Looking at the modernist decade ahead, Jean Renoir trenchantly updates the puppet theater from La Chienne into a television program -- he ambles into the studio and narrates a "shocking story," the multiple cameras visualize it gravelly, satirically. Stevenson is the unbilled basis, the artist's mind in times of "moral infection" is the theme; the unchained id skulks through the streets of Paris, attacks children, knocks down cripples, and bludgeons the elderly. Dr. Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault) is silver-haired and elegantly desiccated, he wants to find the human soul and confesses to a "thirst for perversion," answered by an anti-Darwinian elixir. His transformation occurs in a no-frills cut, the better for Renoir to remain at mid-distance and record the full-bodied wonders of his actor: Opale is the piece's hairy-knuckled, ass-grabbing, murderous Mr. Hyde, and Barrault gives him a sublime rolling gait, spastic neck and shoulders and an abrupt lurch as beguiling as anything in Children of Paradise. Cordelier's nemesis is a blowhard of cold science (Michel Vitold) brought down by Opale's cruelty, his best friend is a lawyer (Teddy Bilis) given Bela Lugosi's epiphany from Bride of the Monster: "He tampered in God's domain." Picnic on the Grass suggests the harmony between mind and libido, but here Renoir savors the possibilities of the human split -- Opale is Cordelier's vacation from the virtuous Self, a malevolent Boudu who gives him freedom as well as the creative work that engulfs the artist (Corman reaches for something similar in A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors). A film of profound virtuosity and profound absurdity, with gags -- Opale's S&M bordello den, the female patient writhing in anticipation for the scientist's injection, the ghastly French of the ambassador at the party served by none other than Gaston Modot -- grandly heightened by Renoir's alert, mercurial technique. Godard, Frankenheimer, and Altman took it to heart, along with Ken Russell (Altered States) and, perhaps more than anyone else, Jerry Lewis. With Jacques Danoville, André Certes, Ghislaine Dumont, Madeleine Marion, Jaque Catelain, and Sylvane Margollé. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce