the softcore director Tom Lazarus. These artists often work with a suspiciously thin storyline: a plot motor that makes a film go at an acceptable rate, before that plot begins to evaporate or dissolve. The result is a strange objectification of story: the plot becomes a mechanism that we observe from a distance. Polanski and Oliveira do not signal that their movies are radical from the start: instead, they opt for a “straight” telling with a strangeness that gradually dawns on us.
Renoir’s method is slightly different. Raymond Durgnat quotes Renoir’s assistant as saying that the director’s ideal was “to construct a scenario ‘without suspense.’”3 The world of Elena et les Hommes has a reclining sense of timelessness. It is a self-sufficient universe – especially with the presence of the goddess-like Elena, there is no drive to the story. A narrative impetus only rocks this society back and forth; its nature does not fundamentally change. Renoir removes suspense by inserting mythical and eternal elements into the film: although the notional plot is culturally specific, we feel that the character of Elena could have been set down in any place and time.
Both Elena and The Golden Coach reflect Renoir’s preference for the plainest and most threadbare of stories, with a faint whiff of legend. As in ballet and opera, claiming that a work is an adaptation of an ancient tale is an efficient way of getting rid of the subject. The use of pre-given elements is the equivalent of a reset to zero: it draws attention to the interchangeable and arbitrary nature of the plot. As Durgnat writes, “Less with Renoir than any other director does a choice of subject indicate what propositions might have emerged from its final form.”4
Renoir has a number of strategies to imply flatness instead of forward movement. Several of his films explicitly foreground their sketch-like quality; even from its title, we understand that Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe is about importing a painterly scenario into the real. His characters often show concerns over pictorial structure and composition. In Une Partie de Campagne (1936), the daytrippers cannot relax unless they have fried fish and a cherry tree with the right amount of shade; once these props are provided, they can enter into the spirit of fun. The servants are aware of these specific needs, seeing as Parisians always have “lunch on the grass.” A young woman is thrilled about being part of a perfect tableau: she loves the prospect of trees by the river, and the lover who can control this composition is the one who remains memorable. The film is a study of the emotions made possible by a rustic setting during the afternoon – similar to Rohmer’s division of feelings into seasons and times of day. For Renoir, every location – pastoral, urban, riverside – comes with its own set of predetermined rhythms, of which the plot is merely an outgrowth.
Another pre-given factor is the casting. Renoir often conceived of films as settings for actresses, making his works appropriately sumptuous or low-key according to his notions of the star. The late films were inspired by the idea of creating showcases for Paulette Goddard, Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman5 – to the extent that filming Bergman automatically implied a work of a certain mood, coloring, and tempo. It is a singular way of working: to predetermine tone before a story is in place, and to assume that a plot will automatically shape itself according to what form story demands.
Incorporating pre-designed elements allows Renoir to create fiction without narrative tension, with a resulting looseness of relations between the characters. In Elena et les Hommes and The Golden Coach there is little dramatic suspense, but the films are full of inquisitive energy when it comes to the actors’ gestures, particularly the many “extraneous” dance-like moves performed by extras – a little flounce, a step back and forth. Removing suspense allows us to enter into the elation of the present moment, and to absorb the full texture of scenes as they unfold. Of course, the danger of this approach is that the film will be too restfully pictorial, and a sense of fatigue will emerge: this is what Durgnat describes as Renoir’s “experimental pursuit of spontaneity … [his] acceptance of all risks.”6 Renoir may be unique in his ability to create a living, flowing work of art from static elements injected into the real. With most directors who strip narrative of urgency (Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman), the absence of event is clearly outlined: there is a sense of heavy, plodding time weighing on the spartan frame. In Renoir, the fact that “nothing happens” is a growing realization: a kind of underlying stillness belied by the gaiety of color, movement, and line.
