Dec 16, 2019

The Woman on the Beach

Just like with goombah giallo flicks, I tend to prefer classic film noir films that completely break the conventions of the ‘style’ by being set in the country (as opposed to the stereotypical shitty city) and feature femme fatales that are not necessarily fatal like in Nicholas Ray classic films They Live by Night (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s magnetically melancholic filmic road-to-nowhere Detour (1945), so naturally it came as no surprise to me that I absolutely loved French master auteur Jean Renoir’s much maligned final Hollywood film The Woman on the Beach (1947).  A rare example of ‘beach noir’ featuring surreal and phantasmagoric imagery in a cinematic work that might be best described as an ‘allegorical ghost story’ as the main characters are haunted by a perturbing past that has resulted in a forsaken present, the film is undoubtedly my second favorite Renoir flick and certainly an eccentric entry in his oeuvre as a decided downer of the delirious dream-like sort where the prospect of death almost seems like a great gift from the gods. Indeed, aside from his poetic realist masterpiece La Bête Humaine (1938) aka The Human Beast—a deathly dark picture where suicide ultimately acts as the greatest of permanent reliefs for the foredoomed protagonist—the film is the only one that Renoir directed that bleeds misery, misanthropy, and just downright meanness, which were certainly not innate characteristics of a good goofy and jolly humanist like Monsieur Renoir. With that said, it should be no shock that Renoir was not particularly fond of the flick to the point where he was even bored during its pre-production, even complaining to his older actor brother Pierre, “My agents have stuck me with a film, at RKO, a studio where I’m dying of boredom.”

In fact, in his autobiography My Life and My Films (1974), Renoir, like a good little idealistic humanist, expresses his innate philosophical discomfort for the subject matter, stating, “It was a story quite opposed to everything I had hitherto attempted. In all my previous films I had tried to depict the bonds uniting the individual to his background. The older I grew, the more I had proclaimed the consoling truth that the world is one; and now I was embarked on a study of person whose sole idea was to close the door on the absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life. It was a mistake on my part which I can explain only by the relative isolation enforced upon me by my limited knowledge of the language of the world in which I now lived.” In short, not unlike La Bête Humaine, The Woman on the Beach is a film where Renoir demonstrates his majesty as a cinematic auteur by directing a great gloomy and doomy film that was completely at odds with his own personal Weltanschauung and overall personal human spirit and in that sense, more than any other, one truly comes to understand the cinematic artist’s genius for his chosen artistic medium.

Based on the novel None So Blind (1945) by Stella Adler’s physicist-turned-novelist hubby Mitchell A. Wilson and originally plagued with the terribly unfitting title Desirable Woman, The Woman on the Beach was actually originally a project of great horror producer-auteur Val Lewton, but he abandoned the project not long after disagreeing with female lead Joan Bennett’s demand that Renoir direct as he felt that Fred Zinnemann, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Lewis Allen, and Edward Dmytryk would make for more suitable directors. In fact, although the producer quit the film long before it began shooting, it oftentimes feels more like a Lewton flick than a Renoir one (which might be partly explained by the producer’s possible (co)writing of the screenplay, which was soundly theorized by Pascal Mérigeau in Jean Renoir: A Biography (2012)). Interestingly, Renoir’s description of Lewton in his autobiography is more or less in tune with the spirit of the film, as the auteur states of the producer, “Then he too died, alone or nearly so. His solitude certainly did not surprise him: he had often said that the closet groups were nothing but solitudes brought together.” Speaking of Lewton, The Woman on the Beach certainly has much more in common with Curtis Harrington’s favorably Lewtonian debut feature Night Tide (1961), which is also a darkly romantic film with a gothic beach setting where the oceanic becomes oneiric, than any of Renoir's other films. Indeed, I honestly cannot think of any other films aside from these two that seem inspired by the spiritually essence of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem ‘Annabel Lee,’ especially the final line, “In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

