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Tag Archives: Poetic Realism

The Poetic Realism of Jean Renoir

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the world premiere of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in Paris. It is the movie I show most frequently in Intro to Film classes to illustrate the slippery yet vital French movement known as Poetic Realism.

Jean Renoir is the most famous and critically renowned of all the great French directors who have been lumped together under the difficult-to-define umbrella term of “Poetic Realism.” In contrast to silent French film movements like Impressionism and Surrealism (both of which can be considered avant-garde or non-narrative), Poetic Realism, which flowered in the early sound era, integrated poetic, non-narrative innovations into the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking. The end result was a cycle of films that took some of the aesthetic concerns of those earlier movements and wedded them to traditional movie realism in a way that exhibits a socially conscious perspective while simultaneously remaining accessible to mainstream audiences. The Rules of the Game, released in 1939, is the most famous of all Poetic Realist films and is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It also represented the end of the first phase of Jean Renoir’s career. It was banned by the French government shortly after its initial release (a ban maintained by the Nazis when their occupation of France began), causing Renoir to flee to America where he worked for the better part of a decade. Upon returning to Europe in the early fifties he would be a very different type of director and would make very different (though in many ways equally wonderful) types of films.

The Rules of the Game tells the story of a group of aristocrats and their servants who have gathered for a holiday weekend in the country at a mansion belonging to Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This makes Renoir’s film the spiritual godfather of a certain strain of European art film of the 1960s, one that Pauline Kael derisively dubbed the “come dressed as the sick soul of Europe party,” a category including films as diverse as L’avventura, Last Year at Marienbad and La Dolce Vita. Like those later modernist films, The Rules of the Game has widely been interpreted as an attack on the bourgeoisie (one of the reasons it was banned to begin with), but it is truer to say that no one is spared in Renoir’s social critique; the working class characters are just as flawed as the masters they serve and in some cases more so (witness the scene where the servants gossip about Robert’s Jewish ancestry). It is also worth noting that Renoir extends sympathy to all of his characters as well. He refuses to valorize or demonize any of them; instead, he shows them in their full humanity and that, I suspect, is what some find unbearable.

These are the ways in which The Rules of the Game can be said to exemplify Poetic Realism:

– The blending of comedy and tragedy

At times the film’s comedy is surprisingly physical and slapstick in nature but it can also turn on a dime, unexpectedly shifting to tragedy and becoming deadly serious in tone. If we are to take Charlie Chaplin’s formulation that “comedy is life in long shot” at face value, it is worth noting that all of the violence in The Rules of the Game plays out in long shot, which indeed makes it seem farcical in nature. This is especially true of the scenes where Schumacher the cuckolded husband (Gaston Modot) is chasing Marceau the poacher (Julien Carette) throughout the mansion. But when Marceau accidentally shoots and kills Andre the aviator (Roland Toutain) in the film’s penultimate scene (mistakenly believing him to be yet another character!), Renoir pulls the rug out from under us; there is nothing funny about the real death resulting from Schumacher’s fickle behavior.

– The use of cinematic techniques to provide social commentary not always readily apparent in the dialogue

These are the poetic innovations to which I alluded in the opening paragraph. To give one prominent example, the most famous scene in the movie is a hunting expedition involving all of the principle characters. In this remarkable sequence, Renoir shows a fast-paced montage of birds and rabbits being killed in rapid succession and the dynamic cutting (presented in stark contrast to the way every other scene in the film is edited) suggests that Renoir is trying to draw a parallel between the slaughter of the animals and the behavior of the human characters towards one another. After the outbreak of World War II, this would make Renoir’s movie look positively prophetic. Although the upper class characters in the film are not bloodthirsty, their hypocrisy is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Nazi appeasement with which their real life counterparts would soon engage.

– The employment of long takes and long shots

The great French critic Andre Bazin was an early proponent of Jean Renoir; he championed the long take/long shot style evidenced by Renoir’s films of the 1930s, which he referred to as mise-en-scene aesthetics and which he explicitly contrasted with the rapid editing of Sergei Eisenstein and the directors of the Soviet Montage school. Bazin saw montage editing as being more conducive to propaganda filmmaking and long shots and long takes as giving viewers more freedom to pick and choose what they wanted to see within the frame. (Orson Welles and Gregg Toland would take this principle to an extreme with the deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane two years later.) An excellent example of a scene unfolding in both long shot and long take is when Robert and Andre are walking down a hallway in the foreground and talking about their “good friend” Octave (Renoir himself) who, unbeknownst to both men, is creeping around in the middle-ground behind them, preparing to steal away with Christine (the woman that all three men love). Finally, in the extreme background a servant snuffs out a candle at the end of the hallway as if to accentuate the point that Octave is not who Robert and Andre think he is. In a long shot like this, viewers are free to choose the characters on whom they’d like to focus – and thus “edit” the film for themselves.

