Ninety-six years ago, Jean Renoir made his directorial debut with Whirlpool of Fate (original title La Fille de l’eau, or “The Girl of the Waters”). As is often the case with a first film, this one is more about showing that the director could create a successful film in a popular style and fulfill the corresponding audience expectations than it is about expressing a personal vision. But that’s to be expected—no one makes La Grande Illusion or La Bete Humaine on their first try, and even in this initial effort, Renoir offers hints of the stylistic approach and ethical concerns that distinguish his best films.
Whirlpool of Fate opens with a shot of a canal boat making its leisurely way down a wooded canal in the French countryside. The boat is pulled by a horse ridden by Gudule* (Catherine Hessling, a Mary Pickford-like actress and the director’s wife at the time), who is laughing and singing and seems not to have a care in the world. It’s a positively idyllic scene, what with the sun filtering through the trees and reflecting off the water and the canal boat drifting past the tidy homes on the shore. Ah, but Whirlpool of Fate is a melodrama, so you know misfortune is just around the corner.
After Gudule’s father is drowned in a freak accident, she’s left to the mercies of her uncle Jeff (Pierre Philippe), whom the intertitles identify as “une brute” (a brute). Jeff doesn’t take long to live up to this description, putting the houseboat up for sale, squandering the money left by Gudule’s father, and trying to rape her. Even the man who rescues Gudule from this attack laughs at her and sides with the uncle, which gives you an idea of the kind of world she’s living in.
Gudule first finds refuge with the rakish young poacher (Maurice Touzé) Weasel and his pipe-smoking mother (Henriette Moret). Unfortunately, they are burned out of their trailer after Weasel sets fire to Justin’s haystack, and Gudule is on the run again. Her desperate flight through the forest gives rise to two remarkable sequences. In the first, after falling down a steep embankment, Gudule replays the scenes of the previous night as an expressionistic montage in her mind. In the second, beset by a fever, she drifts into a fantasy-nightmare sequence that makes full use of the expressive possibilities of the silent cinema. It’s exactly the kind of filmmaking that made me fall in love with silent cinema in the first place—psychologically informed visual storytelling of the highest order.
Renoir’s best films offer bold social critiques which can also be seen, in embryonic form, in this film. He outlines the class structure of rural France through emblematic characters, and contrasts the moral behavior of those on each level with the economic resources available to them. At the bottom are Weasel and his mother, who eke out a precarious existence by stealing from their more prosperous neighbors. The Raynal family represents the stable middle class—they live in a comfortable house, own a mill, and can afford extras like an automobile. At the top of the heap are rich farmers such as the Crepoix family, as represented by their son Justin (Pierre Champagne).
Weasel and his mother display the kindness of the poor toward others in need, but their own precarious existence means they can’t offer Gudule any kind of stability. Justin, who could easily afford to help her, instead reveals himself as a bully with a particular gift for making himself look ridiculous. It’s the middle class Raynals, in particular son Georges (Harold Lewingston), who have both the ability and the desire to provide Gudule with real, useful help.
The Raynals also provide much of the humor that leavens Whirlpool of Fate. When we first meet the father (Georges Térof), for instance, he’s tussling with his new-fangled automobile. This is followed by the observation that his wife (Madame Fockenberghe) “lived her life in accordance with two principles: fully observing the rules of propriety and avoiding the path of her husband’s car.” In another comic relief scene, Raynal declares a balcony to be in good condition while we can see that it’s leaning so much it’s a wonder he didn’t fall over the side.
Whirlpool of Fate is definitely a film of its time, and you need a high tolerance for melodramatic acting to get much out of it. If you can accept the conventions of its time, however, it offers many pleasures, above all some fine naturalistic cinematography by Jean Bachelet and Alphonse Gibory. When he’s not doing high melodrama, Renoir shoots in a very simple, almost documentarian style, preserving a records of the French countryside in the 1920s (this film was shot on the estate of Paul Cezanne in Seine-et-Marne). | Sarah Boslaugh
* Or “Virginia” if you go by the IMDB. There are other discrepancies, including the names of actors as well as characters, and I’m treating the information given in intertitles as the authority on such matters.
Whirlpool of Fate is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in a 4K restoration with French intertitles and optional English subtitles. The main extras on the disc is a commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton and an appropriately dramatic musical soundtrack by Antonio Coppola.