Nana (1926)

If Fille de l’eau was Renoir’s apprentice work, as I suggested, his next film was much more like “the real thing”, still an independent production but one that felt more like a big professional job (swapping the influence of Griffth for that of Stroheim). The problem was, Renoir spent so much money trying to make Nana look like a big professional job that it nearly ended his incipient career, a notorious box office failure that left him stuck in the unhappy rut of more purely commercial efforts for a number of years thereafter. Similarly, it pretty much ended his attempt to make the then Mrs Renoir, Catherine Hessling, a star (most of her limited career after that was actually done under Alberto Cavalcanti); history seems to have been fairly unkind towards her from what I’ve read, though other reviews I’ve found of this film seem to agree her, shall we say, expansive performance in the lead role actually works here given the nature of Nana’s character: a stage performer “ni voix ni talent” as the intertitle says, but that doesn’t stop men who are old enough to know better (and yet who never do in these stories) falling for her. One, the Comte de Muffat, pays the theatre owner to upgrade her part in his new production, and then adopts her as his mistress when the play fails. Alas for him, there are more men in her life (though fewer than in the Emile Zola novel the film is adapted from). With hindsight it’s bleakly ironic that a film about a woman who fails to become a great actress should star a woman who similarly failed to become a great actress; and though Renoir’s own career would take a while to lift off properly after the film bombed, at least it shows him demonstrating more ambition than his first film, it certainly looks like he had a much better idea of what he was doing. A pretty fair advance on his first feature in just a year.

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