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Else, The foreign femme fatale in Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du carrefour (1932)

Else, la femme fatale étrangère dans La Nuit du carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)
Sylvie Blum-Reid

Résumés

Cet essai aborde le visage de la femme fatale, personnage ancré dans les films noirs. Je considère ici le personnage d’Else dans le film incomplet et méconnu de Jean Renoir La Nuit du carrefour (1932), la première adaptation du roman éponyme de Georges Simenon. J’interprète ce film comme étant une vision poétique, voire surréaliste de la femme fatale qui est ici plutôt une femme-enfant dans le cinéma français. C’est aussi une étrangère, ce qui ajoute au charme et au mystère par rapport à l’inspecteur Maigret apportant un discours trouble au film, de par les traits xénophobes qui ressortent des dialogues.

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Texte intégral

1Jean Renoir directed the first filmic adaptation of Belgian writer Georges Simenon’s dark crime novel, La Nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads), in 1932. It was the first film treatment of the 1931 Simenon novel. The main protagonist, Maigret, is a seasoned detective that was featured in 88 novels and short stories by Simenon, who worked closely with Renoir, a friend, on the film shoot. Simenon initially wanted to make a film out of his novel. However, he quickly gave up on film direction. This was to be the first incarnation of detective Maigret who later became a familiar face to the French audience in several filmic adaptations, such as Jean Tarride’s Le Chien jaune (The Yellow Dog, 1932) and the eponymous French television adaptation that ran from 1967 to 1998.

  • 1 “Chaque détail, à chaque seconde, de chacun de ses plans, fait de La Nuit du carrefour le seul gran (...)
  • 2 “l’intrigue fut jugée incompréhensible, la réalisation bâclée.”

2Jean-Luc Godard in his note on Jean Renoir writes “La Nuit du carrefour is the only great French crime film, and more, the greatest French adventure film.”1 In retrospect, part of Renoir’s more “experimental phase” (Marie 2013: 59), shot on location for the exteriors, La Nuit du carrefour remains one of Renoir’s most obscure films, yet one of his most impressionistic as well as surreal. It is a misunderstood and lesser-known film, viewed as incomplete and chaotic by film historians and audiences alike. Film historian Pierre Leprohon blames the misunderstanding on the fact that it had been wrongly analyzed when couched in the crime genre (Leprohon 1971: 62). I place the film in a highly poetic—or poetic-noir mood, a term that I apply here for its allure. I am not alone to consider its poetic noir and surrealist aspects that can be traced in the dream-like state permeating the film. “Watching this strange and poetic film, one experiences fear” says Jean-Luc Godard (1986: 62). While todays and yesterday’s spectators and critics feel disappointed by the quality of the image and the lack of clarity in this overall murky narrative, they can be attracted to its unforgettable poetic and mysterious qualities and melancholy air. André comments on the “deep perplexity” felt by the critics and audience upon the film release, “The plot was deemed incomprehensible, and its making botched.” (André 2000: 33)2 Dominique Païni (1994) places the film among a list of legendary “incomprehensible films” as The Lady from Shanghai, The Big Sleep and Le Petit Soldat (55). Simply put, the interest of the film lies within its aesthetic and formal aspects (André 2000: 33). Renoir worked the noir aspects and the blur into the form itself, turning the film into a filmic experiment (Païni 1994: 55). Yet Renoir was never interested in clarifying the mystery and contributed to the ambiguity around the production. He built on the atmosphere of impending doom, which further contributes to situate the work in the atmosphere of poetic realism that permeates a certain type of films of the 1930s. Close to the beginning of sound cinema, the film retains some traits from the silent era, with sparse dialogue. It is no secret that the production was doomed due to a few lost reels; their number varies from three reels according to Jean Mitry (1979) (and Godard 1986: 62), who had been recruited as an actor for the film, playing the role of Arsène, one of the mechanics (Leprohon 1971: 61), to two reels according to Pascal Mérigeau (2012: 167) as well as Emmanuelle André who proposes that they could have been lost, destroyed or over-printed (André 2000: 33). Apparently, several pages of the script were never shot (Mérigeau 2012: 167).

  • 3 Borde and Chaumeton see American films as more oneiric and French films as more realistic, and not (...)

3I revisit the film as “opening the door to the French school of poetic realism… which may have led… to French noir of the thirties,” a thesis offered earlier by Leprohon (1971: 66). In this essay, I address the central role of the female character, Else, as a femme fatale, and the gender issues found in the film and film noir in general; I cover her performance and her dressing style, as well as some of the poetic and surrealist elements associated with her. The heroine has all the attributes assigned to women in film noir, most of them are delineated in the film, one by one, from ingenue, to witty, cunning, enigmatic, and defiant. To deconstruct the character, I borrow from an early chronicle devoted to the femme fatale in cinema, written by Colette in 1918: “A Short Manual for the Aspiring Scenario Writer” as well as other literature on poetic realism, surrealism, and the femme fatale in films. Contrary to what critics Borde and Chaumeton view as lacking in French cinema, yet intrinsic to American noir cinema, oneiric qualities are very much a part of the film I cover.3 I propose to read La Nuit du carrefour as a surrealist noir film, an area that Renoir is not known for since he is still considered to be based in the realist tradition. In the final part of the essay, I probe into the xenophobic and antisemitic discourse that cloaks the film characters including Else, Carl as well as the two murder victims from Holland.

Synopsis

  • 4 The film was remade for the second time in 1992 with actor Bruno Cremer (a familiar actor in the Ma (...)
  • 5 Georges Koudria (Karl) acted next in Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933); it would be (...)
  • 6 Oscar, the garage owner points at the Andersens. He is played by Renoir’s friend, painter Dignimont (...)

