Friday, March 19, 2010

Charleston Parade/The Little Match Girl

Charleston Parade is a totally bonkers short silent film from Jean Renoir, a nutso little experimental showcase for the animalistic eroticism of his wife, Catherine Hessling. The short is set in the then-distant future of 2028, a time in which, apparently, Europe has descended into apocalyptic disrepair while Africa is ascendant, its people traveling in globe-shaped UFO-like vehicles that hover through the air. Johnny Huggins plays an African explorer visiting the wasteland of Paris in just such a ship, and encountering the local savage Hessling, clad in skimpy shreds of lingerie and leering at him with a frankly lascivious interest. The film's conceit is especially interesting for its era since it more or less reverses the typical depictions of black men and white women in films of the time. Huggins plays in minstrel makeup, his big white lips often the only part of his face that shows up in the low-contrast images, but the film's narrative has the white woman feverishly pursuing the frightened black man for a change. She chases him with abandon and even ties him to a lamppost. The film doesn't exactly overturn stereotypes — Huggins' performance is pure minstrel show slapstick — but it does place them front and center for examination.

None of which should imply that Charleston Parade is a serious work about race, stereotypes, or anything else. It is, more than anything, a deeply goofy, silly film, an opportunity for Hessling to really cut loose and for Renoir to indulge in some of his more playful sensibilities. The depictions of Hessling seducing Huggins by performing a rough, sensual Charleston dance are particularly fun, as Renoir subtly slows the images into a sinuous, snake-like motion as Hessling sways and wiggles, kicking her legs high and leaping into the air like a frog. At the climax, when Hessling and Huggins perform the dance together, the images become frenzied and wild, as Renoir cuts in shots of the dancers' feet as they twirl and encircle each other, their feet bouncing wildly around.

There's also a playful crudeness to many of the effects shots, from the opening model shots of the explorer's aircraft taking off to the inserts of "angels" portrayed as disembodied heads with small wings floating beneath them; Renoir himself appears among the angels at one point, mugging broadly. At one point, Hessling hears a phone ringing, so she draws a phone on the wall in chalk, and when she's finished an actual phone fades into view atop the drawing so she can answer it. Later, when she's preparing to leave, her coat and umbrella sashay along the ground towards her, the coat crawling up to wrap itself around her and the umbrella leaping into her waiting hand. There's an offhand magic to these rough shots that's charming; the same goes for Hessling's playmate, a man in a grotesque ape costume who dances the Charleston along with her and weeps when she's about to leave. These images reveal a spirit of play and weird humor in Renoir that would later manifest itself in his kindred spirit antiheroes like Boudu. Charleston Parade is an oddity from Renoir, but it's a compelling and enjoyable oddity.

The Little Match Girl is another short silent film from Jean Renoir, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable and starring Renoir's wife Catherine Hessling as a poor match seller named Karen. She is sent out by her family on a cold night to sell matches, but she can't find any business and she suffers in the cold and the snow, assaulted by boys with snowballs, ignored by potential upper-class customers, freezing in the dark as she peers into bright, warm, lively shops and pubs where people laugh and eat and drink. It is a maudlin but nonetheless effective piece of humanist social realism, contrasting the suffering of the poor match girl, who no one cares about, against the security and comfort of those who pass her by in the snowy streets. There is one especially potent shot in which Karen is scrambling around on the ground in front of a restaurant, desperately gathering up her wares after they've been knocked away by the boys who pelted her with snowballs. A policeman arrives and chases the boys away, then walks towards Karen. Renoir remains at ground level with Karen, on all fours in the snow, and behind her the policeman's clean, shiny boots pass by, then stop, not to help Karen, but to talk with the restaurant's owner, who had been hit with one snowball when she briefly came outside to yell at the boys for hitting her windows. The shot is utterly heartbreaking: Karen in despair on the ground, while the figure of authority, his boots in the background of the shot, ignores her to comfort the comparatively uninjured upper-class shop owner.

At around the short's halfway mark, this mix of hard realism with broad sentimentality — the match girl peering wistfully through the frosted windows of a restaurant — gives way to the crude effects and whimsical tone that Renoir also utilized in Charleston Parade. At this point, it would seem, the film becomes a surreal fantasy, a dreamlike imagining as the match girl, freezing in the snow, desperately trying to warm herself with the tiny flickering flames of her matches, instead dreams of happier things. She steps into a giant-sized toy shop, where she wanders among the toys as they come to life: ballet dancers dance, a shaggy stuffed dog balances a ball on its nose, and toy soldiers march in formation. The rough stop-motion animation effects are compelling, but what's really interesting and affecting about this diversion is that Renoir doesn't allow the fantasy to be a complete escape from reality. Although these animations are charming and playful, they are also poignant; as Karen is dancing through gauzy white curtains or juggling, or watching the toy soldiers march, it's impossible to forget that she's actually lying in the snow, alone and forgotten, losing herself in hallucinations brought on by starvation and frostbite.

In that respect, even as the film becomes a fantastical farce on its surface, it retains its edge of despairing realism: Karen has chosen to retreat from reality rather than face it any longer. It is a film above giving up, about losing one's grip on life, and this sobering undercurrent runs through even the most playful moments of the fantasy segment. Towards the end of this sequence, Renoir turns back to darker territory, introducing a toy soldier with a skull and crossbones on his hat and bone ribbing on his jacket. That's right: this film features Death as a toy soldier, pursuing Karen and her protector, another soldier, in a horse chase across the sky. The film's denouement transitions smoothly from the whimsy and escapism of Karen's wistful fantasy into a startlingly poignant depiction of the journey into the afterlife, as the dark soldier, this icon of death, throws Karen's lifeless body across his black mount and rides through the clouds with her. The rough superimpositions of these images lend a quality of eerie minimalism to the fantasy's final moments — culminating in Death, previously a forbidding, villainous figure, tenderly laying Karen down on a cliff edge beside a cross which then morphs into a budding bush. Then, the return from fantasy to the cold harshness of reality in the film's final moments only underscores that even this romantic vision of death is far from reality: the truth is sadder, more pathetic, without the heroic adventure of Karen's dream death. This is a poignant, moving, evocative short from Renoir, the cinema's premier humanist delivering a powerful depiction of how social class dictates life and death.


Joshua said...

The Little Match Girl is hands down my favorite of all Renoir's work, and I like that you point out that the fantasy sequence is still grounded in the cold, harsh reality of her circumstances. What makes it so effective is exactly what you say, that we can never forget where she actually is, so that we are constantly anchored to reality despite the fantasy's compelling nature.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Joshua. I agree: it's this mental tug of war between simply going along with the compelling fantasy, and realizing that it's all just a dream that's been birthed from harsh reality. It's kind of the way Lynch's Mulholland Dr. plays in retrospect, except that in this case the fantasy's gloss over harsh reality is apparent from the very beginning.