For Renoir, as for Oliveira, stylistic excitement is associated with a hollowness at the level of plot: the feeling of exhilaration when a placid story breaks open to reveal its formal concerns. Renoir’s late films are suffused with a calmness, similar to that achieved by Oliveira in Belle Toujours (2006). Oliveira’s sequel to Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) has a magical ease that stems from the fact that all plot has been taken care of in the earlier work, and the film can now abandon itself to a kind of story-less telling.
The Diary of a Chambermaid is perhaps Renoir’s most overt declaration of a weightless style: the film is radiant from the lack of dramatic tension applied to its potentially riveting plot. At first sight, the film is shockingly bare – or “meager,” as Rohmer might put it. For a decadent story set in Normandy – based on a novel by Octave Mirbeau, perhaps not coincidentally published in 1900 – the film does not offer us any of the comforts of a country tale. Renoir takes a potentially classic subject – the rise of a clever chambermaid (Goddard) on a family estate – and makes it deliberately disconcerting to the eye. The house itself is devoid of atmosphere; Renoir removes every trace of the gothic or rustic. The setting is patently a studio creation, which he does not attempt to disguise. Everything is seen under mercilessly harsh light: the landscape, the family, Goddard’s bleached hair.
A tale set in a mansion starring Judith Anderson might be expected to have reserves of mystery and suspense, but there are no secrets here: shadows are sharply defined, and every prop can be seen, plain as day. There’s nowhere to hide: in fact, Renoir shows up noir as a kind of escapism – a coherent world of darkness compared to this starkly artificial environment. The effect is that our imagination is never allowed to extend beyond the present moment – we do not think through the history of gothic houses and heroines, but remain focused on this one, strange instance. In a sense, Renoir performs the reverse of what Oliveira usually does – while Oliveira bathes the modern world in a timeless fictional affect (Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, 2009, is a fairytale implausibly set in the present), The Diary of a Chambermaid subjects the fable to stark studio light.
The film also creates a cunning mismatch between what we see and read, highlighting the disparities between style and plot. It opens with the words “Celestine My Diary” written in a large, childish hand. The writer promises a clean slate and full disclosure, but is absurdly literal in what she describes. Although she faithfully copies down new resolutions, her tone tends to be pedantic and schoolish (“Today I am entering my new place”), without a hint of the intelligence she displays in person. So this “straight-talking” narration is based on an incongruity: the personality of a subtle schemer conveyed through a crude scrawl. There is no relationship between this obedient voice and Celestine’s quick, independent mind. We also have no indication as to why her story has been taken up at this point, or how she was chosen as the narrator. The chambermaid does not have a backstory; her arrival simply marks the start of the film. The film will not probe her cool persona; we do not gain a new understanding of how Celestine thinks – she is a tolerant witness of male neuroses but remains somewhat aloof from the dramas of others. Even a romance with the young heir and an entanglement with a sadistic valet do not disrupt the film’s impassive tone. The final shot is the same as the opening: “Celestine My Diary.”
The Diary of a Chambermaid is fascinating in that it subjects us to the constant pressure of reversed expectations: settings that are artificial instead of organic, a detached treatment of dramatic events, and a look that suggests full exposure while leaving most of its characters inscrutable. The eye is always alerted to something unusual: surprised by the density of certain images and confounded by the banality of others. Is style therefore a kind of pressure, in which we are necessarily – and regularly – discomfited by what we see?
A persistent series of formal pressures creates the style of any artist: style is the level on which we sense structural variations and deviance. In Renoir, what constitutes expressive style is the patterning of precision and banality, the systematic variation of painterly and filmic techniques. Renoir’s early films were more stylistically conventional, with consistent levels of depth in the plot and the image; it is in his late works that we encounter the miraculous balance of flatness and liveliness that makes him the most mysterious of artists. The Golden Coach, French CanCan, and Elena et les Hommes feature dazzling characters who are little more than visual conceits, pasteboard sets of intense color and imagination, and entertaining stories that are also disposable creations.
