Re-thinking Bazin Through Renoir’s The River, Part 2

by Prakash Younger Volume 7, Issue 7 / July 2003 41 minutes (10125 words)

Renoir’s great films are all propelled by this tension between the clarifying artifice of theatre and the murky biologism of naturalist literature. – Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret 1

The Rules of the Game also represented my desire to return to the classical spirit, my desire to escape from The Human Beast, from naturalism, even to escape from Flaubert. It represented my desire to get back to Marivaux, Beaumarchais, and Moliere. – Jean Renoir, “Remarks” 2

If criticism can be described as the clarification and amplification of the forms or potentials for thought contained in works of art, then we can begin to formulate a fresh justification for the practice of auteurist criticism. Though in many cases it may well seem that other formal systems – genre, or a specific climate of aesthetic possibilities, an optique – seem more relevant to the development of a pattern of inquiry, in many others we are forced to acknowledge the intimate regularities through which audio-visual appearance is transfigured in the work of a particular individual. In this context, an auteurist critical practice is simply the recognition that, in certain circumstances, the dialogue that an author has with himself or herself may well be the one most relevant to advancing the process of thought engendered by the work.

Keeping all the various purposes of this two-part essay in sight, a re-consideration of Bazin’s comments on Renoir’s work of the 1930’s will serve to create a necessary point of contrast with The River. Stylistically very different from The River, the work of “the French Renoir” (the title of an essay in Bazin’s Jean Renoir) is separated from that film by a ten-year period which by Renoir’s own admission was one of tremendous personal and artistic upheaval. If the coming of sound allowed Renoir to find both an audience and a fertile set of themes, the advent of war and exile in America was the start of a period of relative confusion that only ended with The River:

To make a path in the jungle it is a good idea to strike out in front of you with a stick to push aside the invisible dangers. Sometimes the stick sits a solid branch and breaks in your hand; sometimes it holds firm, but your arm is stunned. It is a little like what I did during those ten years. I didn’t want to stay still but the needle of the compass I consulted was spinning, and I had difficulty finding my way. Yet I am quite proud of it; it proves that I have not lost contact with our unstable world…. I recovered a similar certainty with The River. I felt growing within me a desire to reach out and touch my fellow creatures throughout the world. 3

The value of considering this intervening period more closely notwithstanding, my central concern with the distinctions of style that Bazin draws between the Renoir of the 1930’s and the author of The River requires that I focus on a general discussion of the earlier films, the style of which I will exemplify with an examination of A Day in the Country.

Bazin begins his discussion of the French Renoir of the 1930’s by noting that one’s first impression of the director’s style is, paradoxically, the impression of faults in his films’s construction:

The most immediately noticeable paradox in Renoir’s style, and the one which almost always trips up the public, is his apparent casualness toward the very elements of the cinema which the public takes most seriously: the scenario and the action. Slip-ups in detail and even casting “errors” abound in the films of the renowned “realist”… Renoir directs his actors as if he liked them more than the scenes they are acting and preferred the scenes which they interpret to the scenario from which they come. This accounts for the disparity between his dramatic goals and the style of acting, which tends to turn our attention away from these aims. 4

Bazin goes on to demonstrate that attention to this preference for the individual particularities of things leads one to discover an aesthetic system running counter to the one created by dramatic expectations. In this alternative system the surface appearances of things are linked metaphorically and cumulatively produce a sense of aesthetic necessity that triumphs over and transfigures the dramatic scaffolding that both Renoir and the spectator can initially be said to begin with. A prime example of this, which Bazin discusses here and elsewhere, is the accidental shooting death of the character André Jurieu in The Rules of the Game, which from a dramatic point of view appears to be a shamelessly contrived coincidence:

The mistaken identity is too easy. If we accept this kind of turn of events anything could happen to anyone. But Renoir makes the whole sequence indispensable to his movie, and marvelously apt, through the metaphor of the hunt, which implicitly alludes to the case of mistaken identity in The Marriage of Figaro and reminds one the tragic ending of Alfred de Musset’s Les Caprices de Marianne. It is the glimpse of a rabbit rolling over dead and the memory of Beaumarchais and de Musset which elevate the hero’s death and make an apparent coincidence into an aesthetic necessity. In other words, Renoir does not construct his films around situations and dramatic developments, but around beings, things and fact… Here lies his true cinematic realism, rather than in his penchant for naturalistic subjects. 5

Without in any way questioning Bazin’s account of Renoir’s style, I would like at this point to suggest another way of understanding the same phenomena. Bazin’s interest here is to draw attention to the level at which Renoir employs the (pseudo) realistic power of the photograph to engage the audience and allow it connect the film with experience. But, as he also points out, “simply being realistic is not enough to make a film good. There is no point in rendering something realistically unless it is to make it more meaningful in an abstract sense”. 6 As we have discussed above, the process of thought in our Bazinian-Ricoeurian model opens at once onto both a referent and ideas, and requires the inter-related capacities of erotic receptivity, ethical responsibility and thoughtful attention. To begin to understand how Renoir’s French work engages with ideas it will help to see him as working with two distinct and historically-specific idioms, each evoking a complex chronotrope 7 and set of philosophical assumptions. By creating a dialectical engagement between these two idioms, Renoir enables the spectator to dynamically encounter the relevance of the respective sets of assumptions to his or her experience. With the understanding that these terms would benefit from far more qualification than we will be able to perform here, we can characterize these idioms as the Naturalistic and the Neo-Classical.

