It’s a moment of beauty disrupted by thundering, militaristic noise: Elena (Ingrid Bergman), a late-19th-century Polish princess, sits at a piano while her lover, a composer, tries to drown out the festive sounds from outside with his playing. From an introductory title card before this opening scene, viewers know the action to be situated in Paris on Bastille Day, a festival which will host a visiting general. The military march bleeding through the piano signals irritable complacency (life with Elena’s lover) disrupted for the title character, an immediately alluring Bergman. With a few adjustments – the piano played in 1939 Poland, in a studio for radio broadcast, when German bombing interrupts the broadcast – we have the opening scene of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). (This scene follows opening documentary footage of the lovely city of Warsaw, which the Nazis would eventually destroy, where the principal character miraculously survives while in hiding.) These two disparate moments of “musical” harmony interrupted – likely revealing a tribute to Jean Renoir by film-history-expert Polanski, a Polish expatriate living in Paris – show how such a scene can signal various forms of change. In Polanski’s case, the scene leads to the annihilation of the Jewish population in a major cultural center, witnessed by the survival of one of its artists. For Renoir, in his unique romantic comedy, Elena breaks from complacency by eventually rejecting a suitor of financial security (and considerable age) to consider a life of freedom and pleasure.
The camera is fixed on Bergman nearly from start to end, which is sensible in that Elena et Les Hommes (1955) was created for her. In one film, she became a muse for Renoir on the level of Jean Gabin (1938’s Le Bete Humaine, 1954’s French CanCan) in a genre pic-cum-character study unlikely to be found in early Hollywood. After an illustrious period in the 1930s (beginning with 1931’s La Chienne and 1932’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and culminating in two of cinema’s greatest works, 1937’s Grand Illusion and 1939’s Rules of the Game) Renoir fled Vichy France to take up work in the American studio system. As for many European expats coming to the States, it was a period of struggle, and Renoir wouldn’t leave until making 1951’s The River on location in India (a film that, according to Martin Scorsese, is “all about the rhythm of existence,” and one of his favorites). Elena, filmed in Paris from December 1955 to March 1956, finds Renoir on more comfortable grounds when able to help Bergman, an old friend. Beforehand she had arrived to Paris in distress, experiencing mistreatment from husband Roberto Rossellini (whom she’d soon divorce) after the four films they made together all lost money (1). A forlorn Bergman met Renoir backstage on the production of his play, Orvet. Years prior, Renoir rejected her inquiry about doing a film with him, noting that she was “too big of a star” then, but when her “fall” would come he’d be “there with the net”. Now, she reminded him, the time had come (2).
Renoir first thought of creating a melodrama for Bergman (3). It was the treatment that Hollywood favored for her, since even Bergman’s darker roles, like her Oscar-winning role in Gaslight (1944), are structured as melodrama. Perhaps sunk in the mindset that tried to claim him in the 1940s, Renoir then made a more interesting choice to create a romantic comedy for the actor, since he always wanted to see her laugh onscreen (4). He decided on a political story involving a general, which underscored Bergman’s grandeur that was bigger than her stardom. The film would feature three suitors to Bergman’s role, of course: as Robin Wood notes, it was a favorite motif of Renoir’s, first appearing in The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) and solidified in Rules of the Game (1937) (5). In Elena, Henri (Mel Ferrer) also has three girls after him in one scene.
The reds in cinematographer Claude Renoir’s (nephew of Jean) footage of the outdoor Bastille festival remove the color’s connections to murder and menace (a la Alfred Hitchcock by the mid-50s) while the sexual implications make for a fun whim. Though pegged as a lover of vodka by the Parisian men, Elena adores red wine, which will help loosen her inhibitions to her two other suitors, Henri and General Rollan (Jean Marais). These vivid reds and pinks clash with the washed-out palate of an exterior scene in the woods, which may invoke Renoir’s former bitterness when forbidden to shoot on location in 1940s Hollywood.
The filmmaker was surely delighted to film a beauty and talent like Bergman. Without the glamour of a Rita Hayworth, Bergman possessed an elegance of a farmer’s daughter and an artist’s rendering of Pallas Athena. One look at her face reminds us that numerous great leading men – Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls(1943), Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1943), Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944) – gave some of their best opposite her. Ernest Hemingway, as resistant as any author to having his books adapted by Hollywood, thought her ideal for the lead in For Whom the Bell Tolls (6). Renoir also had the approval of possessive husband Rossellini, as Jean was one of the few filmmakers that Rossellini liked (7), though Renoir had the pesky job of filming Elena simultaneously in French and English (8).
The film presents several painterly compositions, at times informed by the impressionist tradition of Renoir’s father: an early scene, in which Elena debates her choice to accept Martin-Michaud’s (Pierre Bertin) offer of marriage, the central conversation foregrounds others sitting at a table, in an elegant sweep to the right. Later, in a festival scene Rollan initially accepts the job of Secretary of War, thus underscoring the “power” that will tempt Elena (she’s soon urged to convince him to follow through). Here Renoir arranges a crowd around the central action in frames worthy of pausing for viewer inspection. The camera remains stable overall, with blocking that reflects Renoir’s theatrical taste. At times the camera appears to be safely distant from the subjects, as if they are bound theatrically in the medium of cinema. But as an absurdist take on comedy of manners (the film blends in farce gradually), Elena’s encounters should remain at a slight distance before she chooses Henri, the most passionate of the three, at the conclusion.
Though lacking the complex narrative of Rules, Elena offers complexity in deep focus compositions. In the final moments a Roma woman (i.e., “gypsy”) appears just out of the background, easily working as part of the rich urban milieu. And yet, we wonder if she serves as Elena’s shadow, the Roma character a loner dispossessed from economic security but with social freedom that Elena desires? The film wraps just as the thought rears from the film’s batch of political and social ruminations, reminding us of Renoir’s complexity in even his “simpler” works.
1) Ronald Bergan, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise (New York: Overlook, New York, 1994), p. 303.
2) Bergan, p.304.
3) Bergan, p.304.
4) Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (Berkeley: California UP, 1976), p. 315.
5) Robin Wood, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (New York: Columbia UP, 1998) p. 67.
6) David Thomson, Ingrid Bergman (New York: Faber and Faber, 2010), p. 40.
7) Bergan, p.304.
8) Bergan, p.305.
Elena and Her Men (Elena et les Hommes 1956 95 mins)
Prod: Louis Wipf Dir: Jean Renoir Scr: Jean Serge and Jean Renoir Phot: Claude Renoir Ed: Borys Lewis Mus: Joseph Kosma Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer, Jean Richard, and Pierre Bertin