Sunday, April 25, 2010

Renoir marathon: La Fille de l'Eau

La Fille de L'Eau/Whirpool of Fate (1925, Jean Renoir)

And so we begin another marathon. This time we go way, way back in time to the mid 1920s when famous French director Jean Renoir was only at the earliest stage of his illustrious career. Having not made a big name for himself yet was not much of an issue. La Fille de L’eau is not the film that would make him the reputable director he eventually became (his most famous film is probably The Grand Illusion), but it obviously hinted at some of the man’s praiseworthy talents as a filmmaker.

Simply put, the film is about a young lower class woman named Gudule (played by Renoir’s then wife, Catherine Hessling) who lives in the countryside with her kind father and brutish uncle. The story begins with the three of them working on their boat. The father has a terrible accident and drowns in the lake. While Gudule is clearly shaken by this turn of events, her uncle Geff is a far more suspicious breed of person. Very soon after this tragic event, a hung-over Geff attempts to rape Gudule on their boat. Thankfully she makes it out unscathed and chooses to run off. Her adventure leads into the path of several strange people, but not all whom she encounters is as kind as one would hope...

The structure of La Fille de L’Eau is very much in the same vein as a road trip or quest film, even though Gudule’s only real quest following her uncle’s attack and father’s death is to find comfort in a world that has let her down. She goes from location to location, encountering several people along the way, some of which are helpful and friendly, others which are seemingly just as cold inside as her uncle Geff. We never spend any significant amount of time discovering who these people are, with the exception of perhaps Georges, the young buck who will fall in love with her. For that reason it was a little bit difficult to fully invest myself into the movie and those who populated this world. Whether due to budgetary constraints or creative choices La Fille de L’Eau clocks in at a tiny 72 minutes, and therefore it becomes obvious that not much time will be spent with character growth, particularly among the supporting players. Some characters seem to be just ‘there’. They are seen for a couple of scenes and never again, such as a barman inflicted with a serious toothache and the mother of a young thief who picks up Gudule and trains her in the art of theft. Having seen some of Renoir’s later work such as The Grand Illusion and The River, both of which feature some tremendous character development, I sometimes expected some of these creations to garner some more heft, but it wasn’t meant to be unfortunately. For this reason the brisk pace is both a curse and a blessing for the film. Gudule goes (and is sometimes forced) from place to place in rapid succession, thus giving Renoir’s movie with a sense of excitement because we don’t know what mess Gudule will find herself in next. I did enjoy that aspect of the storytelling. I’m not going to sit here and say that La Fille de L’Eau has a ‘bad script’ or anything of the sort, only that the entire affair feels somewhat rushed at times.

Speaking of Gudule, the performance from Catherine Hessling is one I’d like to offer some praise. One should consider that the 1920s were a completely different age of filmmaking and acting. With no voices to rely on, much of the performance rests on the actor’s ability to convey emotion and thought purely through the physical aspect of acting, both with the overall body movements and especially with the face. In that respect Hessling is pretty good. There is indeed an innocence about her that worked well for me and I did get the impression that the weight of her strange and dire situation was pulling down on her. Granted, it was also an age where the makeup was gushed onto the face of actresses as if there was no tomorrow. Hessling looks quite theatrical at times, which may not necessarily jive well with her supposed status as a lower class girl, but she can act through the thickness of the makeup, which is all I would have asked for anyhow.

Of all the directorial gifts Renoir was blessed with, it is mostly his capacity to bring impressive visuals to the screen that is featured most prominently in La Fille de L’Eau. There are several instances when the camera is either perfectly placed to convey whatever emotion Renoir wished to extract from the viewer, be it laughter or fear. Shots of Hessling face as she stares at menace in the form of her uncle or greedy townsfolk are beautiful to behold and would make for some sublime poster art. There are sequences when the director adopts an editing technique which would only grow in popularity in the decades to come: the quick cut. I’m thinking mostly of the night time scene when some townsfolk have decided to burn down the trailer of the family of thieves Gudule is staying with. The look of horror on her face and the piercing gazes of satisfaction and malice on that of the townsfolk as they all observe that bright fire rip through the night are showcased through rapid editing.

Arguably the one sequence that must not go unmentioned is the Gudule’s nightmare which propels the film into the final third. Following the burning of the shack, Gudule is split up from the boy thief and her mother. Alone and feverish in the woods, she lies down and dreams about all the mean spirited people she has seen, a storm, a giant lizard, ghosts riding on horseback... I don’t want to reveal too much about this sequence otherwise much of the pleasure in discovering Renoir’s exquisite editing, cinematography and trickery. Film is the art of visual trickery after all. It might not be real, but if it looks real enough, or if it is conveyed in a manner that captures the imagination of the viewer, then the mission is accomplished. What devilish imagery Renoir concocts for the dream sequence is not merely impressive when one considers that this was made in 1925. It just looks really cool, simple as that.

In a film that doesn’t possess the most engaging of plots nor the most memorable of supporting characters (although Geff the uncle is quite effective as the chief villain), Renoir’s nonetheless succeeds in giving his audience the sense that they were transported into a world, whether real or not. His storytelling abilities would improve with the more movies he made, but I felt the immediate impact of his visual sense. He understood how to capture the face of actors with the frame and, at this very early stage in his career, was already quite adept at producing striking and memorable imagery, whether for story purposes or simply for the sake of looking like a genius.

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