In speaking of a Naturalistic idiom I mean to identify a common cultural heritage, the origins of which can be traced back to a historical complex of philosophical assumptions put forth by J.J.Rousseau (1712-1778) regarding human nature (esp. the distinction between solitary and authentic natural Man and self-conscious social Man). But while this indicates the final stakes of a thoughtful engagement with the idiom, its chronotropic core derives from the canonical tradition of 19th century literature (i.e. Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, de Maupassant) that Renoir frequently adapted, as well as those strains of Naturalism that informed French culture in the 1930’s (and which continue to inform French culture to the present). From a thematic point of view, this idiom usually involves close attention to the often fatalistic relations between character and milieu, and a general sense that character-centered “passions” are stronger than the “reasons” that society or the individual may try to oppose them with. In examining the film culture of the 1930’s within which Renoir worked we can point to poetic realism as representative of this idiom. Though Dudley Andrew’s analysis of the intricate cultural relations that formed the optique of poetic realism indicates that, strictly-speaking, the Naturalist is only one strain among many, we may nonetheless observe that the central “myth of poetic realism”, with its particular inflections of social hope and private despair, can be seen as both a development of the Naturalist chronotrope and a symptomatic return to certain founding assumptions:

That style, we have seen in case after case, turns inward to the solitary, orphaned self, to private morality based on private memory and experience, and to a solidarity among the downtrodden based on the intimacy of identification. When a response like this is appropriate to the key questions of the age, then, both through and beyond its style, a film finds itself appropriated by a culture. 8

The Neo-Classical idiom gets its name from the theatrical tradition that provided Renoir with the sources for The Rules of the Game: Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1730), Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro _(1784) and Musset’s _The Caprices of Marianne (1830). This essentially pre-Revolutionary tradition can be said to begin with Corneille (1606-68) and Racine (1639-99) and to have survived within French culture after the Revolution through a series of compromises and accommodations with more modern idioms. From a thematic point of view, and in its pure form, this idiom fails to make any distinction between social and natural man, and instead conceives of characters as social types with relatively-fixed, and to that extent “natural”, predilections. In contrast to the Naturalist identification with those caught in the throes of passion, this idiom turns the gaze of a worldly pre-modern Rationality on their follies; its function in the context of modern popular culture is either to conservatively reinscribe the naturalness of social hierarchy (most of the time) or to provide a means of critiquing modern assumptions about human nature (in the case of Renoir).

As Andrew points out, the abrupt transition to sound in the 1930’s allowed films based on theatrical models to dominate at the box office, though by this time the positive possibilities of the idiom seemed to have become almost exhausted: “Contrived domestic (parlor) situations, abrupt changes in class, and witty dialogue link it [the French farce] to dramatic traditions that flourished in the eighteenth century, traditions that have always tended toward political and aesthetic conservatism”. 9 The success of theatrically-based films during the decade can be seen to derive primarily from the institution of the star, an aspect of the French theatrical tradition which developed as the Neo-classical theatre accommodated itself to a modern, bourgeois audience and newer forms over the course of the 19th century. 10 For the most part the transfer from stage to screen of this unique “pact” between theatrical performers and French audiences has been seen to be largely regressive, both in terms of the nature of some of the most popular performers (Fernandel, Georges Milton) and insofar as films during the decade used the star to evoke nostalgic memories of more intimate and socially-cohesive entertainments, “an endless Belle Époque”. 11 But Andrew also notes that a movement like poetic realism was nonetheless able to discipline these regressive impulses to achieve its distinct aesthetic goals, and that the differing types of theatrical performativity available (boulevard actors, music hall entertainers, actors from the serious theatre) could in some instances be used to advantage: “Indeed, many of the most highly regarded films of the poetic realist era accumulate their energy on the different acting styles authorized by the variety that is literally contained in and by their scripts”. 12

To understand how Renoir forces these two idioms into a dialectical engagement, we can begin by observing that his characteristic turn away from “situations and dramatic developments” towards “beings, things and fact” can also be understood as a turn from one idiom to the other that dialectically produces the “abstraction” necessary to the “goodness” of art. As Bazin puts it:

The freedom of this construction, the contempt for dramatic and psychological verisimilitude, are the height of realism in the sense that Renoir – instead of taking the usual path from the idea to a simulated reality – imposes the idea by departing from reality. It is through Renoir’s love, his sensibility, his intimacy with objects, animals, and people, that his moral vision confronts us so strikingly (italics mine). 13

As confusing as the use of the term realism can get in Bazin, it is nonetheless possible to un-pack the sense here. The reality that one departs from is the (relatively) pseudorealistic ideological vision of experience that derives from the spectator’s “unwitting complicity” when interpolated as the subject of a specific idiomatic address. Renoir departs from reality by “preferring” (in his casting, mise-en-scène and direction of the actors) the possibilities of an idiom other than the one we have been set up to accept as real. This break constitutes a “striking confrontation” with Renoir’s moral vision – his ideas – because it forces us to reconfigure the appearances we see and hear in terms of an entirely different set of philosophical assumptions. Thus we experience it as a shock of thought that pierces through Appearance to engage us with reality in the sense of an autonomous engagement with experience; at the same time, we experience it as a departure from the ideological impression of reality that the original idiom had lulled us into investing with our belief.

To make the functioning of this model clear we will need to consider an example. As an exemplary illustration of this process both Andrew and Bazin point to the moment in _A Day in the Country _when Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) turns to face us in close-up after having responded to the amorous advances of Henri (Georges Darnoux). 14 This is experienced as a totally unexpected violation of the narrative and tonal unity of the film, a shift from which the film never fully recovers. After the film has systematically presented the characters to us as a variety of comic types whose responses to each other and the world around them are predictable and based on social affiliation (class, locals vs. Parisians, socially-constructed clichés about the emotions proper to youth and age), it seems to be moving directly towards a sequence of comic dénouements that will result in the re-location of each within their type. Thus when Henriette turns to face the camera, we (and she) are caught off-guard by her sudden and self-aware carnality (Andrew) and/or revelation of Otherness and vulnerability (Bazin):

The scene opens in a light comic vein which one would logically expect to turn bawdy. We are ready to laugh, when suddenly the laugh catches in our throat. No sooner is the smile wiped from our faces than tears appear in our eyes. With Sylvia Bataille’s incredible glance, the world begins to spin and love bursts forth like a long-stifled cry. I can think of no other director, except perhaps Chaplin, who is capable of evoking such a wrenching bit of truth from a face, an expression. 15

After this shot, a shot of Henri looking off-screen takes us to a sequence of shots of the natural environment around them, as Kosma’s score indicates the advent of the impending storm (trees and bushes hushed and expectant, then buffeted by wind, the first few drops of rain on the river, then a lengthy traveling shot from the back of a motor-boat as the rain pours down). This storm carries us, as if solely on the strength of that one “wrenching” shot, to the tragic epilogue years later, where we discover that Henriette has married her boorish fiancé Anatole, and a chance meeting between the former lovers informs us that she and Henri really live only in their memories of their shared moment of romance.