4After a murder is discovered in the countryside, at the intersection of two country roads, near Arpajon, 30 kilometers away from Paris, inspector Maigret preceded by his associate Lucas, arrives from Paris to investigate the crime.4 The homicide victim, Mr. Goldberg, a foreign Jewish jewelry dealer from Holland was found in a stolen car inexplicably hidden at the Andersens’ garage. The Andersens, Danish residents of a dilapidated villa at the crossroad, a brother and sister, are immediately accused by their xenophobic neighbors; they are the ideal scapegoats for the times—a direct reference to the 1930s rise of xenophobic and antisemitic sentiments ramping up before the war. In fact, Carl, the prime suspect is interrogated by the Sûreté (National Police Headquarters, Quai des Orfèvres) in Paris by the second sequence of the film.5 When pressed to answer if he knew the deceased merchant found on his property, he retorts in a contemptuous way: “I have never seen that Jew!” Together, their closest neighbors, a gang of shady mechanics, and Michonnet, an insurance man and his wife, openly voice their xenophobic opinion, “one should drive back all foreigners to the border.”6 I will return to this sentiment expressed in the narrative in the last part of the essay. The suspect Carl is of aristocratic descent, with an artificial eye and a black monocle; he was wounded during a plane accident, although the accident did not occur in wartime. He stands as an early version of the aristocratic captain von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion, Renoir 1937) played by Austrian actor-director Erich Von Stroheim whom Renoir deeply admired. Carl works mostly from home as a designer of upholstery fabric for a Parisian company which he visits once a month. Examples of paintings and sketches turn up in various shots, yet they do not correspond to any contemporary fabric designs. Their composition and focus are analyzed in depth by Emmanuelle André. The canvases bear an uncanny resemblance to Cubist paintings. Unable to pin the murder on Carl who is then released, Inspector Maigret travels to the carrefour of “the three widows” (13.33 minutes into the film)—an ominous name for the rather desolate place. It is at that time that he meets Carl’s sister Else who seems to live her life sheltered behind locked doors in the villa and has a rather fragile constitution. Maigret spends about 24 hours or so pacing between all four corners to sort out the mystery, in a story that eventually involves an international gang of diamond thieves, money laundering, an exotic and shady woman and murderers.

  • 7 Jonathan Rosenbaum (1978) has qualified the soundtrack as “voluptuous.”

5What ensues is a dark narrative, speckled by chiaroscuro lighting, a persistent fog, muddy roads, and fields, all these elements that Renoir manipulates at best to disorient the spectator, not to overlook the bizarre “voluptuous” soundtrack composed of the incessant noises of screeching car and truck tires, and a motorcycle with detonating shotgun (like) sounds, confusing the sound of engines backfiring, and the odd sound of a welding torch that appears in the credit sequence, and whose source is only inferred in the last sequence.7 Much of the atmosphere of La Nuit du carrefour is credited to the cinematography by Marcel Lucien and Asselin, the light work with black and white shades, the odd soundscape, the use of the blur, and significantly the presence of the foreign child-woman, Else, who is both suspicious and exotic, the object of curiosity for the detective and the marauders nearby. Renoir stated his intentions, “My aim was to convey by imagery the mystery of that starkly mysterious tale, and I meant to subordinate the plot to the atmosphere” (quoted in Sesonske 1980: 102).

  • 8 The other two women have very slim roles: Mme Michonnet, is played by Jane Pierson, and Oscar’s wif (...)

6Instead of concentrating much and in details over the different parts of the plot, its twists, and turns, as well as all its actors and who’s done it, I plan to focus on the way the female character’s role of Else is constructed into a femme fatale by Renoir and Simenon; she is the most visible woman out of three women cast in an essentially masculine film.8 I will first pause on the way she is dressed and framed throughout the story as a lethal and surrealist woman. By so doing, I plan to discuss the poetic realist elements at the center of the film, its characters, its melancholy and how it stands out as one of the earliest poetic (sur)realist films, stepping away from procuring an impression of reality which came to be Renoir’s signature, although as noted, “to achieve realism, one has only to extract this poetry from realism instead of fabricating it” (Leprohon 1971: 66). After all, one of Renoir’s early short films was devoted to a fairy tale dream-like film La Petite Marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl, 1928), an adaptation of Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. The féérique tale marked by “the dominance of the figure of the woman-child” is part of Renoir’s first career phase (Sesonske 1980: 43).

Noir elements

7All aspects combine to associate La Nuit du Carrefour with noir, a formula dear to the French at the birth of the form itself. French noir was spotted by André Bazin in 1930s French films. In her Sight & Sound article “How the French birthed noir,” Ginette Vincendeau (2019) cites Bazin: “As the film critic and theorist André Bazin noted, ‘In French pre-war cinema, even if there wasn’t exactly a genre, there was a style, the realist film noir,’ referring to films that critics such as Frank had named as such before the war.” Ginette Vincendeau’s work on noir redefines the intertextual exchanges between US noir, French noir and German cinema at the time in a sort of transatlantic or transnational exchange that took place over the years, all the way into the 1950s and beyond. The relationship between noir and poetic realism has long been underestimated in film studies. Rebecca Martin (2018: 14) examines what she considers two almost oxymoronic terms, “poetic” and “realism” to describe “a mode of filmmaking whose realism is characterized by the depiction of working class lives on the margin of society, mostly urban, sometimes industrial milieus of dark, rain-splattered streets, grimy bars, and shabby rooms and apartments, and a focus on the details of everyday life”.

