Illusions of Perfection

Renoir lets those without sin get cast in other people's movies

Renoir's next film, Elena and Her Men (May 8), starring Ingrid Bergman, unfolds as a sort of anti-Notorious: A well-traveled woman is convinced to seduce a man toward political power; the man who set it up is too busy trying to seduce her to cringe about "morality." There is very little redemption in Renoir's stories. Regret, sure. Forgiveness, absolutely. But not so much of the judging that insists payment is due. In one of the director's funniest (and, again, copied) films, 1932's Boudu Saved from Drowning (March 20), a hobo set on suicide is saved by a book merchant. The former systematically thwarts the latter's expectations of gratitude, which the merchant finds entertaining--at first. The hobo eventually ditches the man and the movie, upending even the viewer's need for a grateful "salvation."

What I mean is, there is no one in Renoir's films who is without sin, and thus no martyrs or heroes whose self-righteous presence is a judgment in itself. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (March 13) comes the closest to creating a good/evil dichotomy, but it does so with such grave playfulness that its effect is far from simple. A publisher who's cheerfully exploiting at least two women and a cowboy serial-story writer flees his debts in disguise. His workers, led in part by the idealistic writer, organize as a co-op and reap utopian rewards of cash, camaraderie, and romance. (Here, Renoir reveals the visual influence of his father Pierre Auguste Renoir's Impressionist paintings of café life, and foreshadows the street spontaneity of the French New Wave.)

When the publisher returns, unrepentant, the writer submits to his cowboy fantasies of frontier justice; Renoir shows the consequences in a surreal sequence with a wild-eyed drunk. At the same time, the film itself is framed in a question to the audience: Would you turn the cowboy in? Or leave him to the wasted borderland of his own making? Lars von Trier's Dogville re-envisions a similar scenario with Grand Guignol sadism, trapping director and audience in cycles of payback. Renoir, a humbler god, creates an unstintingly beautiful work that wonders, with the viewer, how such flawed creatures can survive themselves. Both, he says, and...

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