On Jean Renoir, et al.
I want to write about Jean Renoir today. But I also want to write about his favorite actor, Jean Gabin; and about John Ford, and his favorite actor, John Wayne. Jean, Jean, John, and John. I will also have something to say about Émile Zola, and perhaps Henry James, too. Old Bosley Crowther might make an appearance. But I will not get carried away. Under no circumstances, for example, will I mention Oliphant Chuckerbutty.
There was a period in my twenties when I found it important to adopt the attitudes and dispositions of a cinephile. I drove to Tower Records on Broadway in Downtown Sacramento, fifteen miles both ways, to rent VHS tapes of the works of F. W. Murnau, Satyajit Ray, Carl Theodor Dreyer. I considered it a great virtue to sit through hours of Stan Brakhage’s abstractions. I was, in truth, deeply bored by Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet people with their little lives, but I took the willingness to endure this boredom likewise as a mark of a special species of virtue — the cinephile virtue. (I have rewatched Ozu in more recent years and have found his work utterly compelling.) I strained to read the Cahiers du Cinéma, barely understanding a word, but loving the adoration those French intellos were willing to shower upon, say, Clint Eastwood, or, in the back catalogue of issues, the love that poured forth from François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville for the most common run of American policiers. It seemed to me that cinephilia, in the particular form it took in the twentieth century, was the most thriving and generous bastion of true humanism, where it was generally understood to be something best expressed in sensibility and attention, rather than in any particular concrete message. No one, I still think, embodied this humanism more fully than Jean Renoir.
These days I find cinephilia kind of dorky, to tell the truth, both in its hopelessly anachronistic French high-brow expression (still writing, and getting funding to write, as if it were 1962 and nothing had changed in the meantime to compel any serious cinephile to face up to the art-form’s obvious moribund condition), and in its incel-adjacent American “film-bro” form. But, as I’ve mentioned, I fractured my ankle in the Bucharest metro last month, having literally failed to “mind the gap”, and have been forced, back in Paris, to stay mostly couch-ridden for a few weeks. I could not spend all that time preparing for my upcoming discussion of Zola with Agnes Callard (more on that soon), so I spent some of it, as well, watching or rewatching almost the entire filmographies of Messieurs Renoir and Ford. I’m also currently writing a piece for The New Statesman, tentatively titled: “Henry James; or, Why Americans Do Not Belong in Europe”. I confess everything’s a bit jumbled in my head right now.
My ankle healed fairly swiftly, I’m happy to say. As I had some admin meetings scheduled down in the Latin Quarter, the other day I worked up the courage to grab my bequille and to descend warily, as if shell-shocked —imagining myself, boo-hoo, like some veteran out of an Otto Dix painting on the way to pick up my monthly benefits— into this city’s metro, which, though there are many things I hate about it, at least has no gap. There was a homeless man, obviously mentally ill. Caked in dirt, with matted hair, he made me think of the protagonist from Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), though much dirtier, and much, much further gone. He’d taken off all his clothes but his underwear, and was throwing little scraps of paper, a lighter, an empty can, down the aisle. He was speaking in automatisms. He pointed at a woman and said: Ben oui, elle a piqué mon billet comme la patte du chat.
One may think, in such a moment, of the great injustice that prevails everywhere in our low world, the gross inadequacy of mental-health services, and so on. But one may also think: what a rich repository of culture this man is! He must have heard his grandma saying something like this, perhaps in a post-war Paris slum where people still talked like Julien Carette, something not wholly clear in its meaning —is the cat’s paw the object that is stolen in the comparison, or is it the means by which something else is stolen?—, but that flows nonetheless down through the generations like a flash of gold in a river, and that one should wish, somehow, to capture. This desire, to capture, is the basis of cinema. When this desire does not issue from love, it crosses over into exploitation.
One of my many daily anxieties has me constantly anticipating some civil emergency or other that will interrupt all trans-Atlantic travel and leave me trapped indefinitely on the wrong side of the ocean, cut off from at least most of my consanguineous loved ones. I suppose this is not a new feeling, and must also have been hanging over cast and crew throughout the filming of La Grande illusion (1937), La Bête humaine (1938), and, with what must by then have been an unbearable urgency, La Règle du jeu (1939).
In the first of these three, the great Marcel Dalio plays Lieutenant Rosenthal, a French Jewish officer from a nouveau-riche family, who finds himself in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp alongside the aristocratic Capitain de Boëlduc (Pierre de Fresnay) and the working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin). The German aristocrat Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) is an ace fighter-pilot who has recently been shot down, propped back up with strange old prosthetics, including some sort of leather chin-guard, and reassigned to overseeing the French prisoners. Von Rauffenstein receives de Boëlduc as his equal. The two reminisce about Maxim’s of Paris, the distant cousins they have in common in the Danish haute noblesse, and so on. When it comes to inspecting the prisoners’ quarters, von Rauffenstein is satisfied simply to ask de Boëlduc for his word of honor that no contraband has been stashed away, while disdaining to do so for Maréchal or, still more, for Rosenthal.
