Danzando con Catherine Hessling: due storie di Jean Renoir
“I’m crazy about riding and dance”, Hessling told an interviewer for “Minerva” in April 1926, the month Renoir’s Nana would be released with Hessling in the title role. “Right now, I’m studying classical dance, but I’m waiting for the return of negro jazz to Paris so I can dance the exotic dances”.
Sur un air de Charleston and La Petite marchande d’allumettes show Hessling performing opposite kinds of dance. In Charleston she shows off athletic skills, whereas in La Petite marchande d’allumettes she moves with the delicate grace of a balletic mime, every gesture defining her character in a changing fairytale landscape.
Nothing can explain the strangeness of Sur un air de Charleston, including Renoir’s claim that he might as well do something with film stock left over from Nana. Was it Jacques Becker, American jazz connoisseur and Renoir’s close friend for years before he became his assistant director, who persuaded Johnny Hudgins to join this racial role-reversal fantasy? Hudgins, an African American dancer with the Revue nègre in Paris, plays an African scientist who crosses the skies to find Paris in ruins and the scantily dressed Hessling. With non-sexual curiosity uniting them, she demonstrates the Charleston and Hudgins, in a suit and minstrelsy blackface, joins the jazz dance. After three days, the film was left unfinished, without the music written for all that dancing. According to Renoir, there were no intertitles.
La Petite marchande d’allumettes is a perfect film, typically Renoirian in the way Andersen’s fairytale turns even darker, as Renoir often does in his 1930s films. In the original, a little girl is doomed by poverty and indifference, unable to escape the freezing cold. When she lights matches to warm herself, images appear that delight her. In the second part of Renoir’s version, Hessling crosses a white background threshold into happiness cut short by Death, killing the toys that have come alive for her. Two horses gallop across the sky racing for her life, but the soldier trying to save her loses. Death takes her body and we return to some kind of reality. Renoir loved discovering what he could do with Panchromatic film and home-made special effects with cameraman Jean Bachelet, technical wizard Raleigh and co-creator Jean Tedesco, using the attic of Tedesco’s Vieux Colombier theater. According to Renoir, the film was meant to be shown without intertitles.
The security guard at the Eiffel Tower wakes up as a scientist, in his madness, brings the city of Paris to a stop. The streets become a fantastical playground wherein he and a happy band of comrades who have escaped the effects of the ‘Devilish Ray’ can come out to play. Paris qui dort is a cheeky and elegant, witty and bumptiously poetic film that breathes the spirit of freedom. It was René Clair’s first work, designed, as he put it, “to bring cinema back to its roots and rid it of all that stifling artistic fakery”.
It was shot on a low budget in the summer of 1924. A work print was given a press screening in November, but René Clair’s concurrent commitment to Entr’acte delayed its release. The first cut included shots with a few passersby. But a later version, in which the action is frozen, was distributed in England in January 1925, shortly before it came out in France.
René Clair’s first film is a comic fantasy that synthesises much of the then current narrative avant-garde film practice. […] Its roughness testified to his desire to revive “the prewar tradition, that is, the tradition of the French comic shorts” and of Méliès’s féeries. Although he shared the narrative avant-garde filmmakers’ fascination with the ‘cinematographic machine’, Clair disapproved of what he believed to be their excessive aestheticism and redirected the apparatus toward different ends. In Paris qui dort, consequently, the narrative avant-garde film practice is placed explicitly in the service of an amusing fantasy and a wittily satirical vision of society. […]
Like some of its predecessors, Paris qui dort concocts a mixture of the real and the unreal, of reality and fantasy. Its combination of the two, however, is quite unlike that of films by L’Herbier, Epstein, or Dulac. And it involves nothing like the complexity of rhetorical figuring or syntactical relations that characterise their work. Much of Clair’s film is documentary footage of Paris – of its famous monuments, of the inhabitants and vehicles traveling its streets. […] In reproducing that first moment when photographs ‘came to life’, Paris qui dort recovers the magic of the cinema with a simplicity that reminds one of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924). […] For all of its longueurs and flaws of execution, Clair’s film offers a truly fresh vision of another, marvellous world.
Richard Abel, French Cinema. The First Wave 1915-1929, Princeton University Press 1984
Cast and Credits
T. alt.: Le Rayon de la mort. Sog., Scen.: René Clair. F.: Maurice Desfassiaux. M.: René Clair. Scgf.: André Foy. Mus.: Jean Wiener. Int.: Henri Rollan (Albert), Madeleine Rodrigue (Hesta), Albert Préjean (l’aviatore), Marcel Vallée (il ladro), Charles Martinelli (il professor X), Myla Seller (la nipote del professor X), Louis Pré Fils (il detective), Antoine Stacquet (l’industriale miliardario). Prod.: Henri Diamant-Berger per Les Films Diamant. DCP. D.: 59’. Bn.
LA PETITE MARCHANDE D’ALLUMETTES
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