While affirming the radicalness of the shift we have just outlined, it is important to recognize that, unexpected as it feels, we have in fact been prepared for it. Were the new idiom to be absolutely unexpected we would be disoriented rather than moved, and the paradoxical fact that we are shocked by the appropriateness or “truth” of the shift suggests that Renoir has somehow been engaging us with this particularly Romantic variant of the Naturalist idiom all along. One way he has done this is by mobilizing our awareness of a sliding scale of acting styles, ranging from the gross Theatricality of the Parents Dufour, Anatole, Rodolphe and Renoir’s inn-keeper to the more restrained performances of Henri and marginal characters such as the maid and the passing seminarians. This scale is given additional articulation through the pose of being sophisticated observers adopted by the two bohemians in relation to the bourgeois spectacle presented by the Parisian family. Our sense of a scale of performativity running from pure social Types to characters with indications of individualized, potentially “solitary” psyches opens our expectation to the possibility of hidden depths beneath the theatrical surface.

Other elements also serve to prepare the shift from one idiom to another. In what seems at the time to be a throwaway anti-clerical gag or in-joke, the seminarians (one of whom is Sylvia’s husband George Bataille) stop stunned in their tracks to watch Henriette on the swing; in retrospect, this moment can be seen to have subtly “punctuated” (in the Barthesian sense) the comic studium of the film and prepared us for the shift to passion and tragedy that is to come. Another form of preparation results from the disjunction we feel between the dry generic quality of the characters and the lush particularity of the scenery. This disjunction, which the dramatic logic of the film does not in any way foreground, nonetheless exerts a subterranean effect on the spectator as the film proceeds.

In one sense it is clearly the dramatic repression of our peripheral awareness of Nature in favour of the theatrical characters who have invaded it that makes the storm seem like a necessary form of re-balancing. In another, it is the fact that Henriette alone gives expression to this awareness of nature (esp. through her joyous swinging and discussion of nature and her emotions with her mother) that makes her “moment of truth” so convincing for us. Despite the comic distanciation her theatrical qualities provoke in us, we have been feeling the nature in the film through her and so have been prepared to recognize the nature in her. In retrospect, she was always traversed by both idioms, for her swinging and feelings for nature are at one and the same time the recognizably formulaic expressions of bourgeois maidenhood (as her mother more or less describes them) and the authentic expressions of our repressed desire for Naturalistic communion. Like Madame Bovary, her tragedy stems from her inherent equivocation between her social identity as a bourgeois and her individualized Romantic identity (I’m thinking here of the moment in the epilogue when Anatole awakes and starts yelling for her and she desperately searches Henri’s face in vain for the clue that would allow her to escape from her type-cast position as a petit-bourgeois wife – a “wrenching” moment as powerful in its own way as the earlier one).

In retrospect, it is this pattern of equivocation that has governed the film itself from its outset. Moving from this critical description back to our theoretical model, one might describe this quality of equivocation as emerging from a process in which Renoir brushes each idiom against the grain of the other. But far from being the goal of his film-making practice, this quality is simply a by-product of a process of inquiry which we have defined as a philosophical one.

Treating this process as characteristic of the French Renoir in general, we are now in a position to discuss somewhat more meaningfully what we were forced to simply assert earlier regarding the philosophical valences of the two idioms. For this purpose Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which distinguishes literary works in Western literature with reference to their changing conceptions of realism, offers many observations that are directly relevant to the traditions under consideration. Perhaps most importantly, it presents a genealogy of literary form that indicates what Renoir might have meant when he said he wanted “to escape from Flaubert”.

In Auerbach’s terms, Flaubert can be seen to represent the end-point of a development that began with Stendhal and includes Balzac. The crucial feature that distinguishes this tradition from the literature that preceded it is its consciousness and treatment of time as a fundamentally historical phenomena. 16 If prior to the French Revolution historical events could still be treated as instances of eternal patterns, as permutations and combinations the novelty of which nonetheless revealed their source in the fundamental regularities of human nature and an ordered universe, the tradition in question can be said to reflect and/or effect a fundamental critique of this faith-based world-view. In the work of Stendhal the Revolution constitutes the demonstration of a truth that the author is forced to reckon with despite his loyalty to the aristocratic values of the old regime. 17 This “truth” is that the shapes of human society cannot be read in terms of an underlying natural order. Though the individual can strive to be equal to the dynamism of History (and this is the characteristic goal of Stendhal’s heroes), this Romantic response to the glimpse into chaotic crucible of History carries within it the inevitability of boredom when the pace or nature of change falls short of awakened expectations. 18 In Auerbach’s view the experience of enervating banality that the realistic novel of the later 19th-century (Balzac, Flaubert) can be said to begin with can thus be viewed as the end-product of Romanticism; in David Depew’s more explicitly-dialogical formulation we might say that Realism is disillusioned Romanticism. 19 In any case, what is essential for this inquiry is the fact that Auerbach persuasively traces the root of this development back to Rousseau:

The contradiction between the natural, which he desired, and the historically based reality which he encountered, had already become tragic for Rousseau; but the very contradiction had roused him to do battle for the natural. He was no longer alive when the Revolution and Napoleon created a situation which, though new, was, in his sense of the word, no more “natural” but instead again entangled historically. The next generation, deeply influenced by his ideas and hopes, experienced the victorious resistance of the real and the historical, and it was especially those who had fallen most deeply under Rousseau’s fascination, who found themselves not at home in the new world which had utterly destroyed their hopes. They entered into opposition to it or they turned away from it. Of Rousseau they carried on only the inward rift, the tendency to flee from society, the need to retire and to be alone; the other side of Rousseau’s nature, the revolutionary and fighting side, they had lost… The Rousseauist movement and the great disillusionment it underwent was a prerequisite for the rise of the modern conception of reality. Rousseau, by passionately contrasting the natural condition of man with the existing reality of life determined by history, made the latter a practical problem; now for the first time the eighteenth-century style of historically unproblematic and unmoved presentation of life became valueless. 20