Just before the fall of Paris in 1940, Dalio managed to slip away to the United States, through Portugal, and spent the war eking out whatever film roles he could get in Hollywood (he’s present when Capitain Renault claims to be “shocked, simply shocked” in Casablanca (1942)). La Grande illusion was of course banned in France, and the Nazis would soon plaster Dalio’s face all around as the very prototype of the Israelite mug. But Stroheim himself had been born into a middle-class Jewish family in Vienna, and he only decided to add the “von” and to start impersonating Prussian nobles on a whim when he landed, at Ellis Island, in the land of infinite opportunity. In La Règle du jeu Renoir will in turn have Dalio play the role of a French aristocrat, to the dismay of the Union Sacrée and other “catho facho” forces. But however typecast he may have seemed to the Nazis in his 1937 role —with what Marcel Proust would describe, speaking of himself, as his “Assyrian” physiognomy— two years later he would prove at least as convincing as von Stroheim in the role of a European blueblood.
It is perhaps a curious twist, here, that in La Grande illusion Rosenthal is portrayed as deeply devoted to the Greek lyric poet Pindar, who, he insists when mocked by Maréchal for this passion, is more important for him than war, or peace, or family, or homeland. Now I glean from the world wide web that the Romanian-American political-science Ph.D. (Yale, 2015) and far-right Internet personality Costin Alamariu, better known as “Bronze Age Pervert” or simply “BAP”, also makes much of Pindar in his own work as, he thinks, this Greek author is an important early expositor of eugenicism. BAP is full of shit, of course, but this interest of his does make one wish to know more about Renoir’s attention to this particular detail. Dalio’s career, anyhow, and the ease of his passage from one role to another, reminds us how baseless any attempt at giving a racialist or eugenicist reading of another person’s “kind” will always turn out to be.
Renoir himself was a communist —the kind of communist I could permit myself to be if it were at all representative of what communists in general are, which is to say a humanist—, so he had to flee too. He spent his years of exile showcasing his great versatility, making propaganda films for the US Department of War, and also, in 1945, a fairly compelling and profoundly American film, The Southerner, about a poor white cotton farmer and his family’s will to extract a bounty from the hostile soil of the US Deep South.
It is disarming, at least at first, to find the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir depicting scenes from a world where people say things like “I’ll be jiggered”, and dance to music about chickens in the breadpan pickin’ out dough. But then again it really should not be, for reasons I’ve already begun to evoke in characterizing Renoir fils as the perfect embodiment of the cinematic spirit — I mean, I’ll have to check up on the domestication history of the adaptable Gallus gallus, but haven’t the great majority of French people since like Clovis also had countless occasions over the course of their lives to visit the basse cour and to watch chickens picking dough out of breadpans? Most experience is universal —of course it is!—, and it’s Renoir’s life-work to draw the universal dimension of local cultural forms out of its hiding.
Like the Union Sacrée after La Règle du jeu, the Ku Klux Klan decided to protest The Southerner, and managed to get it banned at least in the state of Tennessee. They don’t seem to have cared much about Renoir’s communism, or about the part the Jews might have had in this production. They simply didn’t like the way his somewhat caricatural vitamin-deprived white-trash clay-eaters were portrayed. I honestly don’t understand their objection. They remind me of my four grandparents, and their extended families, always helping each other out, hauling loads for one another in their pick-up trucks, going down to the Grange Hall for some desperately needed mutual aid, wearing clip-on ties to one another’s weddings and funerals (when my great uncle Julius first visited us after my mother and her husband moved within the gates of a country club, he looked out at the golf course and declared: “I should have brought my old hickory stick!”). The “Granny” character was indeed a bit over the top, but just try to imagine what a challenge Renoir must have faced in assessing the finer differences of dialect and register in American English, and finding among these the most perfect fine-tuning. I can think of many cases where a director completely loses his art when he moves into another language — e.g., Alejandro Iñárritu’s pointless English-language Oscar-bait 21 Grams (2003), or his world-historically stupid Birdman (2014), following upon his fairly inspired Amores perros (2000).
But in any case the portrayal, if tonally “off” at some points, is eminently elogious, and the censors in Tennessee clearly were not equipped to assess the artistic merits of what they were seeing, or thought they were seeing. This is not the last instance of gross misinterpretation that will concern us here.
