Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)

VANISHING, THE (1988)

To view The Vanishing click here.

Years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie starring Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman called Dying Room Only (1973). It was written by a personal favorite of mine, Richard Matheson, and told the story of a couple on a road trip stopping off at a diner to get a bite to eat and take a rest. While Leachman sips her coffee, husband Coleman goes to the restroom and never comes back. I was fascinated and gripped until the climax, when the movie reveals what happened. I won’t spoil it for you, but when I saw The Vanishing (1988) years later, based on the book The Golden Egg, I thought two things: One, did the book’s writer watch Dying Room Only and two, I’m glad he fixed the ending.

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The Beast In Me: Le Bête Humaine (1938)

LA BETE HUMAINE (1938)

To view La Bête Humaine click here.

Following the transformative success of Grand Illusion (1937), Jean Renoir suddenly had an overwhelming number of opportunities. There was an offer on the table from Samuel Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, though he delayed his route there, at least temporarily. Instead he would direct the panoramic French Revolution drama La Marseillaise ([1938],which I will write about later in my Renoir series) and our subject today, La Bête Humaine (1938). The latter is a moody death-haunted drama adapted from the Emile Zola novel, returning to the author’s work for the first time since Nana (1926). A grimly fatalistic tale about a train engineer’s inbred compulsion to murder, and his desperate attempts to restrain it, it is graced by an iconic Jean Gabin performance that attempts to go beyond good and evil.

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Justifiable Homicide: Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)

LE CRIME DE MONSIEUR LANGE (1936)

To view Le crime de Monsieur Lange click here.

Jean Renoir considered  Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country (1936) and The Lower Depths (1936) immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prévert. Renoir invited Prévert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet, Sylvia Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

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Sequel or Stand Alone? Stolen Kisses (1968)

STOLEN KISSES (1968)

To view Stolen Kisses click here.

Sequels and continuing series installments have no obligation to adhere to the original tone of the work from which they derive. The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), a half-hour sitcom, had a spinoff, Lou Grant (1977-1982), that was an hour long drama. It worked because the characters were presented in a realistic light (well, not counting Ted Baxter) and so the shift was easy to achieve. But if the spinoff was a drama about a newspaper editor, and not a sitcom about a television news producer, why say it’s a spinoff at all? To leverage the character’s name, obviously. Moving in the opposite direction, François Truffaut thrust The 400 Blows upon the cinematic world in 1959, presenting a tough and passionate look at a troubled and confused youth, Antoine Doinel, as he makes his way through an uneasy childhood. Then, after a short film showing Doinel at twenty, gave the world Stolen Kisses, a lighthearted and at times utterly silly comedy about the same character now somehow transformed into Harold Lloyd, bumbling Jack-of-all-Trades. But if all of it is autobiographical of Truffaut himself, does it even matter?

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For Richer, For Poorer: The Lower Depths (1936)

LowerDepths_1936_TLD36_239 image 6

To view The Lower Depths click here.

“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled.” The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

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Desire: A Day in the Country (1936)

DAY IN THE COUNTRY, A (1936)

To view A Day in the Country click here.

One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

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All You Need Is the Importance of Love

THAT MOST IMPORTANT THING: LOVE (1975)

To view That Most Important Thing: Love click here.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, one of the biggest losses to the film community last year was the death of filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski, a dazzling Polish filmmaker who stirred up attention both positive and negative from critics and his government in the early 1970s with The Devil (1972). He wound up relocating to France where he made the lion’s share of his later work, the first of which was L’important c’est d’aimer (1975). Translating that title elegantly into English is a tricky feat; American distributor Seaberg Film Distribution tried its best with its dubbed 1977 version called The Most Important Thing: Love, while others try to smooth it out as The Main Thing Is to Love or The Importance of Love. However, none of those Baz Luhrmann-style monikers really give you an idea of what’s really in store in this deeply affecting and wildly flamboyant portrait of passion and artistry that’s unlike anything else you’ll ever see.

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Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

To view La Chienne click here.

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here. [...MORE]

The Confession (1970) Takes No Prisoners

THE CONFESSION (1970)

To view The Confession click here.

One of the great things about the explosion of movie titles in the last few years, both streaming and on physical media, is how you can learn so much more about and totally reassess how you see a filmmaker. A favorite example I like to cite is Ingmar Bergman, whom I grew up watching in film classes via murky 16mm prints and borderline unwatchable VHS transfers. Now that we’ve had the chance to go back and see the majority of his work in pristine quality, it’s like pulling off a dirty pair of glasses to reveal a far more vibrant, multi-faceted filmmaker than before. [...MORE]

Party Girl: Nana (1926)

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

To view Nana click here.

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

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