After the al fresco hallucinations of the La Fille de l’eau come the severities of Zola’s interiors, the other side of the coin of Jean Renoir’s theater. The opening shot reverses Hitchcock’s in The Pleasure Garden, the eponymous coquette (Catherine Hessling) ascends a staircase and is lowered by a rope before the eager audience, her feet don’t quite touch the ground. The femme fatale as marionette-mermaid, on stage she cannot play noblewomen so instead she collects noblemen, on goes the trajectory from "La Blonde Venus" to la petite duchesse to doomed courtesan. Many an admirateur éperdu comes and goes, helplessly smitten and withered. The ponderous Count Muffat (Werner Krauss) stands backstage next to medieval armors, later in her boudoir in full military regalia he’s a puppy lolling at her feet. Disgraced at the racetrack, Count Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo) in consumed in a bonfire alongside the horse named after his merciless object of obsession. Meanwhile, the lovelorn nephew (Raymond Guérin-Catelain) constructs a facsimile by piling up perfumed dresses on a chair and then wields a pair of scissors like a dagger. "Is Madame decent?" "Isn’t an honorable woman always decent?" This is the Renoir who watched Foolish Wives a dozen times, his vamps and fools rattle and spiral in the void of Claude Autant-Lara’s ornately barren sets. The seeds of Madame Bovary and Diary of a Chambermaid and Elena et les Hommes are detected, so are early glimpses of Citizen Kane, Le Plaisir and Viridiana. Anchoring it all is Hessling’s monstrous and affecting "gilded fly," a lipsticked slash atop a slanted torso, a comet kicking a defiant can-can before burning itself out. The camera dollies in for a shivering last view, then lights out. "How can people see Renoir as a singer of the happy life when he had been one of the few filmmakers capable of finishing off someone with a tracking shot?" (Serge Daney) With Pierre Lestringuez, Jacqueline Forzane, Pierre Champagne, and Valeska Gert. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce