June 8, 2016 by Jessica Palmer
Commodification and Women in Early Jean Renoir Films: A Feminist View
Texas A & M University
Typical discussions of Renoir’s films concentrate on his entire body of work, tracking the progression of social and political issues, as well as the technical evolution of this Poetic Realist. But several films from the 1930’s deserve a close reading for the roles of women in those films, and the norms and attitudes that are reflected therein. In La Chienne (1931), Toni (1935), and Le Crime du Monsieur Lange (1936), there are a number of female characters who, through circumstances often beyond their control, turn to selling themselves (be it through prostitution or a marriage of economics). In depicting these women sympathetically, and in showing the consequences (quite often—but not always—tragic) of a society in which women are commodified, passive, and poor, these films make a proto-feminist argument worth noting for its innovative attitude about gender relations. These films, (which were produced during a period of French history when women were increasingly identified with nature, and encouraged to be mothers as a nationalistic duty to combat denatalité) insist on showing the need for women to control their own lives, to challenge conventional notions of marriage, and to emphasize the tragic consequences of treating women as property. Jean Renoir should be discussed as more than just an early realist and populist but also as a director whose films challenged conventional standards of morality and gender. Renoir’s films feature a heroic male protagonist but it is the women’s stories which drive the narrative. Rather than merely providing opportunities for the male heroes to save the day, these movies implicitly criticize male heroism as harmful to society.
Ever since Laura Mulvey’s pivotal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), feminist film critics have argued that women characters, especially in films with male writers and directors, are “contradictory textual disturbance[s] which each film must work to resolve. The female figure, always and inevitably defined in terms of sexuality, is seen as the structural mainspring— the very site of desire— of conventional cinematic narrative” (Flitterman-Lewis 2). This argument stresses the fact that “the female figure is either fetishized [ . . . ] or made subject to the abusive mastery of some form of sadistic domination through the narrative” (2). The director’s choices, conscious and unconscious, control how we perceive and judge all of the film’s characters. It is important, therefore, for the feminist critic to explore how and where the camera directs our gaze. Where directors reconstruct or reconfigure fetishized images of women we can see where roles break down; the breakdowns in turn encourage a critique of the society that reinforces objectified images of women as normal. If characters function as foils and plot devices, what kind of imagery and ideology is being promoted? Let us not ignore the conditions of female characters in favor of the larger (male oriented) narrative; rather, it is useful to problematize the complex interactions of class and gender and to question what is figured as normative. Renoir’s often portrays women as objects of the male gaze within both the narrative and larger society; through their stories, Renoir shows us possible consequences of these societal objectifications.
La Chienne: Lulu’s Cage
La Chienne, based on a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, tells the story of Maurice Legrand, a petit-bourgeois older man who aspires to be a painter, and Lulu, a prostitute he saves from a beating by her pimp, Dédé. After rescuing her, Legrand sets Lulu up in an apartment. We follow a series of incidents in which Legrand descends into criminal behavior and, in a fit of passion after being rejected, Legrand murders Lulu, the object of his desire. Legrand, who escapes any suspicion, becomes a derelict and bum, and we see him an old, crazy man in an epilogue where he doesn’t even notice his own self-portrait being moved from a gallery. If, as Christopher Faulkner argues, the film “is not a film that comfortingly reproduces the values of bourgeois life” (29) it is also a film in which those values cause the tragedy that occurs.
