[This introduction to Jean Renoir's Elena and Her Men was presented on June 22, 2014 at the St. Louis Art Museum as a part of the 2014 Classic French Film Festival.]
Jean Renoir's 1956 feature Elena and Her Men is rarely cited as one of the director's more enduring cinematic accomplishments. Critics have even labeled it with that dreaded adjective, “lesser". As in: “Elena is lesser Renoir.” Certainly, the film falls at the later and less well-regarded end of the director's filmography. Renoir had spent most of the 1940s making films in Hollywood, which had been a somewhat disillusioning experience for him. He subsequently traveled to India to shoot his first color film, The River, before returning to Europe in the early 1950s. There he helmed three features in succession: The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena and Her Men. All three were luscious Technicolor productions that blended light comedy, romance, and music. None of them were especially loved in their time by audiences or critics—with the notable exception of nascent French New Wave figures such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Elena and Her Men in particular was dismissed when it premiered in Paris in September of 1956, and then in the U.S. in the following March under the suggestive English title Paris Does Strange Things. The contemporary New York Times review decried the film as a “bewildering” “fiasco” with “horrible acting”. With all due respect to the late great Times critic and professional curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, he was just plain wrong about Elena.
Jean Renoir was always a reflective and self-effacing artist, and he freely admitted after the fact that his primary motivation for making Elena had been the opportunity to work with iconic Swedish performer Ingrid Bergman. At the time, the actress was near the end of her self-imposed exile in Europe, a situation necessitated by American outrage over her affair with and then marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Bergman had not previously portrayed the lead in a comedic feature, and Elena demonstrates that Renoir understood how to utilize the actress' world-renowned glamour (and sexual notoriety) as a farcical building block.
Her character, Elena, is a Polish noblewoman of dwindling means, dwelling in a turn-of-the-century France that is ripe with nationalist sentiment. Strong-willed but fickle, romantic but ambitious, Elena is the shimmering star around which a cluster of love-besotted men orbit. These suitors collide and careen off one another, creating ripples in the French political order and along armed European borders. The white daisy that Elena bestows as a good luck charm multiplies as the film goes on, marking the lapels of soldiers, supplicants, and spin doctors like a telltale thumbprint. The flower seems to say, “Elena Was Here”. However, the woman herself remains an enigma. Elena's motivations are obscure and contradictory: she seems to relish the pragmatic power that her beauty and charm afford, but also craves the pure, poetic love of a devoted man.
Foremost among the men that dance on Elena's strings is the guileless General Rollan, portrayed by director Jean Cocteau's dashing muse and partner, Jean Marais. Rollan is loosely based on real-world French officer and politician Georges Ernest Boulanger. A hero of the Franco-Russian War, Boulanger became a populist conservative icon in the late nineteenth century, and was nearly goaded into toppling the Republic in a coup d'état. Renoir and co-writer Jean Serge hastily fictionalized the script out of respect for Boulanger's living descendants, resulting in a film that feels gently rather than viciously satirical. The story's target it not the specific weaknesses of French culture, but the general gullibility of humankind. Leaders rouse the masses with jingoistic pomp, while the leaders themselves are cajoled by scheming lackeys.
In this and other respects, Elena and Her Men shares more than a few features with Shakespeare's comedies. There is the shifting love triangle at the center of the plot, as well as a secondary, more buffoonish romantic rivalry. Like one of the Bard's bawdy farces, the film includes costume swaps and mistaken identities, betrothals and rendezvous, and a tidy yet cynical ending. Elena even features a troupe of traveling performers, in the form of a Roma circus caravan. The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena and Her Men all deal with spectacle and illusion. The earlier films approach these themes through, respectively, the commedia dell'arte and the French café-chantant. Elena's gypsy carnival folk merely underline what is already apparent from the Bastille Day military parade, the sensational newspaper headlines, the hawking street musician, the choreographed dinner party, and the worshipful bordello madam. All point to one truth: everything is a performance for someone's benefit.