JEAN RENOIR for The Southerner
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend
Clarence Brown for National Velvet
Leo McCarey for The Bells of St. Mary’s
Alfred Hitchcock for Spellbound
Some directors, like Werner Herzog, have a profound understanding of nature, but Jean Renoir has a profound understanding of the countryside. The difference between the two is the difference between an awesome and unknowable wilderness and an enchanting and intimate landscape. The Southerner, one of Renoir’s four American films, succeeds perhaps the most (though I haven’t seen all four) because it dwells so much in the universal language of the tended—though never tamed—landscape and the changing seasons. The same rare, idyllic beauty that would flow through Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story a few years later runs through this 1945 production, rendered all the more impressive for the fact that Renoir conjured so much of it out of soundstages and backlots.
Following the passage of a year in the life of a fledgling Texas farmer and his family, Renoir’s roving camera finds the strange beauty of the bare structures and the potent landscape that engulfs them, whether exploring the sun-drenched beauty of the battered farmhouse at the beginning of the film, or gracefully capturing the dappled reflections of the sky on the flooded field or the sinuous flow of the swollen river at the movie’s end. The visuals in this film remain arresting even when Renoir shifts to using the most artificial of Hollywood’s means to produce them, such as the incredible scene when the grandmother (Beulah Bondi) rocks in her chair on the front porch before a rear-projected sky of billowing clouds. Coming between his bucolic romps through the 1930s French hinterland in such films as A Day in the Country and his 1950s Indian travelogue The River, this film captures an indelible snapshot of the American pastoral.
If I had any quibbles with Renoir’s directing of The Southerner, they stemmed from the strange disconnect of watching his characters and narrative working in the Hollywood idiom. Alfred Hitchcock suggested as much in his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, claiming that French directors like Renoir and René Clair inexplicably found difficulty adjusting to the storytelling mode in which their central European colleagues (Lubitch, Wilder, Curtiz) were able to thrive. I recall that when American critics bemoaned Wong Kar-Wai’s English language debut My Blueberry Nights as lightweight, Allison Willmore on the IFC News Podcast pointed out that his Hong Kong films had never been noteworthy for their dramatic heft so much as their enrapturing moods. When stripped of the literary patina of subtitles, what had seemed entrancing became trite or clumsy. In much the same way, I found that despite Zachary Scott and Betty Field’s earnest work as husband and wife, J. Carroll Naish’s exaggerated rival farmer and Bondi’s broad portrayal of the ornery mother-in-law drew me out of the film far more than the stock characters did in Renoir’s French social satires like Boudu Saved from Drowning or La Chienne. Similarly, strong narrative tactics like turning on a character’s inner monologue for a scene, or setting voiceover to a series of pillow shots, felt slightly unassured even as they refreshingly defied the conventional Hollywood playbook.
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, I think this film succeeds to the extent that it minimizes the sophisticated social critique present in his greatest masterpieces, instead turning toward his poetic mastery of the countryside. For 1945, I have to see Clarence Brown’s National Velvet, but I’m just about ready to hand my vote to Renoir for this considerable visual feat.