8The topic of noir as a French school has been revisited respectively by Dudley Andrew, James Naremore, Ginette Vincendeau, Charles O’Brien, and Thomas Pillard. Simenon in fact constitutes one of the links between poetic realism and later American film noir (Andrew 1995: 280). The term noir has been debated over the years. It was initially attributed to two French critics, Jean-Pierre Chartier and Nino Frank, in 1946, and designates a genre of movies with hard-boiled (American) protagonists. Recently, research has established that early noir was present and discussed in 1930s France, independent of Hollywood films usually associated with it (O’Brien 1996; Pillard 2012). Ginette Vincendeau argues that the adjective “noir” runs through French cinema (2019). However, when one considers the use of poetic realism, it is inextricably connected to noir. Many historians denounce poetic realism for not being a genre but instead viewed as a style. Moving away from such a debate, I opt for Dudley Andrew’s perception of poetic realism as an optique, or a way of seeing.

9The poetic realist optique in France is grounded in the 1930s. Among some of the poetic realist tropes, one recognizes depressive realism, doomed characters, and a certain poetry in the dialogues. The décor and objects are instrumental in contributing to the atmosphere, they summon poetic associations. The Surrealists’ interest in cinema and the potential power of images is admitted. They were ardent filmgoers; they claimed an appetite for fantastic plots derailed into some hallucinatory “adventures” of a criminal underworld that could be found to their delights in Feuillade’s films. Surrealists were attracted to stories of doomed erotic love. Naremore (1998) draws a parallel between the Surrealists and postwar existentialism, opening the field for further investigation. Although noir films are usually located in an urban setting, Renoir’s fantastic film, set in the middle of the countryside, heralds poetic realist films, possibly situating this film into an early version of French noir. If Renoir traded the urban location for a rural location, the city is audibly traceable in the residents of the “carrefour” who are outsiders planted there for various unspecified but most likely nefarious reasons; while the mechanics at the Oscar garage all speak with a strong Parisian accent and use slang terms, the Michonnets, an insurance agent and his wife are from elsewhere; the Andersens, recent newcomers from Denmark with very little knowledge of French stand out. The garage is the hub of a network of traffickers.

The femme fatale

10Colette, a film critic, journalist, novelist, diarist, and performance artist identified and defined an early version of the femme fatale. I contend that her identification of the femme fatale takes places between the late 1910s and the 1920s, well before the 1930s. She immediately locates the femme fatale in the category of “sensational films” and explains that such a sensational film is one that “does not deal with actual events”. “Question: What is a sensational film? Answer: A sensational film—with the exception of American films—is one that does not deal with actual events” (quoted in Virmaux 1980: 46). In so doing, she excludes American films from such “category.” She further argues that French cinema “has never attempted to portray real or imagined incidents of the war” (47). Pressed to justify herself, she admits that she cannot explain this as she is not looking for any fights (“I’m a shy soul that shies away from pugilistic” 47). The first sign of a sensational film can be found in the lighting and “enormous close-up of its principal actors.” (47)

11For Alain and Odette Virmaux (1980: 1), who edited the volume Colette at the Movies, Colette was an active participant in the films of her time. She contributed to early film criticism. She wrote several scripts, treatments, and dialogues, one of them Lac aux Dames (1934) was directed by Marc Allégret, and featured Simone Simon and Michel Aumont. Other Colette novels were adapted to the screen.

  • 9 Musidora is often seen as the first vamp of French cinema. See, for example, the news broadcast Les (...)

12Her chronicles on the femme fatale and other film characters appeared first in the daily Excelsior under the title “Colette’s diary” later renamed “The Short Manual for the Aspiring Scenario Writer” (Virmaux 1980: 47). Set as a series of four chronicles, it was reprinted in Film (1918) and Filma (1918–1919). “The dialogues are full of allusions to contemporary cinema… the alert reader will spot Pina Menichelli’s owl headdress and the black velvet mask of Feuillade’s serials.” (Colette 1980: 46) At the time of her Manual, she had already scripted the first version of La Vagabonde (1917) for Musidora (Virmaux 1980: 4). Colette was deeply influenced by one of the earliest French versions of the character Irma Vep, an acronym for Vampire, played by Musidora, her friend, an actress and director, in Louis Feuillade’s silent crime serial Les Vampires (1915–1916). Musidora was famous for cross-dressing, and for her tight-fitting attires composed of black leggings, body suits, along with a cape, and a mask. She embodied one of the early vamps of cinema.9

13Colette’s Manual was composed as an exchange between Q and A, nameless characters standing for “Question” and “Answer.” She was an adept of the interview style which is found in several of her works. The first segment devoted to The Femme Fatale is about 3 pages and is immediately followed by the segment II on The Leading Man that runs for about 3 pages, then III: The Society Woman (2 ½ pages), concluding by IV: Luxury in the Movies (2 pages). One immediately identifies a femme fatale upon her first dramatic entrance on screen. Colette was a fashion and style commentator as well so one is not surprised to see how she covers the woman whom she details in the following terms:

1) The femme fatale is almost always in décolleté; 2) she is often armed with a hypodermic or with a flacon of ether; 3) she sinuously turns her serpent’s neck toward the spectator; 4) and—more rarely—having first revealed enormous wide eyes, she softly veils them with soft lids, and before disappearing in the midst of a fade-out risks the most daring gesture that can be shown on screen… She slowly and guiltily bites her lower lip… She also uses other weapons—I have already mentioned poison and drugs—such as the dagger, the revolver, the anonymous letter, and finally, elegance. (quoted in Virmaux 1980: 47)

14At least two or three elements ascribed to the portrait of the femme fatale apply to Else in La Nuit du Carrefour: the use of barbiturates (Veronal pills), the gun, and the fashionable exotic black sequined dress she wears.

Figure 1 & 2

Figure 1 & 2

Else and her pet turtle (La Nuit du carrefour, Jean Renoir, 1932).

