Jean Renoir | La Grande Illusion | Le Caporal épinglé / The Elusive Corporal
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Renoir characters are often men injured mentally or physically by war. There is Von Rauffenstein's injured flyer in La Grande illusion, Robert Ryan's tormented Lieutenant in The Woman on the Beach, and the amputee Captain John in The River. Despite all their problems, these men tend to survive to the end of the films, and come to an adequate although rarely truly happy end.
People change their clothes in Renoir, to signify a change of role. His male characters are often switching their uniforms around. His female characters signal radical changes in their life style by altering their clothes. One thinks of the Anglo-Indian woman in The River, who goes from Western to Indian dress, and the fiancee in Beach, who switches from men's work clothes to a traditionally feminine party dress.
Renoir's films often take place at a time of flux for his characters. They are in a period of complete indecisiveness, often oscillating between various romantic and professional alternatives. Nothing is settled. This is the opposite of many filmmakers, who show their people at times of key decisions and absolute climaxes. Renoir's characters are often deeply confused about their place in the world. They are not alienated outsiders, but neither do they understand how they belong. Their minds are often in a deep quandary.
Both films have had previous scenes, establishing the audience's interest in an on going battle that had not been going well. In Cavalcade, it is a siege of a town in the Boer War. In La Grande illusion, it was a town that had been previously lost to the Germans during World War I. In both films, there are ironical hints that neither event is all that important in the big scheme of things, that patriotic fever has swelled interest in a war time turn of events far beyond their real significance.
In both films, the musical that is interrupted is frivolous to the point of distaste. In Cavalcade, it is a singularly inane British musical of an old fashioned kind. Coward has resurrected a style of antique musical, much as Sandy Wilson would later do in The Boy Friend, and has preserved it almost as a historical specimen. In Renoir's film, it is a drag show at a prisoner of war camp.
In both films, the man who interrupts the show does it with obvious relief, both personally, and to the writer's relief as well. One can feel the distaste that ostentatiously virile Jean Gabin feels for the drag show going on around him. He is clearly glad to lead the audience out of such upper class decadence and into patriotism. However, it is not clear if he has led the audience out of the frying pan and into the fire. Coward's scene is even more openly ironical. He is trying to show the cheap patriotism of the turn of the Century British, a patriotism that would later lead them into the horrors of World War I. If the musical is inane, the war fever with which it is replaced is targeted by him as the prime evil of the 20th Century, a dreadful force that will lead to its mass destruction.
Both writers make it easy for the viewer of the film to identify with the emotions of the characters. A viewer of Coward's play can not help but be relieved that the awful musical number has come to and end, and be swept up into something more "meaningful" and serious. Coward intends this ironically, as an object lesson in how war time fever can be constructed and manipulated by society. His hope is plainly to inoculate the viewer against such scenes in the future: that the next time the viewer is present at such a manipulative patriotic display, that he will remember Coward's drama, and feel some emotional and intellectual resistance to what is being shown him and offered him. It is a similar effect to that offered by James L. Brooks' Broadcast News (1987): a piece of ammunition that makes the world look different after it is seen. It is hard to look at a network newscast the same way, after seeing Brook's exposé. One can see lines being fed to empty minded anchors, just as in Brooks' drama. Similarly, Coward is hoping that people will understand - and resist - the mechanism underlying patriotic displays.
Renoir's film recalls Cavalcade in other ways. Both films involve a look at multiple classes of society. Coward's play looks at both the British upper classes, and a working class family that partly works as their servants. In Coward, as in Renoir, the two classes are drawn together by their service in the Army, giving them an association they would otherwise not have had in their strictly separated civilian lives.
And the film's finale, on a bridge in Paris, brought back equally strong memories of Boudu. Renoir certainly has a gift for evocative imagery.
Le Caporal épinglé suggests some paradoxical aspects of characterization in Renoir. There are a large number of characters here, many of whom only get a bit of screen time. Their behavior is often startlingly human. Renoir often finds off-trail, oddball ways for them to act, that reveal their humanity. This creates a feeling a warmth, and a sense of revelation of human nature. But strictly speaking, it is often not "characterization" in the traditional sense. We do not get in-depth portraits of the interior life and personalities of individuals in the film. Many of the glimpses are just too brief. And they also sometimes reflect more human universals - the desire to be free, or the ugly side of national pride, or paradoxes of courtesy - than they do individual psychology. They do not offer a relentless, trenchant look inside their characters, as some films by other directors do.
This paradox of Renoir perhaps gets at what Bill Krohn was talking about earlier on a_film_by. While Renoir is famous for his warmth and humanity, lots of individuals in his films often do not make a strong impression. I took - and failed - the Krohn Challenge of remembering anything special about the characters in La Règle du jeu, for instance. Even such ultra-memorable people in Renoir as Boudu, Rauffenstein in La Grande illusion, and the actress in The Golden Coach perhaps benefitted by the performanaces of acting legends such as Michel Simon, Erich von Stroheim and Anna Magnani, rather than anything that comes from Renoir, that is strictly speaking characterization. The characters in Toni are perhaps the most genuinely individuaded of any in a Renoir film.