Directed by Jean Renoir

Starring:

Catherine Hessling;

Pierre Champagne; Charlotte Clasis; André Derain; Van Doren; Madame Fockenberghe; Pierre Lestringuez; Harold Levingston; Henriette Moret; Pierre Renoir; Georges Térof; Maurice Touzé

Whirlpool of Fate

(La Fille De L’Eau) (1925)

    As first film’s go, Jean Renoir’s Whirlpool of Fate is pretty amazing.  Plenty of Griffith-like melodrama hold one’s attention; a memorable avant-garde dream sequence, which all-but steals the film; a beautiful young star (Renoir’s wife, who’s eyes rival those of Gloria Swanson); and a healthy dose of playful experimental film techniques, which pull the viewer completely out of the film but right into the heart of the new filmmaker.  Not bad for the son of one of the world’s greatest painters.

    

Renoir’s wife, Catherine Hessling plays Gudule (this is the name used in the intertitles on the Lionsgate DVD release, although every source referenced refer to the main character’s name as Virginia--a much better name, I might add) lives aboard a canal barge with her father and despicable Uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez).  During a storm, Gudule’s father is drowned and after she is menaced by her uncle and he looses the barge to drink, Gudule runs away.  She soon meets up with Ferret (Maurice Touzé), who introduces her to his trade--poaching.  Farmer Justin Crépoix (Pierre Champagne) catches the two on his farm, and summarily breaks their poaching nets.  In revenge, Ferret burns down Justin’s haystack, and in revenge for the revenge, Justin (and the torch wielding townsfolk, looking suspiciously like they are tracking the Frankenstein monster) burn Ferret’s caravan, causing Gudule to have to flee once again.  This time, however, she falls into a quarry, and the fall has made her a bit...coo-coo.  Handsome George Raynal (Harold Levingston), son of a rich family, finds Gudule, brings her food (she’s somewhat feral from the fall, but a rain storm and a whopper of a dream fix her right up), and brings her back to his home.  Finally happy, Gudule encounters Uncle Jeff while she’s on the way to the market, and he takes her money, demanding more.  It takes awhile for George to figure out Gudule is not really  a thief and he soon dispatches the offending Jeff into the canal, and whisks away his love...to Algeria!

    

In his autobiography Renoir writes that the plot of Whirlpool of Fate ‘was a secondary consideration, simply a pretext for purely visual imagery’, and it’s true that the plot, in-and-of-itself, harkens back to the earliest days of film-making.  The style however, going from pure melodrama to surrealism, with not just a hint of farce, and perhaps some political commentary tossed in, is often unbalanced, making a more complex plot difficult to follow.  As it stands, Whirlpool of Fate is compelling, and understandable, from the first shot to the fade-out.

    

Holding together the continuity of Renoir’s ambitious experiment is the film’s star (and director’s wife), Catherine Hessling.  Her performance as Gudule (aka Virginia) is pure Griffith-ian: Hessling is playing Lillian Gish playing Gudule (egad, how I hate that name!).  In no scene is this more apparent than in the sequence where her Uncle Jeff decides to become more “familiar” with her.  Gudule, lying in her bed on the barge understands immediately Uncle Jeff’s intentions, and like so many of Gish’s Griffith-ian heroines, fights with childlike madness, making the impending assault that much more visceral.  Hessling is unfortunately saddled with a flat pancake make-up through much of the film, which is very obvious during her close-ups, and her lipstick is drawn in an odd bow-like shape, making her appear as if she’s some kind of doll or cartoon character.  Hessling’s natural beauty (nothing can mask her glowing and expressive eyes) overcome these misfortunes, and allows her to give the only three-dimensional performance in the film.

    

By far the most memorable part of Renoir’s feature debut is the dream sequence, which comes almost out of the blue, and has no real significance to the story, but boy is it intriguing!  Surreal to say the least, Gudule’s dream allowed Renoir to really experiment with the medium of film.  Speeds change, contrasts, double-exposures, reverse slow-motion, dissolves, editing, etc., are mixed together--with varying results--but ultimately creating an eerie experience one often encounterers in dreams (at least I do).  If nothing more, the sequence was obviously fun for the “novice” filmmaker, and the sense of discovery is translated, which makes the sequence all the more compelling.

    

Certainly no masterpiece (those would come soon), Renoir’s Whirlpool of Fate is an auspicious debut, and one that rewards on multiple viewings.  

    

Whirlpool of Fate is available on DVD as part of the Lions Gate Distributed box set Jean Renoir: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition.  For the most part the image is in very good condition, considering the rarity of the film, but there are some sequences that are very beat up.  There are also plenty of contrast issues, but it is difficult to discern if these were intentional or experimental.  The film has French inter-titles with the option of English subtitles.  Unfortunately, both are white, and sometimes overlap, making some of the titles difficult to read.  The uncredited accordion score works marvelously with the film.  Very French.

 

Kevin M. Wentink