In La Chienne Lulu’s victimization is devastating. She desires a comfortable bourgeois life but has tacked her hopes onto Dédé, who will not provide this for her. As Alexander Sesonske points out, “her prostitution becomes a bourgeois virtue and need not disturb Lulu’s image of herself as a loving wife” (84). Even when she eventually destroys Legrand by mocking him, she only shows how caught up in society’s prescribed expectations she is. She cannot imagine loving someone like Legrand who has been cast as undesirable from the first shot, mocked as he is by his co-workers. Throughout the film, Lulu is submissive: she sits quietly, with a blank expression as Legrand caresses her and whispers into her ear. Actions are done to her, rarely by her and this is where she is most tragic. Her opportunity to take over her own life as the painter Clara Wood is not taken seriously because she cannot see beyond Dédé’s plans for her. Lulu does not fight back when Dédé abuses her, or takes her possessions, or pushes her to have sex with other men. She does not even fight his leaving her, and solicitously advises him to “not drink too much” as he leaves to gamble away all of the money she earns. Her voice and expression are generally flat, with little inflection; the only time she really seems interested in anything is when she shows off her apartment to an unnamed friend. She does truly seem to love Dédé but he merely uses her love for him to turn her into a prostitute. The only real actions and emotions we see are when she is trying to get Dédé to stay with her and when she torments Legrand, just before he kills her. Lulu’s passivity directly contributes to her death and it is here that Renoir shows us the consequences of life in a society that turns women into passive commodities: the gilded cage is as much a prison as any other and more so when it is passively accepted.
Critical commentary about the movie focuses on Lulu as a version of “the Nana theme of the destructive enchantress, the devourer of men” (Sesonske 82). But Lulu’s role is much more complex than that suggested by the whore/seductress type into which she is cast by critics. Calling her a “devourer of men” buys into the argument that she has a choice in her behavior, draws her as wholly negative while seeing the men she “devours” as victims, and only considers her as a plot device thrown in to complicate male lives. Faulkner argues that “La Chienne is a film about property” a film that “illustrates how the economic forces of society determine personal and social relations” (17) but he does not apply this argument to Lulu as another victim of that bourgeois society—rather, he sees her as part of the system that psychologically manipulates Legrand. We must cross-examine any critique which implies her complicity in her murder; in fact, she is murdered because she has no real power to manipulate anyone, even herself. Critics have even implied more than complicity, arguing that she might like her treatment with the dismissive comment that she “might have been having an ordinary evening about which she has no complaint” when Dédé beats her (Sesonske 84). Faulkner argues that “killing Lulu [. . .] must also be read as a revolt against [Legrand’s] embourgeoisification” (23). This reading blames the victim who is seen as participating and controlling the wheel of bourgeois ideals— not as a human being whose life has consequence.
In the climactic scene of the movie, Lulu lies still on her bed while Legrand, who in this scene typifies passion and motion, flings his hands around and weeps for her to come with him to some new life. (Since he has been fired from his job and has no place to live other than the apartment he furnished for Lulu, we wonder where this might be). Even Lulu’s contempt for Legrand and scornful laughter is initially passive; she covers her face with her arm to hide her emotion and only when he pulls her arm away from her face do we find she is not afraid of Legrand, but mocking him. As he becomes more and more agitated, she lies on her bed with a secretive smile on her face. She makes fun of his appearance, and he exclaims “you’re not a woman, you’re a bitch.” This is his last act of dehumanization before the murder, and he justifies his act with her “bitchiness,” which enrages him: if he cannot have her admiration he will have nothing else. When Renoir cuts to the street singers outside the window and we do not see the murder, he allows the emphasis to fall not on the act of murder but on the consequences for the male murderer. Next we see Legrand’s highly emotional reaction to Lulu’s death. A wide-angle shot portrays Lulu as an inert corpse, while Legrand is praying and weeping above her. But the interesting point is that as a corpse, Lulu does not look much different than she does alive. This scene is similar to earlier ones where Legrand moved around her body, caressing and kissing her; Lulu’s face betrays no emotion before or after her death. It is hard to imagine her as anything but an object, which is an implicit critique of the system that set her up in this way.