15One of the longest sequences between Maigret and Else takes place in her bedroom (37.11 mn. into the film). It is one of two sequences which are held in the young woman’s universe. An overhead close-up shot of Else’s face lying down next to a large turtle inexplicably opens the segment [figures 1–2]. I will consider this sequence later. Maigret finds her locked in her room and unlocks the door. Prior to this, he spotted a still burning cigarette butt in the downstairs area, signaling her presence in a space where she was reportedly excluded. As the detective walks into the bedroom, she slowly gets up from the furry rug to lie down on her recliner: “I’m afraid of the prowlers” (“j’ai peur des rôdeurs”) she confesses in her small but shrill accented voice. She invites the inspector to sit next to her and touches his coat. Realizing that she is starving, Maigret decides to fix a meal for her in the kitchen. The camera stays on her as she gets up, revealing black silk stockings through the slit of her dress. A few minutes later (after what may be a hiatus) she returns to the bedroom, and another couch, clinging to his arm. At this moment Maigret discovers the sleeping pills as well as a small handgun, and the key to the bedroom, which was reportedly locked by her brother. All these symbolic objects are highlighted in close-up shots. The ten-minute bedroom sequence is frequently intercut by frantic outdoors activity, as Maigret requested a team of 40 policemen from Paris to speed things up. Realizing that she had been poisoned by the beer she barely drank, the inspector puts his fingers down her throat, to “save” her and then asks one of his men to lock her up in her room for her safety.

16Michel Marie associates the character of Else to film noir. He explains that she is “an early version of a young femme fatale so typical of the film noir genre” (Marie 2013: 60). She hides a gun and has been play-acting for the entire investigation throwing him off scent. Julie Grossman argues that “Female characters branded as femmes fatales perform roles in order to survive, to seduce, or to manipulate others in order to get what they want.” (Grossman 2020: 6) Else puts on a show for the entire film. She has managed to escape her early social condition, which we discover at the end. In order to do so, she created a family melodrama, involving class, acting the part of a girl from a good aristocratic background, paired with Carl’s background when instead she is a former working-class woman from Germany (Hamburg) linked to the criminal underworld, the daughter of a docker, rescued by Carl who wanted to “turn her into an honest girl.” (film dialogue) She embodies the prototypical bad woman found in noir.

  • 10 “Va t’habiller” Maigret barks at Else.
  • 11 Else reports smoking two packs of cigarettes per day to Maigret.

17The inspector is not easily duped although the film comes very close to a mutual seduction that can be construed as a dance. Simenon is more scathing in his description of Else than Renoir: “She was the typical tart, ordinary and vulgar, healthy and cunning” (Simenon 2014 [1931]: 110). The director plays with the seductive allure of the woman, titillating Maigret who is both seduced yet rough in his demeanor. He is aware of the manipulation she has subjected him to. The second bedroom scene occurs later after Maigret has identified her as the brain (the fence) of the operation. When he infers her past as a prostitute after typical Maigret fashion, with slow and relentless deductive work akin to a “sponge detection method” (Vincendeau 2019), he starts addressing her informally with the “tu” form, and orders her about. At first alone in the cluttered space, she is reading through old letters, and putting on dark eye-shadow makeup in front of the mirror in a negligée (at about 59 mn into the film). She appears a bit disheveled. “How many men have passed onto this bed?” Maigret asks her without expecting any answer after barging into her room. He directs her: “Go get dressed.”10 She does as told, undressing into a slip in front of the camera, and in front of Maigret who is onlooking, standing to the side (left frame), in a plan américain; she hastily and angrily dons a skirt and a sweater. Right before that, Maigret spots a scar on her left breast. She explains the cause of the wound and her criminal past in Hamburg. He handcuffs her, in what looks like a close embrace from the back. Her demeanor has changed now from a passive and weak character to an assertive woman. As he takes her downstairs, she snarls, and starts smoking again.11 This is the first time that the entire gang of thieves (and murderers) is assembled in the front room for the grand finale.

18The seductress is a classical feminine figure in French cinema of the 1930s and beyond. The issue of gender in Renoir’s film has often been addressed, starting with his silent epic Nana (1926) starring Catherine Hessling. In his films “Women… are seductively adorable and threateningly destructive creatures which one cannot do without, but which one cannot master.” (O’Shaughnessy 2000: 40–41) His film La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931) about a streetwalker and her pimp precedes La Nuit du carrefour by one year, and most likely was instrumental in bankrolling the 1932 film. Even though some see poetic realist films dominated by male characters, the female is nevertheless crucial to the text (Andrew 1995: 240). The expression “femme fatale” originates in 1895 at the same time as the birth of cinema (Grossman 2020: 10). The designation was sometimes used in pre-war French film criticism, but was not as widespread as it would become after the war in relation to an American context. Geneviève Sellier and Noël Burch posit the term of “garce,” the French equivalent of the “bitch,” a term that goes back to a long tradition in populist literature according to them: “The ‘poor slut’, a figure as old as populist literature, is more of an animal than anything else. Her fate is consubstantial with an unbridled sexuality.” (Burch/Sellier 2013: 48) Interestingly, the term is the feminine equivalent of “gars”, or boy, which does not bear such negative connotations, whereas the feminine signals a woman of ill-repute.12 One instance of the so-called “garce” can be found in Nana (Renoir, 1925), directed by her “strangely sadistic husband” (Burch/Sellier 1996: 52). Another significant example is with Viviane Romance in many renditions. Such a character was already present in the 1930s and will become even more evident in the post-World War II era. Earlier the term of “vamp” was the closest designation for such a part, harking back to Musidora’s appearance in Les Vampires, and Judex (1916), in French cinema.