Sapped of their eternal meaning by the rise of the original sense of a shared and comprehensible History, then slowly evacuated of that sense by a second wave of historicism, everyday phenomena appear subject to the possibility of being absurd for perhaps the first time. With this experience of disillusionment providing the impetus, Balzac’s project of mapping the multifarious complexity of post-Revolutionary French society can be seen as an effort to read the original Rousseauian nature of his characters through the very corruption of this nature effected by the variegated social milieu in which we find them. According to Auerbach, every character in Balzac is enveloped in a pervasive atmosphere, at once “organic” and “demonic”, that impregnates and shapes his or her physical environment. 21 The fate of his characters within these social milieu reflect the playing out of a prior “Animality” that “floods over into Humanity by an immense current of life”. 22 In Auerbach’s view this potentially-awkward conflation or synthesis of the biological and the historical is aesthetically successful because Balzac imagines both processes as driven by the impulses of irrational instinct; they intertwine to produce a fatalistic narrative logic at an occult or melodramatic level. 22 In Balzac we see the origin of a set of generic qualities that continue to operate in the cinematic idiom of poetic realism dominated French cinema during the 1930’s:

In this context the atmosphere that dominates poetic realist films is less interesting for its meaning or tone than for its function as a medium blending characters with the worlds they inhabit. Atmosphere as an effect of cinematic texture, as a pervasive overtone emanating variously from cinematography, set design, sound, music, script, and acting, is also a figure. It speaks of sublimation (mists of feeling rising from a plot), of envelopment (where the spectator is suffused in the same light and sound as the character), and of figuration itself (where the visual and aural milieu embodies the character’s way of being, becomes that being). 24

But despite the vividness of its effects, for Auerbach Balzacian realism is, as it were, suspended between two stools. Because his characters’s fates are determined by their specific location in a multifarious and ever-changing society, they fail to achieve the universal applicability proper to the tragic; though Balzac calls Goriot ce Christ de la paternité, this character’s fate carries no sense of divine necessity and in fact often verges on the comic (c.f. his ludicrous and unrequited acts of parental self-sacrifice). 25 But at the same time, Balzac’s romantic-melodramatic insistence on the hidden, occult value of his characters’s fates prevents him from achieving the “objective seriousness” that was to characterize the next development in this tradition.

This next stage, represented for Auerbach by Flaubert, can be understood as both a pronounced reaction to the Romanticism retained in Balzac and as a distinct re-affirmation of the central Rousseauian assumptions. Flaubert typically describes a scene with reference to the emotional state of one of the characters within it, illuminating how the affective logic of details of phenomena bind the character within a limited world-view. No hidden or occult forces animate the Flaubertian milieu, which are presented as neutral and lacking in inherent motion. The Flaubertian character is unable to see either this milieu or his or her fellow characters with any degree of objectivity. Subjectivity has itself become a type of fate, though the shapes of that fate will vary in accordance with the limited historically-conditioned idiom the character uses to interpret the world (i.e. a form of romanticism for Emma Bovary, a complacent bourgeois ideology for Charles):

What is true of these two, applies to almost all the other characters in the novel; each of the many mediocre people who act in it has his own world of mediocre and silly stupidity, a world of illusions, habits, instincts, and slogans; each is alone, none can understand another, or help another to insight; there is no common world of men, because it could only come into existence if many should find their way to their own proper reality, the reality which is given to the individual – which would then be also the true common reality. Though men come together for business or pleasure, their coming together has no note of united activity; it becomes one-sided, ridiculous, painful, and is charged with misunderstanding, vanity, futility, falsehood, and stupid hatred. But what the world would really be, the world of the “intelligent”, Flaubert never tells us; in his book the world consists of pure stupidity, which completely misses true reality, so that the latter should not be discoverable in it at all; yet it is there; it is in the writer’s language, which unmasks the stupidity and thus also has a part in that reality of the “intelligent” which otherwise never appears in the book. 26

While the lucid and objective gaze of the author/reader in Flaubert is clearly a reaction against the melodramatic and sentimental excesses of a Balzac, it is also important to note that he nonetheless retains a sense of fatality similar to Balzac’s insofar as it is rooted in a implicit unity that joins the blind and irrational history of human culture with the short-sighted stupidity of Flaubert’s characters. Unlike their author, these characters are incapable of seeing through or beyond the various ideologies that shape the distinctive and solipsistic worlds they inhabit. They are thus trapped and isolated by the fundamental appropriateness of the fit between false historical ideologies and their mediocre desires. Like Rousseau, Stendhal and Balzac before him, Flaubert presents a vision of human nature corrupted by society and history. But unlike his predecessors, he neither romanticizes his characters’s desires nor the movement of History, but rather judges both against the perfection of his art. In this his realism opens onto and prefigures the explicit modernism of a Joyce or Nabokov, and Flaubert might well have agreed with the Stephen Dedalus who said “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”. 27

What then might Renoir mean when he claims to want to escape from this tradition? As his quote itself indicates he distinguishes between two distinct aspects of his own work that he might go beyond. The first is the naturalistic strain of the tradition that he had most recently drawn upon in his adaptation of Zola’s The Human Beast (1938). More than any other Renoir of the 1930’s, this film adopts the intonations of Poetic Realism, an essentially-popularizing optique which characteristically elicits the audience’s identification with the central character, transforming the “Balzacian” atmosphere that envelops him into a perspective on the world that the audience is capable of sharing. 28 This variant of the Naturalistic idiom offers a provisional sense of intimacy and solidarity qualified by the inevitable price of its underlying fatalistic belief in the primacy of blind, ungovernable instinct and its historical correlate, naked force. 8 In almost every film of the 1930’s Renoir engaged with this particular variant of the idiom to some degree but usually with substantial qualifications. The most important of these we can describe as “Flaubertian” insofar as involves a powerful impulse toward detachment, an ascetic refusal to share any particular position/passion that might blind one to the larger picture. Like Flaubert Renoir is well aware that every character reconfigures the world in accordance with their own ideological world-view and that there may well be no “common world” within which these may be reconciled. At the same time he seems to hope that by simultaneously maintaining the contradictory impulses of a “blind” poetic realist sympathy and identification and “lucid” Flaubertian detachment he might somehow discover or establish the modern bases for human relationship, engaging characters in their isolation and then bringing them together within his wide, synoptic gaze.