It seems that, despite being made for a Hollywood studio, even Renoir regarded the film as a sort of artsy horror flick as indicated by his words, “To conclude, THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between NOSFERATU THE VAMPIRE and CALIGARI, but it had no success with American audiences.” Of course, as a fiercely foreboding, moodily morose, and paranoia-plagued film that flirts with a sort of ‘Liebestod’ involving a bizarre love triangle between a damaged Coast Guard officer with PTSD, a cold cunt proto-goth whore, and her blind resentment-ridden ex-artist husband, the film was doomed to fail on all fronts. Totally devoid of any phony ‘good guy’ and ‘good gal’ types, the film is also notable for having a trio of ‘broken’ characters that are almost equally unlikeable yet, somewhat paradoxically, somehow similarly sympathetic in terms of all-too-human failings and tragic characters (or, as the famous quote from The Rules of the Game goes, “everybody has their reasons”). In that sense, the film feels more European than America and it is no surprise that such a romantically moribund movie would be an abject failure with the Tinseltown-narcotized American audiences of that time. As Renoir wrote in regard to these ‘solitary’ characters, “There is a race of genuine solitaries, but they are rare. Those born to be solitary contrive to isolate themselves in a world entirely of their own making. Most solitaries only appear to belong to this category, having been born to play a part in the world around them. It is only after what is as a result a deeply hurtful event that they have become solitaries. If they fight against it, it is generally at the cost of fearful inward turmoil. This drama of isolation is for the artist an episode in the tragedy of which we are all actors and which ends only with our departure into eternity. The artist is simply a man endowed with the gift of making these inward conflicts visible. Art is the materialization of an interior and often unconscious dream.” Naturally, Renoir utilizes nightmarish dream-sequences to expressionistically underscore the inwardly infernal metaphysical hell that plagues the haunted protagonist in what ultimately proves to be a practical use of avant-garde techniques.  In short, no one can watch The Woman on the Beach without being reminded that they have been plunged into the dark despairing abyss that is the perturbed protagonist's mind.

When Camille Paglia wrote, “At some level, all love is combat, a wrestling with ghosts,” she certainly could have been thinking of The Woman on the Beach where the quest for love, or even just maintaining a thoroughly necrotic love with a person that used to love you but now hates you, reeks of a sort of grotesque desperation comparable to the theft of items from half-rotten corpses on a bloodstained battlefield. Indeed, the film’s pathetic protagonist Scott (Robert Ryan)—a tall, dark, and handsome would-be-hunk that, aside from suffering from bad dreams, is absurdly all-American, like a figuratively puss-filled parody of the banal American military type—is engaged to marry a classically beauteous blonde named Eve Geddes (Nan Leslie) but he soon finds himself considering murdering a blind (ex)painter named Tod Butler (Charles Bickford) after falling for his cold cunt wife Peggy (Joan Bennett) who dreams of of escaping her miserable life with her all the more miserable husband. Of course, as as half-crazed military bro that is having reoccurring nightmares involving romantically embracing a ghostly underwater ‘siren’ of sorts resembling his fiancée that lurks inside a quasi-apocalyptic oceanic realm of the creepy chthonic sort full of skeletons and wrecked ships, Scott—a Coast Guard officer that, rather inconveniently, is now afraid of the mere sight of a busted up boat—is probably in the ‘right’ frame of mind to fall for a proudly whorish femme fatale that wants to free herself from the obsessively jealous husband that she was responsible for blinding during a drunken row.

A man that lived to paint and did his best work in the form of nudes of his wife just before he lost sight at the hand of his greatest source of inspiration, Tod—an unconventionally charming chap with a name that, not coincidentally, means ‘death’ in German—is now a resentment-ridden shell of a mensch that lives hopelessly in the past and both literally and figuratively cannot see the present.  In fact, Tod is so obsessed with holding onto the past that he refuses to sell his last paintings despite their great value as the final creations of a painter that can no longer paint.  While Peggy feels some guilt for blinding Tod and, in turn, ruining his life be leaving him incapable of doing what he does best, she is also a calculating cuckolding cunt and thus cannot help lust after Scott as soon as they meet.  Naturally, Peggy eventually realizes it might be wise to kill her husband and sell his valuable paintings, which she hates, so that she can start a new life and Scott makes for the perfect pawn for such a scheme as the two both dream of a better life.  Unfortunately, Scott is too unhinged and Peggy to emotionally erratic and scatter-brained for the pernicious plot to work.