19Eventually, Else’s real persona is exposed: her real name is Bertha Krull and she is German.13 There has been a warrant for her arrest in Denmark for the past three years.14 The last name inevitably correlates with Germaine Krull, a German-born (Dutch) photographer who spent time in Paris in the late 1920s and was known for documenting Paris and its less appealing districts, amidst a group of exile photographers (and artists) who flocked to France in the 1930s such as Brassaï, Kertesz, Kollar, and Ray. Krull is connected to the avant-garde, but also the realist school of photography, a representative of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement; she is known for her portraits, as well as some of her industrial photographs.15 She worked with Sonia Delaunay in fashion. Some of these photographers impacted French cinema as they worked in filmmaking when they were in France. The noir iconography they brought saturates such films, including La Nuit du carrefour, La Chienne and La Bête humaine (Vincendeau 2019).

20At the end of La Nuit du carrefour, the spectator discovers that Else, as suspected is not Carl’s sister but his wife. Yet, she is probably bigamous, and in touch with her first husband Guido, an Italian gangster who is lurking about at the nearby Oscar garage, where after the facts, most of the criminal plot consisting in money laundering, drugs and now murders have been orchestrated. Alexander Sesonske (1980) who analyzed the film in great length in his study of Renoir’s films, found an affinity between Else and Lulu by Pabst, further underlining the connection between French and German cinema at the time. He reckons with her seductive nature,

Else appears to bear a greater resemblance to Lulu, with the bed being the natural habitat of both. Else’s beauty and grace, her erotic languor when she received Maigret in her bedroom, the apparent openness with which she appeals to him, make her the most alluring, thus far, of Renoir’s destructive females. But her softness and passivity prove to be feigned (Sesonske 1980: 108).

  • 16 “Opiomane, belle et folle, un halo de lumière”.

21She initially comes out as a delicate young woman, with “childlike intonations, a feeble voice” (Marie 2013: 59), deserted by her brother. More recently, for a television replay, Isabelle Potel (2002) characterizes her persona as an “an opium addict, beautiful and crazy, a halo of light”.16

22She is scared to be left alone in the large house, near a crime scene. She needs protection. She is far from the representation of the “angel in the house” gendered ideal as suggested by Grossman (2020: 6) in her presentation on the fatal woman. In fact, she is unable to take care of herself and needs someone to cook for her. The narrative tends to confirm her fears as she is subsequently the object of two murder attempts, once through poisoning, and one through strangulation by Michonnet, the insurance man who infiltrated the villa toward the end of the film, despite heightened police surveillance.

23Renoir cast the then unknown actor, Danish dancer Winna Winfried following his own impulse: “I wanted a very fragile-looking woman, in a big, ill-kept, cluttered house” (Sesonske 1980: 102). Renoir described her as such,

[I found] a strange creature, a kind of bizarre seventeen-year-old girl, with a very pale face, whose name was Winna Winfried. I don’t believe in the term photogenic, but it happens that this girl justifies its use. Just put her in front of a camera, and everything works. Her voice also works. She delighted the sound engineer, and she also delighted me. (Renoir 1989: 222, quoted in Marie 2013: 59)

24Else fascinates Maigret, portrayed by Renoir’s brother, Pierre Renoir, an actor who was then known for his successful theatrical productions. He exhibits a large palette of emotions: he is puzzled, seduced by Else at first; then amused, yet rough, impolite, and indulgent toward her and even ambiguous in the last part after his findings. Significantly, the credit sequence isolates the two actors Pierre Renoir and Winna Winfried from the other actors giving them top billing preceding the film title card.

25The Danes both look incongruous in the area, and viewed as such by the neighbors, yet there is a feeling that Else is more than she lets on. The pair exudes foreignness (Vincendeau 2019). Both Danish actors were rather obscure at the time; Winna Winfried was then a 17-year-old dancer for what was to be her first cinematic role; this was Georges Koudria’s first film. The detective directs his investigation on her in a relentless way. The camera remains on her, as Renoir found her extremely photogenic. She looks like a frail sophisticated damsel in distress. Despite the iconography designating the woman as a (delicate) gamine in need of help, a trope that is easily traced in French cinema during the 1920s and 1930s and will resurface in Renoir’s later film La Bête humaine (1938) in the character of Séverine (played by actress Simone Simon), she later is revealed to be an accomplice if not the mastermind of all criminal activities.

The surrealist femme (fatale) and fashion

26In what follows I go into the creation of the surrealist renoirian femme fatale and how fashion and style helped carve the New Woman. In view of the relatively few clues given to the spectator about her actual situation, I examine the way she carries herself, inclusive of her dressing style as it informs the plot. Earlier in the essay, I revisited the way Colette focused on the type of dress worn by the femme fatale, “the clinging black velvet dress” and the cigarette (quoted in Virmaux 1980: 49). Colette’s version of the femme fatale underlined the importance of garments in her creation. A certain sense of fashion and style informs the spectator of what she/he is watching and situates the face and body of the persona. Elegance and style become a leading attribute of the woman, with accessories and props as poison, drugs, cigarettes, and dagger, key, or revolver. All these components of La Nuit du carrefour participate in its poetic/noir dreamlike qualities on top of the surreal elements presented in the enigmatic appearance of a turtle.

27Janey Place (1980) picks up on the importance of the garment in her analysis of the femme fatale in American film noir, as the “dress—or lack of it}—further defines the woman.” (Place 1980: 45) The black velour dress at first seems out of place in the context of the rural country house, not exactly fit for ordinary house-wear, or rural domestic life. Simenon did not mean to associate the dress to high society though. Winfried’s performance transforms the woman into a spectacle, like an “apparition” to borrow from Thomas Pillard’s description of Nelly (Michèle Morgan) when she first appears in Le Quai des brumes (Carné, 1938) (Pillard 2019: 64). Her first delayed entrance down the staircase likens her to a movie star and the object of desire for the (male) gaze: “She stepped forwards like a film star, or rather like the perfect woman in an adolescent’s dreams. Was her dress of black velvet?” writes Simenon (2014: 21).