- Zero Equivalence
Writing a synopsis for a film is a strange act: in order to relate what “happens,” one must lift out the film’s nominal events by slicing off mood. Summarizing a plot means pulling out acts from their dramatic weighting within the film, shaking off their context, and placing them on one plane, as if they were all objects of the same weight. Conversely, adapting a written scenario for the cinema involves a related process: taking elements out of a book and setting them down at new angles. Scenes may need to be rearranged or even vastly distorted in order to achieve the tonal equivalence of a novel or play. For this to succeed, the audience needs to be weaned from its dependence on story.
One way to prevent viewers from taking plot too literally is by having characters whose memories precede or even exceed their positions within the narrative. To this end, Renoir often makes use of a character who is serene and oddly omniscient; as we come to realize, this person is unaffected by the mere motions of plot.
The Golden Coach, Renoir’s adaptation of a play by Prosper Mérimée, reveals itself in this manner. Despite maintaining a legible plot on the surface, it weaves together multiple perspectives and time periods in its presentation of reality. As the story proceeds, we occasionally get a glimpse of different temporal planes: a past that co-exists with the present, or a scene from the future that unfolds within a live-action event. The theatrical setting allows Renoir to show a cross-section of realities: performance, rehearsal, still life, improvisation. After an announcement that this tale takes place “at the beginning of the eighteenth century” – a generic backstory if there ever was one – a figure strolls across the perimeter of the stage, defining its borders for us. Then, all it takes is a single cry (“The coach!”) to get everyone moving on their respective tracks: a whole retinue of characters files out, each one kicking into their signature move: a florid turn, a stiff-backed walk.
Despite their mechanical movements, these figures seem to think that they are “real.” When a commedia dell’arte troupe arrives in town, the danger of consorting with actors is not just a class issue, but a fear of unreality and hidden dramatic motives: “Who knows what lies behind those masked faces?” Indeed, these traveling performers will end up fictionalizing what the other characters believe to be spontaneous acts. A couple of scamps in peaked hats insist on joining everyone else’s conversations, instantly turning a live scene into a tableau: the real is overrun by the theatrical. However, the stage itself is not consistently artificial. The theater in this film is not an orderly place for performance: it is teeming with weeds and stray animals, with monkeys climbing over sets. Live movement threatens to intrude on fictional space, and vice versa.
Renoir finds every way to destabilize the visual reality of his characters. People dramatize themselves against cardboard sets and trompe l’oeil – similar to an effect in the underrated film Bewitched (2005), in which characters act against backdrops that are subsequently rolled off-screen. Props and masks attach themselves to actors and civilians alike. The wide shots catch fragments of different realities, creating a number of visual paradoxes: official stage space versus impromptu gestures, an off-hand grace note versus a choreographed dance, a “drawn” reality versus a felt moment. All of these perspectives intersect to create the world of Renoir: significantly, there is no rupture between these realities, as time periods can seamlessly co-exist. The arrival of the performers merely results in a dispersal of dramatic content, as “action” is diverted from the nominal stage to every part of the set.
However, as unpredictable as individual movements are, what happens on and off stage is a foregone conclusion. Even though these characters are conflicted, they must, in the end, act according to type: a man needs to behave gently, not through personal integrity, but because he is “like all sentimental cavaliers.” Renoir’s characters are spirited, independent creatures who are nevertheless compelled to fall in line with the overall structures of a film. In The Golden Coach, Elena et les Hommes, and The Diary of a Chambermaid, the arrival of a star actress automatically turns a chaotic society into a diagram of suitors, who obligingly present themselves in threes: everyone is aware of their role in the social order, which is viewed as a form of stage machinery.