This aesthetic strategy might well seem to support the standard picture of Renoir as a “humanist” primarily driven by a love that impels him to “reach out and touch his fellow creatures”. La Grande Illusion is perhaps the film where this strategy is most explicit and is also the film most commonly offered as proof of that humanism. But it is important to note that this humanist impulse is more an aspiration than a given, and that its realization depends on overcoming the inherent dangers lurking in each element of the volatile dialogical combination Renoir employs. Too great a sympathy and identification bring on the risk of blindness and the inevitability of yielding to forces beyond control or comprehension. Too great a detachment runs the risk of accepting as fundamental the chilling truth of human isolation and thus yielding to the irrational primacy of historical forces in another sense. Humanist aspirations notwithstanding, both of these dangers make themselves felt throughout the French Renoir. Thus, far from providing evidence of a secure faith in human nature, the films of the 1930’s express at best a qualified optimism (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, The Lower Depths, La Marseillaise), more commonly a profound ambivalence (Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, The Lower Depths, La Grande Illusion) and frequently a thorough-going pessimism that seems to derive from both the Flaubertian and Poetic Realist elements of his idiom (La Chienne, Madame Bovary, Toni, The Human Beast, The Rules of the Game).

Of course none of these observations would lead us to adopt the absurd hypothesis that his aesthetic means got the better of the humanist who thought to master them. Instead they indicate we should view the French Renoir as a philosophic testimonial, the record of a process of inquiry into the assumptions inherent to the Naturalist idiom. What Renoir discovered over the course of the decade was that an aesthetic dialectic between Flaubertian “modernism” and Poetic Realist “romanticism” only reinforced the fatal isolation of both artist and character implicit in their shared assumptions. Intuitively or deliberately challenging the modern assumptions inherent to Naturalism by adopting elements of the Neo-classical idiom, he spent the decade thinking these assumptions through before making his first dramatic attempt “to escape”.

Given this historical perspective we might say that throughout the 1930’s Renoir engaged simultaneously with the dominant optique of the period, poetic realism (or one of its Naturalist ancestors), and a elements of an idiom that was seen to be its polar opposite in both aesthetic and political terms. To the unified and enclosed climate of feeling that the Naturalist idiom in both its Poetic Realist and Flaubertian variants aspires towards, he opposed his own subversive version of the cult of the performer, making actors of stars and stars of actors, but in any case consistently flaunting a performative heterogeneity that challenged the assumptions at work in the opposing idiom. In effect he treated the fortuitous homology between his extraordinary responsiveness to the particularities of actors and the reigning cult of the performer as a pretext or justification that allowed him to push the theatrical idiom beyond the nostalgic decadence in which it was mired. It was through this direction of development, the push backwards to the pre-modern (Neo-Classical) roots of the idiom, that his work was able to bring the critical force of alternative assumptions to bear on the concerns of the present.

The critical force of this dialectical field can perhaps best be appreciated by considering The Rules of the Game, a film which pits the two idioms against each other in what amounts to a form of mortal combat. Only an awareness of the subterranean “philosophical” violence going on beneath the film’s surface appearance of comedy can make the paradoxes of its initial reception understandable (i.e. why an explicit return to the Neo-Classical idiom would provoke tremendous public outrage). The film was the culmination of a decade-long process in which Renoir had put the two opposing accounts of experience “face-to-face”. In this work the Naturalist idiom carried with it both the hopes for a collective accord among free individuals (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, The Lower Depths) and, more frequently, the fears of what the unleashed power of individual passion might produce (La Chienne, Madame Bovary, Toni, The Human Beast, The Rules of the Game). In the films in which the Neo-Classical spirit is explicitly foregrounded (Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, La Grande Illusion, The Rules of the Game) we are confronted with a vision that measures all that is gained and lost through the radical leveling that accompanies the unfolding of modern assumptions about human nature and society. The lucid and appraising gaze that certain characters in these films turn often on each other reflects an inversion of the Flaubertian episteme insofar as the characters demonstrate openness, intelligence and practical rationality, while the author seems bound by his “stupid” or irrational attachment to them (as manifest in the baffled, “bear-like” curiosity of the camera movements in Rules of the Game). Of course in another sense this quality in the characters’s gaze does reflect a similar quality in their author. Both counsel an open recognition of the Other as different and affirm the central place of reason in making sense of that difference. This stance is in explicit opposition to the modern idolatry of instinct originating with Rousseau which, as Renoir (somewhat unjustly) says of his characters in The Rules of the Game, renders us blind and unreceptive: “All these people are sentimental, as are all these types of societies, as are all the people who give in to their instincts and close their eyes to the world. 30

In general, the French Renoir presents us with a series of questions, posed in terms of two complex cultural inheritances that are separated and thrown into relief by the historical event that separates them: the French Revolution. It pits these two inheritances against each other and, in a formal sense, leaves the outcome in our hands. Thus when, for example, we reach the Naturalistic and tragic conclusion of A Day in the Country, our repressed sense of all the Neo-Classical comedy in the film that is unsubsumed by this ending forces us to begin to traverse it once again in memory. If we see the film a second time this trajectory of memory, and the novelty of our concerns, will cause us to read the balance of claims between the two idioms in any given scene somewhat differently. In principle, this process of contemplative inquiry could continue indefinitely. To gain a theoretical perspective on what makes this possible, and relate it to the general model of cinematic thought we are ascribing to Bazin, it will help to borrow an additional model from Paul Ricoeur.

In Time and Narrative, Ricoeur uses Aristotle’s term muthos or emplotment to describe the means through which an author structures a narrative in relation to the binary discord – concord. This is the process whereby meaningless data is converted into meaningful Events through the imposition of a narrative logic. 31 In the language we have been using this function roughly corresponds to the chronotropic structures of our two idioms, which set the terms under which events are allowed to make sense, and which are generally understood to be governed by the author. A second principle, incommensurable with and irreducible to the first, is that of time as distentio animi, the distention the soul undergoes as a result of the mind’s simultaneous orientation (intentio) on the past, present and future. 32 In terms of our Bazinian-Ricoeurian model we can identify this principle as that simultaneously receptive and active capability that we bring to bear on the world, including the world as we experience it through texts. When earlier we considered the case of an ideologically-determined spectator-text interaction and said that in this case capability fell short of reality by accepting an pseudo-realistic ersatz, we were implicitly assuming a model in which the muthos function resided solely with the author and determined the distentio animi _function residing with the spectator. A model that accounts for the French Renoir will have to distribute these functions somewhat differently, for the authorial equivocation between the two idioms indicates a measure of _distentio animi _on his part and forces the spectator to adopt a measure of the _muthos function. With this in mind we might now say that the precise philosophical meaning of a French Renoir could be approached by way of examining the limits of this measure in individual films, limits that could be identified by re-constructing the case made for each idiom within a film.