The great love of Jean Renoir’s life was Gabrielle Renard, the maid who had the greatest role in raising him from infancy. She took him as a little boy to the Guignol puppet theater just up the street from me in the Buttes-Chaumont (a place I’ve written about before with both love and something like fear, this latter arising, perhaps, from the fact that it was once the site of Louis XIV’s gibbet). I can’t help but think that this bedrock sentimental truth of his life, which had no hope of social legitimation, of consecration by institutions and approbation by family and acquaintances, is what most gave shape to his artistic sensibility, a vision of the world in which all institutions, class divisions, national boundaries, etc., are pourris, “rotten”, and the only truth is the truth of feeling.
Nothing establishes this conviction with nearly the same force as La Règle du jeu, which somehow manages to lay out the blueprint for avant-garde cinema to come mostly by borrowing its manners and mood from Beaumarchais and the Baroque. In 1972 Luis Buñuel offers his explicitly surrealist spin on the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, and it’s delightful, but it’s also a faint echo of Renoir’s portrayal of the true charm of the aristocracy, which comes across already as sufficiently surreal simply by showing this class through the backwards-looking lens of the commedia dell’arte.
My thought here is akin to something that strikes me whenever I am confronted with Salvador Dalí’s whispy-legged elephants and melting clocks, which always leave me utterly indifferent — I guess I like Dalí’s design for the Chupa Chups wrapper well enough, but I will just never see him as an important artist. How much more effective is the work of, say, Francis Bacon, in conveying to us the utter strangeness of our corporeal being, simply by depicting a slab of meat in all its bloody reality. Surrealism is nothing but an evasion. The strangeness of our social being, in turn, can be drawn out perfectly well in the slapstick gestures of a troupe of commedia players.
Renoir’s return to Italianate forms involves, as it should, a good deal of Three’s Company-level situation comedy, as when a character borrows another’s hooded cloak, and mistaken identity and suspicions of cuckoldry follow. But the main concern of this film, which seems to me to derive almost directly from Renoir’s love of his babysitter, is utterly to drive a pale right through the undead body of European class society, with all its damned “rules”. This society was still somehow lurching around even on the brink of World War II, after it was supposed to have died in the previous war: a death that is compellingly studied in Volker Schlöndorff’s Coup de grâce (1976; Schlöndorff started his career as Alain Resnais’s cinematographer on L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), a masterful phenomenological engagement with the problem of historical memory), and that also, arguably, is one of the principal leitmotifs of Proust’s great work.
In fact, La Grande illusion itself had been intended as a depiction of this same death, when Capitain de Boëlduc conceives a plan to give his life in facilitating the escape of Maréchal and Rosenthal. Von Rauffenstein shoots him, and then sits mournfully and apologetically at his death-bed as the plebeian and the Jew are meanwhile making their way to the Swiss border. A new democratic order is coming, the dying French aristocrat says, and it will have no room for us. The war-crippled German aristocrat goes to his liquor cabinet and stiffly throws back a stiff drink, without moving his prosthetically supported neck — an astounding gesture for which alone von Stroheim, even now, deserves some sort of posthumous Oscar. On my reading, it is because von Rauffenstein is still stalking around, undead, at the end of La Grande illusion, that La Règle du jeu can be seen in some respect as its sequel, depicting the frivolous and dying French aristocracy practically the night before the Nazi invasion, doing nothing but hunting game, getting randy with the domestics, staging improvised musical revues.
But then there is also Octave, played by Renoir himself —and not only played, but given life by the actual person of Jean Renoir— who is inside and outside this whole disgraceful scene, who himself loves a domestic and seems to think there’s no higher expression of humanity than a French cancan or a whisky-drunk square-dance or a transvestite Vaudeville revue inside a POW camp: any gathering, really, that Shakespeare might describe as “a kind of yesty collection”. In other words, he doesn’t hate the decadent aristocracy. He’s mourning it, because it’s dying, and it’s as human as anything else that’s human … a strange sort of communism, to be sure, but one that, as a matter of historical fact, got under the skin of the fascists a lot more irritatingly than anything any party-line socialist-realist hack was coming up with in the same era.
Renoir’s one great post-war film, after returning to his home country, is French cancan (1955). I avoided watching it for a long time because in general I do not much care for Belle Époque nostalgia. But how wrong I was. The film is, I now think, the culmination of many artistic goals Renoir had been pursuing since the 1930s, and its choice of setting is more or less arbitrary. The café-concert world of Montmartre and the streets below happen to be the world of his father, though the particular paintings that serve as direct inspiration for several of the film’s tableaux-vivants come not from Pierre-Auguste Renoir, but from Edgar Degas (who also, incidentally, did some of his best work in the American South, when he travelled to visit the New Orleans cotton exchange). Otherwise it’s a yesty celebration of carousing, foolish intrigues, “strange œillades and most speaking looks” (also Shakespeare) amongst giddy thespians and Bohemian hangers-on, violent jealousies, and also of course some dancing.