The characters in The Golden Coach are defined by key gestures: in the case of Camilla (Anna Magnani), it is a throwing up of the hands, in world-weary exhaustion. Moves are stylized before the character knows what he or she is doing; crowds organize themselves into formal parades on cue. The impossible number of curtseys, turns, and bows in the film go beyond mere ceremony: these instinctively curved movements suggest that the characters are governed by the logic of some unknown sphere.7 Processions unfold at a second’s notice, showing that premeditation is encoded in every movement; these are people with involuntary mechanics built into their bodies. Although the viceroy (Duncan Lamont) is a discerning and intelligent fellow, he is clearly a “type” – he looks and sounds remarkably like Stewart Granger. A trilling voice and a roll of the fan sums up one of Camilla’s love rivals; another woman is defined by her habit of holding her head at a puzzled, oblique angle.
However, as Rohmer has observed of Renoir’s characters, “Little by little the puppets lose their mechanical gait, and we become sensitive to a thousand nuances in their acting.”8 How does this come about? After a magical evening with the viceroy, in which he shows her the golden coach, Camilla is told she must return to her people in the theater. Although the return is presumably only temporary, everyone in this scene smiles with a great sadness, as though a spell has been broken. This is one of the most affecting moments in Renoir. During the farewell, the viceroy looks on with resignation as Camilla and her troupe perform a series of little revolutions, forming an array in front of him. It is as if, after a moment of spontaneity, everyone must twist back into their original place: like clockwork figures, each character winds back to his or her assigned position. Earlier in the night, Camilla has been a force of nature; now she is just a toy being put to bed. From this point on, all leave-takings between actors and civilians will be imbued with regret, and a sense of the insuperable boundary between characters from different realities. This sequence is a foretelling of the film’s last scene, when the borders of the theater will close, this time leaving Camilla/Magnani stranded on the outside. In one sense, the character is saved from conflict by exiting the stage and parachuting into another reality – she performs one more turn and a shake of the fan to bow out. But the stranding is also a personal tragedy: the sudden ousting reduces her final, selfless act to a theatrical gesture, as the mechanisms of the fictional world close around her. It is an acknowledgment of the limits of acting: the end of a shared fantasy between characters.
What will become of Camilla? A character who is unsupported by theatrical context must cease to exist; when the curtain falls, the characters are unleashed from aesthetic dimensions. Renoir makes clear the tenuous nature of the people in his films; they are figures with no external relevance, who gain meaning only through their proportional relationships within the frame. This is most evident in the precise miniaturism of French CanCan, where the characters’ moods are scaled to their level of pictorial detail. Expressions of love, passion, and nostalgia – that would otherwise be clichéd – generate a visual rather than emotional interest; Lola (María Félix) is seen as jealous because she can express that feeling in a striking manner, as a señorita with flashing eyes. The characters of French Cancan have the status of figures in a frieze; their emotions are literally so tiny that they can only contribute an arresting detail to the total picture.
Elena et les Hommes also deals with characters of a precarious reality. Its heroine, the wandering princess Elena, is a fantastically undefined creature – this is another figure who exists on more than one temporal plane, so that her visit to 1880s Paris comes across as one in a long series of adventures. Sitting at a high window, she is faintly aware of the progress of history outside, but since she is seen as immortal (Renoir imagined the film as a series of “conversations with Venus”), it is not clear what relevance these events have for her. Even when Elena becomes involved in politics, her motives remain as vague as ever. When she bestows her approval on a politician by giving him a flower, she does so like a goddess championing an athlete.
What kind of film is this – a historical narrative in which the lead character is not quite human or real? Smilingly beatifically on the world, Elena receives gifts, kisses, and world news in the same distracted manner. She is happily buffeted by crowds and historical events; although politically active in her own way, she talks indulgently of bombs and innocently asks strangers “Are you spies?” The princess is given to romantic gestures, almost as much as Camilla in The Golden Coach: she is full of ostentatious vitality and love for the people (“And I feel like kissing them all!”). Yet this trait is revealed to be mechanical and generic; faced with a confronting question, she dreamily repeats, over and over, “I love crowds.” Elena is not condescending, merely removed and abstracted from the game; she is caught up in fancies that the movie is unlikely to disturb. She is fabulously entitled, but seemingly careless and needless – an unusual quality in a protagonist.
