La Fille de l’eau (1925) + Le Ballet Mecanique (1924)

Cine Lumiere at the French Institute, London

2 April 2017


Today is one of those sunny afternoons when it’s just too nice to be in a dark cinema auditorium…….no only joking.  So, its onwards to the Cine Lumiere at the French Institute in Kensington for a rare screening of Jean Renoir’s La Fille de l’eau (1925) with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.  The film is being presented as part of the All About Piano festival.

But before the main feature there was an intriguing short, Le Ballet Mecanique (1924) conceived, written, and co-directed by French artist Fernand Léger in collaboration with the filmmaker Dudley Murphy (with some additional input from Man Ray).  Leger is probably better known as a painter and sculptor and, as far as I can see, this was his only venture into film making.  Made very much in a dadaist/futurist style, Ballet Mecanique is neither abstract or narrative but consists of a series of images of a woman’s lips and teeth, close-up shots of ordinary objects, and repeated images of human activities and machines in rhythmic movement.   It was originally intended that composer George Antheil would produce a score to accompany the film but director and composer went their own separate ways before the film was completed and it was not until the 1990s that the film was eventually shown with a version of Antheil’s original score.  Despite, or perhaps because of its repetitive style, the film takes on an almost hypnotic feel, and succeeds in blurring the distinction between human and mechanical machines.

Then it was on to the main feature, La Fille de l’eau, made in 1925 and director Renoir’s first full length feature.  The film tells the story of Virginia (Catherine Hessling) a young girl working on a canal barge with her father and her uncle Jef (Pierre Lestringuez).  When her father is drowned, her uncle inherits the barge and after a night of drinking attacks and tries to rape Virginia.  She runs away and initially falls in with a young poacher and the aged gypsy he lives with.  But when the poacher burns down the hayrick of a local farmer the two of them flee leaving Virginia behind.  She escpes but falls ill and is rescued by George (Harold Levingston), the son of the local business-man.  As she recovers, Jef reappears and begins to demand money from her.  When George discovers this, he fights with Jef, eventually defeating him and George and Virginia are last seen departing together. 

I have to confess at the outset that I’m a huge fan of the works of Jean Renoir (and who couldn’t be).  A number of his films fall into the category of genius (Boudu sauvé des eaux 1932), Partie de campagne 1936), La Grande illusion (1937), La Règle du jeu,(1939) and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959)  etc).  And most of the rest are merely masterpieces.  So in some ways it’s a little disappointing that La Fille de l’eau doesn’t really measure up to this standard.  But then again, this was Renoir’s feature debut and to some extent he is experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.  Clearly the montage type scenes in the film didn’t work and I don’t recall him ever attempting this again.  But other scenes already have that Renoir stamp all over them.  The focus on nature and its sudden unpredictability would be a feature of his work over and over again, for example in Partie de campagne, The River (1951), The Southerner (1945) and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.  Then there were the near perfect compositions of some of the shots, for example near the start as Jef walks back along the canal barge as it moves forward so he appears almost stationary or the night-time shots as Virginia’s face is illuminated by the gypsy camp fire.  Then there is the gentle mickey taking of the middle classes, in this case regarding Monsieur Raynal and his motor car, which would appear again beautifully in Boudu sauvé des eaux. 

But the scenes that really do work are those of Virginia’s dream, beautifully shot using multiple exposures, slow motion, reverse slow motion and overexposures. The effect is stunning, the horror of her seeing Jef hanging from a tree, how his noose becomes a snake and then of Virginia escaping on horseback through the clouds with George. 

And it is in these scenes that Catherine Hessling comes into her element with a quiet, ethereal presence, perfectly suited to the situation.  Unfortunately, it is in the rest of the film that she doesn’t quite measure up.  Starting out as an artist’s model (and, according to some sources, mistress) to Renoir’s father, the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, she eventually married Jean Renoir in 1920.  A number of sources, including a 2013 film biography, Renoir, claim that it was her influence which set Renoir on the course toward film-making although other sources see Renoir’s desire to make her a movie star as the driving force.  She went on to star in several other of Renoir’s films, most notably Nana (1926) in which her overly melodramatic performance was seen as a major weakness to the film.  She and Renoir were divorced in 1930 after which she faded into obscurity although, ironically, they would both die within months of each other in 1979. And rather disconcertingly I was also somewhat thrown by her striking resemblance to Anta Dobson of EastEnders fame!  Can you tell them apart?

Renoir, of course, would go on to much greater things, making more than forty films up to the end of the 1960s. His films La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) are often cited by critics as among the greatest films ever made.  It is only to be regretted that in his later years Renoir was unable to raise sufficient money with which to continue film making.  But this did at least give him time to put in writing his own story and his  ideas on film production.

Despite a rather poorly attended screening it was nice to hear John Sweeney give his usual, top notch live piano accompaniment to both films, moving effortlessly from the somewhat high tempo of Ballet Mecanique to the rather more gentle charms of La Fille de l’eau. Altogether a rather pleasant way to spend a sunday afternoon, even if it was bright and sunny outside.

(NB.  La Fille de l’eau is available on Amazon for a mere £98.83.  There are only short clips available on-line.  Ballet Mecanique can be watched in its entirety on-line and is available via Amazon on the compilation Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941….a snip at $399.99!)