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Andre Bazin on Catherine Hessling and Renoir's silent films 

I pulled my Andre Bazin volumes down off the shelf. My collection includes his critical study of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir, 1971). Edited by Francois Truffaut, the book was unfinished at the time of Bazin's death in 1958 at age of 40. Truffaut assembled the 1971 edition, including a filmography begun in 1957 by a team including Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (co-founder of Cahiers du Cinema), Jean Luc-Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jaques Rivette, and Truffaut himself. 

I also had before me What Is Cinema? Volume 1 (1967) and Volume 2 (1971), which collect essays written from 1945 to 1957 and first published in places like Cahiers du Cinema, Critique, and Esprit. 

Reading the books for probably the first time since my college days (long ago and far away now), I found Bazin's arguments engaging and lively. Straightaway in the Renoir study, in a chapter devoted to the silent films, he notes how blown away Renoir was by von Stroheim's Foolish Wives, then begins to wax rhapsodic about Catherine Hessling, if intimating that her bewitching effect on the director was not all to the good in terms of his growth.

Bazin writes, "Renoir's silent work is dominated by his principal actress, Catherine Hessling. It was to set off her extraordinary personality that he made Une Fille sans Joie (produced and written by Renoir, directed by Albert Dieudonne), La Fille de l'Eau, Nana, Charleston, and La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes. One cannot help but wonder how much of the credit for Jean Renoir's work belong to this woman, who was both his wife and his favorite actress. It is true that this remarkable doll-faced girl with the charcoal circles under her great bright eyes, and the imperfect but strangely articulated body reminiscent of the figures in certain Impressionist paintings, was an extraordinary incarnation of femininity. She was a curious creature, at once mechanical and living, ethereal and sensuous. But it seems to me that Renoir saw her less as a director than as a painter. Enchanted by the unique beauty of her body and her face, he worried less about directing the actress in her dramatic role than he did about photographing the woman from every possible angle. This more or less conscious aim is clearly discernible, for example, in Charleston, whose thin and whimsical scenario is little more than a pretext for an incoherent but charming exhibition of Catherine Hessling."

Here is Charleston (1927), my first exposure to Hessling.


Her charms are abundant. I found her every bit as fetching as Bazin advertised. The slow motion photography of the human body in motion is mesmerizing. It's interesting to think of this short in terms of the recently released Pioneers of African-American Cinema five-disc set, as well. Dennis Grunes notes, "the visitor is played by Johnny Huggins, a black man, in white man’s blackface, except for his painted-white lips, all of which create a truly unsettling image that sardonically comments on a store of racist minstrel history. Renoir is being very brave here." 

Of Le Petite Marchande d'Allumettes (1928), Bazin writes that it's common to think of it "as a fairy tale and to classify it as a work of the French avant-garde. But if this judgment is correct historically, it is hardly so from an aesthetic point of view. More precisely, Le Petite Marchande d'Allumettes represents an intrusion of Renoir's realism into the themes and techniques of the avant-garde. The source of the still radiant charm of this little film is apparent today: it is the very realism of Renoir's fantasy. It is not Andersen's tale but Renoir's fascination with technical effects--the almost sensual pleasure he derives from the originality of his fantastic images--which is the basis of the film's poetry...From this Scandinavian fairy tale, Renoir has made a tender and sensual, bittersweet poetic fantasy in which even Death becomes a friend and acquaintance."

Here it is:
Hessling is indeed radiant in the fantasy sequence, with her long hair falling and her rosebud mouth.
Though Tire au Flanc (1928) was dismissed by some as among his "light-hearted concessions to commercialism," Bazin wrote that Renoir was "perfectly justified in recalling it fondly: 'I had the good fortune in this film,' he wrote, 'to introduce Michel Simon, who was already the great actor he is is today.'" Bazin goes on, "a little attention and sensitivity enable one to share the obvious pleasure that Renoir derived from his successful effort to transcend the conventions of the genre [military comedy] imposed upon him. Tire au Flanc owes more to Mack Sennet and to von Stroheim that it does to Mouezy-Eon [who was, the translator notes in a footnote, the author "of several highly popular, though quite conventional farces."]
I couldn't find the full film,  but here's a little clip.
In Le Bled (1929), Bazin wrote, "one can see today in its juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, of fantasy and cruelty, the beginnings of Renoir's quest for the drame gai which was to culminate ten years later in The Rules of the Game." And yet, Bazin calls the film a "technical absurdity from beginning to end: although many of the scenes were conceived with important elements in the background, Renoir insisted on using fast lenses, which gave a very soft image and virtually no background clarity. These results led him later to take the opposite tack, requiring his cameramen to take all their shots with one deep-focus lens." Bazin also complains that in the silent period generally, Renoir's "shots follow one another with no logical or dramatic coherence."


His pre-1930 years were a period, Bazin writes, in which Renoir "sought to cultivate the realism, the authenticity, which he had found in the popular American productions [of the 1920s] and in von Stroheim's work through the proper direction of his actors." He quotes Renoir speaking of how he made a study of "the movements of a scrubwoman, of a vegetable vendor or of a girl combing her hair before a mirror," of "French gesture as reflected in my father's paintings." 
Still, Bazin feels the director was "preoccupied with his performers and not yet able to subordinate acting to the demands of storytelling on film. I do not believe that there is a single pan shot in either Nana or Le Bled, although this device would become crucial to all his sound films. On the other hand, he developed in these early films a considerable prowess for lengthy deep dolly shots, which is scarcely apparent at all in The Rules of the Game. In his subsequent work Renoir's fundamental preoccupation became the widening of the screen--already deepened by the lenses--through lateral reframing. To this end panning and lateral dollying became his two main camera techniques."
Bazin concludes that Renoir's metier was never really the silent film. He notes that while "even the worst of these films is full of a charm which testifies to the genius of its creator," still, "it must be admitted that while his silent films foreshadowed what was to come, there is no comparison between even the best of the silents and the worst of the sound films." That said, "the themes which Renoir developed in his sound works were also present in rough and sketchy form in the silent films. There is, for example, the theme of mechanical toys in La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes or the hunt in Le Bled, which we find so brilliantly handled in The Rules of the Game."
Of Catherine Hessling, he declares that because of Renoir's painterly enchantment with her beauty, "it is possible, then, that she helped Jean Renoir to the self-discovery which is essential to his art at the same time that she slowed his passage from the simple photographing of actors to true movie making." It seems a bit unfair to blame her for slowing him down, even while giving her the credit she deserves for being essential to his development. Still, watching and remembering her today, it's easy to understand Renoir's "enchantment."
Here she is in the spooky dream sequence in La Fille de L'Eau (1925). This looks like it might have influenced Maya Deren. Indeed, Erin Brannigan has written of avant-garde Renoir films like Charleston as precursors to Deren's "ideas regarding poetic film form."

Finally, here she is in Nana.

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Reader Comments (2)

Just now got around to reading this. What a terrific post! I've never read Bazin's Renoir book (in spite of the fact that I love both Bazin and Renoir) but I plan on doing so soon after reading your article. I love WHAT IS CINEMA VOL. 1 and 2, of course.

September 5, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermichaelgsmith

Thank you for these kind words, Michael! Yes, I believe Bazin's Renoir book certainly deserves a place on the shelf next to Hitchcock/Truffaut.

September 6, 2016 | Registered CommenterScott Pfeiffer

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