Renoir furthers this impression of Lulu-as-object by showing us the now completely passive body via a long shot through the window. This is significant if we consider two earlier long shots from the same viewpoint. We should compare Legrand’s idealized painting of a beautifully Victorian woman (surrounded in flowers and a lovely birdcage) with a similar shot of Lulu on her own idealized balcony. Sesonske makes the observation that the painting is a visual metaphor of Legrand’s wish for a domestic perfection, an echo of a later image of Lulu on her balcony, and “what Legrand most loves” (92). But, the two similar shots from the window’s long outsider perspective (one of death and one of an empty dream of possession) show that where the woman is a mere, passive possession, like the bird in the cage, follows disastrous consequences.
Toni: Women as Livestock
Toni is discussed as an example of 1930’s populism, an examination of a true “crime passionel” (Durgnat 99). Critics are quick to notice its innovative use of location shooting and naturalistic lighting and acting (Faulkner 48-52). What lay beneath the surface of this film is an examination of the consequences of a society where women are mere property, divvied up with the other possessions. But there is a difference in this film because the women eventually rebel— and are changed by their acts of extreme aggression. Toni features two main women characters, Marie and Josefa. Both are young and beautiful; in fact, the actresses who play them resemble each other enough to be sisters. This physical similarity underscores that they are not that different— that the real difference in their attractiveness is what they can offer as a material possession. Marie can only offer the life Toni already has, whereas Josefa, as part of the vineyard her Uncle owns, offers pastoral bliss to the lucky husband who wins her hand.
A major difference in this film when compared to La Chienne is that the women are rarely passive. They may make bad choices, but they still act. It is this action that changes their lives. Marie, when she believes Toni is leaving her for Josefa, runs after him, demands that he consider her feelings and compares his attending Josefa’s father’s funeral to Toni’s drowning of a litter of unwanted kittens. In other words, she shows him that his discarding of her as “unwanted” is a casual (on his part) cruelty which has significant consequences for her (as it did for the kittens). Her actions might seem melodramatic and overemphasized but she changes her own life rather than wait for someone else to change it for her. One of the two violent scenes in the movie, and a crucial moment in the narrative, shows Marie attempting to drown herself, just like the kittens, to punish Toni for his attention to Josefa. She appears silhouetted against the lake, and every action leading up to the scene shows her actively in control. She rows the boat rapidly out into the middle of the lake without any sign of hesitation or regrets. It may be a self-destructive choice that she makes— and one which we would not want to endorse— but she does not wait for someone else to change her life. After she is saved from her suicide attempt, it is she who rejects Toni, not allowing him into the house they shared and turning her face away from him. Gone is the passivity that destroys Lulu; Marie’s strength after the suicide attempt shows she has reached a decisive point where she will control her own destiny.
Josefa, the younger woman who is the object of Toni’s desire and a contested piece of property between Toni and Albert is told “You’re a part of the livestock.” This scene occurs just before her betrothal to Albert (who has deflowered her in a decidedly aggressive seduction that she tries to resist, which reads very strongly as rape). This scene occurs while Toni has been requesting her hand in marriage from her Uncle—showing that although Toni does so in a less abusive manner, none of the males considers her wishes until after the material possessions are divided up. She is, in fact, part of the “stock” of the farm, to be disposed of as her uncle, the great patriarch, wishes. Her uncle says as an afterthought, “Josefa must agree” but the decision is already foregone. This lasts until Albert, who desires Josefa “as a sexual toy and for her exchange value” (Faulkner 52) trumps Toni’s claim by literally possessing Josefa first. Far from domestic bliss, the wedding scene shows a sorrowful, resigned Josefa who submits to her new husband’s possessive kisses. It is significant to note that Renoir includes an interchange between two wedding guests, one of whom we later discover is the town undertaker, comparing the wedding to a good funeral.