It is also this notion of a limited measure that allows us to return to the hyperbolic passage by Bazin that initiated our inquiry, and so arrive at the film that has always been our ultimate destination, The River:

… But in this negation of cinematographic canons, in this destruction of the shot as the basic unit of screen narrative and of the screen itself as the basic unit of space, there remained an implicit acknowledgment of the “cinema” as a means of expression. Even as a mask, the screen remained a screen. Even in reversing its function Renoir had not destroyed it. The final step remained to be taken. In The River the screen no longer exists; there is nothing but reality. Not pictorial, not theatrical, not anti-expressionist, the screen simply disappears in favour of what it reveals. 33

In this passage Bazin is describing why The River is an advance over the peak achievement of the 1930’s, The Rules of the Game. To translate it into the terms with which we have become familiar, his mention of the destruction of the shot in favour of the mask can be understood to correspond to the distinction we just made above between a film in which the author’s total control over muthos renders the image in terms of a single idiom, and an open structure in which the spectator has a measure of control. In formal terms, this measure turns the determinate shot into a mobile field of possibilities, a masked window onto reality always already qualified by the out-of-field. But although this is clearly an advance for thinking over the ideologically-determined type of film-making it supplants, Bazin claims the French Renoir falls short of The River by virtue of the fact that the freedom of both author and spectator to engage with reality is limited by the very dialectical structure that constituted the advance. An aesthetic that brushes one idiom against another is in effect always sacrificing the access to reality afforded by one in order to open us to the other. Transparency, the ideal of total expression on the part of the author and total engagement on the part of the spectator is here blocked by the measure of opacity needed to dialectically provoke it. This measure of opacity is what Bazin refers to as the “cinema” and the “screen”; both reference the cinema as an ideological language, the idiom that one cannot see through. The very fact that we can identify and chart the moments of transition between idioms is for Bazin a sign that Renoir has simply “reversed” them through a dialectical critique and not completely transfigured reality “from within” though a truly creative revaluation of Values (to borrow a Nietszchean language) as in The River.

Before proceeding to describe this achievement we need to pause and note the cultural dimensions of Bazin’s description of the French Renoir relative to The River. The sense that emerged from the description above that Renoir was trapped by the idioms he worked with over the course of the 1930’s is one that is germane to the notion of philosophy we have been working with. Far from being a form of “pure” or a-historical abstract speculation, we have assumed that film can be thought because it allows the film-maker to reflect on, engage with and communicate the questions put to him or her by the things and people he or she are faced with. This definition, when combined with the Platonic-Levinasian notion of the Other as Infinity, places a principle of constraint on the idioms an artist can work with. Despite the exceptional factors that clearly gave Renoir some measure of autonomy from the cultural currents that dominated French cinema during the 1930’s, addressing the needs of a mass audience nonetheless required that he work in the idioms with which they made sense of their lives, even if he recognized their limitations. Given an indeterminate pull towards poetic realism as a starting point, we might say that Renoir spent the 1930’s trying to invent a new idiom by forcing a series of encounters between two old ones. By the time of The Rules of the Game he had in a sense exhausted this dialectic and attempted to go beyond it through a final, purging critique. But in doing so he was already far ahead of his audience, who can be said to have regressed precisely at the moment he took a desperate leap forward. The result, in Gilberto Perez’s succinct formula, is “the tragedy of a society no longer capable of comedy”. 34

It is important to stress the impact of this break with the audience on Renoir because it helps us to understand why he developed a distinctly different aesthetic. Whatever intellectual reservations he may have had, he clearly engaged emotionally with his French audience of the 1930’s through the idioms in which he worked. Despite the importance of many of the American films, the evidence of this portion of his career indicates that he sought out a secure dialogical connection with that audience but was not really able to establish one; by his own estimation it would be more than ten years before he recovered a sense of aesthetic “certainty” with The River.

*II. The River: “Reality Made Art” *

There was no more reason for Renoir to understand India after three months than for his heroes after ten years, but somehow, even while standing so close to the false perspective of the Protestant, imperialist bourgeoisie, he was able to render the mute, diffuse, and inexhaustible light of The River.

– André Bazin, “A Pure Masterpiece: The River35

Is it possible that we know nothing about young girls who are nevertheless living? Is it possible that we say “women”, “children”, “boys”, not suspecting that these words have long since had no plural, but only countless singulars? Yes, it is possible.

– Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge 36

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

– F.Scott Fitzgerald, _The Great Gatsby _ 37

The first of the many paradoxes of The River is that its idiom is at the same time entirely opaque and entirely transparent. It is opaque insofar as we recognize it to belong to a familiar and predictable “coming-of-age” genre in which an older woman tells the story of her adolescence, complete with absurd love objects, prettier rivals, doting nannies, comical yet idealized parents, beloved siblings, confidants, sudden natural tragedies, etc.. The major lesson the narrator draws from all her experiences is that Life’s inherent mutability can only be faced with an “Oriental” stance of unconditional Acceptance. However, because of the film’s unique structure, we cannot but see through the pronounced conventionality of this story to something else beneath. To describe how Renoir achieves this effect we need to consider the narrative structure of the film in somewhat greater detail.