The girl who is taken from her mother’s laundry after dancing a waltz with the impresario Danglard (again played by Jean Gabin, now twenty years older and at the peak of his joli-laid charisma) assumes she has just been sold into the oldest profession with her mother’s approval (theater kids in the US today really just don’t understand how extremely close their hobby was to prostitution for nearly all of its history). She is surprised when Danglard instead takes her to begin her dance lessons with a tyrannical old hag and former star of the cancan in the previous wave of its modishness. The girl has just gone and got herself devirginized by her dull boyfriend, and future boulangerie owner, in the misguided aim of preparation for what she thought was going to be her new career, and now she’s got the poor boy hooked. Danglard, meanwhile, is attached to an already-too-old Spanish prima donna who resents the new girl, for obvious reasons.
And that’s pretty much all the starter yeast, or yest, needed to get things going. There is a surprising cameo performance from Edith Piaf, and some delirious comic improvisation from a lanky fellow named Clément le Serpentin, played by the great Philippe Clay, who perfectly embodies the unique style of mid-century comic chanson, especially with his little routine about les souris qui croquent croquent croquent— just perfect! (Clément also lets us know, as MC at the opening night at the Moulin Rouge, how to pronounce this new club’s signature dance with its stylishly English appellation: “Franche Caen-Caen”.)
But of course this simple summary doesn’t convey anything of the real feeling. Perhaps this can be at least suggested, if negatively, by contrast with another far-lesser work. The Australian director Baz Luhrmann seems to have attempted some sort of imitation of Renoir’s film, with his Moulin Rouge (2001). But that philistine, whose species absolutely dominates in the post-auteur era of middlebrow content-production, seems to have been operating on the foolish assumption that French Cancan was about, well, the French cancan. But Renoir would never set himself such a modest goal, any more than he would choose to make a movie about, say, square-dancing. In fact, the square-dancing scene in The Southerner, where we get to hear the song about the chicken in the breadpan, conveys substantially the same mood and artistic vision, perhaps not of the climactic performance in the 1955 film, but certainly of the earlier rehearsal scenes with the elderly dance teacher: recognizably Renoirian scenes of human yestiness. But Luhrmann can’t understand that, so he makes his huge-budget movie about the Moulin Rouge, and the world just absolutely laps it up like hog’s slop, and comes to France and stands for hours in the scorching globally-warmed heat of a Paris August to get inside that august establishment. And when I go over to the guitar stores on the rue de Douai and I happen to catch sight of these dead-souled secular pilgrims, I want to say: Fuck off. Go home. You don’t belong here. I mean, I don’t belong here either, but that’s an entirely different matter, which I will be addressing soon enough in the pages of The New Statesman.
Here then we have another example of the downward hypostasis of art into content of the sort that I know I’ve previously railed against here in reference to Damien Chazelle’s execrable La La Land (2016), which seems to attempt some faint tribute to Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), which, as I said at the time, is the closest thing to a Gesamtkunstwerk for the twentieth century that we have, doing something equivalent to what Wagner’s Ring Cycle did for the nineteenth. So far the twenty-first century has put up no candidates of its own for this title.
This general downward motion I have described has everything to do with technological progress, something Renoir himself articulated clearly, about cinema and about art in general, in the 1961 interview screenshotted in this ‘stack. Drawing on some surprisingly detailed knowledge of the history of weaving, he praises the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry as at once the most accomplished and the most primitive representative of this art form, which thrived until some new stitching technique was innovated some centuries later that made it possible for a tapissier effectively to imitate the work of the painters. This is the moment in history when the art of tapestry lost all interest, for Renoir.
Speaking freely —I love the way Renoir speaks French, I could listen to him all day—, and relishing his own excessive categoricity, he identifies what he takes to be an aesthetic paradox: in the “primitive” stages of an art-form, every contribution is a work of genius, while in the advanced stages it is only the rare and deviant exception, the “sport”, to borrow a metaphor of random mutation from Darwin, that is worthy of attention. Every single one of those haunting Bronze Age Cycladic figurines, with arms folded and without a face, is a stunning testament to human representational power; every single work in an MFA sculpture exhibit, rather less so — and yet these are supposed to be the professionals, the “masters”! Renoir also recognizes that his own advances in deep-focus in La Règle du jeu, or his shift to vivid color stock in French Cancan, are themselves contributions to this inevitable degeneration.
