Jean Renoir's 1956 Elena and her Men is a minor film in the great director's oeuvre, difficult and challenging and, also, atypical. The movie's thesis is that the reason French politics is a disorderly shambles is that the French people are too readily distracted by appearance, by spectacles and parades, and that they prefer making love to casting votes in elections. Renoir makes these points aggressively, by emphatic speeches by his characters, but, of course, it remains his verdict that love-making is more important than the franchise and that politics is a silly, self-defeating venture -- the dismissive stance that his film takes toward political issues is itself the best illustration of its premise.
Elena, played by the ravishing Ingrid Bergman, is a Polish princess, although, really a kind of high-class courtesan. Elena's specialty is inspiring men to achieve greatness. She is the widow of a Polish anarchist, also a prince, whose hobby was making bombs to "throw at the Tsar" -- in the course of this avocation, the Prince blew himself and his palace to smithereens; presumably, Elena survived the blast because she was absent pursuing one of her love affairs. At the outset of the film, Elena, whose emblem is a daisy, inspires her lover to compose an opera. Once her inspiration as a muse has borne fruit, Elena loses all interest in her lover and dismisses him. During a frenetic Bastille Day celebration, Elena who has agreed to marry a wealthy shoe manufacturer for his money, meets a slender, witty fellow who squires her around Paris during the jubilant festivities. This man is her opposite -- he aspires to nothing at all and his idea of utopia would be sheer idleness. Of course, in the economy of the film, this man will be Elena's ideal lover, although their passion, which the heroine can't recognize at first, is not acknowledged until the last ten minutes of the movie. Renoir's ironic point is Elena, who's desire seems focused on driving men to greatness, will find her most congenial lover in a man who has no ambition of any kind at all. This is demonstrated rather schematically by the film's principle narrative -- the rise to political power of a soldier named General Rollan. Rollan is a cavalier, "almost damned with fair wife" in the form of a loyal, longsuffering and highly ambitious mistress. Rollan is not exactly interested in political power but his liaison with Elena leads him ultimately to something that seems suspiciously similar to a coup d'état. Of course. Rollan's seizure of power, that is, the success foisted upon him by the relentless Elena, renders him uninteresting in her eyes and she can move on to her next erotic adventure.
Elena and her Men is shot by Renoir's brother, Claude, and it is antithetical to the director's works from the 1930's that channel the impressionism of Jean Renoir's father, August. This film is in gaudy, hyper-bright Technicolor, overlit and garish -- the movie is intentionally ugly: the interiors are full of all sorts of late Victorian frou-frous and chinoiserie -- everywhere the eye encounters lurid-colored Moroccan rugs, highlights of scarlet and orange, weird statues and mannequins, nasty-looking Academic portraits of gypsies and Arabs in the style of Bouguereau, the Victorian equivalent of paintings on velvet. The sole evidence of good taste in this carnival of the vulgar is Elena's garments -- they are exquisite and she is a beacon of refined beauty in all the squalid ugliness of these nouveaux-riche interiors. (The color scheme is like Matisse in his tropical phase but without any evidence of that artist's design or taste.) At the end of the movie, Renoir has everyone kissing -- the director is so erotically generous that even Rollan's ministers, a dour group of grotesques like the professors in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire, end up with compliant and voluptuous younger women, mostly maids, it seems, and peasants. Rollan escapes into fame while the idle hero, who has unsuccessfully courted Elena, kisses her, pretending to be the great general who has fled through the mob outside the Inn dressed as a gypsy. The film slows down and its hectic, farcical action subsides for a moment -- a sad-eyed gypsy girl sings a song about love and says that the night is warm suddenly, and has paused so that the lovers can avail itself of its generosity. Renoir cuts to a long montage of people kissing in the darkness, foremost among them Elena and her new lover, a man completely unsuitable for her, and, then, with a final enigmatic shot of the lonely and pensive gypsy girl, the only person without a lover, the film ends.
My description of Elena and her Men makes the film sound better than it is. In fact, the movie is a bit tedious and the long stretches of frantic bedroom farce, upper-class brutes pawing and mauling semi-accommodating lower-class maids, are too grotesque and politically incorrect for comfort. Renoir's movie is partially about politics, although the film rejects politics in the end, and so it is crammed with the "people", visualized as crowds of colorfully dressed extras --Zouaves and beplumed guardsmen, acrobats and circus clowns out of Picasso, courtesans and generals. The crowds mob stairs and block doorways and fill the screen with super-abundant carousing -- there are songs and rowdy parades, attempted rapes, drunks staggering all over the screen, and hunting parties, elaborate war games with artillery and cavalry, duels and threatened duels, sumptuous feasts and fistfights throughout the picture, an elaborate, continuous excess. I think Elena and her Men is considerably more intelligent than it seems -- you tend to lose the thread of the films rather nihilistic argument in all the festivities and raucous partying. But you can think about the movie productively when all the sound and fury subsides, can consider the merits or demerits of its hierarchy of values (Liebe ueber Alles) and, indeed, the film is sophisticated and probably profound in its anti-profundity message: life is to be enjoyed and love is the most enjoyable of all human activities, a proposition startlingly embodied in the supernaturally beautiful and vivacious Ingrid Bergman.