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La Chienne, 1931
[The Bitch]

Marese/SimonA meek and unassuming office clerk, Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon), declines an invitation from his goading co-workers to turn the evening's dinner banquet festivities into a night of carousing, citing his need to be home before his wife's preset midnight curfew. On the way home, he encounters a physical altercation between a wanton young woman named Lucienne Pelletier, nicknamed Lulu (Janie Marese), and her inebriated lover, Dédé, and instinctively comes to the aid of the abused woman, agreeing to hire a taxicab in order to escort the couple home. Quick to note Legrand's formal attire, Dédé, in turn, instructs Lulu to seduce the unsuspecting old man in order to extract money from him. Later in the evening, Legrand arrives home and stumbles on a painting easel that he has precariously staged as part of his makeshift studio in the cluttered apartment. He is immediately castigated by his domineering wife, Adele (Magdeleine Bérubet), for waking her from her sleep with his expensive and time-consuming hobby, countering that her rugged and courageous first husband, Sergeant Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard) - a war casualty - would never have undertaken such a dainty and fastidious pastime, and threatens to sell his canvasses to a junk dealer. A month later, Lulu is seen providing a tour through her comfortable new living accommodations, auspiciously appointed with Legrand's banished paintings, to a friend named Yvonne (Mlle Doryans) as she rationalizes her reluctant acceptance of the unsavory proposition from her romantic benefactor - a renowned, but married, artist. Dédé further magnifies the reputation of Legrand's artwork when, unable to settle gambling debts, he uses the unsigned paintings to raise money from an art gallery under the pretense of representing a fictitious international artist named Clara Wood, adding Lulu's signature to fetch a better price. However, struggling under the increasing financial burden of Lulu and Dédé's parasitic existence and incessant demands to accelerate artwork production, Legrand resorts to increasingly desperate measures in an attempt to retain his façade of independence and mild-mannered respectability.

Jean Renoir creates an incisive, provocative, and excoriating commentary on human behavior, class structure, and social conduct in
La Chienne. Using repeated imagery of mirrors and reflections, Renoir visually underscores the self-entrapping pattern of hypocrisy, treachery, and co-dependency inherent in exploitive human relationships: Adele's flaunted placement of her earned monthly dividends inside a mirrored wardrobe; the shot of a shaving Legrand that pans to the image of the opened wardrobe as he pilfers money; Legrand's painting of a self-portrait that is captured through his studied reflection in front of a mirror. The characters' interdependence is also revealed through Legrand's tolerated habitation in Adele's apartment that is paralleled in his extramarital domestic arrangement with Lulu, and is, in turn, repeated through episodes of Dédé's financial demands of Lulu. From the jocular, argumentative, and dichotomous Punch and Judy puppetry prologue that alternately introduces the film as a serious social drama, a comedy of manners, and a slice-of-life observation, La Chienne captures the moral ambiguity and underlying inequity of culturally entrenched social customs and rationalized human cruelty.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, 1936
[The Crime of Monsieur Lange]

Florelle/Lefevre A lone automobile arrives at an unassuming rural inn appropriately called the Frontier Café and Hotel on a bucolic northern border town, as a cheerful and genteel businessman named Meunier (Henri Guisol) provides a cursory orientation of the couple's proximity to the border before bidding a sincere, fond farewell to his two visibly exhausted, but genial passengers, Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) and Valentine (Florelle) who then promptly and unfussedly check-in and quietly retire to their rented ground floor room. Soon, the residents' often idle and innocuous tone of morning conversation is set abuzz by a young man who notices a resemblance between the newly accommodated, mild-mannered stranger in the next room and the police profile and composite provided by the town constable earlier that day as he conducted door to door visits through all the local establishments in order disseminate information and track informational leads on a wanted fugitive named Lange. Noting the man's physical semblance to the police photograph, the opinionated, independent-minded patrons - curiosity piqued - begin to discuss the appropriate course of action for their seemingly notorious guest. It is a spirited argument that is politely tempered when Valentine re-emerges from the adjoining room, having overhead the relevant subject of deliberation, and decides to join in the arguments by pleading her case against the town's denunciation of Lang to the police. Proceeding in flashback, Valentine recounts Lange's former life as a shy and fanciful aspiring cartoonist living vicariously through the adventures of his invented hero, Arizona Jim, at a working class boarding house while struggling to eke out a living as an illustrator for an opportunistic and disreputable publisher named Batala (Jules Berry).

Jean Renoir creates an elegantly fluid and deceptively lyrical, yet trenchant, complexly interwoven, and socially incisive portrait of exploitation, community, mutualism, and justice in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Integrating episodes of caricatured, pulp comic imagery against the subtle observations of the travails and minutiae of existence, Renoir illustrates the inherent dichotomy between Lange's escapist, adventure-seeking fictional hero (who, due to Batala's insidious marketing ploy, is compelled to routinely ingest a mass marketed pill for courage) and the modern-day heroism of everyday struggle, communal loyalty, and personal sacrifice: Lange's role-playing adventures of the exoticized Arizona frontier from his rented room that contrasts with his somber arrival at the north border frontier in the beginning of the film; his publicity photography sessions for the comic book series that emphasize the artificial and illusory nature of his craft; the townspeople's casual conversation on their abstract, murder fantasies that is weighed against a personal account of complicity that results in death. Note the idiosyncratic, ripped paper wipe cut that transitions from Batala's encounter with Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaïa) to a shot of Lange paying a visit to the landlord's incapacitated son Charles (Maurice Baquet) - a scene that lucidly reflects the separation between fantasy and reality - differentiating between Lange's grandiose (albeit improbable) actions (in his playful boast of a new sexual conquest) and truly noble gestures (as he comforts a lovelorn Charlie by claiming deception). It is this intrinsic irreconcilability between appearance and reality, concocted ideas and practical application, death-defying feats and acts of true humanity, that inevitably define Valentine's impassioned argument: not to trivialize the dubious nature of Lange's crime, but to reflect on the true meaning of courage and, in the process, achieve a sense of personal redemption through human reason, compassion, and shared responsibility.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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La Grande Illusion, 1937
[Grand Illusion]

