Lionsgate // 1925 // 580 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 25th, 2007
The Cinematic Maestro Gets a Wonderful Career Cumulative Box Set
Jean Renoir stands as the very definition of an auteur. For those unfamiliar with the frequently tossed-around term, an auteur is typically a director -- or, in rare occasions, a producer (like Val Lewton) or writer (Charlie Kaufman, for example) -- whose own unique creative vision manifests itself in every project he or she develops. Championed during the influential French New Wave period of the '50s, it was a label given to that rare creative type who could synchronize the images in their head with the resulting visuals on screen. While the term is haphazardly tossed around today, it remains a symbol of someone's special ability to translate the language of film. It also captures Renoir's unusual muse particularly well. Over the last decade or so, the director has experienced a rare sort of renaissance. Thanks to the availability of this canon (thanks to the DVD revolution) and a major restructuring of critical consensus, Renoir has gone from iconoclast to icon, from difficult early filmmaker to man of marvelous masterpieces. But there is always more to an artist than their most familiar works, and Lionsgate hopes to illustrate this via The Jean Renoir Collection.
Representing five full-length features and two short subjects, and spanning the director's pre-masterpiece phase (before 1936's The Lower Depths) and post-accolade efforts (after 1954's French Can-Can), The Jean Renoir Collection is a remarkable trip into this director's more obscure works. Prior to the creation of the digital format, Renoir was horribly underrepresented in home video markets. He was "too French or foreign" for VHS mavens, and his old-fashioned filmmaking mannerisms didn't easily convert over to picky post-modern audiences. Still, the compendium here argues for a man completely in sync with the artistry of film and the language of cinema. The plotlines for each effort are as follows:
The Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
When her father dies and her boorish uncle takes over his canal boat, little Gudule finds herself alone and friendless. After the cad makes horrible physical advances on her, our heroine runs away. She is taken in by the genial gypsy boy known as The Weasel, and soon they are stealing from farms around the province. When a wealthy landowner threatens the lad, Weasel decides to get even by burning down his haystack. In turn, the farmer finds Gudule and the gypsy caravan, and sets fire to it. Homeless, Gudule has an attack and is saved by the family of a young man named Raynal. He instantly falls in love with the sad waif, but cannot confess his emotions. When the horrible uncle returns and begins blackmailing Gudule for any money she has, it seems like destiny has dealt her another terrible blow. But as with any element in the Whirlpool of Fate, the tide can turn in an instant...and it might just smile on her this time.
She's the toast of Paris, and the scandal of the theatrical community. Nana is known for being the most popular performer lacking the ability to either sing or act. Instead, her saucy presence attracts men by the droves, making her shows a sell-out success. Still, her manager, Mr. Bordenave, is losing money. Hoping to get some financial support, Nana woos Count Muffat into providing his ample wealth. Still, her lack of talent forces the show to close, and soon Nana is making her money the old-fashioned way -- on her back. She still keeps Muffat as a kind of cuckolded companion, but there are other men in her life as well. Georges is an obsessed young dandy who desperately wants to be in the fallen gal's good graces, while his Uncle, Hector de la Faloise, wants Nana all to himself. All three men end up sacrificing their lives for a wicked woman, whose name, Nana, seems to constantly mock them.
Charleston Parade (1927)
It's the year 2028. An explorer travels over a desolate Paris in his floating sphere. He crash lands near a half-dressed girl and her pet monkey. She shows him an old native dance. He's determined to learn the ancient step. Thus we have an illustration of the Charleston Parade. The two fly off together. The End.
The Little Match Girl (1928)
It's New Year's Eve, and though there's a blizzard blowing outside, a poor little match seller is forced to go out in the cold by her domineering dad. He wants money, and his dainty daughter needs to go out and get it. Naturally, she is pushed around by the people in the streets, and before long, the freezing temperatures are taking their toll. Seeking solace behind some discarded crates, the girl hopes to stay warm by burning her wares. However, the elements overtake her, and she falls into a fatalistic sleep. During her slumber, she sees toys playing among themselves and pines for a steadfast tin soldier. When Death finally comes for her, she takes off on a spectral steed. She hopes to avoid the Grim Reaper's life-ending grasp. But fate has a different end for The Little Match Girl, and it's not a happy one.
