First things first. Jean Renoir’s dark The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, made for French television, has little to do thematically with Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which it’s ostensibly based. For Stevenson’s late Victorian novella addressed a momentous issue: the transformed meaning of Judeo-Christian myth in the face of evolutionism such as Charles Darwin mapped out fifteen years earlier in The Descent of Man. In that titanic work, published a dozen years after his Origin of Species, Darwin described man—the human being—as “descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits . . . [that is properly] classed amongst the Quadrumana, as surely as the still more ancient progenitor of the Old and New World monkeys.” Stevenson’s story, which the Scotsman claimed had come to him in a dream, was the waking nightmare of an age, a symbolical attempt to reconcile the biblical origin of the species, that man had been made in God’s image, with the new, disturbing science. The reconciliation that Stevenson implies gives his Strange Case its unsettling fascination: God is a beast, and therefore human evil, rather than confirming the Fall of man, makes of man a true reflection of his Creator. Even today, this skinny book of Stevenson’s knocks one for a loop.
Moreover, although Dr. Jekyll’s fate once he self-experiments takes the form of the proverbial good-evil split in the nature of the human, the story’s complexity argues in another direction, that good Jekyll’s chemically induced metamorphosis into vicious Hyde merely makes apparent man’s morally muddled nature; for Hyde, a close reading of the Strange Case unearths, always was lurking, hiding, inside Dr. Jekyll, behind the façade, as it were, of the properly humane Victorian gentleman. He is the criminality that virtue works mightily to suppress—the beast, Alfred Tennyson, another Victorian writer, reminds us, that we’re in constant danger of reeling back into. This is great stuff—way beyond what any of the numerous Jekyll and Hyde films has to offer.
All that said, Renoir’s version is the finest of these.
Its origin places Renoir at what he perceived to be a crossroads in the evolution of his art. After completing a trilogy marked by theatrical artifice and lavish décor (The Golden Coach, 1952; the astounding French Can-Can, 1954; Elena and the Men, 1956), Renoir turned to actual theater, directing plays for three years. When he returned to cinema, he did so with a distinct sense of striking out in a direction new to him. Like Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood only months later, Renoir began to think of television as the proper medium for expressing the intimacy he desired and, because of the condensed schedule of fast shooting it imposed, for restoring to his work the spontaneity that especially graced it in the ’30s. Hitchcock, of course, was familiar with TV through his immensely popular weekly mystery anthology series; in the main Hitchcock desired to make a theatrical film using simple, relatively primitive television methods in order to meet a self-imposed technical challenge. (The result, Psycho, 1960, is his masterpiece.) On the other hand, Renoir sought self-renewal—a matter of some urgency, perhaps, because his postwar national stature had dimmed the Communard in him from which his filmmaking identity had been inseparable before the war. Renoir himself, now a political conservative, may have needed to know he was still Renoir.
The Testament of Dr. Cordelier was intended for both television broadcasting and theatrical release. (Made in 1959, it was released in 1961, after Psycho.) The shooting method has been thus described by Garbicz and Klinowski: “[B]efore the cameras began to roll actors were rehearsed, as in the theatre, for 15 days; the actual filming took only 10 days and was broken into scenes rather than shots . . . . Up to eight cameras placed at different angles and as many microphones were simultaneously used. The sound was recorded directly. The total cost of the picture was only $76,000. To achieve the desired authenticity, Renoir shot much of the film on location in the streets of Paris, which gave these scenes a strange, frightening quality—the effect first discovered by Murnau in Nosferatu . Reportedly the scene in which Opale [Hyde] snatches a baby from the pram was improvised[,] and the camera recorded the real reactions of passers-by. To avoid discovery, only one take of each location scene was made.”
The result may be technically disappointing, even shoddy at times, but artistically it is considerable. Above all, Renoir has shifted Stevenson’s concern with society to one of community, achieving something of a coda for his pre-war The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935), perhaps his greatest piece of work. Renoir accomplishes the shift immediately. At night a small child is by herself in the street, prompting Maître Joly (Stevenson’s Utterson) from an upstairs window to note that her parents—her supposed protectors—are being irresponsible. Hyde attacks the child, with such suddenness as to suggest the realization of Joly’s worry and fear for her safety. Joly tears down to pursue the villain as two passers-by tend to the injured girl. The child turns out to be all right; but when the mother, jangled, insists that the culprit be caught, we recall Joly’s earlier remark. The mother allowed the attack by not properly tending to her daughter’s care and welfare. Moreover, if passers-by could come to the child’s rescue, they might have defended her against the attack in the first place. The safety of a child, by implication, is the active responsibility of the entire community.
The incident I have just described opens the film. Renoir’s script thus plunges us right into the middle of the action, depriving us of the usual narrative detail setting up Dr. Jekyll’s—here, Dr. Cordelier’s—self-experiments. Renoir knows that we know the story; but, more than that, he wishes to divorce that story as much as possible from considerations of Cordelier’s dual nature so that we ourselves are implicated in what the doctor does. In effect, it is we, Renoir included, who are responsible for the child’s safety, for the safety of all children, for the safety of the community.
Nor is Renoir done yet with this train of his thought. For, as Jean-Louis Barrault enacts Opale/Hyde in these opening moments when he lunges at the child and takes Joly down with a cane, kicking and kicking him with unbridled menace and glee, it’s unmistakable what he represents: an id unfettered by social or moral constraint. The implication is clear: Opale/Hyde is a part of us. The context of that implication, when the examples of his misbehavior are married to Joly’s opening remark about the child’s not being attended to, also is clear: the threat to the child comes from us—from our divorcing ourselves from the human, social and political community for which we are responsible. Take all the jabs at the film’s technical accomplishment that your ego requires; the fact remains that Renoir has taken familiar material and given it a new slant—a slant that weds it to his own personality and some signature concerns of his.
To be sure, the compound is exceedingly rough, with a general haze preventing the images from achieving Renoirian clarity; and too often we wait in dramatic anticipation of one of Opale’s vicious outbursts. (Barrault is a hoot in this role.) In other words, Renoir’s film is at times sufficiently dull to make us latch onto Opale’s lively mayhem with something like keen enjoyment. As 1959 French horror films go, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier is no Eyes Without a Face by Georges Franju. Still, it provides an interesting negative by which Renoir can reassert something of his bright spirit—the long-ago Leftist who worked for the French Communist Party and, in an incredible run, made masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece.
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