28Admittedly most of the male characters are pale next to Else, although the gang is quite an eccentric bunch. In that context, Maigret is perceived as almost too elegant (Vincendeau 2019). The bric-a-brac set design of the villa accentuates the mystery behind the woman especially regarding her bedroom, and living room, scattered with objects, next to sofas, fur throws and antic rugs. Colette reminds us that typically, the femme fatale “lights a cigarette and stretches out on the divan” (quoted in Virmaux 1980: 48). Much of her fatalness is the product of style, fashion and especially performance. Else in a reclining pose on an ottoman, shows her legs and black stocking, legs being a key characteristic of the femme fatale role (Place 1980: 45).

29The inspector becomes immediately friendly with her, adding an increased layer of intimacy in their exchanges and body movements. For much of the film, they are both framed together, appearing as a couple, the detective, and the victim. Her extreme youth stands out next to the aging male detective, a type of “incestuous” couple that is recurrent throughout the 1930s, and that has been investigated by historians of French cinema (Vincendeau 1988; Burch/Sellier 1996). Maigret next to her appears middle-aged and red-faced (Simenon 2014: 47).

The outfits

  • 17 Most likely, due to budget restrictions, there was no costume designer in the film. Jacques Becker’ (...)
  • 18 My translation of Mérigeau’s passage.

30In what follows, I cover the various outfits worn by Else in the film, in a not so lavish production. The garments she wears off and on, like the dress, and her silk negligée are highly charged and denote an erotic persona. Three outfits are produced over the span of the story: the first part presents her black velour dress slit at mid-leg, sequin-like buttons on the long sleeves with one vertical line of sequins on her breast. They are characteristic of what both Simenon and Renoir attempt to convey in the inclusion of the femme fatale, using aspects of lingerie, female garments, and scents, as well as dressing, and undressing. The film never credits the costume designer.17 Renoir apparently enjoyed “delegating Jacques Becker (his assistant) to assist her in her lingerie fitting with light negligée et transparent slips that she would show on screen” (Mérigeau 2012: 165–166).18 Incidentally, Becker came from the haute couture world, his mother was an English couturière in Paris; he grew up in the fashion milieu, which he fully embraced later in Falbalas (Paris Frills, 1943). He was probably the only informed participant in Renoir’s crew to understand the sway of fashion for the plot.

31Else reflects a duality. She is alluring yet threatening and toxic, all active traits of the femme fatale. I read her enigmatic airs, poses, combined with the eclectic assemblage of objects collected in her bedroom and living room as listed earlier, as evidence of surrealist moments and poses. Women, in general, for surrealist artists remain a mystery. They were central to the surrealist movement, and their writings, infantilized, fragmented, as well as sources of erotic fantasies. They were the artists’ muses. Dreams were favored in surrealist works, and associations produced were sought after, analyzed, and interpreted among them. Psychoanalysis was a privileged method to do so. My considerations include women surrealist artists such as painter Leonor Fini for example, in her representation of young girls, and women in dream-like environments. The surrealists treated women as children, but also revered them.

32Unlike other characters, Else is not blurred but luminous under the spotlight amidst surrounding noirceur. Many historians remarked on her erotic persona (from Leprohon [1971], to Mérigeau [2012], Rosenbaum [1978] and Sesonske [1980]). Simenon endowed the character with “what American movies portray as sex appeal” (Simenon 2014: 65). Mérigeau qualifies one of the sequences between Maigret and Else as two of the most erotic scenes in Renoir’s films, projecting the “firefly-like” presence of Else, the inexperienced actress next to the massive silhouette of Maigret (Mérigeau (2012: 165).

33Elegance or style becomes a leading attribute of the woman, with accessories as poison, drugs, cigarettes, and dagger or revolver in tow—all these components of Renoir’s plot support its poetic/noir but also surreal dreamlike qualities. The giant ornate turtle, a music box, and a phonograph provide the most surreal visual and aural touches. The latter instrument is a recurrent object in 1930s’ French films, visible in Cœur de Lilas (Litvak 1932), L’Atalante (Vigo 1934), Pépé le Moko (Duvivier 1937) and many Renoir films. The tune becomes the major diegetic source of music and theme for the “voluptuous” soundtrack that Else calls an old Italian air (Rosenbaum (1978).19 The following surreal scene that I will describe next involves a giant ornate box turtle. Its composition stands out with the overhead close-up shot of Else’s face lying down sideways next to the giant box turtle on a fur-like rug [See figures 1, and 2]. She seems to treat the turtle as a pet or a toy summoning child-like elements associated to her, as well as surreal imagery. The turtle stirs up the oneiric qualities of the film and is like a vision. The pose is styled after Man Ray’s photograph Black and White (1926), initially named Visage de nacre et masque d’ébène.20 Ray’s photo inscribes a close-up of a woman’s face (modeled by Kiki de Montparnasse), tilted and resting the right side of her head to the right, next to an African mask which she holds upright in one hand [see figure 3]. The insertion of the African mask at the time emphasizes the fascination for other cultures and art forms, found in Africa, and East Asia and the ensuing dialogue at the time. It offers a sharp contrast between the Western white woman (Europe) and the mask representing an African woman and culture. Else’s posture marks one moment in the film when one plunges in her mental world, as she lies next to her turtle and objects that are linked to the natural world, such as an abalone seashell and a fur throw. Clearly, this moment displays an attempt to get into the woman’s world and understand her position, which is construed as an enigma. Since the house is bathed in semi-obscurity otherwise, she emerges as a rather complex person. The female character here, as in most films noirs, “stands outside the male order and represents a challenge to it”, as posited by E. Ann Kaplan (1980: 83). She represents mystery and has used her sexuality in her relations to the various men of the Carrefour community.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Kiki de Montparnasse posing next to an African black mask (Noire et blanche/Black and White, Man Ray, 1926)

34As the film progresses, her posture, wardrobe, an open peignoir showing half a breast, and a dangling slipper at the end of her foot, all contribute to send the detective wondering but also titillated. As she speaks (sometimes in Danish), her foreign accent is thick, and enticing. She is characterized as “at once woman and child.” (Simenon 2014: 65) The dimension of the femme fatale as a child-woman is missing in most treatments of the femme fatale in American films, yet it is intrinsic to French cinema and in full display in La Nuit du carrefour.

