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Elèna et les hommes [1956)

Sometimes we are emptied of our emotions from exhaustion.

We can’t fail at love any more than we have.

Valentine’s Day is but a mockery.

And so why does Miss Lonelyhearts push on?

And Sgt. Pepper?

Some of us have immense reservoirs of confidence.

Some of us have a penchant for risk.

But not I.

If we treat love as an investment (bear with me),

then every risk has its flipside:  the potential for reward.

In love, we weigh the possibilities.

What will she say?  How will he respond?

But our world has degenerated into a soulless masquerade.

Do anything…but never show your true feelings.

If we are circumspect in our psychology, we realize that many times we don’t know our own minds.

I am not a meditating ninja.  I do not balance, poised to act with clarity.

No, I am clumsy.

In love, I am particularly clumsy.

To speak of such things in America…it just isn’t done.

Love is more taboo than sex.

Sex is ubiquitous, but love is vulnerability.

An American can never show vulnerability.

This is the great archetypal travesty of the film Patton.

And perhaps no greater dichotomy could exist than from that film to our film Elèna et les hommes.

It is Jean Renoir again.  It is Ingrid Bergman.  It is Jean Marais.

And to a very surprising extent, it is Juliette Gréco.

It must have been this film to which Godard fell in love.

More interested in Gréco than El Greco at this time.  More interested in Juliette than his schoolwork.

Those dreams which would be realized in Anna Karina.

But things fall apart.

How hard to know the soul of a man or woman.

Ingrid plays the role of a Polish princess.

On Bastille Day with Mel Ferrer there is a Rabelaisian warmth to the festivities.

From one Renoir to another, there are the pinks in the cheeks.  Red wine.  A weak drink.  Compared to Polish vodka.

And then there are the daisies.  A marguerite here and there.  Gounod’s Faust would have such as the leading soprano.

A grand opera in five acts is about what Elèna et les hommes feels like.  There are similarities in tone and mise-en-scène to Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès, but the best comparison is to Renoir’s own The Golden Coach.

What may not be evident (due to the visual disparity between the vibrant, saturated colors of Elèna et les hommes and the black and white of Renoir’s early films) is that our film is very similar to the Renoir classic La Règle du jeu.  Both share traits with the elusive Hollywood genre known as “screwball comedy”.  There is a general ruckus of celebration…a confusion of who loves whom…indeed, about who should love whom…mixed emotions…missed connections…conflicted hearts.

There are the base buffoons who live out our easiest desires.  They just chase.  So what if they lose?  Well, it makes a big difference…from the bathos of Schumacher to the stoogery of Eugène.

But these references aside, it is the others who make us believe.  The hesitating class of Ingrid Bergman and Nora Gregor…these parallel characters.  And the luckless chaps who may or may not prevail in the end…Mel Ferrer and, indeed, Jean Renoir himself as Octave in La Règle du jeu. 

It must have been a revelation for Godard to see this film.  It was the French film industry asserting itself.  And yet, it was the spectacle against which Debord would rail a mere 11 years later.

Even so, Elèna et les hommes is (at the very least) a beautiful echo of the French film tradition which preceded it.  In a sense, it was Jean Renoir retelling that old story of La Règle du jeu one more time.

Life is a strange party in which Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre is liable to be conjured from the ghostly ivories of a player piano at any moment.

 

-PD

4 responses to “Elèna et les hommes [1956)

  1. Good one I did not see that one yet. Nice review.

  2. Great line: “If we are circumspect in our psychology, we realize that many times we don’t know our own minds.”

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