John Ford, I think, is a “primitive” artist in the way Jean Renoir intends. The American director surely did his homework. For example, his peculiar anti-authoritarian allegory, The Fugitive (1947), starring Henry Fonda as a priest in an unnamed Latin American country where religion has been suppressed, is a clear homage to the great Weimar-era works of German expressionism, above all F. W. Murnau. But for the most part Ford’s stubborn refusal to intellectualize his work —“I make Westerns”, he would say, when interviewers sought to make him do so— seems to fit that work as much as Renoir’s erudite verbosity fits his own.
What makes a Western a Western is of course the particular historical process of absorption of the North American frontier into the American empire. To some extent, this same frame is transferable to other parts of the world — my man Nick Cave wrote the screenplay for one of the better Westerns I’ve seen, The Proposition (2005), whose events unfold in the Australian outback; and who was the historical Ned Kelly, really, if not an Antipodean Billy the Kid? Radu Jude managed to make a recognizably Western film, Aferim! (2015), set in Romania, though there the historical dynamics of conquest and settlement are so different from the other cases that the only possible result of the effort is something of a genre pastiche. Yet even on a frontier, many experiences are universal (chickens, breadpans), and do not differ all that much from a region like Southeastern Europe whose dynamics of imperial settlement were established millennia rather than centuries ago.
It is surely in part in recognition of this universality that John Ford, upon seeing La Grande illusion, determined that he would like to make his own version of the film, set in the American West. The standard account is that Ford was dissuaded from doing so by those close to him, who reasoned that he could never top Renoir’s accomplishment. I don’t think this was the end of the story, however. I suspect that at least a significant strand of that film’s DNA will appear much later, in the popular John Wayne vehicle, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
This film is sometimes regarded as the highest point, and therefore also the beginning of the decline, of the Western genre. It is unflinchingly pessimistic about the frontier mythos, and this pessimism is taken as an indication of the genre’s early death throes. It features Jimmy Stewart, as Ranse Stoddard, in his first collaboration with the Duke, who arrives from back East as a recently minted attorney, and hopes to set up a practice in a Western territory that appears to be Arizona. Stoddard’s stagecoach is ambushed and he is seriously injured while en route, by the outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Upon Stoddard’s arrival in town, Wayne’s character, Doniphan, shows up to take care of the bookish and effete Easterner, drops his signature epithets —“pilgrim”, etc.— and quickly establishes himself as the embodiment of frontier justice.
Valance continues to hold a grudge against the lawyer, and ultimately challenges him to a gunfight. Doniphan knows that the maladroit Stoddard cannot possibly prevail, so he hides in an alley at the appointed hour, and at just the right moment shoots Liberty so as to make it appear as if it was Stoddard —who had of course shot and missed— who dealt the fatal blow. Doniphan’s sweetheart Hallie (both Wayne and Stewart are in their mid-fifties, but seem to be playing characters a generation younger), now taking Stoddard for a gunslinging hero, explicitly declares her love for him. Doniphan, witnessing this, returns home, throws a lantern into the extension he had been building in anticipation of his marriage to Hallie, and hopes to die in an act of self-inflicted ekpyrosis.
It’s fairly clear to me that Doniphan is Capitain de Boëlduc, performing a final act of heroism that ensures his own demise and thereby makes possible the emergence of a new and better order. Frontier gunslinging gives way to procedural law, and European aristocracy gives way to popular rule. These are different orders that are collapsing, under the weight of different historical dynamics, but the human stakes are much the same, and these are what matter most to Ford and Renoir alike.
I’m skeptical, though, of the idea that there ever was a golden age of the Western, when the ideology of manifest destiny actually shaped the representations in this artistic genre. In other words, I don’t think Liberty Valance marks any real turning point. This film is supposed to be the one where the heroic mythos of the West finally gets “deconstructed”. But the more I learn about this genre, the more it seems this “finally” is pretty much recited by rote with every significant Western that’s released. This is just part of the promotional tactics for the genre. We heard it constantly when Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) appeared. Soon enough academic theory-heads were excitedly jumping on its echoes of Greek tragedy, giving talks where they delighted in careening from old Clint to Julia Kristeva and back again (I remember these vividly, though I forget the names of the presenters). But again Liberty Valance inspired similar comments thirty years before, and even the supposedly prelapsarian Ford/Wayne collaborations, from the period when manifest destiny is thought to have gone unquestioned, seem to me to offer up to any lucid viewer nothing but forlorn tragedy and darkening katabasis.
For example, The Searchers (1956) is often said to represent the very pinnacle of John Wayne-ism. In it a frontier family in Texas is massacred by a band of Comanches, under the command of the dreaded Scar (played by Henry Brandon, who was born in Berlin in 1912 as Heinrich von Kleinbach, of course). Scar kidnaps the family’s two daughters, triggering the search that gives the film its name and that takes up the vastly greater part. The search-party is led by John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, a Confederate Lost Causer who had just returned to his brother’s home prior to the massacre, and found his two nieces there, who, given some strange œillades between Ethan and Ethan’s brother’s wife, we are given to understand might not be his nieces, but his daughters.