We might expect Josefa to be passively destroyed by this mésalliance, and indeed, a number of subsequent scenes suggest this. Albert berates her cooking, we hear he has multiple affairs with young women after Josefa has their child, and Josefa discusses running away with her cousin to escape Albert’s tyranny. However, the look of open fear on her face shows that she does not relish the attempt to escape. It is, however, when Albert catches her stealing his money that the movie, and her life, subtly shifts. Albert brutally beats Josefa with a belt while she crouches defensively under a table. He later drinks nonchalantly while she sneaks the pistol he has dropped on the floor. The camera draws closer to her face in a series of close ups— her eyes narrow, and, in a shot-reverse-shot that emphasizes how close they are, and how rapidly the actions occur, Albert incredulously declares “I haven’t done anything to you.” As an angry tear glistens on her cheek, the camera cuts to the outside where Toni has come to rescue Josefa— and we hear a single gunshot. Toni rushes in and the camera pans from Josefa’s defiant expression and disheveled clothing to her hand, deflated but still holding the gun, to Albert’s body on the floor. Toni asks if she killed Albert for the money and she shows him the bruises on her back (in a scene that echoes an early flirtation between the two and should suggest a romantic re-attachment between the two that does not come about). Toni, in trying to help Josefa dispose of the body, incriminates himself by declaring to Albert’s dead body “she is mine” while a gendarme crouches in a bush. He tries to escape and we follow the chase until we cut to a scene where Marie meets Josefa, carrying her baby and escorted by a gendarme. Josefa declares, with a defiant expression and a lifted chin “I don’t want him to pay for my crime. I’m going to confess.”
Both women have, at this point, taken decisive action to change their lives, for better or worse. In contrast, Toni runs out-of-control and is shot by a local landowner. His death is all the more senseless because we know the sacrifice is for a woman who has chosen to live up to her own consequences and so, unheroically, he saves no one. I disagree with Sesonske’s claim that Toni begins a pattern wherein future films “relegate male-female associations to a secondary place” subsumed to “male companionship” and “camaraderie” (176). This reading is weak because it continues to cast the woman in the role of “destructive female” rather than see her as responding to the attempts of her society to destroy her, something that ignores Renoir’s own portrayals of women as primary to the storylines.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange: Two Communal Centers
This film is frequently hailed as Renoir’s populist masterpiece and critical discussions center on the communal society that forms when the ultimate villain, Batala, seemingly perishes in a train wreck. Sesonske stresses that “Renoir’s cinematography creates the unifying role of the court and exhibits the interpenetration of its spaces; camera positions and camera movements repeatedly include within a single shot both the courtyard and some interior space” (192). But these shots also frequently include an important character who also serves to unify those shots— and this character is Valentine. There are actually two centers in the community; both the magazine co-op and Valentine’s laundry shop are featured as sites of shared effort and comfort. This is Renoir’s strongest statement about the need to re-figure male/female roles; in a refiguring of “normal” roles, Valentine’s strength holds the community together while Lange is shown as the imagination and creative force. Valentine occupies a majority of the scenes in the film; she gives advice, encouraging Lange to confront the crooked Batala, she offers comfort to Estelle during the younger woman’s pregnancy, and eventually pairs with Lange who says she is “life itself.” In fact, Valentine provides the voice of the narrative, since it is the story she tells to the impromptu jury gathered at the border hotel that defines the entire film.
Inside her laundry there is a community of women who console the pregnant Estelle, who has been all but raped by Batala. They exclaim “it could happen to us too” and gather around her to try and comfort her. Estelle is cast as the damaged virgin; but her affair with Batala is not disastrous because the community, established through Lange and Valentine’s encouragement, supports her and her young boyfriend. Valentine scoffs when George’s parents declare her single unmarried motherhood “disgraceful” and demands that they consider how the community, guided by the magazine cooperative, supports them financially. George, the young man Estelle ends up with, dismisses Batala’s influence in their lives saying “he is dead and I love you.”
