Day 117: ‘The Lower Depths’ 1936 + ‘French Cancan’ 1955

‘The Lower Depths’ 1936 ‘French Cancan’ 1955

I did a double feature Jean Renoir tonight. I watched the last of the 1930s films he directed which I have access to and one of his later French films from the mid-1950s. I’ve still got two others to watch, The River (1951) and Elena et les hommes (1956).

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths [1936]) is a very strong film but I’m becoming aware of the fact that yelling and screaming female characters – when expressing intense feelings – or even with men in scenes of heightened emotions – could well be a norm for either 1930s’ Renoir or 1930s’ French films. I don’t have any other 1930s French films with which to compare it, so far. As I noted after watching La Bête humaine (1938), over-the-top acting in some scenes did the film a disservice. I wonder, however, if French people were more histrionic in that age and whether this representation is part of what Renoir was wanting to achieve. If I saw it in an American, Italian or British film of the same era, I’d react in the same way.

If Grande Illusion or La Règle contained similar sequences it would have been at odds with the overall style. The acting was more restrained. Also, French Cancan has a sequence between Danglard and his lover Lola, a dancer, when he’s issued with a summons for money he owes. She is upset by it. Her inflamed passions are realistic and believable in comparison with the earlier films. La Règle is a very obvious exception, with the actors saying their lines dispassionately, throwing their lines away as if they’re mere words.

French Cancan opens with a different credit for the writer-director than usual:

Une comédie musicale de Jean Renoir

That’s what surprised me. Every film has comedy but Lower Depths was a film by Jean Renoir and very serious whereas French Cancan was just a trifle.