La Marseillaise (1938)

Here the Renoir box jumps ahead to what I suppose is mid-period; as this film demonstrates, Renoir had now started exploring the deep focus and long take techniques that kind of became his signature, but it also finds him in the position of having finally made it. The first two features and the two shorts we’ve seen so far represent a filmmaker starting out, but a decade later he’s blossomed with the coming of sound, had a hit with Le grand illusion, and was now trying his hand at an epic that I don’t think quite works. 1938, let’s not forget, was the year before a certain war broke out; Germany was expanding its territory by annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, and obviously there were fears of Germany expanding westwards too. As such, La Marseillaise has been interpreted (and rightly, I’m sure) as Renoir’s call “aux armes”, trying to get France to unite after the failure of the Popular Front in mid-1937, and by situating it mostly at the outbreak of the Revolutionary Wars, when France was menaced by Prussia and Austria (taking the side of the deposed monarchy), he was clearly trying to send a message about who to unite against. (And we all know how THAT worked out.) La Marseillaise is big filmmaking, focusing largely on a group of Marseillais citizens marching north to Paris to take part in the festivities, and the end result is fairly long (132 minutes) and episodic stuff that makes few concessions to those who don’t already know the history. Unlike, say, Eisenstein’s October, Renoir has room for individual characters, but therein lies probably the film’s biggest problem; Renoir can’t seem to decide what he’s more interested in, the Big Subject Matter or the Little People fighting the battle, so that the latter never really felt that well-developed despite what I’m sure were Renoir’s best intentions. Bomier is no doubt meant as a major character, and maybe Renoir should’ve made him more central or something.

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