By introducing a character modeled on a deity, who seems to obey different laws of time and space, Renoir subverts the reality of the entire film. There is the feeling that, under the eye of Elena, people are not quite fully fleshed or alive. Even if Henri (Mel Ferrer, above, with Bergman) displays more emotional variation than the others, Ferrer is cast mostly for his archetypal looks; he is caught in sad-eyed, watchful poses, like a voyeur out of Toulouse-Lautrec. It is not surprising that these people seem two-dimensional, since each character has an incorruptible visual sense of how events should unfold. Elena thinks in pictures (the idea of work brings to mind “immense factories and giant smokestacks”); like Magnani’s Camilla, she wears a black-and-red Spanish dress to play out dramatic scenes with an extra flourish. She is an explicitly picturesque character: there is much arranging of hats and ribbons so that her face is always encountered within some play of shape and color. In the end, her appetite for tableaux turns out to be contagious. A young girl excitedly promises to run an errand even if she is “run through by bayonets.” The most image-conscious of all is the General (Jean Marais), who acts selflessly only to maintain a heroic profile for Elena. Thus Elena is a figure who triggers visual awareness in others, rendering them self-conscious and artificial: creatures of Renoir.
Elena et les Hommes and The Golden Coach give all the appearances of a cohesive plot, while masking a void at the heart of story. By subtly altering the weight and reality of the characters, Renoir gradually rids a fictional premise of its dramatic impetus. By the end of Elena, the film has successfully shed most of its historical specificity: a political climax segues into a “timeless” ode sung by the gypsy Miarka (Juliette Greco). Yet the notion of character and content has not completely dissolved: instead, Renoir’s films display fluctuating levels of commitment to an exterior reality. Elena and Camilla are wooden figures capable of great operatic depth: at one moment suffused with passion, then strangely indifferent to their surroundings.
- The Little Soldiers
If Renoir’s characters have no backstory, no social context, then what keeps them walking and standing in space? With no history to uphold the present moment, we might expect these people to be spineless and unmoored. Instead, what they possess is a combination of nuance and cliché that is unexpectedly touching.
Characters in Renoir tend to be referred to as “baroness” or “laundress,” with no further explanation – there is the assumption that we know the type. Renoir’s beloved laundress projects the same silhouette in every film. She is a petite, auburn-haired figure with a bun and a basket, and a catlike name such as Nini. She has a pert face, an upturned chin, and tiny hands that limit the range of gestures she can perform. Renoir’s stock figures – maids, artists, little wives – are virtually identical from film to film. A maid may be charming and lively, but she is also clearly a “type,” like a pictorial block stamped repeatedly over a canvas. The characters in French CanCan are subject to extreme reduction; each person only has one or two emotional settings – tenderness, spite, rueful self-awareness. Given their stylized presentation, we cannot imagine them performing more than their assigned gestures. No matter how detailed a character is, he or she is a “drawn” figure whose reality is largely pictorial. These people are less figures than figurines: confected and lightweight.
Therefore it is some kind of miracle that Renoir’s characters are never less than distinctive and full of animation. We don’t know what forces are pulling at these people, yet each one has a recognizable presence, rendered through a combination of facial structure and movement. How can people so predictable be individually memorable? Even though Renoir’s films are rigorously pictorial, they are also open to coincidence and the casual gesture – a woman’s sudden smile, or the colored feather waving on her hat. Although each gesture is small, there is momentous stage machinery guiding every move. A figure who is defined by opacity – of color and character – can be fascinating, depending on the way she expresses the same emotions over and over. In Elena et les Hommes, Bergman does a dozen variations on breathlessness – appearing “caught” and alarmed from a new angle each time.