The older daughter is murdered and mutilated shortly after her abduction — something we are made to understand only by the strange spasms of Ethan’s body when he comes back from a solo reconnaissance in a ravine, and declines to tell the others what he has seen. But the younger is still alive, and as the film progresses we slowly realize that Ethan may in fact not be looking to save the girl, but to kill her, his own niece or perhaps daughter, because she is presumably by now one of Scar’s wives, and thus “no longer white”. Ethan’s sidekick Martin, an orphan who had been raised by the massacred family and who is said to be one-eighth Cherokee, is terrified of this possibility, and does what he can to assure the triumph of pragmatic humanism over heart-of-darkness butchery. I see Ethan, in other words, as just obviously a sort of Kurtz, so cracked by his life of violence that he has no trace of moral sensibility left in him. And he himself knows this, and knows that his total war with the Indians is not at all a war of good versus evil.
This is 1956, of course, and Boy Scouts throughout the land were dressing up in feathers and moccasins and having pow-wows. Their dads may well have gone to see this picture at the movie-theater, and come away thinking the Duke was the ideal personification of American moral progress, and that it was good and right that the Indians should have been killed off so that our boys could now dress up like them and learn how to start fires without matches and so on. But if this is what they thought —and if twenty-first-century progressives think those 1950s dads were interpreting The Searchers correctly— they were —and are— as wrong as the Tennessee yokels who sought to ban The Southerner. They were as wrong as Baz Luhrmann presumably was when he watched French Cancan. (He might not have watched it for all I know, in which case he’s even less serious than I imagine.) They were and are a bunch of philistines who don’t know how to engage critically with works of art.
John Wayne movies were often on TV in the background when I was a kid, and at a very young age I learned to screen them out and to pay them no attention, assimilating them to Gunsmoke, or Bonanza, or Hee-Haw. There are indeed some points of contact here — Minnie Pearl with the price-tag on her hat has her ancestors in the Vaudeville-like representations of the various hempen homespuns (again, Shakespeare) on the American frontier whom we encounter in John Ford. But then again we also find them in Renoir’s “Granny”. And if we can move in just a few steps from Hee-Haw to the genius who gave us La Règle du jeu, then perhaps one lesson is that we might in general do well to approach the last century’s astounding output of cinematic entertainments in a spirit of charity. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to be able to go back to Messieurs Ford and Wayne now, as I’ve done with Ozu, and to try to be generous to them.
Things are about to get real dirty.
A corollary of Renoir’s erudition is his extreme artistic versatility, his ability to move from one artistic language to another at will and at ease. The most abrupt shift comes in the single year between La Bête humaine and La Règle du jeu, in the shift to a Baroque sensibility from an astoundingly faithful écranisation of what is perplexingly called Zola’s “naturalism”. I am rather more inclined to agree with the contemporary critic, who fumed: “Ce n’est pas du réalisme, c’est de la pornographie”.
Zola’s work is an atrocity exhibition, a clinical enumeration of every proletarian pathology imaginable, without any evident spirit of love behind the conjuring of his fictional characters into existence. The effect of this for me is a sort of numbing — I was surprised when I realized, towards the end of his L’Assommoir (1876), that I was really rather indifferent even to something as theoretically heartbreaking as the death of little Lalie, the eight-year-old girl who is beaten to death by her drunken widower father. Perhaps this reveals only that I’m a bad reader; perhaps Zola shares some of the fault in my being unable to read him well. I think it’s impossible to say, and this is in part why criticism is always such a difficult undertaking.
I read La Bête humaine years ago, before my French was nearly good enough to follow much of what was going on (I used to read lots of novels in languages I barely understood, and I recommend you do so as well). In preparation for my upcoming conversation with Agnes Callard I have just finished reading L’Assommoir and Le Ventre de Paris. I gather Agnes is much further along in her conquest of the twenty-volume opus of Les Rougon-Macquart, which, as the subtitle has it, sets itself the gargantuan task of presenting “a natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire”.
