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ELENA AND HER MEN
From the Stage & Spectacle Box Set

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer, Pierre Bertin
Director: Jean Renoir
Audio: French 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Jean Renoir introduction, Jean Renoir Parle de Son Art: Part III, Jean Renoir - Hollywood and Beyond, stills gallery, essay
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: August 3, 2004

"We absolutely must meet again.  Every charm has its secret, and I must learn this one."

Film ** 1/2

Following the success of French Cancan (1955), filmmaker Renoir's search for a new project carried him to the French stage.  There, he directed actress Leslie Caron in the play Orvet, a stage experience which reflected Renoir's on-going interest in the theater during his late career.  Renoir's next film, Elena et les Hommes (Elena and Her Men,1956), would consequently be inspired by the fanciful, farcical world of the stage comedy.

Originally, the film was to have been based on the life and times of General Georges Boulanger.  Relatively unknown in the States, Boulanger was nevertheless an extremely popular French general of the late nineteenth-century, whose service in North Africa, Indochina, and especially the Franco-Prussian War had garnered him much public affection.  As a radical military and later political leader, he appealed to the French public's animosity towards Germany for the Franco-Prussian conflict.  His public popularity peaked around Bastille Day, 1886 and reached such a fervor that the nervous French government began to worry of a possible coup attempt, supported by Royalists and Bonapartists, to install Boulanger as dictator.  Though he briefly served as France's Minister of War, Boulanger ultimately fled to Belgium to avoid arrest.  There, in exile, he eventually committed suicide on the tomb of his mistress.

Ideally, a film based on Boulanger might seem well-suited  for an epic wartime romance or perhaps even a Shakespearean tragedy of hubris and pride's fall.  Had Renoir made this film, it could have been an intriguing sociopolitical drama that might have rivaled the depth and social commentary of his famous 1930's films.  Instead, a late-production decision to alter the storyline and to create a fictional general at its core diminished the film's potential dramatic gravity.  While the final story still bore some vague resemblance to actual history, the film itself was metamorphosed into a romantic farce, complete with an obligatory happy ending.

Upon the film's initial release, film critics were dismissive of Elena and Her Men, perhaps expecting a work of greater sophistication from Renoir.  The film's comic elements, with broadly-drawn characterizations and wild screwball sensibilities, certainly made Elena and Her Men more of a children's film than one for adults, an unusual consideration for a "serious" director of Renoir's stature.  The film's political intrigue was also at times a bit too convoluted for such a light-hearted film, but when viewed today as purely a slapstick comedy, Elena and Her Men, although flawed, is actually a fairly enjoyable film.

Of course, with international superstar Ingrid Bergman in the lead romantic role, the film is certainly not short on beauty or sex appeal.  Bergman at the time had been on the verge of a career renaissance following her then-scandalous and adulterous relationship with director Roberto Rossellini.  Elena and Her Men, together with Anastasia, would mark her glorious return to the spotlight and would signal the movie-going public's forgiveness for her indiscreet love affair.

In Elena and Her Men, Bergman portrays Princess Elena Sorokowska of Poland, fittingly the glamorous object of men's desires.  Even as the film opens, she is seen dismissing an opera composer, her latest admirer.  But no sooner is he departed then Elena acquires three new suitors in rapid succession - the dashing young Henri de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer) smitten with puppy-love, the rich merchant Martin-Michaud (Pierre Bertin), and most especially the charismatic and powerful General Rollan (Jean Marais, most famous as the Beast in Cocteau's fantastical Beauty and the Beast).

Princess Elena and General Rollan cross paths in a typical meet-cute encounter on Bastille Day (the French Independence Day).  All about, there is plenty of singing and merrymaking, and appropriately enough, even a brief recitation of the Song of Roland, a classic epic poem of chivalry and noblesse.  During these celebrations, Elena is introduced to the general; she gives him a daisy for good luck, and immediately afterwards, Rollan is offered a position in the French President's cabinet as Minister of War.  The daisy thus becomes a recurring symbol of the blossoming attraction between Elena and Rollan and will also be used throughout the film to portray the French public's love of General Rollan.

Elena, however, is engaged to marry the wealthy Martin-Michaud.  Her engagement apparently does little to discourage her suitors, among whom Henri de Chevincourt is the most affectionate.  The film, progressing in a classic screwball mode, follows the chaotic pursuits of love and passion that ensue between the three suitors in Martin-Michaud's country manor (recalling Renoir's earlier The Rules of the Game).  The whirlwind of comical politics at the center of the film also channels the madcap energy of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, as the general's supporters, among them Martin-Michaud too, try to convince Rollan to use his new post within the French government as a stepping stone to greater heights, possibly a coup d'état.  These revolutionists even enlist Elena's aid in using her feminine charms to entice the good general into accepting his destiny, although her actions only serve to further complicate the tangled web of love intrigues.

