Spatialising the Time-Image : Viewing Renoir through Deleuze and Guattari

La Regle du jeu and deep space staging

Jean Renoir’s vision of space has continued to sustain theorization since André Bazin’s major critical reappraisal of the quintessential French auteur in Cahiers du Cinéma,1See especially ‘Renoir français’/‘The French Renoir’, reprinted in André Bazin, Jean Renoir, Paris: Ivrea, 2005, pp. 69–94. Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?/What is Cinema? (an anthology of Bazin’s major texts, first published 1958–1962) and the posthumously published Jean Renoir (1971), in which the theorist linked Renoir’s pioneering exploitation of deep space, lateral camera-mobility and extended takes with ‘respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, for its duration’.2André Bazin, ‘L’évolution du langage cinématographique’, in Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, Paris: Le Cerf, 2008, p. 74. Although Bazin emphasizes the interconnectedness of time and space and their shared importance to the cinema with reference to Renoir’s films,3See especially: Bazin, L’évolution,pp. 75–80. he tends to overlook both the social politics of Renoir’s work and how Renoir’s complex reframing conceptualizes time in a manner that challenges the spectator’s experience of duration in everyday life. The former concern has been addressed by scholars such as Raymond Durgnat (1974), Alexander Sesonske (1980), Christopher Faulkner (1986) and Martin O’Shaughnessy (2000), who ground Renoir’s films not only in the vision of their director but also in their contemporary political and socio-economic contexts. Deleuze provides an essential point of reference for the latter avenue of enquiry, not only because his film philosophy remains a canonical examination of how film represents temporality, but because he lends Renoir a privileged status within his landmark Cinéma volumes, respectively entitled Cinéma 1: L’image-mouvement/Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1983) and Cinéma 2: L’image-temps/Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1985), in accordance with the two primary structures that Deleuze associates with the cinematographic image.

Whilst Deleuze refers to Renoir’s films within the context of naturalism, modes of perception and deep staging in the first of his two volumes, the complexity that Deleuze links with Renoir’s techniques is especially apparent in the second of the two, during his discussion of the ‘crystals’ constituted by ‘the most fundamental operation of time’.4Gilles Deleuze,Cinéma 2: L’image-temps, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1985, p. 108. Deleuze rejects understandings of time as a linear teleology that can be divided into past, present and future; instead, he argues that time is split into two dissymmetrical jets, one of which is oriented towards the future, the other of which falls ceaselessly into the past. A perfect crystal of time constantly juxtaposes the actual image (the present image) with the virtual (a potentially coexisting image located in the past). This irreducible circuit produces a vision of the world as a concatenation of interpenetrating reflections: Deleuze remarks that Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939) frames correspondences between servant and their masters, living beings and automata, theatricality and reality, which juxtapose the actual and the virtual. In cinema, this visible inextricability of the actual and the virtual expresses the ongoing tension between the petrifying force of the past on the one hand and, on the other, the ongoing present, and their joint influence on the openness of the future. For Deleuze, in a world characterized by reflections and in which the past provides the only point of reference for the present, a genuinely new future is hopelessly elusive.  Therefore, in a perfect crystal, the present is portrayed as an ongoing construction, but one that is invariably dictated by the past. Deleuze remarks that this can be the case of a director’s entire body of work, as in the case of Max Ophüls, whose Lola Montès (1955) employs a flashback structure that emphasizes the inevitability of the eponymous heroine’s present fate within a circus where she is condemned to repeatedly perform fictionalized renditions of events that befell her in the past. However, Deleuze observes that Renoir’s crystal is always cracked by a ‘point of flight’ that grants fictional worlds the prospect of a genuinely new future. This tension is most frequently exemplified by the tension between imprisoning, theatrical roles played out by Renoir’s characters and the prospect of entering a new reality, liberated of stultifying associations with pre-established ways of being. Central to Renoir’s ability to frame this fissuring of time is deep staging – a hallmark of Renoir’s visual style – which engenders a temporal tension by juxtaposing multiple planes and, in doing so, framing individuals and groups whose mutual implication leaves their own trajectories as well as the future of the physical spaces they occupy open to question.

