The Woman on the Beach

(Jean Renoir, USA, 1947)


Scott (Robert Ryan), a Coast Guard officer, is wracked by nightmares after his traumatic war experience. These dreams are also prophetic of people and events about to enter his life. Awaiting his military discharge so that he can marry his fiancée Eve (Nan Leslie), Scott meets the “woman on the beach” he imagined. She is Peggy (Joan Bennett), the wife of a tormented, blind ex-painter, Tod (Charles Bickford); the couple live in an isolated, somewhat Gothic seaside house.


In other directorial hands, The Woman on the Beach could have been a familiar, conventional film noir of the ‘40s: Bennett as the duplicitous, manipulative femme fatale she immortally played for Fritz Lang in Scarlet Street (1945) and The Woman in the Window (1944); Robert Ryan as Scott, the traumatised war hero reaching moral and psychological equilibrium via a purgative act of violence; a suspicious, disapproving light cast upon sinisterly motivated artist-intellectuals (incarnated by Tod); and the decorative presence of elaborately surreal dream sequences, eerily scored by Hanns Eisler and filled with portentous symbolism.


Under Jean Renoir’s vigilance, however, everything quickly attains a more mysterious state of ambiguity and complexity. He spoke of the film as being based on “purely physical attractions”, but the subterranean psychological intrigue is intense and knotty: guilt, emotional sado-masochism, passive-aggressive relations, a pointed reversal of gender roles (feminised men and masculinised women) and erotic perversity form the paradoxical basis for The Woman on the Beach’s strange and haunting lyricism.


Perhaps, as André Bazin suggested, the film is poetic precisely because the psychology is not truly individualised: its sensuality “goes from one character to another like a mysterious ball of fire”, and the atmosphere of the dream sequences more than spills over into the story’s real world.


It is also remarkable, for today’s viewers, for the subtle way it evokes and probes the legacy of war trauma in Scott’s character – and, by extension, in an entire social fabric convulsing with a symptomatic hysteria, its once-held certainties (especially in the sphere of intimate life) swiftly unravelling.


The Woman on the Beach can be fruitfully approached as an opportune, risky melding of genres, similar in this respect to Secret Beyond the Door ... (1948): it has the oneiric atmosphere of a Val Lewton supernatural mystery (Lewton was originally to be its producer at RKO); the emotional sophistication of a European melodrama; and the scattered, rather pulverised plot elements of a noir thriller. But it was not conceived so schematically: Renoir declared that he had “never shot a film with so little written scenario and so much improvisation”, and the disastrous preview of the first cut led to re-shoots and drastic shortening of the running time to just 71 minutes.


However, what might have seemed at the time as a missed opportunity for Renoir looks exceptionally potent today, and has received a welcome re-evaluation by contemporary scholars including Janet Bergstrom. In its intense brevity and its mysterious ellipses, in the disarming simplicity and directness of its mise en scène, The Woman on the Beach indeed achieves the psychic condensation of a feverish dream, and registers (as Bazin speculated) as a “very personal” work for Renoir.

MORE Renoir: The Diary of a Chambermaid, Partie de campagne

© Adrian Martin June 2008

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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