Scenes of Love and Murder: Renoir, Film and Philosophy - Book Review -

By Moira Sullivan

Colin Davis’s Scenes of Love and Murder: Renoir, Film and Philosophy combines the author’s interest in Jean Renoir’s greatest films from the 1930s such as Le Règle du Jeu - The Rules of the Game with some of the ideas of the American philosopher Stanley Cavell. Cavell’s philosophical reading of film is a current fashion in academic studies. But whether or not Renoir had philosophical ideas as a filmmaker is left up to the spectator. According to film theorist Peter Wollen, underlying structures such as philosophy is something that can be decoded in film. According to Davis, Renoir believed that the artist was the source of his or her creations, as he said so in Ma Vie et Mes Film, (My Life and My Films) “I dream of a craftsmen’s cinema in which the author could express himself as directly as the writer through his books or the painter through his pictures”. Even so, as Davis points out. a film has other influences, for example Renoir’s The Human Beast was adapted from a novel by Emile Zola and there are also actors, producers and technicians that contribute to film. It is a collaborative process.

The first chapter of Scenes of Love and Murder is devoted to different philosophical approaches to film, such as the work of Giles Deleuze, Wittgenstein and Aristotle. One of the main points of inquiry is whether or not film “thinks”, which is what Stanley Cavell believes. Subsequent chapters take up Renoir's greatest films: those previously mentioned and others such The Grand Illusion, and The Crime of Mr. Lange.

Stanley Cavell believes that film exists in a state of philosophy that it is “inherently self reflexive”. One of the examples used in the book comes from The Grand Illusion and the 15 minute scene where two escaped prisoners, Marechal and Rosenthal, take refuge in a farmhouse where a widow lives with her daughter Elsa. Despite the fact that Marechal does not understand German, he is able to communicate with Elsa. In this meeting Marechal and Elsa form a bound strong and blissful so much that they seem to reside in Eden, despite language difficulties. When they depart, Marechal says if he were to look back, he would not be able to leave. Davis calls this meeting with "the other" a comparison to how Lot’s wife looks back upon the destruction of Sodom. Another example that Davis studies is why Renoir’s famous film is called The Rules of the Game. What is obvious,according to Davis, is that society is dictated by a set of senseless rules that must be obeyed. As Cavell puts it, by “a rule intoxicated society”. But even so it is not clear in the film what the rules actually mean or what they are. This seems to be part of the philosophical terrain, inherent in Renoir films, according to Davis.
Scenes of Love and Murder is an interesting study for those interested in Stanley Cavell, but also thought provoking in terms of the examples taken from the films of Renoir.

© 2009 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/18
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