  • 21 Renoir’s second and last wife Dido Freire with whom he spent the rest of his life after the late 19 (...)

35In revisiting the director’s own biography, I often circle back to Renoir’s attraction for foreign women with a heavy accent, some of whom were cast in his films.21 For instance, Nora Gregor was an Austrian actress then little known in France whom he imposed for the main female character of la Marquise de la Chesnaye, Christine in La Règle du jeu/Rules of the Game (1939), not to overlook German actress Dita Parlo in La Grande Illusion (1937) playing Elsa, the woman who shelters two French escapees from a German prison camp in her farm in the Alps, played by Marcel Dalio and Jean Gabin. Later, the Italian actress Ana Magnani in the Le Carrosse d’or (1952).

Exposing xenophobia and antisemitism

  • 22 Carl remarks in the second sequence taking place at the PJ (Police Judiciaire in Paris): “Je n’ai j (...)

36The story runs on the deep-seated fear of foreigners, a xenophobic and nationalist attitude prevalent in the 1930s France (and Europe), as a runner up to World War II. Although a suspect, Carl immediately signifies that he has nothing to do with the murder of Goldberg, the Dutch Jewish jewelry dealer. Yet, during the cross-examination in Paris, as presented in the first part of the essay, Carl’s response is problematic as he tries to clear himself from the murder, he uses the ethnic background of the victim whom he never met.22 The entire Carrefour community was complicit in the laundering and harboring of jewels and cocaine (besides Carl). Starting with Oscar, the garage owner, and his crew, the Michonnets and Else, who thought of Goldberg as a perfect fall guy. Carl was probably the only “innocent” person living in the area, oblivious of the traffic taking place right under his nose and asleep during his wife’s maneuvers since she was drugging him with sleeping pills at night, a reversal of the endangered woman script. Needless to say, the character of Carl appears weak, and gets weaker by the end of the film, as he is nearly killed (for the second time) and lies in bed, incessantly screaming the name of Else. All the Carrefour people were seemingly good citizens, and honest representatives of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois order. They condemn the police for not doing their job: “If the police were better organized, I would not have to survey the foreigners’ cars myself,” Michonnet growls at Maigret who was paying him a visit. Twenty-six minutes into the film, the Goldberg widow arrives at the crossroad to identify the victim (her husband) but ends up being shot as well and dies soon after, right in front of a powerless Maigret and his team. The spectator gets a glimpse of her as she lays dying in a white fur coat. Her murder is quickly removed from the narrative and roughly takes the equivalent of one minute of filmic time. Since it plays out in near total darkness, it takes several screenings to understand the exact nature of the (murder) scene. Instead of focusing on the two murders that should take centerstage in any police investigation, the film keeps a steady focus on Else, the foreign Nordic woman. Martin O’Shaughnessy aptly evokes the potentially progressive politics of the film, however, raises the potential conflict at its core:

The film’s unmasking of the sort of xenophobia that was so prevalent in the 1930s might suggest that it has a progressive political edge, but, just to prove that its heart is not necessarily in the right place, it turns the foreign jewel dealer, with the Jewish-sounding name, into a thief and centers the enigma on the foreign woman. (O’Shaughnessy 2000: 86).

37The narrative misleads the spectator by introducing two discourses; one, xenophobic is initially being directed at Else and her brother Carl, while the second one, an anti-Semitic one, more shadowy is directed at the Goldbergs conveniently penned as shady diamond dealers and thieves. The first discourse is a smokescreen to the second one. The Goldbergs’ murder is orchestrated by the gang, and Else is its brain. The xenophobic discourse is solely displaced onto Else (and Carl) and ends there, evacuating the other more problematic one at the time in 1932, and in the film, that of rampant antisemitism taking place out in the open, in the press, and within various political groups. To borrow from Thomas Pillard’s (2014) study regarding his discussion of Panique (Duvivier 1946), antisemitic stereotypes were rampant in the 1930s and would not disappear after World War II (Pillard 2014: 55).

38As Maigret wraps up investigation, he reassures Else that two years in jail goes by quickly and then she will be “really free”: “Après tu seras libre, vraiment libre.” (“Later, you will be free, really free”). In saying this, he almost gleefully looks at the camera and spectator establishing a pause and near complicity through the frame and statement. The gloom of the film, or its melancholy dissipates and allows a glimpse of hope for the female character. After all, in the distant future, she can change her life and move on, leaving us with an open end. This part of the script moves away from the prescriptive mood of poetic realist films of the late 1930s, replete with gloomy, and hopeless endings particularly in the years 1938–1939. The camera zooms in on both Maigret and Else in a closer shot, her hand touching his shoulder, as he smiles enigmatically and resumes smoking his pipe while she walks up slowly to her wailing husband Carl, upstairs.