Lola Montès (Ophüls, 1955)

Deleuze also links Renoir’s mise en scène of temporality with the director’s famous commitment to the French Popular Front government during the 1930s.5Deleuze,Cinéma 2, pp. 105–117. The philosopher’s insights into how temporality is inscribed in film have been richly illustrated by O’Shaughnessy’s analysis of how the ‘chronological’ depth in Renoir’s films of the mid- and late 1930s portrays the creation of history as ‘an uncertainty driven by the co-presence of competing possibilities’.6Martin O’Shaughnessy, ‘Shooting in Deep Time: the Mise en Scèneof History in Renoir’s Films of the 1930s’, in Alastair Phillips and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), A Companion to Jean Renoir, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, p. 21. However, Deleuze’s view could be extended to the films directed by Renoir prior to his best known films (arguably those directed during 1935–39), especially since Renoir repeatedly portrays rigidly stratified societies in which disintegrating class barriers contest any definitive mastery over physical space. A key step towards an understanding of how these earlier films illustrate Deleuze’s vision of time involves a fuller understanding of the relationship between space (in its social and physical aspects) and time in Renoir’s crystalline images, an aspect that becomes considerably clearer if we link Cinéma 2 with Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s spatial thought in Mille Plateaux/A Thousand Plateaus (1980).

Much as Deleuze stresses the potentially liberating potential invoked by the bifurcation of time, he and Guattari understand space as a fluctuating, open-ended sphere of unstable vectors that alternately striate space and challenge hegemonic forces. Employing language that prefigures Deleuze’s analysis of Renoir’s work, they assert that ‘one may make a rupture, draw a line of flight, but there is still a danger that one will re-encounter organizations that re-stratify everything’, because the fact remains that ‘groups and core individuals contain micro-fascisms simply waiting to crystallise’.7Gilles Deleuzeand Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2: Mille Plateaux, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1980, p. 16. Their terminology and argument remind us that space itself is a product of ever-evolving socio-political forces and that the future beyond the crystal may not necessarily match the future projected by those seeking to alter present circumstances in a society where various forces simultaneously endeavour to striate space with varying degrees of success. From such a perspective, it becomes clearer that a comprehensive understanding of Renoir’s crystal is contingent on acknowledging the fundamental imbrication of space in time, drawing on both Deleuze’s film philosophy and his spatial thought.

Deleuze and Guattari’s framework, interpreted via the various theoretical and political concerns of Bazin and other auteurist scholars, provides a useful way of illustrating the temporal dimension of two incisive class portraits directed by Renoir either side of the transition to sound. Each was directed in radically different production contexts: Le Bled (1929) paved the way towards France’s centennial celebrations of the 1830 ‘pacification’ of Algeria and was funded by the French and Algerian governments, who were intent on luring immigrants to the colony. La Chienne (1931), on the other hand, was an aggressively personal project filmed on the streets of Paris at a time when the French cinema ‘rapidly reject[ed] nine-tenths of the aesthetic possibilities open to it and regularly practiced in the twenties’,8Colin Crisp, The Classic French Cinema, 1930–1960, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 9–10. problematising location-shooting and the visual depth widely associated with Renoir’s stylistic signature. As will become clear, in each of these films Renoir forges a narrative space-time in which a saliently temporal dimension derives from an interplay between framing devices, characters and other elements such as sound and costume-design. In this way, he lends scope to the transience of social roles and inherent fissures in entire social structures ranging from class divisions to the French Empire.

Le Bled (1929)

The plot of Le Bled focuses on Pierre Hoffer’s (Enrique Rivero) attempt to extract exorbitant amounts of his uncle’s (Christian Hoffer, played by Alexandre Arquillère) money to pay off personal debts and, in parallel, Claudie Duvernet’s (Jackie Monnier) arrival in Algeria for the hearing of her late uncle’s will. Pierre and Claudie’s trajectories converge in the coastal town of Sidi Ferruch, where they fall in love. When Claudie’s ill-wishing cousins, Manuel (Manuel Raaby) and Diane (Diana Hart), attempt to steal Claudie’s inheritance, Pierre saves her from Manuel’s clutches and the film ends with the couple’s engagement party in Sidi Ferruch.

Aspects of the film clearly construct Algeria as an exotic site, ripe for exploitation by eager tourists and French settlers whom the film’s producers aimed to attract. For example, in a dramatic sequence reminiscent of Soviet montage, Pierre and Christian imagine the arrival of French troops at a beach in Sidi Ferruch in 1830 whilst Christian is giving his nephew a tour of the farmland that will one day be his. The army transforms into a cavalry on horseback bringing cannons across the land, which, in turn, transform into ploughs whilst the French army in the background transforms into a legion of tractors. By the end of the sequence, the agricultural machinery and its operators have faded from view, as has the untamed land, leaving Christian and Pierre on the ploughed, fertile field. This mythologization of farmers and Imperial France as essential agricultural and industrial catalysts amidst an otherwise stagnant, infertile landscape establishes the beach and connecting farmland as a ‘realm of memory’ (cf. Pierre Nora) in which the Christian Hoffer’s success and the accomplishments of French Imperialism more broadly may be traced back to the patriotic impetus that reigned under Charles X.9See Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations26, pp. 7–24.