La Marseillaise (1938)
The people have had it. The aristocracy oppresses them and King Louis XIV doesn't care. Indeed, his Austrian bride, the egotistical Marie Antoinette, despises their peasant ways. Radical elements amongst the population call for revolution, and at first, the people seem perplexed. Since they lack any kind of inherent power, they can't see overthrowing the established system. As the wealthy show cowardice instead of resolve, the rabble sees its chance. Rebels begin recruiting from all around the country, and the combination of intellectuals, workers, and the poor provide a potent force for change. They take over several government strongholds. They trick troops in and around strategic forts into giving up their position. And all the while, they build a consensus among the people -- the rich must be removed from power. The true rule of law is inherent in the masses. Of course, the King will not go down without a fight, and as the rebellion reaches his castle at Versailles, his guard puts down an offensive front. But as it says in the new anthem sweeping the countryside -- known as La Marseillaise -- it's time for the children of the fatherland to arise -- and that's exactly what they intend to do.
The Doctor's Horrible Experiment (1959)
When the lawyer, Mr. Joly, reads Dr. Cordelia's latest will, he is shocked. His friend has left his entire estate to someone named Opale, and seems troubled by said decision. Soon afterwards, Joly sees a strange man wandering the streets. The brute molests a little girl and even attacks the attorney himself. When chased, the pervert ends up at...Dr. Cordelia's house. Hoping to find some information on his associate, Joly goes to Paris to meet with Dr. Severin. A one-time professional acquaintance of Cordelia, the two have had a falling out over their differing views on psychiatry and the power of the human mind. In the meantime, Opale murders a man, and the police are hot on his trail. Oddly enough, it seems his trail leads to Severin as well. As the law tries to locate the murderer, Joly confronts Cordelia. Soon, he discovers the awful truth -- his friend and the fiend are one in the same, the result of The Doctor's Horrible Experiment gone wrong. And as he soon learns, there is no going back for the maniacal medico.
The Elusive Corporal (1962)
After France falls to the Nazis, the soldiers fighting to free the country believe they will be liberated, or reduced to aiding and abetting their new "ally." Instead, they are sent to various prison camps. Among these hopefuls are The Corporal, his pal Papa, and their mutual acquaintance Ballochet. Not content to stay under German guard, they continuously try to escape. They are always captured and returned to situations of tougher and tougher penalties. Along the way, the Corporal falls for a dentist's assistant, proving to the Teutonic Miss that not all Frenchmen are cads. When he can't take it any more, our hero tries one last getaway. All goes smoothly until he hops a train into Paris. There, he runs into insistent German guards and the very front lines of the war. Life as a POW may have been harsh, but for The Elusive Corporal, existence on the run is preferable.
It could be because he's French. It may be the fact that he failed to continue his creative inspirations during the latter parts of his career. Granted, he died before home video could come along and canonize his past output and, for many, he remains an acquired taste in an already savory cinematic stew. Still, Jean Renoir is a motion-picture god, easily earning the kind of directorial deification we reserve for the likes of Kubrick, Welles, Truffaut, Kurosawa, and Hitchcock. Like his famed father, he was an absolute and dedicated artist, using celluloid instead of paints and canvas as his medium of choice. Like many foreign filmmakers, he loved American movies and took much of his original inspiration from the hundreds of old Hollywood tales he favored. But like his New Wave compatriots, Renoir was also anxious to express his own view of film. He took what he learned, processed it through an aesthetic ripe with a myriad of inspirations, and, in doing so, forged a singular vision that only he could accomplish. It's a signature style we see growing and galvanized all throughout this amazing DVD box set. From his very first solo work behind the lens to his last real cinematic statement, The Jean Renoir Collection creates a whole new window into the world of one of the art form's greatest geniuses. Looking at each film separately will help put his career in context, as well as highlight the individual facets that formed his mythic mannerisms. Let's begin with:
The Whirlpool of Fate (Score: 88)
The first thing you notice about this highly stylized film is how bright and open it is. For his first work as a solo director, Renoir made the fascinating choice of shooting most of his film in and around the local countryside. When our heroine's houseboat travels down a scenic canal, it's not a trick; Renoir had the actual vessel sailing down a picturesque French waterway. Similarly, the various fields and farmlands featured in the story are all actual spots, vegetation swaying in the gentle summer winds. This gives Whirlpool of Fate an earthiness and organic quality that perfectly countermands the plot's various formulaic facets. The minute we see the drunken uncle, we know an attempted rape is not far behind. When our lead hooks up with a wanton gypsy boy named The Weasel, we're convinced this partnership will lead to ruin. Similarly, our hero Georges is the standard knight in shining armor, merely looking for his opportunity to save Gudule and win her love. What elevates this all above the typical soap opera piffle is Renoir's inventive direction. We frequently find the camera in unusual places (along a rooftop, near the water's edge) and the filmmaker heightens the innovations by employing creative lighting and compositional choices. Perhaps the best sequence is Gudule's dire dream, a surrealist shuffle that applies still novel techniques like slow motion and double exposure to amplify its frightening fantasy elements. Though we can see where this story is going long before it ends, Renoir makes it incredibly fulfilling while getting there.