If Valentine represents the comfortable center of the community, in contrast to Batala and as companion to Lange, Edith represents what happens to the women outside of the community’s comfortable circle. In an early scene, Edith and Valentine argue with each other— Edith claims to be a secretary and Valentine responds with something like “that’s what they’re calling it nowadays”? The antagonism is obvious when we see that Valentine has had her dalliance with Batala, and rejects him, but that Edith sees Batala admirably. Valentine is unsympathetic to Edith, partly because Edith rejects the possibilities that Valentine offers. Batala, like Dédé in La Chienne, pimps Edith to his debtors and suggests to her, when he is about to abandon her, a life of prostitution, saying “with a little platform ticket and then a little handkerchief in her hand. . . you can do ravishing things, n’est-ce pas?” When he leaves, and this scene occurs, Edith finds a lecherous old man ready to swoop down upon her. The final shot we see of her face, far from being (as Sesonske claims) a “fledgling destructive female” with a look “cold and hard enough to make us wonder about the poor man’s fate” (208-9) actually shows resignation and sadness. Having alienated herself from the community that Valentine supports, Edith, minus Batala, must take what chances she can. But there is hope offered in Lange’s encounter with an aging, plump prostitute over a pack of Camels. The older woman invites Lange to “come up to her place” and he follows her coy lead. She does not seem worn down and unhappy— perhaps Renoir is showing us that, absent a destructive figure like Batala, even a less-than-acceptable female can succeed, living her own life and being happy and in control.
Finally, we must ask the question of what Renoir’s intentions are in showing us these women, subject to material considerations and male desires, who negotiate various traps and sometimes fall into them. In a 1970 interview, he expressed an idea which bears quoting at length:
Something which was obvious fifty years ago— now the relations are fortunately very different— but the story of the little girl. She is 15. She is more beautiful than an angel. Since she doesn’t like too much to work, she walks [ . . . ] on a sidewalk in a certain district of Paris, and anybody who wants to sleep with her just has to give her one dollar. One day, a rich man, being drunk, sees the girl, doesn’t realize she’s beautiful and pure. He takes her for one dollar. [. . .]he keeps the girl. Now, the girl is taken by another lover, then another lover, then another lover. When she is 50, no more beautiful, worn out by such life, lovers kill themselves for her sake, beg her to accept pearls and fortunes. The same people wouldn’t even look at her when she was 15 and beautiful. That has nothing to do with movies. (Frangakis 51)
On a first reading, it is unclear what Renoir was saying. Is he discussing and therefore lamenting the tragedy of a woman turned to prostitution, and the society which created the need for a woman to do so? Is he actually saying that the life, by which she is “worn out” and because of which, at 50, she can receive “pearls and fortunes,” is a positive growth experience? Are women who turn to sleeping with men for money because they don’t “like too much to work” supposed to be looked at as admirable over time, when their beauty is no longer an issue? I believe, when we look at the sympathy with which Renoir treats the woman who “doesn’t like too much to work” in his films, and shows them not as destructive whores but as humans whose mistakes have consequences and who negotiate society’s expectations as best they can, we can find an answer to this question. Renoir sees that society, which condemns the 15 year old beauty, is fickle, and capricious. Renoir’s sympathy for women who society would judge negatively, in films such as La Chienne, Toni, and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, shows us a man ready to consider the intricate negotiations that time makes with character. They might not all be happy endings, but they reflect real human experience. That, I think, is true poetic realism.
Durgnat, Raymond. Jean Renoir. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
Faulkner, Christopher. The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir. Princeton: Princeton University press, 1986.
Frankgakis, Nicholas, Editor. An Interview with Jean Renoir. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1998.
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
La Chienne. 1931. Dir. Jean Renoir. Video, Ajay Film Company, 1976.
Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. 1936. Dir. Jean Renoir. Video, Brandon Films Inc, 1964.
Toni. 1935. Dir. Jean Renoir. Video, Pathé Contemporary Films, 1968.
Thelma and Louise. 1991. Dir. Ridley Scott. Video, MGM.
Sesonske, Alexander. Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939. Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1980.