Although Scott will be discharged from his dreaded Coast Guard position in a week and thus will soon get his dream of leaving the seaside area for good as it reminds him of a past monstrous maritime tragedy that has haunted him with nightmares ever since, his life is completely changed one day while riding on the beach with his horse and unexpectedly encountering gorgeous proto-goth bitch Peggy—a drop-dead gorgeous dark-haired dime-store diva that, due to her almost delectably demonic essence, seems like she has had her fair share of eclectic dick—as she curiously scavenges from the ruins of a shipwreck (which is surely symbolic as the protagonist’s fiancée Eve is the total opposite as a blonde beauty that builds ships at a shipyard). As the sight of the ruined ship clearly incites his PTSD, Scott somewhat irrationally berates Peggy for gathering the rather crappy wood and she responds by noting his quite glaring spiritual unease, even stating, “You even looked at me as if I were a ghost.” While Peggy is not a phantom in the literal sense, she might as well be as she lives a static ghostly existence in a quaint shack with her husband in a lackluster life of mutual stagnation and (self)hatred. While Scott takes an instant liking to Peggy to the point where he seems to instantly forget about his fiancée, he feels somewhat annoyed when the older and wiser Tod attempts to befriend him and even begins to question whether he is actually blind or not as if he cannot bear to have sympathy for the man whose wife he so desperately wants to fuck. In fact, Scott intentionally puts Tod is a precarious situation where he almost dies after falling off a cliff in the hope it would prove that the retired artist would be revealed to be faking his own blindness. While the incident proves that Tod is not a fraud, Scott is still not interested in being his pal, especially after he discovers the ex-artist physically abuses Peggy and comes to the conclusion that he will commit his life to freeing the poor little harlot from her rather repressive husband.  Rather sickly, Scott's sexual desire for Peggy seems to be largely intertwined with the degree of misery and abuse that plagues his lover's disharmonious marriage, as if he gets a hard-on just thinking about her being brutalized by her husband.  In that sense, this is a beachside bizarre love triangle that only sad sickos would find romantically.

Needless to say, when Scott starts pounding Peggy’s pussy (despite her openly admitting to him her lack of virtue by boasting, “I’m a tramp. You just finding that out?”), it does not take much for the protagonist be motivated to murder Tod so that he can start a new life with his femme fatale lover, but he is such a sad self-destructive sack of shit that he uses borderline suicidal means to accomplish this decidedly demented task. Indeed, in what is the biggest of two major climaxes of the film, Scott takes Tod on a fishing trip where he rather absurdly attempts to drown his blind rival by piercing a hole in the boat during a nasty storm, thereupon causing both men to be swallowed up by the waves. In a scenario that contradicts the protagonist’s reoccurring nightmare of an Eve-like virtual sea witch seducing the protagonist in a skeleton-ridden underwater hell, Scott and Tod are saved by a small group of Coast Guards that includes the protagonist's long-suffering fiancée Eve.  Of course, Tod is not happy after barely surviving Scott's murder plot, so he decides to take his revenge against his scheming wife despite the fact that, unbeknownst to him, she tried to stop it at the minute and ultimately saved both men's lives by alerting the Coast Guard of the situation.  In the end in what is ultimately the second and final climax, Tod goes completely berserk and not only burns his remaining paintings—art pieces that are apparently worth tons of money due to being created by a famous ‘dead artist’—but also his beach house, as he no longer wants to be a prisoner of his past and finally plans to move on with his life. Of course, that also includes letting Peggy go, or as he tells Scott as they watch the house burn down, “I had to do it. Those paintings meant everything to me. But they became an obsession. They had to be destroyed. Now I’m free. I’ve new work to do. I’ve things to say. Many things. And Peggy’s free. I clung to her as I did the paintings. To the past. I made her live in it with me. I had no right to do that.”  Somewhat ironically considering the circumstances, Tod and Peggy seem to reconcile in the end despite the ex-painter’s promise to let her go. As for pathetically forlorn protagonist Scott, he literally walks away with nothing, which is even less than he started with as his fiancée Eve has even left him.  Since Scott is a psychotic prick and Tod is at least a man of wisdom that learns something in the end, I would have to say the film concludes on a relatively happy note.