39Renoir always looked back with nostalgia at the film and its “tournaison”, the term he created for a film shoot. It was a difficult film to finance, and it was made on a shoestring budget, most likely self-financed by Renoir, with non-trained and sometimes unpaid actors who for most were close friends. It comes immediately after La Chienne (1931) and right before Boudu sauvé des eaux/Boudu Saved from Drowning (1933). It was his 12th film. He fondly recalled the moment it was shot. If he found the place to be the most depressing place on earth, he thought it was magical (Renoir 1974: 117). La Nuit du carrefour was already deeply seeded by poetic realism, despite its attempt at realism with its gangsters, their showy sportscars, the fantastic night car chase scene into the unlit dark country roads of Essonne and a seedy murder plot. With La Nuit du carrefour, Renoir stepped into another domain which borders poetic realism and is much more attracted to the surrealist prism. Georges Altman’s critique in the French communist daily L’Humanité launched a quasi-poetic stance on the film, removing it from a strict policier reading:

The actors play out this film just as they should: with more concern for its interior sensibility than for its dialogue and gestures. In truth, a curious film since it brings to its tale of murder a kind of new poetry, like a song full of foreboding in the night” (Altman n.d, quoted in Andrew 1995: 279)

40And truly, La Nuit du carrefour stands out as magical hidden object, with remarkable performances and moments. Some of its actors disappeared not long after, never to be heard of again (for instance Winna Winfried vanishes into the night and so did Georges Koudria). The film’s nostalgic and poetic components are reinforced by the flickering nighttime images, its chiaroscuro, the relatively limited use of diegetic music focused on an “old Italian tune” playing on a phonograph, which plays at least three times, once at the garage with the mechanic’s bandoneon, an uncanny South American instrument which aurally linked both places. Else’s wardrobe, and performance constructs a unique femme fatale/gamine persona. The actress’s meteoric trajectory coupled with her unique performance impacts our reading of subsequent female characters in Renoir films of the 1930s.

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Bibliographie

André Emmanuelle (2000), “Simenon ou Schoenberg ? Une forme musicale au cœur de ‘La Nuit du carrefour’ (Jean Renoir, 1932)”, Cinémathèque, n° 17 (Spring), p. 3344.

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Notes

1 “Chaque détail, à chaque seconde, de chacun de ses plans, fait de La Nuit du carrefour le seul grand film policier français, que dis-je, le plus grand film français d’aventure.” (Godard 1957: 67-68, quoted in André 2000: 33)

2 “l’intrigue fut jugée incompréhensible, la réalisation bâclée.”

3 Borde and Chaumeton see American films as more oneiric and French films as more realistic, and not oneiric (see Pillard 2012: 5). My approach to Carrefour dismisses this thesis.

4 The film was remade for the second time in 1992 with actor Bruno Cremer (a familiar actor in the Maigret TV series).

5 Georges Koudria (Karl) acted next in Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933); it would be his last film. Like Winna Winfried, (Else) he totally disappeared from films.

6 Oscar, the garage owner points at the Andersens. He is played by Renoir’s friend, painter Dignimont: “On devrait reconduire tous les étrangers à la frontière” (“One should take all the foreigners back to the border”) as the group walks to the Andersen’s house and discovers the dead body of the Dutch diamond seller, Goldberg.

7 Jonathan Rosenbaum (1978) has qualified the soundtrack as “voluptuous.”

8 The other two women have very slim roles: Mme Michonnet, is played by Jane Pierson, and Oscar’s wife, Michelle, by Lucie Vallat. I do not include the 4th woman here, Mrs. Golderg whose role is that of victim #2 at the crossroad and does not stand a chance to express herself on screen.

9 Musidora is often seen as the first vamp of French cinema. See, for example, the news broadcast Les Actualités françaises, December 18, 1957, INA, https://www.ina.fr/ina-eclaire-actu/video/afe85007685/mort-de-musidora-premiere-vamp-du-muet (accessed March 7, 2024).

10 “Va t’habiller” Maigret barks at Else.

11 Else reports smoking two packs of cigarettes per day to Maigret.

12 For a definition of the French term “garce”, see the Larousse dictionary: https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/garce/36082 (accessed March 7, 2024).

13 Her name Bertha Krull only appears in Renoir’s adaptation, not Simenon’s novel.

14 The name is a clear reference to German photographer Germaine Krull who also lived in France in the late 1920s. and was close to Colette, Jean Cocteau, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, André Malraux, and André Gide.

15 https://awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/germaine-krull/ (accessed March 7, 2024).

16 “Opiomane, belle et folle, un halo de lumière”.

17 Most likely, due to budget restrictions, there was no costume designer in the film. Jacques Becker’s presence was influential in helping with the various outfits.

18 My translation of Mérigeau’s passage.

19 The soundtrack is viewed as “voluptuous” by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1978).

20 https://www.wikiart.org/en/man-ray/black-and-white (accessed March 7, 2024).

21 Renoir’s second and last wife Dido Freire with whom he spent the rest of his life after the late 1930s was Brazilian.

22 Carl remarks in the second sequence taking place at the PJ (Police Judiciaire in Paris): “Je n’ai jamais vu ce juif !”

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 & 2
Légende Else and her pet turtle (La Nuit du carrefour, Jean Renoir, 1932).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ges/docannexe/image/4472/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 113k
Titre Figure 3
Légende Kiki de Montparnasse posing next to an African black mask (Noire et blanche/Black and White, Man Ray, 1926)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ges/docannexe/image/4472/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 175k
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Référence électronique

Sylvie Blum-Reid, « Else, The foreign femme fatale in Jean Renoir’s La Nuit du carrefour (1932) »Genre en séries [En ligne], 16 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ges/4472 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ges.4472

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Auteur

Sylvie Blum-Reid

Sylvie Blum-Reid is professor of French and film at the University of Florida. She teaches French and European films, drama, and French. She has published the following books: Traveling in French Cinema (London: Palgrave MacMillan 2016), East-West Encounters. Franco-Asian Cinema and Literature (London: Wallflower press/Columbia U.P. 2003) and recently an edited anthology, Impressions from Paris: Women Creatives in Interwar Years France (Vernon Press, Nov. 2023). Her research interests include 1930s French cinema, fashion and film, and women artists and writers during the interwar years.

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