Admirers of the biopic Renoir — which scored a surprising (if deserved) local success recently — will find Jean Renoir’s first film, Whirlpool of Fate (1925), of increased interest. It stars Catherine Hessling, the woman depicted in Renoir, who inspired both the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his son Jean. This film is the first flowering of Jean Renoir’s filmmaking efforts — and his desire to make his then-wife a star. From the standpoint of film history, it’s more interesting to see the development of the filmmaker than his star. Hessling is appealing enough and has a certain charm, but the fact that her career survived neither her break-up with Renoir, nor the advent of sound isn’t all that surprising. Renoir, on the other hand, would go on to be one of the greats of cinema. Here, he’s a raw talent — obviously influenced by both D.W. Griffith and the surrealists. And, yes, that mix is about as awkward as it sounds.
His first film is sometimes idyllic, sometimes downright strange, and almost entirely melodramatic. There’s not much story. The film simply moves has Ms. Hessling landing in a series of not very compelling melodramatic situations — losing her father, being at the mercy of an abusive and lecherous uncle, taking up with gypsies, becoming a servant, being forced into thievery by her returning uncle — before arriving at a happy ending. Some of imagery is nice and Renoir’s occasional use of rapid cutting is interesting. The stylistic highlight is a very odd nightmare sequence that suggests Renoir had seen some F.W. Murnau and Abel Gance films, and Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). I don’t know that it’s exactly successful, but it’s certainly fascinating.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Whirlpool of Fate Sunday, June 23, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.