A legion of tractors

Whilst pro-colonial propaganda seems uncharacteristically regressive within the context of Renoir’s oeuvre, it is clear that the tone of admiration visible in this opening montage is not directed towards the bourgeois immigrants like Pierre and Claudie, who were born into the privileges earned by farmers such as Christian and, in the case of Pierre, squandered their money. Christian’s call for continuity in French colonial rule encourages future French immigrants (or pieds-noirs) to contribute to Empire. However, the film proceeds to illustrate the erosive impact of differing perceptions of the value of money and labor among these immigrants in a subsequent shot, as Christian gives Pierre a tour of the land at Sidi-Ferruch that he hopes to bequeath one day to his next of kin. The stocky uncle leaves his jacket unfastened, does not wear a tie and wears a common rural-style cap. He also walks in a far less refined manner than his nephew, hunching his back and tying his arms behind his back. Pierre, on the other hand, walks with a cigarette pursed between his lips and his hands presentably sitting in each pocket of his fastened, double-breasted jacket, which even has a handkerchief perched in the upper left-hand pocket.

As Christian and Pierre walk towards the camera, we perceive Christian’s land and the laborers working the soil behind the two men. The staging of this scene establishes a contrast between Christian and Pierre’s respective relationships with the colonized land and the different class systems that each man represents. The first is the liberally structured economy exploited by Christian, who arrived in Algeria a poor man but accumulated wealth through labor on the colonized land granted by the French occupying powers. The other is the hierarchized society that has allowed Pierre to inherit the wealth he has already wasted. Recalling Deleuze’s emphasis on the temporal tension invoked by Renoir’s deeply staged compositions, this shot also suggests that the continuity of France’s dominance in Algeria is under threat from Pierre and Claudie’s generation. Although these two characters are fictionalized versions of the very citizens whom the film sought to encourage to travel to Algeria, the rousing vision of (inter)national imperialist expansion that informs both Christian’s determination and the film’s propagandist montage has evidently failed to convince Pierre of his duty to his uncle and land. Moreover, although Pierre subsequently agrees to work on his uncle’s land for six months in exchange for 100,000 francs, he only does so after witnessing Claudie riding by on her horse. Therefore, although Renoir’s use of deep space and costume-design in the shot below appears understated, the interaction of elements within the frame suggests not only that the newest generation of immigrants (or pieds-noirs) has lost touch with the civilizing institution that secured Algeria in 1830 but also illustrates how Renoir’s visual style signals the purely provisional control that Deleuze and Guattari associate with space. Furthermore, this shot emphasizes that France’s imperialist project is open to question at generational junctures where national and ethical values undergo change. Aligning with Deleuze’s vision of Renoir’s work more broadly, what the passage of time will bring remains open to question.

Christian and Pierre

La Chienne (1931)

The possibility of transforming society beyond the influence of pre-existing social structures remains evident when Renoir shifts his attention from the rural to the local and adds sound to his compositions, as in the case of La Chienne, his first feature-length sound film. The unpredictability of the story lends itself particularly well to a Deleuzian analysis of Renoir’s space-time that considers the elements of characterization, setting and frame set out by Deleuze himself and previously evidenced by Le Bled. Returning home from a company dinner one evening, a timid bank clerk, Legrand (Michel Simon), encounters a prostitute named Lulu (Janie Marèse) and her pimp, Dédé (Georges Flamant). Although Legrand is married, he embezzles from his company to furnish Lulu an apartment decorated with his own paintings. When Legrand later discovers that Lulu has been selling his paintings and giving the money to Dédé, he stabs her and allows Dédé to take the blame. By the end of the film, Legrand is living as a tramp on the streets of Paris.

Lulu and Legrand

In an early scene after Legrand has left the dinner organized by his company, the framing of the urban architecture in which the action unfolds allows the spectator to perceive Renoir’s crystalline space-time as the paths of the three major characters implicated in the drama converge for the first time on a stone staircase near the church of St Jean de Montmartre.10Area identified by Alexander Sesonske, Jean Renoir, the French Films, 19241939, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980, p. 89. The meeting is pure happenstance and brings together characters from radically different social strata. As O’Shaughnessy notes, Lulu and Dédé are ‘instantly recognisable urban types, walking clichés, preening pimp and subservient whore’.11O’Shaughnessy, 77. Even the characters’ clothes emphasise the social resonance of this meeting: Legrand’s fedora, glasses and discreet gestures immediately signal his petit bourgeois background whilst Lulu’s brazen make-up and the garish flowers that adorn her hat mark her as a prostitute. In other words, all three constitute examples of the ‘stultifying’ theatrical roles, which, in Deleuze’s view, recur across Renoir’s films.