Mike Nichols has revealed that his method for choosing the actors in a film is to “cast the same person over and over, people with secret interior similarities,” so that “when it works, they’re all on the same wavelength.”9 While that statement doesn’t explain the work of the elusive Nichols, it may be one of the keys to cracking Renoir. Arguably everyone in French CanCan and Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe is “the same person”: a model executed with the same strokes, rendered in the same pointillist detail. Renoir creates worlds in which the actors/characters are bound by “secret interior similarities” – in The Golden Coach, he takes the red-and-gold coloring and operatic gestures associated with Anna Magnani and distributes them across the canvas, assigning a little of these qualities to each character. By linking the characters through visual associations and gestural rhythms, Renoir shapes all elements into a stylistic unity.
This becomes especially striking with the use of Technicolor. In each scene of French CanCan, there are horizontal and vertical color themes traveling through the frame, revealing that even spontaneous gestures are bound by pictorial rhymes. As good as Une Partie de Campagne is, Renoir is more “moving” in color – as in, more affecting through the use of movement. The climax of French CanCan is not the deliberately formulaic take on a young girl’s awakening, but a single green feather crossing the screen, its look of pure pigment creating a momentary flatness in the frame. The film is a series of moving images that has the opacity and abstraction of painting: it is a vision of “real time” that incorporates decorative panels, prefabricated detail, and thick layers of impasto color.
The appearance of opaque color in a dramatic scene alters the reality of that scene. The masses of sailing plumes and ribbons in French CanCan and Elena arrest us with their swipes of color; these bright bits of flotsam create lingering traces of movement. When a streamer is flung out, it connects two points in the frame by means of color and linearity, and becomes a “subject” to the near-exclusion of the performances. Visual opacity subverts characterization, momentarily transforming an actor from a personality into an abstract block.
This is, if not the radical flatness of modernist painting, then a more subtle and fleeting disruption of the picture plane. The dramatic reality before us can suddenly turn two-dimensional, before switching back to the rounded, nuanced view more characteristically associated with Renoir. André Bazin observes that French CanCan “exists in two modes of duration at once, the objective mode of events and the subjective mode of contemplating these events.”10 In alternating between flatness and billowing real time, Renoir is able to convey the effect of two time periods at once. By inserting pre-drawn detail into a live scene, he shows us a present moment already shaped by future interpretation.
Rohmer has said that he prefers The Diary of a Chambermaid to La Règle du Jeu (1939), because the latter does “not tell us any more about the power of cinema than we already knew” and treats only the “outward relationships among human beings.”11 In his films of the late ’40s and ’50s, Renoir focuses not on what people do, but on how their bodies are filled and animated: the conflict between pictorial and lived realities. As with Rohmer’s Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon, Renoir’s late films begin with a subject that is pictorial in nature, picking a “timeless” and oft-told tale that requires minimal exposition. If a character is, say, an impoverished princess – or in Rohmer’s case, a mythical shepherdess – then we understand that there is a strangeness about introducing this classical, painterly figure to the world of film. So many of Renoir’s films purport to create dramatic advancement within a subject that is innately static: for instance, the familiar cluster of figures in Partie de Campagne and Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe.
In Renoir, timelessness is not a transcendence of the present, but a constantly molding and remaking of the same themes. His chambermaids and laundresses are model subjects: deliberately archaic, mythological types that he sculpts from the perspectives of different genres. Thus all historical references are reset by the presence of these eternal figures.
- History Today
Fifty years later, Renoir’s model of zero-set films is best represented by the late work of Eric Rohmer. Like Renoir, Rohmer denaturalizes storytelling by placing artificial and generic models within the films’ realities. In The Lady and the Duke (2001), Rohmer turns history into a series of ready-made planes. The characters live in a network of digital paintings, to the point where their movements are restricted by these panels. A love affair is seen as the interaction between printed surfaces, while a character’s “personality” is expressed by the extent to which he or she shimmers against these illustrations. This means that the predicament of Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), a royalist during the French Revolution, is stripped of dramatic exigency. We do not confuse the excitement and suspense of the Revolution with the film’s subject; when two women rush to a window, their looks of fear are directed towards a pre-drawn riot in the streets.
