Saturday, November 19, 2011

#244: Elena and Her Men

(Jean Renoir, 1956)

Elena and Her Men completes an informal trilogy in the Criterion Collection of Renoir's light, worldly, colorful musical comedies during the mid-1950s. However, this film eschews the most obvious connection between the two earlier films - the stage and an exploration of theatrical performance - in favor of a more elemental one (fanciful love carried on by dazzling women who assert their power through their traditional feminine guile) and a more cerebral one (the notion that "all the world's a stage" - or at least Paris is). Despite the presence of Anna Magnani and Jean Gabin in the other two films, it is Elena and Her Men that features the most legendary star front and center, the incomparable Ingrid Bergman. I could be wrong, but I think this is her first film in French (one of five languages she spoke), and the first film she made after separating from Roberto Rossellini.

Renoir's work here revolves almost completely around Bergman, and her character's development relies almost entirely on the fact that it is Bergman playing the role - we believe that her flower can bring any man luck simply because it was given to them by Ingrid Bergman. In this regard the film is not so far off from And God Created Woman, made the very same year. Of course, Bardot is not Bergman, just as - no, I can't even say it. Renoir. Vadim. They don't belong in the same sentence. So Elena and Her Men is far superior to that other film, even if it is somewhat underwhelming following the superb French Cancan. The various political machinations at work are often secondary to the sexual farce, making the film perhaps more akin to Rules of the Game than the other films in the trilogy, though no one would argue that it reaches that film's profound heights.

Ultimately, Elena and Her Men seems more relevant to Bergman's career than Renoir's, which makes it somewhat unusual in the Criterion catalog. The actress is certainly better represented elsewhere in the Collection with the perfect Notorious and the heart-wrenching Autumn Sonata. But Elena and Her Men is a celebration of her shine - a somewhat stereotypical investigation into the allure of her sexual presence, yes, but a breezy and notable one nevertheless, particularly for fans of the actress (like me).

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