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The Criterion Collection presents

Elena and Her Men (Elena et les hommes) (1956)

"Dictatorship doesn't stand a chance in a country where matters of the heart are so important."- Martin-Michaud (Pierre Bertin)

Stars: Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer
Other Stars: Jean Richard, Juliette Gréco, Pierre Bertin
Director: Jean Renoir

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:38m:51s
Release Date: 2004-08-03
Genre: romantic comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ C+BC+ B+


DVD Review

When French film director Jean Renoir returned to Europe after World War II, he made a series of three films, often considered a trilogy. The first, 1953's The Golden Coach, was a commercial flop, partially due to the French public's resentment against Renoir for having stayed in the U.S. after the war and taking on American citizenship. French Cancan, which followed in 1955, did well at the box office and was well-received by critics. The following year, Renoir released Elena and Her Men.

The films are only accidentally a trilogy. Renoir had decisions imposed upon him by his producers, even down to the choice of actors. They do share certain characteristics in common—all are period pieces that concern a beautiful woman pursued by multiple men—but the first two use artificiality and theatricality to comment on art and the lot of the performer, whereas the third is more straightforward historical tale, and less interesting than its predecessors.

Despite Elena and Her Men's opening disclaimer that the events of the film are fictional, this "fantaisie musicale" takes its inspiration from a real-life 1889 coup attempt. General Rollan's (Jean Marais) popularity is growing day by day, and his cronies want him to take the French presidency. The impoverished Polish princess Elena Sorokowska (a luminous Ingrid Bergman) has no idea who he is, but after catching a brief glimpse of him at a rally, becomes an ardent supported of the charming general, despite her betrothal to the wealthy M. Martin-Martaud (Pierre Bertin). Two men are not enough, and she's also pursued by the handsome Count Henri de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer).

One reason that Renoir is often considered to be a modernist is that many of his films have a looser-than-normal narrative than was the case with most films. In contrast with typical Hollywood product of the time, Renoir's plots were usually less tightly structured and more open to digression, which would become the dominant mode of European art films beginning in the 1960s. The first two films of the trilogy are typical in this way, but Elena and Her Men unfortunately isn't. The large cast and the necessity of following historical events fairly closely gives the film a much more complicated story line, one that's far less open and enjoyable than the other two. The only digressions that Renoir permits himself are the many scenes of farce, but they unfortunately aren't very entertaining. Renoir thought it would be amusing to see serious actors in scenes that were pushed to the point of absurdity, but the attempts at forced humor don't work.

Although Renoir's use of mise en scène is interesting as always, and the performances are good, this is definitely the least enjoyable and interesting film of the trilogy. Even though it was filmed last, don't be tempted to watch the films in chronological order, or you'll be disappointed to finish on this shallow and less than involving tale.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image looks quite good, with rich colors, although skin tones sometimes tend towards orange. Black levels are reasonable, although there isn't much shadow detail, and the image is a bit soft. Edge enhancement has been added, and it's occasionally distracting.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is merely okay. There's a constant, annoying hiss, and some scenes sound quite muffled, although this may be a fault of the source, rather than the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Introduction to the film by Jean Renoir
  2. Jean Renoir: Hollywood and Beyond
  3. Jean Renoir parle de son art: Part Three of Jacques Rivette's three-part interview with Renoir
  4. Production Stills
  5. Eight-page printed insert
Extras Review: In the third part of Jean Renoir parle de son art, interviewer Jacques Rivette restates Renoir's opinion that technical advances in the arts should never overtake the artist's judgment, and suggests that another solution to the problem of realism is to use realistic means for abstract ends. Renoir disagrees, and things take a turn for the bizarre as Rivette discusses how objects may contain a world view, and Renoir makes some decidedly odd comments on the Hindu caste system. Thankfully, Renoir's comments on what direction the cinema should take are far more lucid.

Renoir's 6m:20s introduction to the film is in full frame black and white. Speaking in French, he explains that Ingrid Bergman was his inspiration for the film, and claims that the film was harmed when he had to jettison its portrayal of the real-life General Boulanger and substitute a fictionalized personality.

The gem of the extras is part two of David Thompson's documentary Jean Renoir: Hollywood and Beyond. Made in 1993 for the BBC's Omnibus program, its 59m:38s trace Renoir's career from his move to the U.S. in 1940 up until his death in 1979. It's sprinkled liberally with clips from many of his films, production and personal photos, and archival footage. In brief interview segments, such film luminaries as Bertrand Tavernier, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Orson Welles, Bernardo Bertolucci, as well as the seemingly-omnipresent Peter Bogdanovich contribute comments about Renoir and his films. There are also interviews with Renoir's family members and friends. No attempt is made at a critical interpretation of Renoir's works, but this is a great documentary, and its only negative is that it makes me wish part one was included as well.

A stills gallery with 11 photos (many of Renoir) and two set designs is included. In the printed notes, film professor Christopher Faulkner traces the historical events that inspired Renoir and tries to make a case for a better appreciation of the film. Elena and Her Men may be the weakest film of Renoir's trilogy, but the addition of David Thompson's documentary makes this the strongest collecition of extras.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

Elena and Her Men is definitely the least interesting and enjoyable of Jean Renoir's post-World War II trilogy. The transfer could be better, but there's an excellent documentary on Renoir included as an extra.

Robert Edwards 2004-08-02