Jean Renoir has been called a lot of nice names – secular saint, father of the French New Wave, the greatest of European directors, etc. Peter Bogdanovich called him “The best director, ever.” As much has been made of Renoir’s transcendence as of his humanism, but part of what has made his work so captivating for me is that his humanism is precisely not a grand, transcendent humanism, but is rather of an inauspicious and quotidian variety. To this extent I feel more comfortable proclaiming (pace Bogdanovich) that it is less that his films are “humanist” than that his characters are profoundly human. Disarmingly, vitally, human. This is not to say, in the typical unimaginative shorthand, that they are “flawed”, but that they are believable in a way that reminds one that the usual believability of cinematic characters is itself an achievement, wrought through our collusion with cinematic conventions and the suspension of disbelief (a collusion which one finds increasingly dishonourable as screenwriting becomes increasingly shitty). They do things and say things that we do not as film-viewers expect them to do or say, which produces the suspicion that they may actually live on in their world without us, rather than live only in and only for the film and its duration. This at times produces an erratic quality to his films that is familiar because it evokes something of the churning irrelevancies of a real live human life, while remaining entirely within the strictures of narrative filmmaking.
I watched his 1938 La Marseillaise (about the French Revolution, puckishly subtitled “A Chronicle of Certain Events Relative to the Fall of the Monarchy”) recently, and was struck by a scene wherein, well into the rev and with the storming of the palace close in the offing, Marie-Antoinette comes upon the King eating a dish of tomatoes:
Marie Antoinette: My lord, you’re eating in spite of the circumstances?
Louis XVI: Why shouldn’t I? The stomach is an organ which ignores political nuances. I asked for tomatoes. People have been talking a lot about this vegetable since the people from Marseille have arrived in Paris. I wanted to try it. Well madame, do you want to know what I think of it?
It is an excellent dish, and we were wrong to disregard it.
No additional context is given for the meaning of this exchange, save that in a couple of earlier scenes we hear the men from Marseille (volunteers in the revolutionary army) asking for tomatoes – which at that time were hardly considered a food across much of France, in spite of their being consumed widely in the south (as well as Spain and parts of Italy). Popular, or at least popular aristocratic and botanical opinion long had it that tomatoes were poisonous (which are, belonging to the family deadly nightshade and all, many of the elements of the plant excepting the fruit itself), or at least disgusting, and their association with the hot-blooded republican peasantry in their red Phrygian caps made the tomato a fine revolutionary icon – cinematically, even if the historical evidence is a little fuzzy.
And so in this scene we are given to enjoy what passes as both a genuinely human moment and a sly allusion to the utter cluelessness of the King in his royal isolation. The look of what might be defiance, admonishment, suspicion, that he darts at his wife (depicted unsympathetically throughout the film as very much on the side of the aristocracy) as he utters this last line is -perfect-, and the French méfier, which better corresponds to contempt and mistrust than disregard, deepens the impression that he is speaking of something deeper than taste. He’s talking about taste, he’s talking about tomatoes, he’s talking about the revolution, he’s talking about hunger. But Renoir doesn’t beat us over the head with it. La Marseilleise is a pretty triumphant film; it’s about liberté, fraternité, égalité, more than it’s about the Terror, but I resist saying it’s a ‘political’ film. It’s too nuanced, there is a friendly irony; the story, underneath all the songs and slogans, is, like the people who populate it, too complicated. “The awful thing about the world,” Renoir speaks through Octave in La Règle du Jeu, “is that everyone has their reasons,” and the genius of Renoir’s ‘humanism’ is not the exaltation of these reasons, but that he makes a virtue of acknowledging them. That virtue, I suppose, is sympathy.
Renoir has suggested that La Marseillaise is the film of his of which he wrote the least, relying for his dialogue almost exclusively upon historical documents. It is difficult to confirm that the exchange over the tomatoes ever really took place (does it matter?), but we may take satisfaction in the idea that the man who would be the first King of France to be beheaded and the last to reign uttered such a thing, whether or not he was sensitive to its import.