Scenes of romance are coupled to scenes of song and motion, suggesting the vibrancy of theater and its abstract reflection of real life.  Elena and Her Men follows the lovers' fanciful encounters, both public or clandestine, into bars or a brothel or even a gypsy encampment.  Fittingly, the film concludes as a gypsy woman sings "O night, bring me a lover...a lover to love me alone."  It is a quintessential French finale, as all the film's characters are shown one last time in the tender embrace of their respective sweethearts.

Elena and Her Men would prove to be Renoir's third consecutive period film.  Like his two previous films, it is a romantic comedy-fantasy set in a netherworld of reality and stage art.  In all three films, upper and lower classes intermingle, with the films' central heroines boasting of a trio of potential lovers apiece.  Each film features lovers from all tiers of social classes, but differences in class or social structure vanish before the allure of love.  The Golden Coach had Camilla's Viceroy, a charismatic bullfighter, and Felipe, the long-suffering but poor admirer.  Nini of French Cancan was caught in a love web between a young prince, a charismatic showman, and her long-suffering Paulo.  And Elena, of course, has potential suitors in the wealthy merchant, the powerful general, or the simpler Henri.  Only Elena, however, ends up in the embrace of a man in the end.

Of course, love is ephemeral, and as Danglard in French Cancan suggests, only the desires of the audience truly matter: "Only one thing matters to me, what I create...All that counts is what they want.  We're at the service of the public."  If all the world's a stage, then in this trilogy of spectacle and musical films Renoir has certainly fulfilled his personal vision of romantic worlds combining life with the theater.

Video *** 1/2

What gorgeous colors!  There is something undeniably wondrous about a well-photographed Technicolor film which even the sophisticated color palettes of today's films cannot emulate.  Elena and Her Men is derived from the original 35mm camera negative, so the film frequently looks quite sharp, clear, and almost new at times.  Criterion has done an admirable job with this transfer.

Audio ***

I did not know that Ingrid Bergman was fluent in French, but Elena and Her Men proves me wrong.  The film is presented in its original French soundtrack, with clear dialogue and a clean background.  Since the soundtrack is monophonic, the dynamic range is not as broad as today's films.  Nevertheless, this film sounds quite good.

Features ***

Jean Renoir introduces his film in a short prelude (6 min.) that discusses Ingrid Bergman and the original concept of the film as a story about General Boulanger.  Due to last-minute script alterations, the film did not quite turn out as Renoir had hoped, which he freely admits.

Jean Renoir Parle de Son Art: Part III (24 min.), also entitled "The Return to Naturalism," is the final third of a three-part interview between Jacques Rivette and Jean Renoir.  It focuses on the state of French cinema in the 1960's, during which trends in cinéma vérité and realism were popular.  The discussion is highly intellectualized and may confuse viewers due to the flood of ideas upon which Renoir expounds.  However, the essence of his comments are that "perfection handicaps cinema" in that attempts to make a technically exact film only diminish the imperfections and experiments from which greater creativity and innovation arise.  The other portions of this documentary can be found on the Criterion discs The Golden Coach and French Cancan.

Jean Renoir - Hollywood and Beyond (59 min.) is Part Two of a 1993 BBC documentary chronicling Renoir's career.  This documentary focuses upon Renoir's unhappy Hollywood years and the latter stages of his career after his return to Europe.  Renoir, who often considered himself a storyteller and not just a director, relates some hilarious anecdotes from his days at 20th-Century Fox.  At one point, he states, "I would rather sell peanuts in Mexico than make films for Fox", which he had once inadvertently referred to as "15th-Century Fox."  Numerous clips appear from Renoir's Hollywood films, including The Southerner, Renoir's personal favorite among his American films, and the very exotic The River, a Technicolor film shot on location in India.  Overall, this is an excellent documentary, Part One of which can be found on the Criterion disc The Rules of the Game.

A stills gallery on the disc offers thirteen production photographs or set design art.  Lastly, the package insert has an essay discussing Elena and Her Men by Christopher Faulkner, a film historian on Renoir's movies.

Summary:

The final film of Renoir's Trilogy of Spectacle, Elena and Her Men signaled Ingrid Bergman's return to the international spotlight.  It is a fun and light-hearted film, a throwback to the screwball comedies of a bygone era.

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