Friday, August 08, 2008

From Catastrophe: Jean Renoir's The Southerner (1945)

There are moments in the history of the arts when apparent cataclysm yields sterling results. One such instance is the break-up of the greatest band of the 1980s, The Smiths, after just four LP's. Sprouting from what seemed to be a cultural calamity, Morrissey's solo career may not stand up to The Smith's corpus song-for-song and album-for-album - not even The Beatles arguably can match The Smiths in either category - but there can be no denying the richness and even variety of his post-Smith's output. His is a career without which the best in latter-day indie rock would seem unthinkable.

Likewise, director Jean Renoir's exit from France following the critical and commercial disaster of his ultimate master work The Rules of the Game (1939), marks another such node in the history of artistic expression. No filmmaker can claim the sustained level of achievement that Renoir attained during the 1930s in his native France, where with one masterpiece after another the son of the Impressionist both defined an entire industry, as well as a film movement ("poetic realism") while exceeding his time - save for the even more tragic two-feature career of Jean Vigo - effortlessly. "The French Renoir" was the greatest of all French directors, proving the celluloid heir to that nation's venerable naturalist and (again) Impressionist traditions.

Hollywood, on the other hand, and particularly its studio settings, certainly must have seemed ill-suited to facilitate the director's characteristic realism. Yet The Southerner (1945) emerges as a full flowering of the director's mature - location-bound - idiom, in its case transposed onto the flat cotton fields of the American south. The Southerner further marks the middle point between Renoir's 1939 The Rules of the Game and his late period masterpiece The River (1951), both chronologically and thematically.

Borrowing from the earlier film, Renoir infuses his American film with a like carnality, fixing chiefly on its male protagonist Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott). Sam maintains an active conjugal life with his wife Nona (Betty Field), is forthrightly desired by a pretty young neighbor girl (Noreen Nash) and is twice pursued over his single pal - who in serving as the narrator in the film's picture book opening fulfills the role of the plump Renoir surrogate ala Octave. (He similarly offers comic relief in a pair of unexpected outbreaks of violence that reinforces the link.) Sam's mother, moreover, is displayed in the apparent aftermath of a tryst with her aged fiance, lying beside the gentleman in the partial shelter of the cotton crops. Looking forward, The Southerner's physicality anticipates Renoir's under-appreciated ode to sensuality, Picnic on the Grass (1959).

In fact, The Southerner repeatedly looks ahead, though often to the less distant The River. In embryonic form, The Southerner anticipates that later film's cyclical understanding of human history and its organization of life into seasons, depicted in a calendar illustrated by its Americanist drawings (cf. John James Audubon); the snake motif is referenced but not developed; and lastly, it refers to and even suggests the possibility of dead children - a theme again that overlaps with The River.

The aforesaid child, Sam and Nona's son, is endangered by their villainous neighbor Devers's (J. Carrol Naish) initial refusal to share water and later his insistence that he not be given milk (for his "spring sickness"). We are told that in both cases, these supplies can be easily spared the child, which basic human sympathy would dictate. In this regard, and in the ever-present suggestion that Sam and his family might have their lease revoked by a potentially malevolent landlord, Renoir's American cinema reintroduces the communitarianism of his leftist French film practice - though as (almost) always, the director's politics are worn lightly.

Renoir's humanism, however, is equally clear in his portrayal of the highly sympathetic proletariat Tucker's, whether it is the perpetually hard-working Sam or his strong-willed wife. She is in fact the one member of the family who seems to be able to reign in the often unreasonable Granny (Beulah Bondi) - she complains when one of her two blankets is used to make a coat for her granddaughter; in certain respects, Bondi's character seems to anticipate Pather Panchali's (1955) similarly curmudgeonly matriarch. Actually, that Bondi has been cast in the part sheds some light on Renoir's famous assertion that Leo McCarey knew the true nature of people better than anyone else in the American cinema: surely it was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) that inspired the quotation?

Still it is less these characterizations than The Southerner's visual interest which truly assure its high level of accomplishment: the horizontal cotton fields often picturesquely framed by the Tucker's dilapidated farm house; and the dark storm clouds gathering above Granny's head; the enormous catfish pulled from the muddy river; and the conclusion with the film's protagonists wading out into the overflowing artery; the opossum hanging in the tree; and Nona collapsing onto the dirt field, her arms burrowing beneath the dry surface. In this last moment in particular, The Southerner's physicality is translated into gesture, producing a film of almost ineffable carnality.

And of course, metaphor adheres in the film's landscape, whether it is the slow leak in the farm house's roof or in the downpour that signals catastrophe for the Tucker's. Yet, it is the untransportable nature of the director's visuals, be it Michel Simon's flotation in Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) or Betty Field's collapse into the dirt that mark Renoir's cinema at its very finest. From The Rules of the Game's failure would come one of the lesser-seen treasures of America's war-era cinema - as well as one of its greatest, and most tactile, single moments.

1 comment:

Danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!