Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Whirlpool of Fate and Nana: Novice Renoir

Catherine Hessling and Harold Levingston in Whirlpool of Fate (1925).

Kino’s release of Whirlpool of Fate and Nana is a boon to Jean Renoir completists like me who have rarely had the chance to catch any of his silent movies. There were nine, including two shorts and one, Backbiters, that he co-directed with Albert Dieudonné, and most of them starred Catherine Hessling, his father Auguste Renoir’s last model, to whom he was married at the time. (They separated in 1930.) Until these Kino additions the only one I’d seen was The Little Match Girl (1928), in which Hessling plays Hans Christian Andersen’s tragic heroine – and though it was many years ago I remember how lovely it is.

In Whirlpool of Fate (La fille de l’eau), released in 1925, Hessling plays a girl known as Guadale – IMDb lists her as Virginia – who lives on a boat with her father and her brutish Uncle Jef (Pierre Lestinguez). When her father drowns, Jef squanders their money on drink and tries to rape Guadale, so she runs away. She’s adopted by a young gypsy who supports himself and his mother by poaching. For a brief time Guadale assists him, but when he gets into a feud with a local farmer, the farmer and his buddies burn down the gypsies’ caravan. The poacher and his mother get away unharmed, but Guadale is left homeless.  She falls into a quarry and is stranded during a rainstorm, and the experience addles her brain. But Georges (Harold Levingston, who looks a little like Matthew Modine), the son of the local mill owner, finds her and nurses her back to health. And then brutish Uncle Jef shows up again.

This melodrama (which has a happy romantic ending) is a minor work, but it contains some beautiful pastoral imagery. The scene where a rescue party drags the river for Guadale’s lost father anticipates the much more elaborate one in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in which George Bancroft and his neighbors go out on the water to try to find Janet Gaynor after their boat capsizes. And in Guadale’s mad scene Renoir experiments with surrealism, using some of the devices Jean Cocteau and Jean Vigo would incorporate in their films a few years later. Hessling, with her unruly curls, her heart-shaped lips and her blurry, anxious face, provides the emotional center of the film. In some scenes she makes you think of Mary Pickford.

Catherine Hessling in Nana (1926).

Unhappily, she’s terrible in Nana, which came out the following year. This is the first of several film adaptations of the 1880 Émile Zola novel about a luscious young woman of no visible talent who performs in a Paris theatrical troupe. One of her lovers bribes the manager of the troupe (Lestringuez, who also wrote the script) to put her in the starring role of a new play; when it bombs, she becomes a courtesan. Nana is one of those Venus-flytrap women who bring men to ruin, like Louise Brooks’s Lulu in Pandora’s Box or Marlene Dietrich’s Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, but Hessling, so touching as the fragile Guadale in Whirlpool of Fate and the Little Match Girl, doesn’t have the right qualities for the role and overplays every scene. The movie, which is nearly three hours long, is an elaborate period piece with a big cast and some complicated setpiece scenes, and Renoir doesn’t yet have the experience to pull it off; it’s labored and most of the acting is indifferent, which might not matter as much if he had the right leading lady. There’s one significant exception: Werner Krauss (who had already played Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Jack the Ripper in Waxworks, two of the signal works of German expressionism) as the Comte Muffat, whose tragedy is not just that he allows Nana to destroy him but that he’s acutely aware of his folly.

Renoir altered movies forever; I’m far from the only critic who considers him the greatest of all directors. Kino has done us a service by making these early efforts available – both Nana, one of his few failures, and Whirlpool of Fate, which has much to recommend it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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