Release Date(s)1925 (July 20, 2021)
Studio(s)Les Films Jean Renoir/StudioCanal (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
The 1925 film Whirlpool of Fate (aka La Fille de l'eau) was legendary director Jean Renoir’s first feature effort, or at least it was his first to be exhibited—he had already co-directed Catherine (aka Une vie sans joie) along with Albert Dieudonne, but that film wouldn’t be released until 1927. Like Renoir’s other silent films, Whirlpool of Fate is a stylized melodrama that’s somewhat out of character with his later works, though it still bears his unmistakable stamp. It has none of his trademarked deep focus, which would have been a technological impossibility anyway with those early lenses and film stocks, and it also relies on quick cutting rather than having scenes play out in unbroken tableaus. Yet Renoir’s lyrical naturalism is still on display, though in this case it’s mixed with some Russian montage, and even a surprising touch of German Expressionism.
The film opens with a dedication to the unsung courage and perseverance that surrounds us every day, rather than that which takes place in far-off lands. The script by Pierre Lestringuez follows through on that promise by telling the story of Virginia (Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling), a young woman who lives on a river barge. When her father unexpectedly drowns after being knocked off the boat, she’s set adrift in more ways than one. Forced to escape from her brutish uncle (Lestringuez), she ends up on a path that leads her in and out of trouble as she tries to survive any way that she can.
Virginia feels more like a D.W. Griffith heroine than one from a Renoir film, and Hessling could have easily been replaced by Lillian Gish (who frankly would have given a much better performance), but the film itself is an interesting blend of melodrama, naturalism, and surrealism. Renoir was clearly experimenting with film form, and he included a dream sequence that’s unlike anything in his later efforts, using slow motion, reverse motion, and double exposures—even a miniature at one point. It isn’t necessarily jarring, but it does look like something that Jean Cocteau or Maya Deren would have created, rather than something that came naturally to him. Whirlpool of Fate is a film where he was trying out different ideas to see what worked, and perhaps more importantly, what didn’t. When considered in context with the rest of his filmography, it’s a fascinating glimpse at the creative process.
Cinematographers Jean Bachelet and Alphonse Gibory shot Whirlpool of Fate on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at the full-frame aperture of 1.33:1 for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray uses a 4K restoration of the film supplied by StudioCanal, working from elements preserved by la Cinematheque francaise. There’s no other information available, but the original negative would be long gone at this point in history, so it would have been some combination of prints or other dupe elements. It’s not a true frame-by-frame restoration, so there are persistent scratches and other damage marks throughout, as well as density fluctuations. There are also limitations due to the stocks that were used—the highlights often appear blown out, but that’s how they were photographed. With all of that said, this a nearly 100-year-old film that was shot on a limited budget by inexperienced filmmakers, for which the original negative no longer exists. Temper your expectations accordingly.
Audio is offered in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, consisting of music composed and performed by Antonio Coppola. Since this is the French version of Whirlpool of Fate, all of the intertitles are in French with removable English subtitles. Coppola’s score is for solo piano, so the dynamics are limited to what the instrument can provide, but it’s crystal-clear, and it supports the film perfectly.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton
- Ponette Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:30)
- Tous Les matins du monde Trailer (HD – 2:01)
- Under the Sand Trailer (HD – 1:57)
Film Critic Nick Pinkerton acknowledges the sources for his commentary right up front: Jean Renoir by Andre Bazin; Jean Renoir by Raymond Durgnat; Jean Renoir: A Biography by Pascal Merigeau; and Renoir’s own autobiography, My Life and My Films. He also reads relevant passages from the books throughout the track. He discusses how Whirlpool of Fate was virtually an amateur production, with a cast made up of members of Renoir’s social circle, and as a result he can provide only limited biographical details about most of them—with the exception of Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling, of course. Pinkerton talks about Renoir’s influences, and the how the atypical quick cutting and dream sequences compare to what the director did in his later films. Renoir would prefer “invisible” editing for most of his career, and he also turned away from fantasy elements, realizing that the fantastic could best be realized through the mundane. Pinkerton closes with a discussion about the difficulties in finding distribution for the film. This is a solid commentary track which is refreshingly candid about its inspirations.
Whirlpool of Fate may surprise viewers who haven’t seen anything from Renoir’s silent period, as it’s quite unlike classics such as The Rules of the Game or La Grande Illusion. As different as it may be, it still demonstrates the essential humanity that was characteristic of all his work, and it provides a look at an artist inventing himself.
- Stephen Bjork
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