This post represents my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.
A Film I Would Not Like to See Restored: Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach
Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947, USA) at Noir City 9, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival held annually at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Of the twenty or so films that were programmed, it was the film I had prioritized for reasons that I’m not even exactly sure of (I’ve yet to really warm up to Renoir, truth be told). I didn’t know anything specific about it, though as I told a friend as we waited for the lights to go down, Pauline Kael’s review—where she cites Rivette’s proclamation of the film as a masterpiece before wittily undermining such a claim—had always intrigued me.
The Woman on the Beach is one of those films that can’t get mentioned without a big footnote being attached to it, as it is one of those films where extratextual material and circumstances almost overshadows the film itself. In this case it’s the turgid story of the film’s ill-fated production, which Eddie Muller nicely encapsulated for the audience in his introduction to the film: an initial preview screening of the film was so disastrous that in an attempt to salvage its commercial possibilities, Renoir subsequently re-edited, and then reshot a large portion of the film. The resulting version that was finally released, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes or so, remained disappointing, with Renoir himself eventually conceding that in the revisions the film had “lost its raison d’être” and was “neither flesh nor fish.”1 As it turns out, it was an unhappy note that ended Renoir’s Hollywood career—he never made another film in America.
Under such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that that initial, unlucky cut of the film shown at the first preview has swelled over the decades into a near-mythic “should-have-been” story a la Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the type all good cineastes relish hypothesizing about. “If only someone could get ahold of that original version, and really see what Renoir was trying to do…”
But defaced or not, I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film, cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable (even by noir standards). But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?
Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up on the titular beach. It embodies some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities, and feels uneasily perched on the remotest edges of the word.
For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel positively post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir with their usual significations menace and dread. But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort (“I like the dark. It’s comforting to me” insists Blanche du Bois in the noir-ly rendered A Streetcar Named Desire), and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.2
Renoir himself alludes to this sort of spacial and thematic abstraction with his comment that “The Woman on the Beach was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari”.3 An extremely evocative, but also rather curious description of the film, as The Woman on the Beach did not bring to mind the early European avant-garde (and certainly not the German Expressionist tradition), but instead feels prescient, uncannily anticipating that great flowering of European art film in the subsequent two decades. Specifically, the gritty, underpopulated, eerily abstract emotional and physical spaces brought to mind Antonioni’s 1950’s films, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) most particularly, along with Il grido and the brief beach scene from Le amiche.
Beach scene from Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)
As per usual when a film catches my interest, I spent a good chunk of time dutifully researching The Woman on the Beach. An offhand reference Jonathan Rosenbaum makes on Glenn Kenny’s review of the film’s R2 DVD release over at MUBI subsequently led me to Janet Bergstrom’s utterly fascinating article “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” written in 1999.4 Tracing the film’s production history in minute detail, through Bergstrom’s meticulous research in the RKO archives a fascinating counternarrative to Renoir’s stated opinions—which have long since established themselves as the authoritative position to take in regards to the film—quickly begins to emerge. Bergstrom poses a rather startling thesis: that The Woman on the Beach “benefited from [Renoir’s] tendency towards abstraction, but the fact that it did so (or, to be accurate, that it ended up doing so), represents an interesting paradox”.5
Bergstrom devotes a great deal of space reconstructing the film’s development, starting before Renoir was even attached to the project and details the entire filmmaking process until the final cut of the film finally emerged. She recounts with painstaking detail a great deal more information than I can provide here, and needless to say, I highly recommend anybody interested to give it a read. But in reading about the film’s chaotic history, it became increasingly clear to me, as it did to Bergstrom, that there’s a very good chance The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a better film than it would have been if that infamous Santa Barbara preview had never occurred.
One of the points that intrigued me most was how many rewrites the script of the film underwent, both before the first camera started rolling until the reshooting commenced months later. Drastic rewrites. Some of the narrative trajectories that the film’s early script drafts included:
- Tod had been able to see for months (his blindness was caused by hysteria)
- Both Peggy and Tod’s doctor were aware of this fact
- Peggy was having an affair with this doctor
- Peggy was planning on stealing Tod’s paintings to run away with the doctor
- At the insistence of the Production Code, the adultery would be suitably punished: Tod brutally attacks his wife and his doctor. Bergstrom quotes these grisly descriptions from a draft of the script: “the doctor’s crumpled body in a corner, Peggy’s battered body near a wall”6
Renoir almost immediately cut out the the robbery subplot, the entire character of the doctor and necessarily toned down the adultery, but the story still went through a number of significant revisions, both “to satisfy the studio and the Production Code Administration” as well as “to try and make the story more cohesive.”7 The central role of Robert Ryan’s hunky but psychologically disturbed Coast Guard was built up, at the expense of the colorful character of the artist, played by Charles Bickford.