Nana (Score: 92)
Representing a massive commercial failure for the still-novice filmmaker, Nana is such an overheated potboiler that you can practically see the steam coming off your DVD player. Based on a classic novel by Emile Zola, this tale of a failed actress turned courtesan has all the classic elements of a bawdy boudoir romp -- the talentless slut, the smitten aristocrat, the various gentlemen callers, the conniving theatrical producer -- and yet, for some reason, Renoir failed to connect with audiences. It could be that members of his fan base weren't ready for the sudden artifice of the film. Remember, Whirlpool of Fate was almost exclusively a location production, and the natural splendor of the French countryside did wonders in elevating the story's stock melodrama. But here, everything is glitz and glamour, oversized sets highlighting the distaff distance our main character claims from the rest of the world. It could also be the fault of Catherine Hessling's amazing performance. She's so loathsome, so utterly irredeemable that Renoir can't possibly satisfy the viewer's lust for emotional justice. Instead, we are stuck with a mechanical deathbed scene that's only interesting from a visual standpoint. As with Whirlpool, Renoir is working out his optical illusions here, discovering how suggestion and camera sleight of hand can fill in a narrative's psychological and cultural subtext. Playing perfectly today, it's probably just a case of a growing artist being far too ahead of his time.
Charleston Parade (Score: 80)
As short films go, Charleston Parade is your standard silent spectacle. It uses visual imagery both indicative of its time (a black-faced, minstrel-show lead) and unintentionally goofy (the explorer's floating orb spaceship) to highlight what is, in general, an experiment in technique. There is no narrative drama here, no future shock storytelling or post-apocalyptic positioning (though the shot of a "broken" Eiffel Tower must have wowed them back in the late '20s). Instead, Renoir uses the slight set up as a means of playing with cinematic technique. There are lots of amazing slow-motion shots, and a few sequences where camera speed is manipulated to give an otherworldly feel. As he would in the follow-up featurette, The Little Match Girl, we are witness to a novice filmmaker playing with his "paints," trying different combinations of techniques and tricks to express the level of emotion and symbolism that something like sound (still unavailable) could provide. It's intriguing, and represents a move toward a broader creative canvas for the renowned artist.
The Little Match Girl (Score: 82)
When paired with Charleston Parade, The Little Match Girl is nothing more than an old-school special-effects portfolio. It lacks much of the pathos packed into Hans Christian Andersen's original story, and instead, substitutes several long sequences of weirdness and whimsy. In fact, it looks like Renoir has actually fused elements of The Steadfast Tin Soldier and Babes in Toyland to his take on the material. When the title character falls into her cold-created stupor, she envisions a land made up of toys -- dolls that move and interact with her, large spinning tops, and bouncing balls. Renoir renders all this material in forced perspective and double exposure. Similarly, when Death comes to take our heroine, she hops on a horse and the two ride around a unique process shot in which the chase is superimposed over background elements of clouds and sky. It is all rather hallucinatory, and feeds directly into the filmmaker's desire to contrasts the character's cruel fate with the notion of joy and happiness. Sadly, the missing element here is emotional resonance. Indeed, Renoir is so busy playing with his technological toys that he forgets to give our heroine any solid sentiment or characterization. She is just another variation of wife Catherine Hessling's wispy waif persona.