Like Renoir and Oliveira, Rohmer chooses classicism: the past is no more than a set of veneers that can be moved around for the characters to look on. Events are evoked by the obvious use of stage machinery. The 1792 of The Lady and the Duke is a version of Renoir’s 1900: the fact that anything “beautiful” or historic is pre-given stops us from regarding this as a conventional epic. For Rohmer, history is a combination of generic and specific parts: elements that are “of the period” recede, so that we only notice what is strange and hard to assimilate.
Rohmer closed his career with an even more challenging work, the extraordinary Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon. It is a film that grows out of the Renoir model, set in a universe where different planes of reality intersect: the everyday and the mythic, the spontaneous act and the graven depiction of history. For his final film, Rohmer created a work that was the culmination of his long study of Renoir. In most of his essays on Renoir, Rohmer counsels a look under the surface of the films. He keeps encouraging us to look “beneath the apparent casualness of the script,” beyond the films’ “voluntarily modest appearances.” Rohmer assures us that behind the “meager appearance” of Renoir’s late films, their “aridness, their ascetism … their apparent disorder,” there is a “rich sensuality which touches us.”12 The word that strikes me here is “meager”: the feeling that things are a little wan and shabby, that there is not enough here for the eye. What is the source of this mysterious thinness?
Meager is a good word to describe the look of modest opacity, a slight blandness, which marks our first glimpse of Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon. It has a casual, airy feel that might be mistaken for an amateur approach. There is a nonchalance with which the camera alights on two gangly teenagers by a stream and identifies them as a fabled shepherd and shepherdess. Watching the film at a festival in 2008, I could hear the sounds of incredulity all around me: the audience seemed unsettled by the directness with which the film introduced the mythic with no context or dramatization. Rohmer simply informs us that these youngsters are creatures of legend. Viewers who regard conflict as a mark of good storytelling may also have been alarmed by the film’s no-stress feel, in which the classical context relieves every scene of urgency.
In seeking, perhaps, to recreate something of Renoir’s meagerness, Rohmer opts for this unsophisticated, “soft” representation of history, with only the most token of costumes and settings. We are even told where the film has been shot, so that the texture of the real world – and the instability of the fictional world – dominates. In his casting and direction of actors, Rohmer also goes against conventional notions of taste, possibly taking into account Renoir’s preference for languid performances. Renoir had a lifelong contempt for what we regard as “good” acting – for him, the only way to “escape the well-trodden paths” of performance was to induce a “lifeless reading of the lines,” in which the director might discover a “tiny spark.”13 No performance could be more lifeless than that of Andy Gillet as the hair-flicking Céladon, whose face remains comically disconnected from the elaborate voice-over. In addition, the camera lingers on several blank-looking extras dressed up as guards as if to highlight the unreality of the staging. The actors do not hold their bodies with the classical distinction we expect of a period film – there is no tone or rigor to their movements. A famous nymph does not present herself with the hardened formality of a Cate Blanchett, but with a strange, wavering self-consciousness.
By choosing an archaic story, Rohmer paradoxically creates a film in which the contemporary world shines all around us. The pastoral setting of this film is not a tame woodland but an alive and engulfing nature, filled with wind and insect noises that sometimes obscure the dialogue. The shepherds dissect each other’s affairs with as much wiliness as the Parisians in Rohmer’s ’80s films, plotting intrigues in the style of Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune (1984). They are angsty teenagers with modern manners, who also happen to be creatures of the heroic age. Temporal inconsistencies pop up at every turn: characters who recite classical philosophy do so in an unfocused and silly manner, particularly a lute-playing buffoon named Hylas (Rodolphe Pauly), whose loopy intonation throws the film even more off-kilter. There is a bizarre mix of acting styles: some actors affect period cadences, while others are undisguisedly urban. The incongruity of seeing nymphs alongside these talky adolescents is never addressed, but it remains startling throughout. Among these signs of the modern world, the appearance of the timeless – a temple of Diana, sacred rites, promises of true love – is as disruptive as the presence of Bergman’s Venus in Elena et les Hommes.
