Sunday, February 16, 2014

Elena and her Men

Jean Renoir worked with Ingrid Bergman in 1956 and "Elena and her Men" was a film designed to restore the actress to the status of international star, a role somewhat tarnished by her ten-year long failed relationship with Roberto Rosselini. Bergman is luminous in "Elena," but the film is a tedious costume comedy that seems to me a parody of Renoir's best work. The story is complex with several subplots and involves a popular general scheming to seize power by a coup d'etat. Bergman plays a Polish countess, something of a courtesan, who is manipulated in order to manipulate, in turn, the general who has fallen for her. (She is about to be married for purely venal purposes to an elderly shoe manager.) The story seems conceived as a meditation on the relationship between the political and personal and there are Brechtian interludes involving a street-singer that seek to establish, somewhat ineffectively, a broader context for the farcical intrigue. Bergman wears fantastically beautiful gowns and she is lushly voluptuous, perhaps, at the height of her mature beauty. All of the men in the film are comically enamoured with her. Yet, she isn't on screen as much as we desire and, often, she is filmed in medium to long shot with other remarkably beautiful actresses who distract us from her -- Renoir was his father's son and he has an exquisite eye for female beauty. There is lots of satyr-like romping -- men engaged in madcap pursuit of giggling and luscious women -- staged between scenes in which unattractive men (they are like the midget-professors and eccentrics in Howard Hawks' "Ball of Fire") plot and connive. The action is staged theatrically against obviously painted sets with a couple of exceptions -- there is a balloon ride that triggers an international incident and some hunting and horse-riding scenes staged plein-air. The painted sets contribute to the air of Brechtian detachment and they are crammed to overflowing with extras representing the "polis", I suppose, or the mob. Some of this is effective and, even, diverting, but, in the end, the film doesn't amount too much and, as is often the case with a great filmmaker directing a bad movie, some of the scenes are patched-together in such a perfunctory fashion that they are embarassing, half-baked, it seemed, and surprisingly bad. A hack film maker can always summon his professionalism to create yeoman work, smooth and fluent if meaningless. Renoir seems so disengaged from this film that entire episodes fizzle on screen -- the actors look stranded and some of them mouth their lines as if performing in an amateur home movie. Bergman is good as are her "men" -- played by Mel Ferrer and Jean Marais -- but, among all the mugging and hamming, their relatively naturalistic performances seem out-of-place. Renoir has a characteristically humane view of this material. In one view two men quarrel over Bergman but mask their true motives in political slogans. They fight a duel, which Renoir doesn't stage, resulting in one man suffering a scratch. His opponent compliments him -- "I respect you more knowing that you were fighting for a woman rather than a political cause." At the end of the movie, one of the principals says that the Parisian crowd will always prefer the personal -- that is, a melodramatic love story - to the political --also intended as a compliment to the Parisians, and, for that matter, to the film audience. Claude Renoir shot the film in an astounding array of Belle Epoque textures and colors -- this stuff is hideous to my eye, and I think intentionally so: a clash of alabaster and velvet and silk saturated in deep mauves and salmon-pinks. Renoir admits in supplementary material on the Criterion disk that the film went awry -- he wanted to make the picture more explicitly about the Boulanger scandal but members of that family protested and so Renoir had to improvise the film on the fly. It didn't work as he admits and the problem for many viewers will be that the movie often seems to revisit themes and incidents much more effectively represented in "The Rules of the Game".

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