Notably, The Woman on the Beach was such a disastrous flop that it resulted in Renoir having to abort a planned adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (which, interestingly, he had already adapted in 1934 with less favorable results) that he already had in pre-production. In fact, the film put a complete end to Renoir’s career in Hollywood, or as the auteur stated in his autobiography, “I was under contract to make two films for that company. A few days after the premiere I had a visit from my agent, Ralph Blum, who reported that they were ready to buy me out for a fixed sum. I am no fighter; I accepted, and that was the end of it. But it was the end in the widest sense. The failure of THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH marked the finish of my Hollywood adventure. I never made another film in an American studio. It was not only that particular failure that was held against me. Darryl Zanuck, who knew something about directors, summed up my case to a group of film-people. ‘Renoir,’ he said, ‘has a lot of talent, but he’s not one of us.’” Of course, the fact that Renoir was not a for-hire-hack-whore type like so many in Hollywood is why The Woman on the Beach is such a great film as not even subversive mavericks like John Huston or Howard Hawks would ever dream of directing such an unsettlingly dark and experimental film. As for Renoir, he was not really fond of any of his Hollywood films except for The Southerner (1945) aka L'Homme du sud, which he once described as “really the only thing that justifies my trip to America.”  Personally, I cannot agree with Renoir's assessment of his own work, as The Southerner—a sort of proto-neorealist film clearly informed by the auteur's idiotically idealistic leftist politics—is certainly worth a watch yet ultimately seems like like a prosaically patronizing experiment in proletarian fetishization when compared to deep dark aesthetic and emotional extremes of a rare arcane aesthetic object like The Woman on the Beach.

Notably, it was not until the film was rediscovered by film critics at the Cahiers du Cinéma that would later become major filmmaker of the La Nouvelle Vague that The Woman on the Beach finally received some positive praise, or as French film critic Pascal Mérigeau explained his massive text Jean Renoir: A Biography (2012), “Éric Rohmer would make the film the touchstone for his admiration of Renoir. Truffaut would cite a certain scene showing Joan Bennett crawling on all fours as one of the ten most erotic in the history of film. Jacques Rivette would speak of ‘pure cinema’; and, with the hindsight of years, he’d call the film ‘the first in a trilogy of great masterpieces.’ All such loving protests are also a defensive reaction to the extent of the rejection to which the film was subjected, and all of them are perhaps justified and accurate. However, they would be more convincing if Renoir’s name on the credits hadn’t contributed to steering the vision of the film and constructing opinions about it.” Personally, I could not disagree more with Mérigeau as I found the film to be great in part because it is rarely Renoirian unless one compares it to the auteur’s similarly unconventionally dark and morbid La Bête Humaine. In short, it is no surprise that the film had its genesis with Val Lewton—the great producer-as-auteur that even managed to overpower a great filmmaker like Jacques Tourneur with his almost devilish esoteric influence.