The film opens with the image of a set of hands creating a form of floor decoration Indians use to celebrate festivals as a voice-over narrator welcomes the viewer to the motion picture. She then goes on to characterize the story we will see as the story of her first love, which, insofar as it is “first love” is really the same everywhere, but is nonetheless “flavored” differently depending on its setting. 38 She tells us that the story we are about to be told happens in India, on the banks of a river, and the film moves into a sequence that establishes this setting. This narrator, who is explicitly identified as the authorial voice behind the film, will remain our voice-over guide throughout; in terms of this narrative frame, everything we see and hear is assumed to be the product of her memory. The film proceeds to introduce us to the things and people of her adolescent world at a leisurely pace until finally, after almost everyone else, we are introduced to her own younger self: Harriet, “an ugly duckling determined to be a swan”.

From this moment on the film creates a dialectical force field that works off the paradox that the tenderly ironic and condescending older Harriet who narrates did not actually see what she presents to us. She presents an account of events and a world that were actually seen through the passionate adolescent intransigence that characterizes the young Harriet. As the film develops this paradox turns on the fact that though we are explicitly and forcefully governed by the point of view of the older Harriet, and though we know that the entire film can only come from her memory, we are nonetheless increasingly partial to a point of view of her younger self. Renoir is once again brushing the idiom against the grain, but this time he is brushing it from within. Just as the “realistic” nature on the periphery of the “theatrical” characters in A Day in the Country engaged our attention in an invisible manner and created an identification with Henriette that we were scarcely aware of, so does the vivid and particular world the older Harriet presents cause us to identify – against her – with her younger self. As with the French Renoir we equivocate between two points of view, but the essential difference here is that this equivocation does not come in the flashing moments of transition but in fact penetrates and permeates the total field of the image “from within”.

We can understand this more clearly perhaps by recognizing how thoroughly Renoir has transformed the traditional configuration of muthos and distentio animi. The former as we said is explicitly governed by the older Harriet, who provides us with a running commentary on everything we see and much that we don’t (i.e. her adolescent emotions) and carries the full weight of confident hindsight. This narrator governs the broad outlines of the story, and clearly determines its end, when we are meant to see a Harriet transformed, reconciled to change, grown-up. She can also be said to determine the conventional Hollywood editing style that features quite prominently in the film, skillfully guiding us through complex sequences of point-of-view shots and shot/reaction-shot dialogue sequences that link the characters in the webs of psychologized intimacies typical of the genre. Pitted against this arsenal of successful emplotment, the young Harriet has only her sense of passion and wonder at everything in the world around her, a passion that causes her to emplot herself into a series of unrealistic and disappointing scenarios over the course of the film. But the relative advantage her condescending Flaubertian older self has over her in the realm of narrative is more than qualified by the effect of the young Harriet’s passion on the mise-en-scène of the film. Her loyalty to the particularity of her Indian experience affects both the pacing and editing of sequences, causing scenes to open up, dilating the formulaic stiffness of the older Harriet’s storytelling with the counter-narrative responsiveness that characterized the French Renoir. The older Harriet thus inevitably shows us more than her narration can account for.

This “alliance” of the mise-en-scène with the young Harriet would not be sufficient to disarm her elder self’s idiomatic advantage were it not for the fact that the intricate thematic contrast between them systematically and precisely divides the poles of the film’s distentio animi in two, allowing the young Harriet to play the role of expectation and discordant Desire while leaving the older Harriet with only the lukewarm ashes of Memory. While the older Harriet starts with a natural advantage and ends with a formal one, as the film progresses we enter ever deeper into the young Harriet’s intransigent faithfulness to the mortal uniqueness of her world. Though we have to formally accept the various “lessons of Acceptance” her older self would teach her, the film’s dialectical temporal structure simultaneously plunges us into its sensual appearances, and transforms the studium of its sentimental, Orientalist idiom into a field of vibrant punctum, pulsating with critique and unlimited in scope. Forced to govern the present of this veritable distentio animi both Renoir and the spectator find that is a “centre that will not hold” that challenges us to new levels of engagement with what we can only call “reality”.

But through what is perhaps the strangest paradox of the film’s style, our sense of this reality is felt most strongly through the images that are most patently false, i.e. the “documentary” passages presenting India as a land without History, whose inhabitants have no more individuality than the figures on an Egyptian frieze. Renoir shot these passages without sound while waiting for the camera’s blimp to arrive from England, and later experimented with the film’s structure by modulating the response of test audiences to a variety of combinations of material:

I shot it so that I could either create a narration, that is, stay with a book-like tone or else not tell the story and not have any commentary at all. During the little previews, when I saw that the documentary side got good reactions (let’s say the poetic side), I decided to go with the semi-narrated form, which permitted me to present certain purely poetic parts without having to back them up with dramatic action and dialogue. But the construction of the script was rather loose, rather easy, and allowed for the two solutions. 39

How exactly does the semi-narrated, hybrid form of the film serve to promote philosophic engagement with reality when, by general consensus, the images of India it presents reflect the rankest colonial ideology? To illuminate this it will help to briefly return to our consideration of the French Renoir and A Day in the Country. Gilberto Perez’s close reading of the film in The Material Ghost allows for another approach to Bazin’s hyperbolic claims regarding the “reality” of the film. He argues that the natural setting in A Day in the Country gains a measure of autonomy from narrative because of the instability of its fictional idioms:

Are we to have a lighthearted romp in the woods with the mother and Rodolphe? Or are we to be serious and sentimental with Henriette and Henri? No mode of fiction being dominant, the landscape takes center place; each mode of fiction seeing the landscape in a different way, the landscape gains independence from any way of seeing it. Rather than a mere background to the fiction, the landscape becomes an enduring ground on which the fiction sketches tentative figures; rather than assigning meaning to the landscape, the fiction becomes a foray in quest of meaning. Setting in most films is put to the service of fiction; landscape in A Day in the Country puts the fictional venture to the test. Renoir makes fiction into a trope for the human attempt to connect with nature, endow it with meaning, feel at home in or at least feel welcome in our outings. 40

With more precise reference to form, how does Renoir achieve this effect? As Perez points out it is not by directly foregrounding images of natural phenomena, which would in any case only be approximate representations of nature. Instead, this quality of autonomy in the landscape is produced by the fact that the idioms that might take its measure through total representation are caught in a dialectic of equivocation. To the extent that the film’s representations of nature fall short, nature becomes a prior presence that signifies by means of a representative absence. 41 As Perez and many other critics have noted, Renoir achieves this effect within scenes through the systematic and subtle contrast between different points of view, points of view which often overlap and hence “contest” for the representation of pro-filmic reality. A sequence that is much commented on in this regard is the one just after the Parisians arrive at the country inn. The elaborate framing of the swinging Henriette by the window, voyeuristic camera angles, and type-casting comments of the two boatmen and inn-keeper, all serve to convert the setting into a theatrical backdrop, while at the same time the intercut traveling shots of her swinging plunge us into an intimate space without perspective, one that encourages us to identify with her sense of romantic communion with nature. Landscape, in the quasi-autonomous sense identified by Perez, emerges from the dialectic between the particular fictional idioms associated with these points of view, measuring their inadequacy by the discrepancy between them, and gaining an invisible presence by the measure of that discrepancy.

