The Woman on the Beach (1947)

7 08 2012

There’s no discussion of Renoir’s final American film, Woman on the Beach, that fails to mention the mutilation of the film. It was test-screened in front of an audience and the film’s inability to follow a straightforward narrative confused many. The film that exists today is only 70 minutes. I mention this not as a history lesson (though it is interesting enough) but more as that a reoccurring criticism is the film’s incompleteness. Many say that the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, their motivations seem as murky as the waters that invade Robert Ryan’s nightmare in the film’s opening. This is unintentionally a strength, though.

This is loosely considered a noir and the story follows a noir template in that a helpless man is unfairly seduced by a evil, evil woman. The inherent misogyny in the characterization of a “femme fatale” is less evident here. Again, this might be a result of the film’s extensive trimming but Joan Bennett’s Peggy never feels tactical or scheming. The attraction developing between her and Scott (Robert Ryan) occurs so quickly. Perhaps develop is the wrong phrase since their affair seems to happen on a whim, while Scott is in the middle of deciding his future with the much more calm Eve. The point being is that the film’s limiting time provides characters that are opaque. There’s a very elliptical nature of the film, even if it was just the by product of poor editing.

The lack of fleshed out characters seems likely from the film’s opening sequence, in which the audience is introduced to Scott’s inner most thoughts before they’re even introduced to him. Renoir himself called the opening rather avant-garde. It feels that way, although it is also kind of hysterically old-fashioned and cheesy. There’s images faded on top of images in a garish fashion, with the not so subtle reminder of the film’s location (hint: it’s in the title) and this is all before the film bothers to tell you anything. This all sounds like a tongue-in-cheek criticism on my parts, but it is fascinating how many Hollywood “mistakes” take this from a standard noir proceeding to something haunting.

Perhaps that’s the greatest encapsulation of the film: it’s a collection of oddities, slight mis-steps from conventional storytelling that make it something truly special. Where as Swamp Water was bizarre and beautiful as a result of the content and photography, Woman on the Beach is compelling in spite of its story, which seems like it would be stuck in the mud if it weren’t for Renoir’s touch. It’s not even a trademark touch on his part, the film is rather unremarkable looking from his high standards. The film is already an oddity as it is, but it feels weird even within the scope of Renoir’s short-lived career in America.

The acting is weirdly the hallmark here. Robert Ryan trading off with Charles Bickford (as Tod)  is utterly fascinating. Twice they have conversations in which both characters seem self-conscious of the subtext. The scene where they talk about going fishing is the best example of this. Both Tod and Scott are conscious of the dangerous storm outside, as well as their mutual hatred, but they carry on the mundane conversation. Peggy is also aware of this but makes no effort to stop what could possibly kill both men until they leave. Again, the actions and motivations of the film’s main three can be called in to question but that’s what makes the film all the more fascinating.

The film ends up Tod’s cathartic burning of his painting, and the implication seems to be that Peggy is ready to stay with him, but again, the film prides itself on avoiding any answers as much as it does on setting up any questions. It’s hard to not sound vague when talking about this film. Who are these people and why did we watch them? In the end, we don’t even know what happens to them, but that’s the best thing about it. It’s a short character study and the audience isn’t given much to learn from. This is a good thing, and it’s a really good movie.




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