1926, France, directed by Jean Renoir
Renoir's second solo feature is a large-scale literary adaptation, an attempt to condense Emile Zola's eponymous novel - part of his multi-volume Rougon-Macquart epic - to manageable length. At times, the film slips explicitly into literary mode, with many, and sometimes lengthy, title cards to clarify the action (there is a certain amount of redundancy, with some cards repeating information that can clearly be deduced even in the absence of dialogue). Despite that occasional clumsiness, Renoir generally seems confident working on this expanded scale, even if the film occasionally misses the naturalistic settings of his previous La Fille de l'eau, confined as it is to sets that don't quite capture the heart of Zola's realist project (there are, though, several compositions which recall something of the earthiness of Flemish and Dutch art).
He uses his increased budget especially well in the theatrical scenes, creating a memorable portrait of the different social classes on one of the rare occasions when they occupy the same space - with the raucous upper decks contrasted with the genteel though hypocritical upper classes in the box seats. There are also a number of scenes shot in the stunning entrance way to a grand residence, including one particularly moving sequence where two of the men bewitched by Nana (Catherine Hessling) mend fences as they attempt to disentangle themselves from foolish liaisons. Those men are complicit in their own debasement, however, allowing Nana - a theatre actress and child of the streets, whose manager is as much pimp as impresario - to humiliate and exploit them.
While there are several fine performances (perhaps especially from the film's writer, Pierre Lestringuez, as a Bordenave, the theatre manager who foreshadows Jules Berry as Batala in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange), the film's most obvious weakness is Hessling, then Renoir's wife, whose acting style is often extremely distracting. While it's natural that Nana would continue to perform offstage as well as on, it's hard to accept that Hessling's version of the character could prove quite so beguiling and dangerous to otherwise intelligent, and powerful, men - though Renoir, perhaps naturally, might not have been in a position to perceive this.