Saturday 25 May 2024

CINEMA REBORN 2024 - Peter Hourigan dives back into his first encounters with Jean Renoir to introduce THE GOLDEN COACH (Italy/France, 1952)

It is fitting that in this wonderful season of restorations, Renoir’s Le Carrosse d’Or should have a place. Today the film lover can have access to films from the distant past or from distant places, and in good viewing copies. When my love affair with cinema was being nurtured at Melbourne University (there were no film courses, of course) in the 1960s, you had to rely completely on films brought into the country by the commercial distributors. And on heavy 35mm reels. Rights would expire, and after a few years a film would no longer be available.

In this bleak landscape, one old film sparked a light. European critics had discovered an old Renoir film – Pre-war – La Règle du Jeu (Rules of the Game,  1939).  At its premiere this prescient film had been a failure. Almost immediately producers  had cut it down. And then it had vanished. But in the mid-50s boxes with almost all of Renoir’s original version were discovered. Here was the wonderful event of a film reborn. At a time when retrospectives were unheard of, La Règle  du jeu premiered at the Venice Film Festival.  

Jean Renoir as Octave in his La règle  du jeu 

It made its way to the Melbourne Film Festival in 1962.  An old film among a selection of the best international films of that single year.  And it sparked something in a group of undergrads, members of the Melbourne University Film Society.  God! This film is wonderful! We have to see more films by this guy. 

I was one of those people,  and over the next few years – until I finished my degree and had to go out and earn my living – I was involved in several events tracking down  any of Renoir’s films. We even went to the extremes of importing several there were not available in Australia. That was really an arduous and expensive undertaking. First, track down an overseas source willing to let a print come to Australia. Freight costs meant we were only considering 16mm copies – we could never have afforded the freight for a 35mm theatrical copy. We had to learn how to navigate the customs and censorship regulations. But we did pull together a two-week public season of ten films. We were amazed that we did it. But we were more amazed as we came to know this incredible filmmaker, who refuses to be pigeon-holed. 

   Left-wing Popular Front comedies in the thirties. Prescient social and political analysis of pre-war European society. American B-grade (in budget only) films during the second world war, when he was living in USA in exile, post-war entertainment riches like French Cancan.  

Duncan Lamont, Anna Magnani The Golden Coach

One of the jewels we came across was THE GOLDEN COACH, courtesy of a reasonable 16mm print from the French Embassy. We thrilled to its vivid colour, the magnetic power of Anna Magnani in a role so different from the harrowing neo-realist roles we’d associated her with, a fascinating structure that blended theatre and realism. 

Perhaps some of the minor roles didn’t have actors with the same ability to live in their roles as Magnani– but they were adequate and we came to love that adequacy as part of the fabric of the film. We were also entranced by the glorious music of Vivaldi. Then his music was still a novelty. The resurgence of the universal popularity it has enjoyed for the last sixty years was just beginning. In his book, My Life and My Films,  Renoir wrote, My principal collaborator on this film was the late Antonio Vivaldi.  I wrote the script while listening to records of his music, and his wit and sense of drama lad me on to the developments in the best tradition of the Italian theatre. 

 This is a film that is, first of all, to be enjoyed.  You can follow up later, writings analysing it in depth. Its balancing of realism and theatre, its total artificiality and its 100% truth. You can reminisce about favourite moments. There’s one line in the film that has stayed with me for years, and I pull it out frequently (even if only to myself) whenever I realise I’ve nodded off during a film or a piece of music.  I’ll leave it to you to recognise that moment.

 I’ll leave the last word to Renoir. In My Life and My Films, Renoir concludes with this, 

                Whether the setting is natural, or imitates Nature, or is deliberately artificial, is of little importance.  I used external truth in so-called ‘realistic’ films like La Chienne and La Bete Humaine, and apparently total artificiality in films like [The Little Matchgirl] and  Le Carrosse d’Or.  I have spent my life experiments with different styles, but it all comes down to this: my different attempts to arrive at the inward truth, which for me is the only one that matters. 

When I was preparing these notes for today’s introduction, I discovered a note on the film that I’d written for MUFS magazine, Annotations on Film for Term 3 1965.  And I guess I was also surprised to see how well I caught the film back then.  

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