Jean Renoir silent films are uniquely visual. What the film cannot provide in voices for the characters, it makes up for with distinct and captivating visual cues, be it through the physicality he demands of his actors, the editing, the camera work, the colour palette, and even special effects featuring characters and objects which fade in and out like ghosts. Throughout the man’s career he would create movies in which the world where the stories transpire feel complete and fully realized. Renoir was a meticulous storyteller who presented conflicted characters often trapped in whirlpools of fate, no pun intended. This attention to detail in characters, story and the aesthetic elements are on display for the viewer’s pleasure in Nana, Renoir’s film adaptation of Émile Zola’s harsh story. Come to think of it, I doubt I’ve come across a Zola novel that wasn’t harsh.
Nana is a character. More specifically, she is a young woman working as a performer in a theatre group. Her talents may be questionable, but there is little doubt regarding her beauty. Many men, among them the count Muffat, his nephew and the Count Vandeuvres, are smitten by her. Time and time again this only leads to heartbreak and frustration for dear little Nana is incredibly vain and self serving. What matters to her is what she can extract from those foolish enough to take care of her, be it money, luxurious living spaces, trips, or favours in the acting business. In essence, she is a bad girl. The frustrating thing about her behaviour is that she is blind to her shameful attitude and treatment to those around her who crumble beneath her powers of seduction. It’s a twisted game of give and take in which men give their hearts and money and Nana takes it all.
The acting style that can be found in silent films such as Nana is only remote these days. Because the actors cannot talk, their physical expressions are all the more important, all the more detailed and emphasized. Granted, in film today (and since the advent of sophisticated sound in movies) there is acting which requires a great deal of physical investment. Crazed villains, action heroes, slapstick, physical comedy aimed at children, etc. I feel there is something different in how I pay attention to the acting in silent films. The viewer doesn’t have a choice because the characters cannot speak, every look, every gesture is infused with even greater importance. Catherine Hessling, who was Jean Renoir’s wife at the time, carries the film as Nana, whose energy and attitude is front and center. She is pre-Madonna, the unworthy diva, the disease against which men have no immunity. Her makeup is intentionally excessive. The artificiality of her character permeates through every pore of her body and right down her very core. The supporting players are also very interesting, among them the Werner Krauss and Jean Aangelo who portray both Count Muffat and Count Vandeuvres respectively. The former character is a chubby man with an obvious air of aristocracy about him. His long time friend Count Vandeuvres is tall and thin as well as a bit more reserved in his expressions. He’s a rather classy fellow, or at least appears as one at least, but he cannot shield himself from Nana’s poisonous appeal. I’d like to give some appreciation to Jean Angelo who plays the role of Vandeuvres. His presence was very much welcomed in so far that it established how Nana is dangerous to the point where she can ensnare anyone she desires. More stoic than Muffat, Vandeuvres would often have a look of curiosity, concentration, and reflection in his eyes. Although one of the themes of the story is the fallibility of men in the face of…pretty face and how they can give up too much when they think with their dicks, I nonetheless felt a little bit sad and disappointed to see poor Vandeuvre fall prey to Nana’s sexual witchcraft. But it would appear that no one is immune to her charms.
Renoir’s skill as a visual storyteller is quite impressive. Recently I watched La Fille de l’Eau for which Renoir also operated with an acute and eye catching style. In many respects, Nana, which was made a mere year later, feels even more accomplished. The story is loosely divided into chapters in which the mood and tone of the events shift, sometimes quite dramatically. On each occasion the picture is saturated with a different colour palette. The majority of the motion picture is brimming with a golden sheen. It is during this time that Nana begins her assent in the circles of high society. For her, it is a time of opportunity, a time when Nana sinks her claws into whatever bag of wealth she can. Clearly, the movie makes no assumptions about her manipulations even though Nana herself never realizes the full extent of the harm she is causing. Jealousies among the men begin to simmer, but they never boil. Essentially, trouble is brewing but there may be hope for these characters yet. Further into the story, once emotions begin to shift and the consequences of the of the men’s foolishness begins to press on everyone, Renoir paints with a different brush, sometimes a more stark black and white palette, other times preferring to dampen the tone of scenes even further with a contrast of black and dark blue. These transformations of the colour schemes may not sound as unique or particularly clever today in 2009, but remember that this is a film released in 1926, a time when movies was still a relatively young art form. Artistic expression at this level must have been quite impressive at the time. Even as I watched the movie the other night (as objectively as possible I imagine) the technique produced what I presume were the intended effects. I’ve also been taught to never assume anything, but I’ll continue on my high horse regarding the artistic and storytelling intentions of the technique. Nana may have even functioned as a precursor to future movies that adopted the same style.
Unsurprisingly I did not witness the movie in a theatre with a beautiful print, but rather in the comfort of my living room. The DVD was part of a 3 disc set which was released by Studio Canal and Lionsgate a few years back. The picture was quite good, but what really struck me was the score (clearly remastered for maximum effect). A great movie critic once said that the best move scores shouldn’t make themselves known but work on a subtle level. Well, in the case of older ‘silent’ films, the score must have a greater, more obvious impact. That of Nana is stellar, a pure joy to listen to. Granted, hearing crystal clear music accompanying a film that obviously looks very old was a bit of an odd experience, but I can’t stress enough how effective and beautiful the film’s score is. Much like the acting in the movie, it isn’t always subtle, but also very difficult to dislike
I haven’t read the original source material, therefore I’ll refrain from carrying out any sort of comparative study of the two products. However, I know what I like and this movie is rather good. Jean Renoir was a director whose talents as a very visual storyteller carried him throughout much of his career. The special effects, such as the appearance of the ghosts of the men who killed themselves following their defeats at the hands of Nana, and the cinematography techniques virtually always serve the story of the film. There is a remarkable creativity and skill in his direction that are so easy to appreciate.