Toni & Boating, or: Realism(s) #1

What stands out when we see Toni today is an unintended dialectic between the raw documentary reality, presented without regard for psychological verisimilitude, and the moral truth, also achieved without reference to psychology. The film switches continually from one to the other through characters who are totally unrealistic in terms of personality, having only social and ethical import. This disregard, or even scorn, for psychology will appear to audiences brought up on the psychological films of our day (cf. Aurenche and Bost) to be old-fashioned and awkward. I, on the other hand, find in Renoir's approach the freshness of an inspiration which has not yet dominated or camouflaged the fertile contradictions of its raw materials, notably, the contradictions which can exist between realism and truth.
--André Bazin, Jean Renoir, 1971 (Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 39.

Toni - Jean Renoir, 1934, 35mm

"The cinema remains above all photography, and photography is the least subjective of all the arts. The good photographer sees the world as it is, selects from it, separates what is worthy of notice, and fixes it, as if by surprise, without transformations. And how can one think of alteration in respect of that principal element of our craft, the human face? At the time of Toni, I disapproved of make-up. My ambition was to bring the non-naturalistic elements, those which don't depend on the play of encounters, to a style as near as possible to that of everyday acquaintainship. Similarly with the decor; there is no studiowork; the landscapes and houses are as we found them. The human beings, whether played by actors or by the inhabitants of Martigues, strive to resemble the passersby whom they are supposed to represent. The professional actors, with a few exceptions, belong to the social class, the nation, the races, of their role. [...] Everything was done to bring our work as near to documentary as possible."

--Jean Renoir, qtd. in Jean Renoir, Raymond Durgnat (California UP, 1974), p.98.

Los muertos - Lisandro Alonso, 2004, 35mm

Renoir's pictorial sense is expressed above all in the attention he pays to the importance of individual things in relation to one another. He does not sacrifice the tree to the forest. Herein lies his true cinematic realism, rather than in his penchant for naturalistic subjects.

--André Bazin, Jean Renoir, 1971 (Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 84.

La chienne - Jean Renoir, 1931, 35mm

Boudu sauvé des eaux - Jean Renoir, 1932, 35mm

Toni - Jean Renoir, 1934, 35mm

La grande illusion - Jean Renoir, 1937, 35mm

La Bête humaine - Jean Renoir, 1938, 35mm


Toni - Jean Renoir, 1934, 35mm

strange, viscous drift

La Bête humaine - Jean renoir, 1938, 35mm

Renoir's long takes are in no sense the result of a passivity towards reality (as Bazin might have tried to persuade us). Their dynamism depends just as much on an implied forward movement against a backwards stream, with visual contrasts and shocks provided by the undulations and types of scenery, the sudden crossbars of bridges, tunnels and cuttings like funnels, the relative movements of fore-, mid- and background features, in fact, a choreography of scenery, which gives an impression of a continuous 'scoop' but in which each contrast bursts in upon us with the shock of a cut.

-- Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir (California UP, 1974), p. 182.

Human Desire - Fritz Lang, 1954, 35mm


Lakeside Landscape - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c. 1889, oil on canvas

Partie de campagne - Jean Renoir, 1936, 35mm

Autonomous but not godlike, declining to assume a superior point of vantage, Renoir's camera meets the world from a position that is always recognizably concrete, on a human plane. If it traveled up river in a rowboat, it backs away down river - as becomes significant because we register its concrete position in both cases - with the speed of a motorboat, a vehicle in which the nineteenth-century characters couldn't have been traveling.

Although the vehicle isn't shown, the departing backward views were evidently taken from an unsteady small boat, which could be the same one as traveled up river and in which we can imagine ourselves riding on a Sunday and hurrying back when it starts to rain, but whose propelling drive in the retreat would have been unavailable to the characters. This rapid motion, especially in comparison with the leisurely progress up river, makes us note a speed beyond mere rowing, a plane of human experience attainable only since the advent of motorboats and cameras endowed with mobility to match that of an age just being born when the Impressionists were painting. At the close of an excursion it has made its own - and ours - Renoir's camera detaches itself not only from the characters but from the whole period of the fiction: its departing motion belongs unmistakably to our century. The sense of years passing, a long span compressed into those retreating moments, extends from the characters' lives to the lives of all of us, in all the years that have passed since that time of Impressionist picnics on the grass and virginal daughters tremulously surrendering to love by the waterside. It's as if the day in the country, having begun in the nineteenth century, were ending in the twentieth: as if that river we're leaving behind were the last version of pastoral receding from our twentieth-century motorboat. Incitingly, Renoir omits the characters from this visual cadence that, no mere ornament to the story, is the film's culminant sequence, rich in associations with them but essentially addressing us, drawing us into a reflective look at things from where we stand outside the fiction.

It is a backward look, literally at the receding river, figuratively at the moments, the days, the years, of time passing and time past. A longing for things gone is expressed, but here this does not, as typically it does in pastoral, diminish our appre- hension of the present. The backward looks of traditional pastoral long for a golden age that never existed; the Impressionist version, even as it seizes on a sensory presentness, longs for the golden moments of that presentness now become pastness, flashes of communion with nature that it sustains by dint of paint. In either case the longing takes over, the proposed golden times dim the supposed fallen times of present reality. In A Day in the Country the longing for the past is, like a backward look from a motorboat, but one perspective, one way among others of regarding the landscape of the present.

--Gilberto Perez, "Landscape and Fiction: Jean Renoir's Country Excursion", The Hudson Review 42. 2, 1989, p.253- 255.

Partie de campagne - Jean Renoir, 1936, 35mm


The Skiff (La Yole) / Boating on the Seine - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875, oil on canvas

The River - Jean Renoir, 1951, 35mm


The River - Jean Renoir, 1951, 35mm


Anonymous said...

this new post is supreme, sir. i've been looovin your blog the last few days. thank you for all your efforts; looking forward to more from you in the future.

Matthew Flanagan said...

Thank you, drytoasts. I hadn't stumbled across your blog before, but it looks great - will be following it from this moment on...

Daniel Kasman said...

Amazing post Matthew, a constant reminder why Renoir is the very greatest. (and inspires great criticism)

Matthew Flanagan said...

Thanks, Danny. Durgnat's book really is astonishing - I'd type up the whole thing if I had the patience! It's a shame that Bazin's text remains so tantalisingly unfinished though (not helped by Truffaut's reluctant "editing") - snatches of prose and the long chapter on The River are wonderful, but otherwise it's laced with unfortunate inconsistencies & half-formed ideas (only rarely the purely impressionistic ones that I always go back to him for)... Couldn't agree more about Renoir too - re-watching these few "major" films has only made me realise how inexhaustibly rich his cinema is, even just the tip of the iceberg...

RW said...

I second your enthusiasm for Durgnat's book (and for his criticism in general). And Perez's article is one of the best pieces of writing on film landscapes out there, I think. There might be an alternate or extended version of it in his book THE MATERIAL GHOST.

Once again a great post -- you've got a wonderful eye for screen captures!

Matthew Flanagan said...

Thanks, RW. Durgnat's way of seeing and describing the (potential of the) image might only be eclipsed by Bazin for me, and his prose is often much richer. (Caveat: I wish I could read more Daney.) You're almost certainly right about The Material Ghost too - my memory of the chapter/section on Renoir is very hazy!