Nana: a woman who brings men to ruin through her vanity and impulsiveness. In his second major production, Renoir adapts Émile Zola’s novel of 1880 with his then-wife Catherine Hessling in the title role.
We first meet Nana when she is onstage performing at the Théâtre des Variétés. She swings:
The audience, which contains several men who will play significant roles in the narrative, looks on in rapture: she may not have talent, but she certainly has sex appeal. One of those feeling particular adulation is Georges Hugon, such that his uncle the Comte de Vandeuvres has to tell him to take it easy:
After the performance, Nana receives her admirers backstage.
Hey, it’s Werner Krauss! As le Comte Muffat, he is sporting amazing facial hair. He has seen Nana perform and he is smitten.
Nana is intrigued to meet this rich nobleman, so she gives him her most erotic look:
Catherine Hessling’s performance seems most often to have been described as “eccentric”. It certainly is idiosyncratic. Also, the above GIF does not adequately convey how ropey her hair looks in this scene. It honestly looks like it’s halfway to dreadlocks. Perhaps realizing this, Nana calls to her coiffeur to bring her haircomb to her, but instead, Muffat fetches it and not only brings it to her, but pulls her hair clumps out of it before handing it to her (!):
Her attendants react with shock that the Count would lower himself to such a task (or perhaps to Nana’s hairball, or her general vulgarity, or all of the above …)
I’m not going to recap the whole film like this. Suffice it to say that Nana cuts a swathe through Parisian society, reinventing herself as a courtesan when her bid to establish herself as a legitimate actress fails, and enjoying the riches of the various men who court her.
Inevitably, she destroys the lives of these men. Comte Muffat (Krauss) grovels at her feet, broken.
La Comte de Vandeuvres, who initially thought she was trouble, falls under her spell; he eventually poisons himself and sets fire to his stables.
Another casuality is Vandeuvres’ nephew Hugon, rejected by Nana, who stabs himself with scissors after overhearing her treatment of Muffat and Vandeuvres.
The film closes with Nana herself dying of tuberculosis, in the arms of Muffat.
But is it any good?
It would be a stretch to call Nana a good film. It does have a lot going for it – it is beautifully filmed, with very fluid editing, and wonderfully composed shots. Also, the sets and costuming are fabulous.
The can-can sequence near the end of the film is also lovely.
Most of the characters have amazing facial hair, and at one point, Werner Krauss wears a decorative coat with a key on the rear.
But it is also far too long, the racing subplot is neither interesting nor concise, and the characters (in particular Nana) lack enough psychological depth to really engage the audience. Although it has its points of interest, this is by no means a neglected classic. It was a huge flop on its release (Renoir apparently had to sell several of his father’s paintings to meet his debts), and it’s hard not to see it as an exercise in style over substance.
Hessling as Nana
With the film so firmly centred on Nana, it lives and dies by her characterization and Hessling’s interpretation of the character. It is a very excessive performance, even histrionic. As Nana, Hessling is mincing and petulant, exaggerating the trappings and gestures of femininity to the limit. Yet while this weakens the the film as a whole and certainly works against the more restrained other acting styles on display, I must say that I rather enjoyed her wacky, over-the-top performance. I’m sure I’m in the minority here. However, the way that Hessling’s distorted, overamplified rehearsal of femininity approaches the grotesque perversely appeals to me. It’s femininity as artifice. If not precisely charismatic, she is somehow dynamic and absorbing.
Of course, in terms of characterization it doesn’t really work. It would have taken a very different performance to overcome the limitations of the script. I thought of Olga Baclanova as Duchess Josiana in The Man Who Laughs, a somewhat similar (but much better written) character … shallow, capricious, sometimes cruel – but also sexy, and capable of moments of great humanity. However, it’s not really a fair comparison, because Nana is simply not that well-drawn as a character. We are to understand her as a force of nature, elemental, a powerful and destructive force of female sexuality, but that is all one can really say about her character; she undergoes no character development, and her motivations are presented as shallow. Indeed, the message of the story simply seems to be ‘once gutter-trash, always gutter-trash’, which is rather depressing. I don’t much care for Zola, so I haven’t read his novel, but I assume Nana is more psychologically developed therein. Nana/Hessling is also just not that convincing as a woman who has the looks, charisma, and power to bewitch any man she meets. Without major structural changes to the film and/or script, probably only Garbo could have pulled off this role, and then it would have been a very different film.
In his book on Renoir’s films 1924-1939 (which I referenced in my review of Sur un Air de Charleston), Alexander Sesonske offers a characterization-based reason for Hessling’s performance. He reads her performance as deliberately artificial, a child playing at womanhood:
If one sees that Nana (not Catherine Hessling!) often acts like a little girl pretending to be a woman, this complicates the character but renders the performance understandable. If we accept this childishness as integral to the character of Nana, the coherence and seriousness of the film can be maintained, the excesses of the performance understood.
I quite like this theory, although for this approach to truly work it would have needed to be made explicit in the film. Sesonske also notes that Renoir suggested that he quite guided her performance in Nana: “Well, you know at that time Catherine Hessling was my wife. Perhaps I was able to influence her a little more than the others.” And indeed, Hessling is always a strong personality on screen, but it’s not the case that she is always Nana-ing the camera. In La Fille de l’eau she was stylized in quite a different way (from what I remember – I saw it years ago), and she is quite subtle in the charming La Petite Marchande d’allumettes.
Film elements + soundtrack
The version of Nana on the DVD set is a restoration for Arte carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata; the source material was the original camera negs, so it looks absolutely wonderful. The tints and tones were evidently derived from existed prints and then recreated digitally. There is a really nice score by Marc-Olivier Dupin.
Suggested song for the ending credits
My verdict: an unsuccessful film, but a magnificent failure.
— — —
Nana. Dir. Jean Renoir. France: Les Films Jean Renoir, 1927.