Framing is essential to Renoir’s ability to convey the disintegration of pre-established societal barriers. After the wide opening shot of Lulu and Dédé, the camera briefly cuts to a medium shot of Dédé beating Lulu before cutting back to its original vantage point. Legrand subsequently enters the scene from the foreground and accosts Dédé (fig. 2). Following Legrand’s entry, the camera cuts to a close shot of Lulu’s face as Legrand beholds her features for the first time, and of Lulu and Dédé as she nurses the latter’s head. Once again, the camera returns to its broad view of the street as Legrand proceeds towards the background of the image to find a taxi to escort Lulu and Dédé home. The camera cuts briefly to show Dédé petulantly slapping Lulu’s leg before returning yet again to a similar shot of the street, revealing Legrand emerging from the shadows of a road in the background, followed by a taxi. The camera cuts to a medium shot of the characters entering the car before returning to a wide-shot similar to the one that opened this scene, as the taxi proceeds towards a road that leads towards the background of the image.

Crucial to the temporal dimension of this scene is the interaction between off-screen and deeply-composed on-screen space, which foregrounds the role of the city as an active social catalyst, recalling Richard Sennett’s definition of the city as ‘a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet’.12Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism, New York: Vintage, 1974, p. 39. Because the space photographed marks the confluence of at least three streets, which each extend beyond the scope of the camera’s frame, the spectator remains constantly aware of the possibility for the introduction of new elements from the off-screen spaces that pre-exist the encounter. Dédé physically assaults Lulu in the midground, Legrand arrives from behind the camera and finds a taxi on a road leading off-screen from the left-hand side of the image, and all three characters depart through a road that leads towards the background of the image, challenging us to consider the import of the city’s architecture in enacting new social relations.

Dédé assaults Lulu

Renoir renders the potential creation of a genuinely new future limpid (to appropriate Deleuze’s terminology) by framing the physical space of Montmartre as a social catalyst that produces points of flight in the class hierarchy that stratifies the city. The wide shot of Legrand, Lulu and Dédé’s convergence at these steps portrays a partial disintegration of petit bourgeois society and the creation of a new social configuration that offers all of the characters new roles that efface the borders of alterity that structure the city. By pursuing the line of flight introduced by Lulu, Legrand willingly undermines the porous social stratification of the city’s public space. Their relationship, which O’Shaughnessy describes as a sign of ‘fallen urban order’,13O’Shaughnessy, Jean Renoir, p. 77. is itself indicative of the fact that this order was only ever a provisional social construct.14For a more extended Deleuzian analysis of this film, see Barry Nevin, ‘Paris vs providence: Framing the crystalline city in Jean Renoir’s La Chienne(1931)’, Journal of Urban Cultural Studies3.1 (2016), pp. 55–72.

Conclusion: Towards a theory of crystalline space-time

Each of the films analyzed illustrates the importance of visual and (in the case of La Chienne) aural components to Deleuze’s understanding of crystallization in Renoir’s work, as well as revealing how space in this auteur’s work is manifestly imbued with temporality. The brief analyses above indicate two more specific findings. Firstly, reading Deleuze’s film philosophy through his treatise on space allows us to develop a framework that would allow us to integrate temporality into our analysis of Renoir’s mise en scène of space, with due consideration of the construction of social space, developments in filmmaking technology, and shifts in Renoir’s ideological outlook. If, as Patricia Pisters notes, ‘one of the most challenging aspects of “applying” Deleuze is to highlight the relation of the cinema books to concepts that he developed elsewhere, mostly together with Guattari’,15Patricia Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003, p. 9. then the frameworks for reconceptualizing both our understanding of space-time in Renoir’s work and the cinema in general, are potentially among the most rewarding. Secondly, Renoir frames the mutually affective relationship between physical and social space in both the heart of Paris and the rural landscapes of Algeria, producing an image of space-time in which the possibility for change remains a constant. How these dynamics of the time-image were influenced by his public commitment to the Popular Front later in the 1930s and how temporality figures across his other rural and urban settings are questions that demand analysis on their own terms not only from film to film but also from shot to shot, and have been addressed in more detail elsewhere.16Barry Nevin, Cracking Gilles Deleuze’s Crystal: Narrative Space-Time in the Films of Jean Renoir, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. What is clear from this brief analysis is that the sparsely populated countryside and the underbelly of the French capital have more in common within Renoir’s oeuvre than viewers might have initially suspected.


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