What sort of filmic reality can stretch to represent both gods and mortals, while maintaining the integrity of both worlds? After all, this is an age in which a dignified woman can still be mistaken for a goddess, murals of Venus are close at hand, and characters freely speculate about the motives of the gods. Myth is still being shaped by human acts. Depicting this environment involves some hard thinking about film form, but here again Rohmer’s film shows the influence of Renoir. As in The Golden Coach, the characters in this film move in and out of tableaux, indicating the presence of different time schemes. Several speakers describe the tale of Astrée and Céladon as a fable that will play out no matter what, while others insist that unless action is taken, the legend is doomed. People confuse past and present when talking about their experiences: Astrée (Stéphanie Crayencour) is a formidably modern young woman who recognizes her classical image without surprise.
Most of the characters seem too flimsy to be archetypes. They resemble figures who have wandered off the fictional graph and are now stranded outside chronological time, like Camilla at the end of The Golden Coach. From here, a new plotlessness awaits them: an eternal cycling of legend, in which every untimely gesture – such as the wild musings of Hylas – will be brought into relief.
In the film’s radical achievement, open space and real time are claimed as fictional territory. A mythical tale does not need a rarefied setting. Under direct sun, in the fresh air, any story can take place: a goddess can materialize from behind bushes, or a Parisienne can be mistaken for a nymph. In the last scene, Rohmer sees a way to opportunistically redirect myth, once and for all. The ending is a merry distortion of legend, as cross-dressing culminates in a near-orgy, with Astrée and Céladon in one bed and a pair of girls in another.
Both Renoir and Rohmer reject the conventional shapeliness of fiction, instead pursuing the meager and the banal. The deceptive plainness of the directors’ films only highlights their moments of luminosity: that incredulous sense of real time etched against historical acts. The archaic tone of The Golden Coach and Les Amours d’Astrée et de Céladon belies a startlingly modern approach to narrative: an indifference to plot, setting, and specificity. In its use of a token subject to show up the vibrancy of the present moment, Rohmer’s final film is the ultimate realization of the Renoir model.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films.
- Jean Renoir, Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays and Remarks, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198), 219. [↩]
- Eric Rohmer, The Taste for Beauty, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 182. [↩]
- Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (London: Studio Vista, 1975), 301. [↩]
- Ibid. 286. [↩]
- Renoir regularly fantasized about a never-made film with Leslie Caron, which he envisioned purely as a setting for Caron’s gamine qualities. In the case of Ingrid Bergman, Renoir’s generosity was even more obvious. Elena et les Hommes was produced just as she had lost her luster for Rossellini and was about to be pushed down the cast list in Hollywood: within the next decade she would be treated as soiled goods, playing women with philandering lovers in Goodbye Again (1961) and Cactus Flower (1969). Yet Renoir resolved to make a film devoted to her “sexual abundance”; she is presented like the goddess – of love, fertility, forgiveness – of some ancient realm. [↩]
- Durgnat. Jean Renoir, 354. [↩]
- In this respect, the characters of The Golden Coach are more like Elizabethans than creatures of 1800; each figure whirls on their curved track around an imagined center. [↩]
- Rohmer. The Taste for Beauty, 185. [↩]
- Peter Biskind, “Compromising Positions: Primary Colors,” Premiere 11.8 (1998) 100. [↩]
- André Bazin, Jean Renoir, trans. W.W. Halsey II and William H. Simon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 131. [↩]
- Rohmer. The Taste for Beauty, 180. [↩]
- Ibid. 193. [↩]
- Renoir. My Life and My Films, trans. Norman Denny (London: Collins, 1974), 132. [↩]