In The River India emerges as an invisible presence that one senses through the inadequacy of the mature Harriet’s platitudinous vision of Indian customs and beliefs. The formal paradox that allows for this is that, though constrained by that vision, these passages nonetheless constitute a form of historical evidence; despite whatever reservations our critical faculties might offer, the film was shot on the banks of the Ganges near Calcutta during 1949-1950 and something of that time and place, an indefinable punctum, inevitably emerges to embody for the viewer the young Harriet’s passionate attachment to her fictional time and place. Though the structure of the film implies that the India on-screen is really nothing more than the mummified remnants of this passion, the past life with which that structure invests the images secures them as the impetus for the process of sorting though appearances that we have described as Renoir’s characteristic philosophical method. But unlike the French Renoir, here the “distended” temporal structure of the film galvanizes the viewer to attempt to see through the web of conventionality at every point; neither the “poetic realist” romanticism of the young Harriet nor the serene “Flaubertian” detachment of the older Harriet provides a secure point of balance for judgment. Though his characters still seem to believe in historical time, the film opens the spectator to another conception, which is tentatively formulated, most improbably, theatrically, and aptly, by the impetuous Valerie after her “perfect” kiss with Captain John:

Captain John: (tender) Don’t cry, ah, you mustn’t cry, I’m going but…

Valerie: (moving away from him, then turning back to speak) I’m not crying because you’re going, I’m crying because it’s going….

Captain John: (puzzled, scowling) It? What it?

Valerie: (looking off, more to herself) This being together in the garden, all of us happy, and you with us. I didn’t want it to change – but it changed. It didn’t want it to end – but it’s gone. Like something in a dream; now you’ve made it real…. I didn’t want to be real.

As the camera pulls back dramatically to frame her figure against the natural beauty of the lagoon, the European classical music that accompanied her entry into the scene ends with a dramatic flourish and the scene fades out, effecting a forceful restatement of the Bazinian maxim: “But realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice”. 42

Read Part 1 Here.



  1. Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995) 301.
  2. Jean Renoir, Renoir on Renoir (New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1989) 237.
  3. Bazin, Jean Renoir, 110-111.
  4. Bazin, Ibid, 74.
  5. Bazin, Ibid, 83.
  6. Bazin, Ibid, 85.
  7. Chronotope is a term used by Russian literary and cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin appropriated the mathematical term for the fusion of space and time, “chronotope”, to express the effect in literature where the “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.” In short, chronotope is the time-space union of form in literature. Applied to close textual analysis, this can mean the foregrounding of the particular temporal-spatial relationship as it relates to the unfolding of the narrative. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Forms of time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” (first published in 1975) in Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M.Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981, 84.
  8. Andrew, Mists of Regret, 332.
  9. Andrew, Ibid, 122.
  10. Andrew, Ibid, 119.
  11. Andrew, Ibid, 121.
  12. Andrew, Ibid, 125.
  13. Bazin, Jean Renoir, 107.
  14. Andrew, Op Cit, 301.
  15. Bazin, Op Cit, 78-79.
  16. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: NJ, Princeton UP, 1971) 458-459.
  17. Auerbach, Ibid, 465.
  18. Auerbach, Ibid, 462.
  19. David Depew, private conference, Dec. 2000
  20. Auerbach, Op Cit, 467.
  21. Auerbach, Mimesis, 478.
  22. Auerbach, Mimesis, 476.
  23. Auerbach, Mimesis, 476.
  24. Andrew, Mists of Regret, 270-271.
  25. Auerbach, Mimesis, 482.
  26. Auerbach, Ibid, 489.
  27. James Joyce, Ullysses (New York, NY: Penguin, 1986) 28.
  28. Andrew, Mists of Regret, 271.
  29. Andrew, Mists of Regret, 332.
  30. Jean Renoir, Renoir on Renoir, 202.
  31. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative Vol 1. (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1984) 40.
  32. Ricoeur, Ibid, 18.
  33. Bazin, Jean Renoir, 118.
  34. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 1998) 198.
  35. Bazin, Op Cit, 113-114.
  36. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (New York: Random House, 1982) 24.
  37. F.S. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, NY: Scribners, 1953) 182.
  38. A clear reference to the traditional Indian theory of rasa (“flavour”) aesthetics.
  39. Renoir, Renoir on Renoir, 39.
  40. Perez, The Material Ghost, 218.
  41. Perez, Ibid.
  42. Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol.II, 26.

Re-thinking Bazin Through Renoir’s The River, Part 2

Though Prakash Younger’s interests range widely across the humanities (including English and world literature, political philosophy, geopolitical history, and art history), his work as a teacher and scholar is grounded by a long-standing engagement with the cinephilic traditions that have shaped Film Studies as a discipline. Though his work is rooted in close attention to aesthetics and the details of cinematic form, Younger’s ultimate goal as both a teacher and scholar is to show how films give us an enhanced purchase on the real world beyond them. By taking advantage of the access films provide to the experience of other times, places, cultures and sensibilities we enhance our ability to connect with the world we live in today; unlikely as it may seem, a French film from the 1930’s or a Bollywood film from the 1970’s may turn out to be the “message in a bottle” we have been waiting for, the magic lens that brings certain facts and possibilities of the present into sharp focus. Studying film is a detour that is justified by the fact that, in the end, it always gets us to the right place, faster.

Volume 7, Issue 7 / July 2003 Essays   andre bazin   film history   film style   film theory   french cinema   jean renoir   new wave   people_bazin