La Marseillaise (Score: 88)
About as jingoistic as one can get without being a pure politician, Renoir's response to the growing influence of Nazi Germany in world affairs is definitely reflected in this proposed period piece about France's liberation from royal tyranny. The infamous revolution doesn't arrive, really, until the last act dust-up at Versailles, but the notion of "citizens" vs. "aristocrats," right vs. privilege and good vs. evil is debated constantly throughout the film's 132-minute running time. Divided up into vignettes, much of La Marseillaise plays like an early mini-series. We are introduced to dozens of characters, are given plenty of soapy backstory to gain our sympathies, and then we sit back and watch as the events of the day dictate the historic fate of the French people. Those looking for biopic insight into Louis XIV or his "let them eat cake" bride Marie Antoinette will have to go elsewhere. They are ancillary players in this epic struggle, brought in on occasion to speak their anti-peasant sentiments and receive the necessary hisses from the audience. No, Renoir has always been a filmmaker of the people, and he recognizes (as he would one year later with the fantastic Rules of the Game) that the common man, not the well-to-do individuals of means, hold the fate of the country in their hands. Though it's slightly talky and undeniably leftist in its views, La Marseillaise makes a brilliant starting point for this director's ascension into cinematic myth. Along with La Bete Humaine afterwards and Grand Illusion before, Renoir was on the precipice of a masterpiece. It would come soon enough.
The Doctor's Horrible Experiment (Score: 80)
At this point in his career, Renoir was in ruins. Marginalized by the German occupancy (who banned most of his movies), and ridiculed by his countrymen for running to America to make movies when World War II broke out, he was viewed as an old-school has-been who had seen better days. Perhaps this is why his take on Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so superficial. It could also explain why Renoir himself appears in the opening scenes as the "narrator." More Roger Corman than Robert Bresson, Renoir is either having us on or he actually believes that the cane-carrying bon vivant with the bad sideburns that he introduces as Dr. Cordelia's inner pervert (named Opale) is truly disturbing. Sure, his actors respond with a viable level of dread, but with the Little Shop of Horrors-style music used as a signature sonic theme, and the generally goofy way in which Jean-Louis Barrault plays him, this fiend comes across like Jerry Lewis in an ill-fitting suit. Naturally, Renoir digs beyond the horror element to focus on the human side of the story, and he seems to have issues with the science of psychiatry, what with how he portrays (and even names) Cordelia's chief nemesis, the chain-smoking jerk Dr. Severin. This is a stagy, static work, a movie that forgets to entertain as it works through many of the director's more personal issues. It is also the director's most dour, using television techniques (multiple cameras, flat lighting) to achieve its ends. As a novelty within a set of standards, The Doctor's Horrible Experiment is interesting, but hardly worthy of Renoir's legitimate legacy.
The Elusive Corporal (Score: 91)
Many have dismissed this last full-length feature from Renoir as a retread of a previous success -- in this case, his 1937 Grand Illusion. Both films deal with POWs, and the interaction between French and German soldiers. About the only difference on the surface is the era (Illusion is World War I, Corporal is World War II) and the leading man. The great Jean Gabin starred in the first film, while post-modern icon Jean-Pierre Cassel essayed this emblematic figure. Both movies do deal in escape, but The Elusive Corporal centers more on the purpose of freedom vs. the casualness of complicity. It's as if, with age, Renoir decided to revisit his initial ideas on personal virtue and patriotic duty and expand them beyond Illusion's simple lessons. Here, we have many men who want out of the German occupation, and they all have unusual reasons for leaving. One wants to go home and protect his cows, his family's sole means of support. Another wants to return to his job as a waiter for a street-side Parisian café. He is convinced that, without his presence, the bistro will resort to hiring females as servers (how unthinkable). A few want out for purely selfish reasons, but in the case of the title character, Renoir plays a little trick. We initially think he's in it for himself, returning home for wife and property. But the ending, which sees the Corporal achieving his ends, makes it clear that personal concepts were the least of his concern. In fact, Renoir is showing us that you can never judge anyone by what they put forth -- not heroes, and not villains.
