In his book "My Life and My Films," Jean Renoir wrote, "I must insist on the fact that I set foot in the world of the cinema only in order to make my wife a star, intending, once this was done, to return to my pottery studio. I did not foresee that once I had been caught in the machinery I should never be able to escape."
On Sunday the American Film Institute Theater will begin an extensive retrospective series on Renoir that offers the rare opportunity of seeing how he began, in collaboration with his first wife Catherine Hessling, and how he evolved, in directions that would appear to make her style of performing especially expendable. In fact, the marriage did not survive Renoir's decision to direct "La Chienne," the 1931 film he considers the artistic turning point of his career, after Hessling was rejected for the female lead.
As Renoir recalls the circumstances, "I offered to sacrifice myself by giving up 'La Chienne,' and she refused the offer, hoping that I would insist. But I did not insist, and this was the end of an adventure which should have been pursued in happiness. The cinema was for both of us a jealous god."
The retrospective opens Sunday with a 6:30 p.m. lecture by movie critic Andrew Sarris, followed by a showing of one of three prints on loan from the Cinematheque Francaise, the silent "Tire au Flanc" (i.e., "Goldbrick"), a rowdy, cheerful service comedy derived from a succesful vaudeville farce and shot in 1928. Catherine Hessling may be seen at her most amusing and most absurd in the 9 p.m. program, which combines a beguiling, unfinished fantasy short called "Charleston" with a feature-length adaptation of Zola's "Nana," Renoir's first major production and a major box-office disappointment. Both films date from 1926, and organist Ray Brubacher, who will accompany the silent films in the series, should have his hands full punctuating Hessling's irrepressible energy with appropriate musical observations.
As Nana, Hessling gives the sort of performances one associates with comediennes when they're burlesquing silent-movie acting at its hammiest. She calls attention to herself in the most ostentatious ways. The character of Nana virtually disappears beneath her preposterous barrage of flounces, fidgets, swoons, pets, glares, sneers, leers and tremors. At the same time Zola tends to vanish beneath a stilted "sophisticated" style Renoir evidently copied from Erich von Stroheim. Indeed, the picture may be more fun if one misconstrues it as a scrambled parody.
Audiences in 1926 found Hessling's performance too extreme to be credible, and now it may seem to constitute a textbook of bad acting mannerisms. Nevertheless, the film has a nutty appeal, partly because it seems so uncharacteristic. When Renoir found his own sytle, it contradicted most of the things he seems to be encouraging in "Nana," particularly his wife's acting methods.
Renoir takes some of the blame for permitting Hessling to stylize herself into early obscurity. Her career seems to have ground to a halt soon after their separation. Seeing "Charleston" makes one wonder if she somehow missed her proper niche. Could this be a wasted comedienne? Bursting with energy, rotating her pelvis like Carol Burnett doing her Charro impersonation and falling nimbly on her behind, Hessling suggests the kind of dynamism usually needed to power slapstick or musical comedy.
Since "Charleston will also precede showings of "La Chienne" next Friday at 6:30 and 9 p.m., AFI Theater patrons may be able to formulate an educated guess about her suitability in the key dramatic role she never got. Hessling also appears in the title roles of "The Little Match Girl," booked with the wonderful 1932 comedy, "Boudu Saved from Drowning," on Tuesday, Feb. 22, and "La Fille de l'eau," Renoir's first feature, made in 1924, which shares a bill Thursday, Feb. 17, at 8:30 p.m. with "La Nuit du Carrefour." The latter, a 1932 adaptation of a Simenon thriller, reveals a compelling sense of atmosphere but leaves one thoroughly baffled, partly because there are no English titles but mostly because two reels were lost.
Those missing pieces render the last third of the story quite inexplicable, but one can understand why the dry, moody opening reels and the presence of Winna Winfried, a treacherous seductress to equal Mary Astor in "The Maltese Falcon," cast a spell over Jean-Luc Godard, among others. "La Nuit du Carrefour" feels like it ought to be a classic even if it ends up a puzzle that can never be put together.