I’ll save most of what I want to say about Zola for Agnes and our audience, but I will note here that reading these two volumes recently has, if nothing else, considerably enriched my vocabulary for talking about at least some domains of human life — domestic violence, for example, or the sex trade. I did not previously know that in the era of Napoleon III, a “slut” was called a “camel” (un chameau), nor did I have a lexicon rich enough to distinguish between “tits” and “boobs” (nénais and nichons, respectively, or perhaps the other way around). I enjoyed learning that a hangover is a mal aux cheveux (I probably should have known that before; I bet Chris Mooney did), and that husbands can sometimes describe their “old lady” as ma bourgeoise. There is just so much delirious argot in there, for which my Folio edition helpfully provides a glossary: gouaper, viauper, fichtre, bougre de greluchon, pisser à l’Anglaise (“to piss English-style”, or to execute what we would call an “Irish goodbye”), and at least a dozen different terms for distilled alcohol that evoke, in various ways, the rotting of one’s entrails. I even learned how to speak of “hickeys” (suçons) in French, a concept that once described something that seemed central to my existence, but that nowadays hardly ever comes up. The thing about true mastery of a language, though, is that you need to have, in reserve, all of those rarities at your disposal, ready to be pulled out and put on display notwithstanding the light-years that separate them from your lived experience.
L’Assommoir is an unrelenting phantasmagoria of obscenities. Zola defended himself against criticism on this point effectively by saying: Well, our world contains all these things I describe, does it not? And it’s true, our world contains corpses, for example, such as that of Maman Coupeau, which, when left for two nights in bed awaiting its funeral, begins to make strange noises (“Elle se vide”, her family members remark again and again). I grant this is among the things that happen in the world.
I suppose my complaint, though, is a complaint that Henry James himself could not refrain from expressing when he read his friend Zola’s work, and that is that other things happen too, and many of these things are drawn out more effectively if we pay closer attention to the interiority of human beings than to the methane emissions of their corpses. Some desultory clicking recently brought me to the French-language Wikipedia page for James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81), which I am now convinced is his greatest novel, straddling the boundary between his so-called “American” and “modernist” periods, and manifesting all the virtues of both. The French Wiki editor for some reason is singularly preoccupied with the fact that, other than a single kiss, there is no description of any contact between human bodies in James’s novel. It is therefore held to be paradigmatically “Victorian”. I don’t know quite what has happened to me, but at this point in my life I confess I find this Victorian reserve far more powerful at capturing reality as it really is than any purported “naturalism”.
There are some wonderful, slow-building ensemble scenes in L’Assommoir that suggest in Zola a receptivity to the sort of commedia that Renoir would channel so well — the birthday dinner that Gervaise proudly throws for herself at the peak of her laundry business’s success shows careful and deep attention on the author’s part to the real dynamics of social interaction. The wedding party’s excursion to the Louvre after Gervaise and Lantier tie the knot reveals so much about nineteenth-century Paris and the opening up of this city’s cultural wealth to the common people, even with the predictable downside that at least some of them will have no idea what they’re seeing but will still love to titter at the sight of all the naked ladies in the paintings. And one could hardly do better than read Zola to interiorize the geography of the Right Bank of Paris. I myself delighted in imagining all the streets where the scenes unfold, just down from Montmartre, rue de la Goutte d’Or, rue des Martyres, rue de la Poissonière. I could just walk over there and see them for myself; I’ll have to do so, again, when I go to get one of my guitars restringed in the rue de Douai, that strange vestige of the medieval artisanal guilds, when all the lute-makers clustered together in one place. But I’d rather encounter them, as names that evoke images, in a novel.
For the most part, in spite of these virtues I’ve attempted to enumerate, the word that keeps coming back to me as I read Zola is “exploitation”, which, as I’ve already said, is what we get when art seeks to capture human reality, but does so without love. Of course, “exploitation” is also, appropriately, a genre term in the history of cinema, describing a style of film-making that would emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that sought to transgress against all moralistic reserve by delighting in scenes of torture and suffering typically set in concentration camps, on slave plantations, etc. Zola is a literary patron saint of the exploitation movie, the b-movie, the giallo, Ed Wood, and I Spit on Your Grave (1978). He is the literary counterpart not of the Guignol puppet theater in the Buttes-Chaumont that fired the young Renoir’s imagination, but of Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol in particular, founded by Oscar Méténier in 1897, not at all far from the Moulin Rouge or from the rue des Martyres, specializing in dramatic depictions of shock horror. When that theater finally closed its doors in 1962, its last director, Charles Nonon, explained that the Holocaust had made clear that such horrors as his players had been in the business of representing were in fact a part of the actual world and therefore did not need representation. “We could never equal Buchenwald,” Nonon explained. Of course what was really happening, around 1962, is that the Grand Guignol was simply migrating, from the stage to the screen.
