|Nana (1926). Jean Angelo as Count de Vandeuvres and Catherine Hessling as Nana. Please click to enlarge the images.|
FR 1926. PC: Films Renoir. P+D: Jean Renoir. Based on the novel by Émile Zola (1880). 3450 m /22 fps/ 135 min
Restored: 2002, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna. Restoration entrusted to the Cineteca di Bologna by Studio Canal in collaboration with ARTE France.
Print source: Cineteca di Bologna.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Il canone rivisitato.
Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Sub-Ti, grand piano: John Sweeney, 4 Oct 2016.
Janet Bergstrom: "The print screened for the premiere at the Moulin Rouge in April 1926 had to be shortened for Nana’s exclusive release at the Aubert-Palace in Paris in the summer of 1926. Scenes cut by Renoir included: Nana’s descent from above to the stage of the Variétés in “The Blonde Venus”, stopped by a knot in the rope before her feet can touch the ground; the “Petite Duchesse” episode; Nana’s bath; the Bois de Boulogne; a dressmaker scene at the home of Countess Muffat (still lost); servants fleeing from Nana’s home; the “mystical” ending. Most of these were recovered and replaced, drawing on film sources and non-film materials, by L’Immagine Ritrovata of Bologna when preparing their meticulously researched 2002 restoration of the April 1926 premiere version."
AA: I love Jean Renoir but my love starts with his early sound masterpieces including La Chienne, Boudu, and Toni. I have seen all films he made before them and find them interesting and rewarding but not truly great. Nana I had seen a few times before and was not planning to revisit it until I read Janet Bergstrom's program note and realized that on display is a restored and reconstructed version, the original complete Moulin Rouge premiere version of Renoir's first big production. It is absolutely essential to see this version. There is nothing superfluous in it, and obviously it was only cut to make room for more screenings per evening in cinemas.
Nana is a genuinely odd and paradoxical film. Jean Renoir was a master of realism especially in his great films of the 1930s (and this aspect was already in evidence in his first film, La Fille d'eau), but his talent was equally great in films of a stylized and theatrical approach. The paradox here is that Nana is based on the novel of the most famous Naturalist, Émile Zola, but the film adaptation does not belong to Renoir's realistic works. Instead, it is highly stylized and theatrical.
Renoir had been inspired to become a film-maker by Erich von Stroheim who had just filmed another Naturalistic novel, Greed. Stroheim also had a theatrical mode, for instance in his adaptation of The Merry Widow made before Nana, but probably Renoir did not yet know that film at the time of the production of Nana. None of Renoir's silent films are Stroheimian, and his deeper affinity with Stroheim is revealed first in the 1930s.
Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg directed three years later The New Babylon about the Paris Commune of 1871. Nana takes place during the final years of the Second Empire. As it ends, France declares war on Prussia. The Paris Commune was part of the aftermath of that war. The events of the two films happen within the same time period, and there are even similarities in the style. What Renoir created in Nana has an affinity with the FEKS approach of Kozintsev and Trauberg.
Nana can be seen as a satire on France during the last years of the Second Empire. The representatives of the high society, Count de Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo) and Count Muffat (Werner Krauss) do not seem to have anything else to do than to vie for the attentions of Nana (Catherine Hessling). But perhaps Nana is not just a satire on a degenerate society. Might it also be a self-parody of Jean Renoir's own relationship with Catherine Hessling? A similar story was soon to be told by Josef von Sternberg in Der Blaue Engel. And by Renoir himself equally poignantly in La Chienne.
The story remains topical as the most magnificent men keep falling for the most improbable objects of desire.
The more infatuated the counts are with Nana, the less respect she has for them.
There is unforgettable scene of degradation in Nana that even Sternberg would not be able to top: the hulking Count Muffat reduced to a lapdog trying to please Nana. "Couche!" Having witnessed this, Georges, the son of Count Vandeuvres, commits suicide with a pair of scissors. At the same time his father takes poison and puts his horse stable on fire, thereby burning his mare Nana to death. It is expensive to keep a courtesan. Count Vandeuvres has tried to rig Le Grand Prix de Longchamps to win enough money but his deceit having been exposed he has been ruined.
Renoir casts Catherine Hessling against type in Nana. There is almost a feeling of Brechtian Verfremdung, so impossible she is to believe as an irresistible courtesan. Hessling aggressively attacks any possibility of stereotyping her as a sex siren. For conventional casting see for example Christian-Jaque's film adaptation with his wife Martine Carol as Nana. Zola's novel inspired major paintings by contemporary artists, including Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (see below). Might Jean Renoir have also been committing Vatermord, crushing the idea of Nana made famous by his father's generation?
Catherine Hessling had been a model for Pierre-August Renoir until the painter's death in 1919. Next month, Jean Renoir married her, and wanted to make a film star out of her, although she could not act. The son's image of Catherine Hessling is the absolute opposite to the father's warm, sunny, radiant, sensual, and life-affirming paintings. Jean and Catherine were separated in 1931, but the divorce was finalized first in 1943. Jean cast Janie Marèse instead of Catherine Hessling as Lulu in La Chienne.
I am intrigued but not convinced by Hessling's interpretation. The great actors Jean Angelo and Werner Krauss seem ill at ease in their performances. Valeska Gert is totally at home in her role as Nana's chambermaid. The most moving performance is that of Jacqueline Forzane as Countess Sabine Muffat, infinitely disappointed with her husband's infatuation with Nana ("ni voix, ni talent").
In this excellent restoration there is a more powerful feeling of grandeur in the vision, and the film is full of fascinating details and observations. Even so Nana has not become a great film. Yet it does have unforgettable episodes such as the last day of Count Vandeuvres at the horse stable.
John Sweeney's piano interpretation was on the spot, even including "Le Galop infernal (no 15)" from Jacques Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers in the cancan sequence, an apt choice since Offenbach's La belle Hélène was the model for Nana's opening La blonde Vénus performance. Offenbach was also the natural choice to be played at the Moulin Rouge premiere of Renoir's Nana. Renoir's spirited cancan scene ends when Nana fails to get up after performing the splits.
Nana was shot on ortochromatic stock. Significantly, in the same year Robert Flaherty became a pioneer of panchromatic film in Moana. Renoir belongs to the artists who benefitted most from panchromatic stock. In this film we do not fully register the twinkle in Nana's eyes on ortochromatic stock.
A fine print of an excellent restoration.