Whirlpool of Fate
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (19th October 2021).
The Film

In rural France, young Gudule Rosaert (Nana's Catherine Hessling) spends her days with her father and her uncle Geoff (the film's writer Pierre Lestringuez) towing a barge up and down a canal until her father mysteriously falls overboard one day and his body is never recovered. Uncle Geoff drinks away his inheritance, and Virginia flees when he tries to molest her. She makes the acquaintance of poacher "La Fouine" (Maurice Touzé) and his fortune teller mother "La Roussette" (Henriette Moret) who take her in. La Fouine teaches Gudule how to poach, but they run afoul of wealthy farmer Crepoix (assistant director Pierre Champagne). When one of his haystacks catches on fire, Crepoix rallies the villagers against La Fouine and his mother. They escape on foot, leaving Gudule behind, and she is attacked by the mob as they burn down La Roussette's wagon. Delirious, Gudule wanders the woods until she collapses in a quarry and is taken in by Georges (Harold Levingston), son of local landowner Raynal (The Wheel's Georges Térof) and his very proper wife (Madame Fockenberghe). Gudule becomes part of the household as a serving girl and earns the trust of the Raynals, but Georges stars to fall for her. Potential tragedy is set in motion, however, when Geoff tracks her down, robs her of a payment she was tasked with taking to the merchants in town, and then decides to ransack the Raynal household when the parents are away on holiday.

The feature-length debut of filmmaker Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game), Whirlpool of Fate with its melodramatic storyline and its ambitious surrealistic delirium centerpiece of in-camera effects seems more like a crude experiment by Jean Cocteau pre-The Blood of a Poet when it is actually the first dabbling of cineaste Renoir and his muse/wife Hessling, shot with private money on the property of then-late family friend painter Paul Cézanne – do recall that Renoir is the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir – with friends and locals. However homegrown the production looks, it is already apparent that Renoir was eager to utilize techniques that he had observed as a viewer, starting with the opening shots which Geoff walks across the top of the barge and appears to stay in the same place in the frame due to the combination of the moving barge and the tracking camera while the imagery in Gudule's sickness-induced hallucinations depict the various men in her life; that only one of them is a potential romantic interest – based on glances from afar between Gudule and Georges – and only one other has tried to sexually assault her suggests the underlying meaning is a battle for her soul rather than necessarily her body. The rest of the film's action proceeds rather conventionally – one could possibly read some social commentary on the assumptions of provincial villagers about the honor of those with money and the suspicion with which they hold those without – including a fistfight out of a silent serial, but the overall result is significant in the context of Renoir's cinematic oeuvre (his next film would be the epic-length literary adaptation Nana).


French prints of Whirlpool of Fate no longer exist, and the various French restorations were sourced from prints with English intertitles; as such, the intertitles have been translated back into French (with the heroine's Christian name returned to Gudule where it was once Virginia on English prints) starting with the French seventies TV broadcast. This was also the case with the Studio Canal's French three-film set, Universal's Studio Canal-licensed Spanish Colección Jean Renoir, and Lionsgate's American Jean Renoir: Collector's Edition. Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray of Studio Canal's 4K restoration has lower contrast than the DVD editions, but the greater visible detail in the blacks and shadows suggests that the contrast was boosted on the SD master. The Blu-ray runs twelve minutes longer than the Lionsgate DVD, but that appears to be a matter of the framerates used for the different transfers of the same source material surprisingly enough.


No complaints about the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track for this silent film since the score is newly-recorded. The intertitles appear to be the same as the earlier masters, either digitally recreated or an HD transfer of the intertitles translated from English created for prints in the seventies.


Apart from a trio of unrelated trailers, the disc's only extra is an audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton in which he provides background on Renoir and Hessling, their shared love of cinema, details about the homegrown production, some of the identifiable performers, and how the film originates some thematic visual elements that run through Renoir's oeuvre.


While the conventional melodramatic storyline is not as refined as later Renoir films, and the surrealistic sequence seems more sub-Jean Cocteau, Whirlpool of Fate is significant in the evolution of Renoir's cinematic oeuvre.


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