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.

12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Strike a Light”

  1. It’s quite lovely indeed.

    You may find Catherine Hesling “unsubtle” but for many other sshe is sublime. In fact in the 60’s there was a resurgence of interest in her as the Zanzibar Films gang adored her ineffable over-the-topness.

    The late great Ron Haver told me that once a visiting filmmaker (I think Truffaut) came to see Renoir here in L.A. and screened one of his early silents for him. The old man began sobbing “Oh Catherine, Catherine — why did I let you go!” causing his second wife Dido no end of annoyance.

  2. Oh dear!

    It’s quite possible to be unsubtle and sublime — I think she pulls it off. Perhaps she’s not quite little enough. But I’m very excited to see her Nana now.

  3. Nana is amazing! Renoir’s first real go-for-broke masterpiece.

  4. It’s both exciting and deeply shameful that I have so much Renoir to look forward to discovering. But I think his films will all affect me more deeply now than they would have ten or twenty years ago, so it still feels like a good time to be belatedly discovering his genius.

  5. And his modernity. His silent films are as fresh as ever. And I’m lost in admiration for Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Bete Humaine, Le Crime de M. Lange, Woman on the Beach, The Golden Coach, Le Testament du Dr. Cordllier, The River and Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir.

    Oh and one more thing. Among Catherine Hessling’s co-stars in Nana — Valeska Gert.

  6. Renoir and Catherine Hessling had a very trying relationship. She and Renoir seperated after he met Marguerite Houle. She was committed to left-wing politics and was a damn good editor(she makes a cameo in Partie de campagne as a servant girl) who later worked with Jacques Becker. Renoir then left both for Dido Freire, a Brazilian woman(and Alberto Cavalcanti’s niece) and left with her for America where Renoir married her(illegally since he wasn’t divorced from Catherine at that time). He may look like a kind-old uncle and smile like a Buddha, but our Jean had quite amusing lady troubles. He said that their relationship finally ended when he cast Janie Marese as the lead in La Chienne(Renoir’s breakthrough).

    In the recently released Milestones Renoir collection(7 films for 20$, a f–king steal if there was one), Scorsese said that The Little Match Girl was made with the help of Jean Tedesco and it was Renoir’s first experience with panchromatic film stock which he felt would have improved Nana. I think they are part of the French avant-garde tradition, very weird and exciting. Hans Christian Anderson turns up again as the source for the first story of Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir, his last film. A similar story of fantasy amidst absolute squalor.

    My net service was out for two days. Feels good to mouth off as usual.

  7. The other thing about Renoir is that he never made a bad film. There’s not another film-maker with comparable consistency over the years and across different countries. And he was way ahead of the curve – deep focus, use of space, mixture of tones – all there in his early 30s work. Toni was shot on location and made use of non-professionals way back in 1934 but he was a step ahead of the neo-realists(as he slyly notes in his memoirs) by the fact that he was using direct sound.

    A Renoir week, month or half-quarter is always a sound investment.

  8. Great to have you back!

    There’s so much for me to see, devoting a protracted spell to maybe one period of Renoir’s work seems like a fruitful idea. Although usually each one I see is fuel for a month of analysis and appreciation. This semester I’ll be showing This Land is Mine! to my art college students as their end-of-year-treat.

  9. Christopher Says: this on dvd?..I’m a huge H C Andersen nut and I wasn’t aware of this…

  10. Holy Smokes! This is a mind-bending connection.

    I must retire, research and return.

  11. I’m very fond of Woman on the Beach. I also like Renoir’s version of Madame Bovary.

  12. Three Renoir shorts:
    The two I’ve seen only have about four intertitles each and you’d understand them fine with no translation, so lack of subtitles need not worry you.
    Woman on the Beach is one strange movie. I think I need to see it again: I liked it, but I didn’t respond to it as strongly as all the other Renoirs I’ve seen.

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