The English have excelled at biography for so long that it’s even been spoken of as an English genre or at least an English-language one. And this to such an extent that the Spanish, to their shame, often don’t even bother writing biographies of their most famous personages and simply translate the most famous ones (Paul Preston on King Juan Carlos and Franco, Ian Gibson on García Lorca and Machado etc) from English into Spanish. However, the two best recent biographies I have read are French (in English translation) Tiphain Simoyault’s exhaustingly fascinating brick on Barthes and Pascal Mérigeau’s fantastic book on Renoir, deserving of the Prix Goncourt, the Grand Prix de l’Essai and all the other prizes its’s won.
Bad reader that I am. I began the Renoir with the move to America. I’m now almost at the end of filming of Elena et les hommes and plan to return to the beginning at the end.The research is gobsmacking, incredibly detailed in all areas, yet beautifully synthesised. It adds to your knowledge of his work, changes your views of him as a person, and only makes you admire both more.Nothing I’ve read from England or America this year comes near to touching the achievements of either book and I highly recommend them.
I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.
What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.
I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:
‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.
I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’
Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.
The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema’.
And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.
I had an exhilarating moment last night; no, not one of those; a movie moment, one cinephiles will recognise. I went to the Cine Doré my first evening in Madrid. It’s an iconic cinema that people who’ve never been there might nonetheless recognise from the movies; it’s where Javier Cámara goes to see ‘The Shrinking Lover’ in Talk to Her/ Hable con ella. I like going there because they take great care in what they show and how they show it and I don’t really care what’s on: I’m either discovering something new or seeing something again but often in a better condition than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s a neighbourhood repertory cinema. They charge two euros and you get to see treasures by the likes of Renoir, Kurosawa, Erice and many others. The cinema functions both institutionally as part of the Filmoteca in Madrid but it is also a local cinema, and because of the prices it means anyone can afford to be there. There’s a very mixed audience, young and old, couples out on a date, cinephiles eager to see La règle du jeu projected on 35mm or just people wanting to be out of the house.
The cinema itself is beautiful. A 1912 art nouveau fantasy of dark Arabian nights, gold gilt stars on a dark blue sky, public dreams next to private alcoves as in theatres of old where you can sit around a table with your loved one or guests to see the movie in front and be seen by the hoi polloi below. The cinema I suppose had its own class divisions, ones which no longer apply because of the fixed price but which were interesting to observe nonetheless because the display of such class divisions are at the core of what the film we were all watching was about.
The thrill of seeing La règle du jeu in such a place and with such an audience was to experience a film from another era and from another culture enthrall and captivate an audience as if it had just been made now, about the world we live in and especially for us. The audience responded to everything in the film and one moment in particular that simply rocked the house: it’s where, upon finding that his childhood friend, the Marquise de la Chenyest (Nora Grégor) is crushed that her husband has a mistress and has been lying to her for the past three years, Jean Renoir himself as Octave tells her ‘But Christine, we’re in an era where everybody lies, pharmacist’s prospectus, governments, radio, cinema, newspapers; so how could you possibly expect for us simple and ordinary people not to lie?” The sense that we expect so little of our rulers and our institutions and forgive so little in each other when really we should expect so much more of our governments and be so much kinder and forgiving about each other. It’s a moment with particular resonance in a Madrid still in the grip of an economic crisis and it felt like the film as a whole was carrying the audience on its wings. It felt like magic about what was real and true. At the end, there was wild and grateful applause, maybe for members of the audience to communicate joy and appreciation to each other, more like a needed release after a kind of exaltation. It was thrilling to be there, to experience, to share in that experience.
Worth noting that we saw a scratched, slightly muddy print, one where the clarity seemed to change from reel to reel and the projection ground to a halt three quarters of the way through, presumably for a change of reels. One could get too hung up on technical perfection. Here it really did not mater. Again, magical.