Despite Renoir's supposed apathy for the subject matter, the film has certain undeniable autobiographical elements, especially in regard to the filmmaker’s famous painter father. Indeed, not unlike Renoir’s Impressionist painter padre Pierre-Auguste Renoir who painted nude portraits of his mother Aline Charigot, the eponymous femme fatale is the subject of her husband’s much beloved nude paintings. Strangely, neither Renoir nor his biographer Mérigeau reference this seemingly obvious connection between the film and auteur's famous family. Interestingly, whereas Renoir would once state of his father's paintings in his book Renoir, My Father (1962), “His nudes and his roses declared to men of this century, already deep in their task of destruction, the stability of the eternal balance of nature,” the nude paintings of Tod in the film are such a source debilitating internal sickness that he must burn them so that he can get on with his life. Of course, on a more personal level, the subject of an artist that becomes blind is a visceral fear that should appeal to any serious filmmaker (notably, the character Tod more or less described himself as a ‘dead’ painter due to his blindness), which probably partly explains why the auteur drastically changed the storyline from its source material (in the novel, Tod just pretends to be blind). As to what a filmmaker might create if they went blind, Gay English auteur Derek Jarman provided at least one example with his AIDS-addled swansong Blue (1993). Notably, Renoir would never again direct anything so serious and instead would stick to virtual celluloid confections before fizzling out like a weak old fart. While the auteur directed one or two more notable films after his failed career in Hollywood, I am certainly more than tempted to see The Woman on the Beach as Renoir’s virtual artist obituary as a film that is not only consumed with doom and gloom that features a retired artist that no longer wants to live life but also because it was the consequence of artistic compromise on the filmmaker’s part. On the other hand, I believe the film probably greatly benefited from artistic compromise as apparently the dream-sequences were not added until late into the film’s production after Renoir was forced to reshoot a good portion of the picture (according to the filmmaker’s own varying statements, between 1/3 and ½ of the flick had to be reshot).

As someone with artistic inclinations that is somewhat haunted by the past and grew up with a close blind relative, I probably found The Woman on the Beach more relatable than most people would to the point where it at least partly inspired me to write this review. As a goofy man motivated by humanistic impulses and, for a time, shallow leftist idealism, Renoir is certainly not an artist I can seriously relate to on any innate personal level, so to me it proves his artistic genius that he was able to somewhat successfully take a poesy Poe-esque approach to such uncharacteristic material, as if he was temporarily haunted himself. Of course, Renoir had his own objective with the film, or as he once wrote in regard to his first version of the flick, “This is a film in which I wanted to proceed more by suggestion than by demonstration: a film of acts never carried out.” In the end, The Woman on the Beach is largely about the (in this case, negative) influence of a female lover on an artist, as Tod is virtually metaphysically magnetized to Peggy before and after she caused his blinding (and, as the viewer assumes at the end of the film, her influence enters a third and more positive phase at the end of the film). Notably, in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s classic modern romance Betty Blue (1986) aka 37° 2 le matin—another frog-helmed film depicting the perturbing perils of l’amour fou that is (at least partly) set on the beach—the male lead ‘loses’ his eponymous lover once he finally achieves his artistic dream of penning a successful novel, as if such self-destructive vaginal venom has already completely served its purpose and thus he can finally move on. Notably, even the non-artist protagonist of The Woman on the Beach is driven to action by Peggy in an almost magical fashion as he self-deludes himself into believing that it is his mission to ‘save her’ from her ostensibly sinister husband and not because he has a fetish for fiendish femme fatales, hence his loss of interest in good girl Eve.  As the film demonstrates, women tend to inspire both the best and worst in men as if the so-called fairer sex is god's greatest curse.