Because it allows us to see Renoir in formats he would never revisit again (he gave up on fantasy and special effects in film, claiming they took away from the reality of his narratives), as well as experience movies originally marginalized as incomparable to his noted masterworks, The Jean Renoir Collection is a must-own compilation for film fans. It lets us in on the director's brazen beginnings, movies made to showcase his then-wife Catherine Hessling, as well as "homemade" experiments as self-taught cinematic instruction. It uncovers early marvels (The Whirlpool of Fate, La Marseillaise) while simultaneous exposing audiences to improperly dismissed flops (Nana, The Doctor's Horrible Experiment). It even unearths Renoir's predilection for rationalizing and resistance, offering up several informative characters who carry the director's philosophical ideals with every line of dialogue they speak. Indeed, what we learn from The Jean Renoir Collection is how every film the famous director made was as highly personal as the next. The Rules of the Game was not the first effort to deconstruct the differences between the French upper crust and the far more sensible proletariat. Grand Illusion wasn't his last word on the individualized elements of war, and The Lower Depths wasn't his only descent into desperation. No, every film this amazing artist helmed was a direct reflection of his overall aesthetic and sensibility. The result remains one of the most amazing oeuvres in the art form's formative history.
Presented on three DVDs and representing the work of several restorers and preservationist organizations, the technical aspects of the seven films presented here are unparalleled in the digital format's history. Aside from Whirlpool of Fate, that finds its full-screen image faded and suffering from occasional age defects, the other prints here are as near-pristine as one could hope for. In general, these are amazing-looking movies. Nana's gorgeous sets are captured in crystal clear detail, while both short films feature excellent, evocative transfers. La Marseillaise also looks amazing, the full-frame image vibrant in all its monochrome magic. Naturally, the two later films are flawless, especially The Elusive Corporal, which features a slightly letterboxed presentation (one would guess about 1.66:1) that's the only anamorphic print of the lot. Everything else is full-frame. All are offered in black-and-white. On the sound side, there is nothing more inventive here than the original Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks. The silent films all feature intriguing musical tracks (except for the dance-oriented Charleston Parade, oddly enough), the instrumentation moving from a single accordion to a full-fledged orchestra over the course of the titles. Once we get to the sound films, the dialogue is easily discernible and never overmodulated. The English subtitles are simple to read and never interfere with the films they translate. Overall, Liongate has done an amazing job with this presentation.
The only bonus feature here is a 33-minute overview of the box set's contents, featuring informative introductions by certified film fan Martin Scorsese and additional comments from Renoir's son Alain, as well as Ken Wlaschin of the American Film Institute and Janet Bergstrom of the UCLA film department. Together, they detail each film, and discuss the history, misconceptions, and inspirations with each one. It's a wonderful piece, especially when explaining the rare films that few viewers have ever seen before. While it doesn't take the place of full-length commentaries on each film or the kind of added context Criterion usually pulls out for one of its Renoir discs, this is still a superb overview.
Matching Criterion in the role of classics champion, this remarkable three-disc set may not be the best place to begin your journey into Renoir's realm. But for those already familiar with his fascinating films, this is a near-flawless creative companion piece.
In his introduction to the DVD's bonus features, Martin Scorsese says that you don't really watch Renoir movies, you live them along with the actors. It's a bold statement, one coming from a man whose wealth of knowledge on film, as well as his own particularly powerful canon, makes him a pretty sound scholar on the subject. Indeed, because he broke almost every event -- from war to love -- into tiny, personal pockets of emotion, Jean Renoir's are works that easily overcome their trappings of spectacle to become intimate and delicate. Even as bombs are going off in the background or lavish sets suggest opulence and privilege, Renoir makes his stories about people, not the production. While barely representative of his massive talent and overall cinematic influence, the seven efforts highlighted as part of The Jean Renoir Collection definitely add to the scholarly interpretation of auteur theory. Each movie represents the idiosyncratic viewpoint of its creator, said style staying true to the artist's own particular vision. In fact, it could be argued that Renoir is one of the best examples of the concept's definition. When he was straightforward, he was always himself. When he experimented, he was still Renoir. In success or failure he never faltered. He remained wholly Jean Renoir. He will always be an auteur.
Not guilty. Even off-title Renoir is better than the best old-school
filmmaking. This box set is a vital part of cinematic history and deserves to be
respected for same. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 580 Minutes
Release Year: 1925
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember Documentary
* IMDb: Whirlpool of Fate
* IMDb: Nana
* IMDb: Charleston Parade
* IMDb: The Little Match Girl
* IMDb: La Marseillaise
* IMDb: The Doctor's Horrible Experiment
* IMDb: The Elusive Corporal