But perhaps more crucially, the motivations for sullenly sexy Joan Bennett’s Peggy was in constant flux. Post-preview, one of the film’s central scenes—the showdown between Ryan and Bickford on the rowboat during the storm—was completely altered: what was initially intended to be a suicide scene shifts to its more murderous intentions in the final cut. Renoir also considered utilizing extensive flashbacks to Peggy and Tod’s colorful life in New York City to flesh out both characters. Even during the reshooting Renoir was still trying to decide if Peggy was supposed to be a heartless virago or a misunderstood–and thus more sympathetic–woman. The result of all this indecision? One of the most ambiguous femme fatales I’ve ever encountered.
I summarize these unwieldy developments in such detail to merely illustrate how the film Renoir at various points wanted to make is remarkably unlike the film that it ended up being and we know today. Particularly interesting to me was Bergstrom’s comment that “Renoir’s script for the ‘preview version’ was full of secondary characters who filled out the story, helping to convey a specific milieu that was very far from the abstraction we see in the release print of The Woman on the Beach.”8
In other words, almost everything that I was most drawn to about the film was not part of the original version.
And really, this makes sense. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the many of Renoir’s films beyond the canonical, but one thing I immediately noticed was how far removed Woman on the Beach‘s lonesome threesome (or foursome, if one wishes to include the underdeveloped fiancée) is so utterly unlike the complex, highly nuanced interactions between an extensive cast of characters that are so celebrated in films like La règle du jeu and La grande illusione. While I associate Renoir’s characters with talk, talk, and more talk, in Woman on the Beach they stay stubbornly silent. And as a direct result of this, all of the things that I was most intrigued about in Renoir’s film are also all of the elements—the silences, the narrative ellipses, the static figures suspended in vast spaces, the relentless opacity—that I don’t associate with Renoir at all, but rather a number of my favorite directors and films: Antonioni, Marienbad, Vampyr, Duras, Denis, Wong.
After reading Bergstrom’s article, suddenly the film was vibrating with endlessly resonating echoes. The narrative gaps, silences and ellipses seemed no longer puzzling as much as brimming with possibilities, richly embedded with traces of countless other possible narrative variations and the distinct possibility that the narrative trajectory might spiral in countless other directions at any given moment. Quite unexpectedly Renoir’s film reminded me, of all things, 2046, a film that because of a similarly tumultuous production history I almost expect with every rewatch to have somehow rearranged its evocative, fragmented pieces into beautiful new permutations and variations since my last viewing. This in itself distances The Woman on the Beach from the film noir tradition in yet another way. Expressionistic fatalism is nowhere to be seen—one merely needs to compare Renoir’s film to another Joan Bennet from just a few years before, Lang’s Scarlet Street, for an idea of the exhilarating Open-ness9 of The Woman on the Beach.
Exhilarating, but in many senses, unintentional. I must wholeheartedly agree with Bergstrom’s final assessment that “paradoxically, The Woman on the Beach (the release version) benefitted from all this interference… [it] became more and more abstract and all the things that could not be shown for reasons of censorship were cut and confusing character motivations left from the original novel or the innumerable, tediously similar variants of the script were removed.”10 While the final cut of The Woman on the Beach is no masterpiece, from all indications it’s a much more intriguing film that it was going to be (and/or originally was in the preview version).
That said, would I welcome the sudden unearthing of a print of the preview version in some vault or archive? Of course—I’m as curious as anyone else. And also not without serious misgivings, considering what would likely occur in such a situation: a celebratory, much trumpeted re-release of the restored “Original Director’s Cut” on the festival circuit, perhaps even a full-blown theatrical rerelease compliments of Rialto or the like, and then, at long last, a R1 DVD release. But the original release version—the version Jacques Rivette unapologetically declared a masterpiece and everyone else has spent the last decades trying to get some kind of a handle one—would quickly disappear from sight and memory, at best resurfacing as a DVD extra for the now-definitive “original version” (that is, if we were lucky enough for a company like Criterion, NoShame or VCI to get the rights to release it). And for reasons I hope I’ve managed to make clear at this point, I think this would be an entirely regrettable situation.
Of course, this isn’t exactly the type of restoration that is motivating this blog-a-thon, which is more concerned that we get to see these types of films at all, and even better if it’s on beautiful prints like I got an opportunity to see at Film Noir 9. Because that’s the type of restoration—with its emphasis on preservation and availability—I wholeheartedly support, and as such I ask you to join me in donating to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.