von Stroheim/Fresnay/GabinThe opening scenes of La Grande Illusion provide a subtle reflection of the old European social order during the First World War, as Captain de Boieldieu (Pierre Fresnay) studies aerial surveillance maps from the safe distance of his office in order to plot out military strategy. There is an aberration in the photographs, and de Boieldieu decides to investigate the area, accompanied by a rugged, enlisted pilot named Marechal (Jean Gabin). Their plane is shot down by a stern and rigid German officer, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim), who orders the soldiers to determine the ranks of the captured prisoners, and to invite them to lunch...but only if they are found to be military officers. Despite their opposing allegiances, de Boieldieu finds greater commonality with his captor, von Rauffenstein, than with his own fellow countrymen, who find him distant and inaccessible: reminiscing about dinner parties at Maxim's, speaking in the foreign language of English, moving in the same social circles. As aristocratic, career officers, both men are witnessing the gradual erosion of their inherited privilege and the resulting power shift to the working class. However, while de Boieldieu accepts the reality of modern times as a consequence of the French Revolution, von Rauffenstein resists its inevitable tide, and believes that observing the rules of privileged society are paramount to the rules of war. Soon, the disparity between the two social classes emerge: the aloof and regimented "old order" of de Boieldieu and von Rauffenstein who are riding out their obsolescence with the illusion of fighting a gentleman's war, and the vital and motivated "new order" of Marechal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) who will risk their lives to fight in the Great War in their own mistaken illusion that, one day, they will return to their civilian lives and reap the benefits of a lasting peace.

La Grande Illusion is a sublimely poignant and lucidly insightful commentary on the social legacy of the Great War in Europe. Filmed in 1937 under the looming advent of World War II, La Grande Illusion serves as a haunting elegy for the tragedy of the First World War and a relevant cautionary tale on the immeasurable toll of war. Using mundane events and conversations to depict life in a prisoner of war camp, Jean Renoir compassionately captures the tumultuous climate of profound social and political change: the changing role of women, the demise of aristocratic rule, the creation of new wealth (and new social order) in a free market economy. Stylistically, Renoir employs mesmerizing, long, rapid tracking shots and introduces sound to reflect the chaos and uncertainty. Note the reassuring melody of Marechal's harmonica after an emotional breakdown, and the arranged diversion of the German guards using flutes. Inevitably, the officers' path of glory proves to be inextricably bound to the idealistic belief that there is an underlying, redemptive purpose in war. However, like the idea of a war to end all wars, it is an elusive and unattainable grand illusion.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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The River, 1951

Breen/WaltersHarriet (Patricia Walters) is a pensive, awkward, and fanciful adolescent growing up in Bengal near the banks of the river. The eldest child of a jute factory manager (Esmond Knight), she spends most of her days writing poetry in her diary and observing life pass by over the garden walls with her attractive and self-confident friend, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and her levelheaded, yet superstitious governess, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee). One day, the girls witness the arrival of an intriguing young man at the home of their neighbor, Mr. John (Arthur Shields), and decide to send a formal invitation to celebrate the Hindu festival of lights as an excuse to meet him. Mr. John is a humble, affable widower whose daughter Melanie (Radha) has recently graduated from a Western school. Mr. John, an Anglo-Indian, was married to a Hindu woman, and consequently, Melanie was born without caste. Now an adult, Melanie struggles to reconcile her identity as she finds herself on the periphery of both cultures, but belonging to neither. The girls are eventually introduced to Mr. John's American cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a disabled war veteran who has run away to India, unable to adjust to civilian life back home. Captain John's attentiveness, charm, and soft-spoken vulnerability captivate the young women, and soon, he becomes the unwitting object of their affection, as they vie for his undivided attention and love.

Using repeated sensoral imagery of cadence, Jean Renoir presents a fascinating, exotic, and meditative glimpse into the rhythm of life in postwar India in The River. Retrospectively presented through the measured narrated tone of an older Harriet (June Hillman), the film becomes a transitory account of the eternal human cycle: the daily ritual of the native fishermen and jute factory workers as they perform their tasks; the seasonal festivals culminating with the return of an earth-formed statue of Kali back to the river; Melanie's continuation of her mother's cultural heritage; the pregnancy of Harriet's mother (Nora Swinburne) that coincides with Harriet's emotional realization of first love. Similar to the quaint dirt road in Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy, the river provides a source of constancy and reassurance throughout the profound changes transpiring in Harriet's young life. Inevitably, like the reflective, mature Harriet, the river becomes an omniscient chronicler of the enrapturing beauty and universal celebration of the process of life.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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