Like Grand Illusion, Renoir’s other Poetic Realist masterpiece, the title of The Rules of the Game is simultaneously simple, evocative and ambiguous. I have personally always felt that it referred to the “rules” by which one must abide in order to survive in a ruthless world like the one depicted in the movie. Naturally, this involves lying, which nearly all of the film’s characters do. For instance, Christine (Nora Gregor), Robert’s wife, pretends to have known all along that her husband was cheating on her with Genevieve (Mila Parély) after spying them together during the hunt. This lie causes Genevieve to remain at the house for the weekend so that the facade of civility can perpetuate. But there is one character in the film who is incapable of lying; Andre makes a historic flight but is unable to conceal his disappointment on a live radio interview that Christine failed to greet him when his plane landed. Later, Andre seals his doom when he insists on telling Robert that he and Christine plan on running away together. Had they left in secret like Christine wanted, Andre never would have gotten killed. Renoir knew that to refuse to play by the rules of a strict social code was to risk being slaughtered like an animal in the hunt. That he could dramatize this not only without a trace of cynicism but also in a spirit of great generosity was one of the secrets of his genius.

The Rules of the Game was released in a splendid DVD edition by the Criterion Collection in 2004. A forthcoming Blu-ray by the same company has been rumored since last year.

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Vigo’s Valentine

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s post concerns one of my favorite cinematic love stories – Jean Vigo’s L’atalante from 1934.

Jean Vigo was the James Dean of movie directors: he lived fast, he died young (of tuberculosis at 29), and he left – if not a beautiful corpse – then at least a beautiful body of work. This includes three short films (A Propos de Nice, Taris – Roi de l’eau and Zero de Conduite) and one feature, L’atalante. All of this work was done in a span of just five years, from 1929 to 1934, and constitutes a total running time of less than three hours. Yet Vigo’s status as a cinematic immortal is ensured – in large part due to L’atalante, one of the most ecstatic hymns to romantic love ever to grace the silver screen.

L’atalante opens with the marriage of a young couple in a provincial French town: Jean (Jean Daste) is the well-traveled captain of the barge L’atalante, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a naïve young woman who has always lived with her parents and knows nothing of the world outside of their hometown. Since the couple has barely had the chance to get acquainted, their relationship will be tested as they travel down the Seine river from Le Havre to Paris on an expedient honeymoon/cargo delivery trip. The other central character in this romantic drama is the most unforgettable – Pere Jules (character actor Michel Simon in a legendary performance), an eccentric, heavily tattooed, cat-loving first mate, whose conversations with Juliette provoke the first tensions in the newlyweds’ marriage. This foreshadows the more serious rift that will occur when the barge arrives in Paris and Juliette runs off, seduced by the City of Light.

L’atalante is often considered a work of “Poetic Realism,” a loosely defined movement of French films from the 1930s that took the poetic innovations of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism and Impressionism and wedded them to the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking (the “invisible” style of Hollywood), thereby making them more accessible to mainstream audiences. The key filmmakers of Poetic Realism include Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne and Julien Duvivier. But even among this esteemed company, Vigo was a man apart, a visual poet who attempted to stuff his movies with as many rhapsodic and lyrical passages as possible.

Examples of some of the intoxicating imagery from L’atalante: early in the film, Juliette tells Jean she had seen a vision of him before they ever met by plunging her face into water – thus knowing he would be her “true love.” After she runs away, Jean falls into despair. But mindful of her story, he jumps into a canal and, in a series of sumptuously photographed underwater images, sees Juliette in her wedding dress superimposed everywhere around him. Later, Juliette and Jean spend their first night as a married couple apart. As they lie in separate beds in different parts of town, Vigo makes us feel their painful romantic longing by intercutting between overhead shots of the two of them. Not only is the framing and positioning of the actors similar in each shot, Vigo boldly lights both locations in a similarly stylized way: a mirrorball effect with tiny dots of shadow falling on each character. Then, in an exquisite series of shots, Jean and Juliette begin to slowly kiss and caress their own bodies, their movements eroticized by Vigo’s use of dissolves and slow motion cinematography.

Once seen, the sadness of this separated couple will never be forgotten. Because of the painful nature of their conflict, which is predicated on Jean’s jealousy and quick temper, their eventual reunion is made all the sweeter. Fittingly, it is Jules who finds Juliette and leads her back to the barge. When she and Jean see each other, they embrace so passionately that they collapse together on the floor. It is our final image of them before Vigo cuts to an overhead shot of L’atalante sailing down the mighty, eternally flowing Seine. This sublime juxtaposition, which occurs as Maurice Jaubert’s memorable, poignant score reaches a crescendo on the soundtrack, is worthy of Frank Borzage in its suggestion of love as a transcendental force.

Much of the credit for the film’s intense beauty belongs to Boris Kaufman, the talented Russian cinematographer who was also the brother of Dziga-Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (creators of Man with the Movie Camera). Boris went on to an illustrious career in Hollywood, eventually winning an Oscar for his work on On the Waterfront in 1954. But he always retained a special place in his heart for the work he did with Jean Vigo, going so far as to describe their relationship as “cinematic paradise.” This is a phrase that could apply not only to what went on behind the camera but to what they managed to capture in front of it as well.

The only Region 1 DVD of L’atalante was released by New Yorker Video in 2003 and is now out of print. It is rumored that the film will be released in new Blu-ray and DVD editions by the Criterion Collection later this year.


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