The Sunday Intertitle: Strike a Light
It would be so good to become warm again from the light of a match.
The first Renoir short film I saw, SUR UN AIR DE CHARLESTON (1927), was memorably odd, mingling bizarre and very non-modern comedy (an African character is a blackface actor who dances the Charleston — because black people like jazz) with science fiction — a genre Renoir would not revisit until LE DEJEUNER SUR L’HERBE, with its talk of artificial insemination and “the European presidency” in 1959. CHARLESTON is really peculiar, brilliantly danced, and not exactly offensive, since it’s done with such naivety and affection.
A year later, with another feature film under his belt, Renoir adapted a Hans Andersen story, The Little Match Girl, as LA PETITE MARCHANDE D’ALLUMETTES, and made a masterpiece. While neither of these shorts necessarily evokes the Renoir we get to know later, both show stylistic curiosity of an insatiable kind, a love of performance, and a devotion to crafting beautiful filmic objects, all of which certainly inform the mature JR. This one also seems to enter Andersen’s sentimental concern with the problems of poverty via Chaplin, which seems altogether appropriate and proves extremely effective. And did I mention the beauty of it?
The movie stars Renoir’s wife, and his father’s model, Catherine Hessling, who is unsubtle in just about every way, particularly her makeup, but succeeds because the whole film is built around her excesses. And when the girl, dying in the snow, hallucinates being shrunk down to interact with the dolls in a toyshop, Hessling’s abilities as a dancer really lift the fantasy.
Here’s a bit in motion:
It’s altogether an extraordinary work. Renoir is experimenting, he’s telling a time-honoured story, and the balance of the two things is perfect. Plus a moment where a stray hair from the little match girl’s head gets caught on Death’s tunic, and Death plucks it loose and lets go and the hair becomes entangled on a wooden cross — this seems to be parodied in the last image of Bunuel’s L’AGE D’OR. in fact, both Renoir and Bunuel dissolve from falling objects (petals and feathers) to falling snow, making this film a pretty major influence on Bunuel’s, even though the two films’ purposes could not be more different.