The first film that Jean Renoir solo-directed is a slight, intermittently lovely thing that accomplishes two tasks: it occasions a flexing of all manner of cinematic technique while showcasing its star, Renoir’s wife at the time, Catherine Hessling, in the lead role. Written as an implausible rural melodrama by Pierre Lestringuez, La fille de l’eau—literally, The Water-Girl but sometimes ridiculously called Whirlpool of Fate—tracks its beseiged heroine, Virginie Rosaert, through a series of misadventures that stress her poverty and extreme vulnerability. After her father dies, his brother, with whom he had managed a barge, targets Virginie for bullying, theft and attempted rape, causing her to flee. She is forced to flee others as well, who themselves are in incendiary conflict, as projected by startling scenes of arson. Eventually she and a rich boy fall in love, but this love is tested by her uncle’s reappearance, the renewal of his vicious beatings and his coercing her to steal. Like Oliver Twist, though, her new “family” protects Virginie and takes her in at the end.
Irising and a flurry of rapid-fire cuts: these do not work well, or even comprehensibly, in this film. Two things, however, do work. One is Renoir’s open-air portrayal of Nature and the volatility of its weather as reflected in darkening skies poked into by a tall, leafy tree: an anticipation of Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (1936), although not sustained and without the thematic gravity that these elements possess in the later film, one of Renoir’s indisputable masterpieces. More satisfying still is sleeping Virginia’s dream: an astounding sequence. Here, the silence of the silent film perfectly suits the dream’s muteness—its dreaminess. Virginie, diaphanous, confronted by two men who have been competing for her heart, glides across a night-dark landscape and amidst white columns, trying to decide which beau would be her own choice. Renoir applies the works, including slow motion, reverse slow motion, overexposures. The culmination is Virginie’s calm, weightless descent to waking earth: one of the finest employments of special effects in cinema. Only in this dream passage is Hessling, otherwise a deficient actress, impressive and convincing; rather than tryingly emoting, here she is passive, entrancing, charming. Here, she is a Renoirian wonder.
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