Of course, as Luis Buñuel and his Surrealist comrades believed, “desire is the one true motor of the world,” hence why the ‘ship sunk’ in the end when it comes to Scott and Peggy as the latter has finally achieved reconciliation with her husband. It is also no coincidence that Scott (ex)fiancée Eve tells him “I finally realized you’re sick” as he is consumed with the sort of l’amour fou that causes an otherwise rational man to degenerate into a Dionysian dildo that lives to fuck a void of a hole. Undoubtedly, only in a fantasy flick like Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935)—a truly idiosyncratic film based on a story by George du Maurier that, not unlike Renoir’s flick, is a rare example of a Hollywood movie with dream-like avant-garde elements—does l’amour fou lead to something truly eternally heavenly as The Woman on the Beach so ruthlessly reminds the viewer in a somewhat ambiguous ending where a lovelorn young man loses his great love to a defeated old fart that has finally decided to let her go free as if the truest way to a woman’s heart is getting over her. Needless to say, Tod probably had the better idea when he was following a path more in tune with the Marquis de Sade’s words, “The only way to a woman's heart is along the path of torment.” In fact, Tod, who is easily the most intriguing character in the film, is certainly a sort of low-key Sadean of sorts and his misguided abuse towards Peggy assuredly reflects the Marquis’ words, “Certain souls may seem harsh to others, but it is just a way, beknownst only to them, of caring and feeling more deeply.”

While Renoir originally intended for The Woman on the Beach to be “a story about love in which the reasons for attraction between the different parties were purely physical, a story in which sentiment would play not part at all,” he ultimately assembled something much more insanely intricate and metaphysically infernal where love becomes more or less one and the same with the Todestrieb and where artistic obsession and the abject desperation associated with a premature ‘artistic death’ compels a desperate ex-artist to virtually keep his favorite artistic subject prisoner. While the film certainly led to the death of Renoir’s career in Hollywood and, in turn, his artistic decline in general, the film is unequivocally the most enigmatic, preternatural, and esoteric film that the auteur ever created, not to mention one of the most radically recherché film noir flicks of all-time. Indeed, the film is arguably the unintended artistically fruitful consequence of Renoir being forced to endure a sort of Bressonian method of filmmaking as demonstrated by French master auteur Robert Bresson’s words, “These horrible days—when shooting film disgusts me, when I am exhausted, powerless in the face of so many obstacles—are part of my method of work.” Undoubtedly, a lack of suffering causes an impoverishment of spirit, especially artistic spirit, and Renoir—a man that had a fairly privileged bourgeois bohemian upbringing—rarely suffered until he was forced to flee his homeland in May 1940 after Germany invaded France and relocated to Hollywood where he worked under artistically unfavorable circumstances. Had Renoir suffered even more and earlier in life, one can only speculate the sort of masterpieces he might have churned out as a sort of potential frog Bergman.  Speaking of the great Swedish auteur, The Woman on the Beach certainly shares aesthetic and thematic similarities with Bergman flicks like Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Shame (1968), among others.  In terms of strange seaside cinematic works that helped to sink the career of a once-respected European auteur, the film is also comparable to Scotsman Alexander Mackendrick's uneven yet somewhat underrated Don't Make Waves (1967)—a rather idiosyncratic late entry in the ‘beach party’ sub-genre that benefits from a rather nubile Sharon Tate—which Tarantino recently paid tribute to in his latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).

As Renoir stated himself in regard to how the conquering of his homeland effected the film, “It was natural that I should look for themes having nothing to do with a motherland who was no longer herself. I had a horror of sentimental images of pre-war France. Better a void than the pointed bear of the film Frenchman. But a void offers no solid foothold. Realizing the fragility of the thing I was making, I tried to change the story while the film was being shot. The result was a confused scenario leading to a final work which I consider interesting but which is too obscure for the general public.” Of course, nowadays the totally dumbed-down and obscenely aesthetically retarded general public would find most of Renoir’s films to be totally inexplicable, thus allowing a film like The Woman on the Beach a more notable place in the auteur’s singular oeuvre as an ostensible oddity that underscores the filmmaker’s unexpected eclecticism and capacity to embrace the entire range of human emotions. Indeed, I certainly never expected that it would be a cheap RKO B-movie that finally enabled me to fully appreciate the Gallic greatness of Monsieur Renoir. In short, fuck the totally trying Technicolor xenophilia of The River (1951) aka Le Fleuve, evil wanton white bitches on the beach are forever.

-Ty E

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