1926, 150 min., B&W, silent, DVD projection source
Elsie Parker and the Poor People of Paris provide live musical accompaniment to Jean Renoir’s silent “Nana,” the famed director’s second feature. A condensed but largely faithful adaptation of the classic novel by Emile Zola (the author’s daughter, Denise Leblond-Zola, was even hired to write the titles), the film stars Renoir’s wife, Catherine Hessling, as the flawed title character, a middling stage actress who becomes the kept woman of a married man, the hopelessly infatuated Count Muffat. Influenced by the extravagant work of Erich von Stroheim (“Foolish Wives,” “Greed”) — whom Renoir greatly admired — the film features a pair of grand set-pieces, at a horse race and an open-air ball.
Reviewing a restoration of the film that screened at the 1976 New York Film Festival, Times critic Vincent Canby described “Nana” as “an extraordinary achievement that now seems to fit perfectly into the Renoir oeuvre, though at the time of its release in France it was a financial and critical disaster. For us today, with hindsight illuminated by all the remarkable Renoir films that came after, seeing ‘Nana’ is like discovering a long-lost diary. It’s not difficult to understand why early audiences were confused and turned off by this immensely elaborate screen incarnation of the Zola novel about the Second Empire bit actress who became the most famous courtesan of her day. It moves from realism to expressionism to romanticism, all the while being somewhat comic and cool.”