For most of our conversation this week, Pat and I find it hard to parse why exactly Elena and Her Men feels more like the 1930's Jean Renoir that we love so much and less like the last two films we watched. Then we suddenly realize that a 1956 film about a popular general who is on the brink of a Republic-destroying coup is intrinsically anti-Charles de Gaulle. It's as political as The Rules of the Game even if the stakes may not seem quite so high to non-French people, and that's the pressure that Renoir needs to push to greatness.
We return to Jean Renoir as the artist returns to France for the first time in over a decade after a stint in Hollywood and what may possibly be considered an exile. To mark his return he makes a rather ridiculously French film. 1954's French Cancan is a fake history of the Moulin Rouge cabaret, but is most notable for it's visuals, which make frequent frame-reference to the works of Jean's father Auguste Renoir and the elder's Impressionist peers. Mostly that translates to frequent naked women in the background.
Jean Renoir's character in his brilliant The Rules of the Game says, "You have to understand, its the plight of all heroes today. In the air, they're terrific. But when they come back to earth, they're weak, poor, and helpless"
Without the pressure of an imminent World War his films just don't have the drive I've come to expect from him. Without that urgency, Renoir losses what I love about his art.
But that's probably my problem, not his. In any case the films aren't bad, they're just different.
We kick off a trio of his late-period works this week with The Golden Coach (1953), first in a boxset Criterion calls Stage and Spectacle as they're also all about performance and theater (and love triangles).
This week we put the Sullivan's Travels hypothesis to the test with two adaptations of the same play. Akira Kurosawa sticks close to the Maxim Gorky-play source with his 1957 adaptation of the 1902 play about rundown people in a rundown flophouse. Whereas in 1936 Jean Renoir turned the story into an escapist romantic comedy. The two great directors even have their respective best actors (Toshiro Mifune and Jean Gabin) starring as the same character for maximum comparison.
Reportedly, Gorky loved Renoir's script. Reportedly, Renoir recognized Kurosawa's film as much better than his own.
After Nazi Germany "annexed" portions Czechoslovakia in 1938 the rest of Europe met in Munich and was all like "eh?" The Prime Minister of Britain was all like, Hitler can do what he likes, we're going to have "peace for our time." After all, they were German-speaking people anyway, right?
Jean Renoir was one person not on board with that level of normalization of clearly wrong behavior by a nation.
He'd seen war on the horizon for years, and had tried to dissuade the nations from it in The Grand Illusion. But now he saw a greater danger: the idea of peace detached from justice. Appeasement. Normalization. "Just let him do what he likes for now, we've survived worse." But a number of us bloody well didn't survive that worse, did they?
So Renoir made The Rules of the Game (1939), a bedroom farce in which a bunch of French aristocrats are so self-involved that they can't see the forrest for the trees. "Everybody has their reasons" and the professed reasons here are all "love" which leads to anything from murder to suicide. It's subtle. But it's point is not lost.
And that's the thing: in the end we all define love as protecting ourselves and those close to us. But in the end, some of us thinking protecting our loved ones means being willing to kill someone else. And as long as that is true, their will be no justice and no peace.
But whatever you do: stay mad, stay calm, stay together.