Renoir’s great accomplishment with his own version of La Bête humaine was to succeed in bringing about the earliest conversion of the exploitation genre from the page to the screen. I don’t at all mean to dismiss this broad swathe of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. It’s been very important to me personally in my efforts to cultivate my own sensibilities, even if, as I’ve said, I’m no longer nearly as receptive to it as I once was. But in Renoir’s rendition of Zola’s novel I can still make out in Simone Simon’s Séverine the embodiment of the goth waif who was the object of some of my earliest fixations, and when she bite-kisses Jean Gabin’s Jacques Lantier (the son of the Lantier who figures centrally in L’Assommoir), this gesture reaches a level of depravity that is enough to bring that fixation back momentarily. I’m sure Renoir enjoyed it too. But I also suspect that at some point between the filming of La Bête humaine and La Règle du jeu he recoiled, and resolved to focus on those traditions in art that are most suited to his fundamentally humanistic spirit. To put this, again, as I did above, the passage from the 1938 film to the 1939 film is a passage from exploitation to love.
One more thing that must be emphasized about Zola and his legacy is the particular significance of the subtitle the author gives to Les Rougon-Macquart. In calling it a “social and natural history” Zola is following the example of the incomparable Honoré de Balzac, who conceived his own multi-volume La Comédie humaine as a sort of human and social equivalent to what the Comte de Buffon had accomplished in his multivolume work, L’Histoire naturelle (1749-1804). Zola would have liked to have done for the second half of the nineteenth century what Balzac did for the first. I don’t believe he accomplished this, or, if he did, the disparity between his work and Balzac’s stands as a testament to the general degradation of European culture in the intervening years — if Zola’s work is “worse”, this does not necessarily mean it’s doing its job of mirroring social reality any less faithfully.
The relevant changes between the two authors’ eras are very clearly reflected in the natural-scientific theories that underlie, if only as metaphors, their respective literary creations. For one thing, in taking Buffon as his model, Balzac is still drawing on a static vision of the order of nature, while Zola is inspired by the theory of evolution, which as is well known got corrupted almost instantly, in its broader cultural uptake, into an ugly mix of eugenicism and anti-humanist survival-of-the-fittest ideology. Zola’s “natural history” of the working classes, in particular, is one that explicitly takes its inhabitants to be condemned to inferiority as a straightforward result of their ancestry.
In the quotation from the novel that begin’s Renoir’s film, Jacques Lantier bemoans the fact that, although he does not himself drink, he is nonetheless destined to live out his life under the influence of the alcohol that had deformed and killed his forefathers. Although he does his best to “live right”, and his charm and beauty leave the viewer, or at least this viewer, with, ahem, a strong feeling of “himpathy”, the psychosexual pathologies that cause him to strangle Séverine in the final act are straightforwardly delivered to him by the mechanisms of inheritance. In this respect Zola is an ancestor not only of the slasher, but also of the likes of Bronze Age Pervert.
I suspect that Renoir, in those twilight months on this actively self-immolating continent, was able slowly to make these same connections, and that this is what lay behind his recoil, and then behind the frantic reorientation that gave us his greatest and most beautiful and humane work, La Règle du jeu.
This insalubrious city brings me down, man, this crumbling Old World ruin. The deeper I sink into a Jamesian sensibility, the more I understand those delicate characters, like Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady, who keep having to pack up and transplant themselves upon noticing, in view of their various indeterminate maladies, that the air of this or that city “does not agree with them”.
Back in California, this past summer, at the very edge of the Western frontier, I could betake myself to the Amazon Corporation’s Whole Foods supermarket whenever I wished and buy like two pounds of fresh organic blueberries for just a few dollars. In Paris the largest container this precious item comes in is 125 grams, generally for four or five euros — which amounts to about one single layer of berries at the bottom of an iPhone-sized plastic box. There are perhaps thirty of them in there, and in my experience —I’ve been keeping close track over the past weeks— typically eight or so out of these thirty will be covered in a fuzzy white mold. Sometimes I buy them anyway. When I go to pay, the fruitier, like some grotesque right out of Zola, licks his fucking fingers before prying open the flimsy little bag, which will almost certainly break on the short way home. This is the Old World: where merchants still lick their fingers, where the unbearable heat is still confronted with nothing more than a dainty hand-held éventail, where drunks still point at their gullets to signal they’ve got a hair-ache and could use a little hair-of-the-dog, where you can still see in the Baconian butcher’s-shop windows where the meat really comes from. I feel myself beginning to gag.
No, I don’t belong here. It’s been a decade now since we settled in Paris — a decade of war and plague, a mental breakdown or two; and indeed some growth, and some glimmerings of hope for the future. I mostly hope I will live long enough to learn to be generous to this admittedly poignant place —from poigner, and ultimately from poing, “fist”—, to accept that there was no other way for me, and, eventually perhaps, to transmute hate into love by capturing hate’s objects and rendering them into some sort of art.
I’m sorry, Bosley Crowther, I’ll get to you some other time.
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