Elena and Her Men (1956): Renoir’s Amorous Farce Starring Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman in Renoir's Elena and Her Men

Ingrid Bergman in Renoir’s Elena and Her Men

A late entry in a glorious career, “Elena and Her Men” was directed by French maestro Jean Renoir as a romantic farce with political overtones, starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, and Mel Ferrer.

The film’s original French title was Elena et les Hommes, but in English-speaking countries, including the U.S. the film was released under the asburd moniker of  Paris Does Strange Things.

Fortunately, years later, a restoration process of the print changed the title back to its original.

Bergman, in the best year of her career (she also made a huge comeback with “Anastasia,” for which she won an Oscar) plays Elena, a beautiful but poor Polish princess in fin de siècle Paris.  She seems to be blessed with the gift of bringing luck to the men she loves.

At the outset involved with a budding composer, who proposes to her but she turns him down, claiming that she has already helped him place his opera at the La Scala house. During the newly introduced celebrations of July 14. she meets two men who fall hard for her, the charming Count de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer) and the amorous General Rollan (Jean Marais).

 

When Rollan, who has political ambitions, is posted to a remote town, Elena follows him with Chevincourt. His supporters urge him to lead a coup d’état against the young republic. Things gets more complicated and amusing, after he bases his quarters at a brothel.

Elena and Chevincourt divert the crowds with a tender embrace and display of love, while Rollan, disguised as a gypsy, escapes to exile.

 

This farce deals with many issues and incidents similar to Renoir’s best known film, the 1938 Rules of the Game, but in a lighter, whimsical, and occasionally cynical way, a function of Renoir’s maturation as an artist and a man who was forced into exile to Hollywood during the Occupation.

“Elena” was Bergman’s first film after leaving her husband, Italian director Roberto Rossellini and moving to Paris, en route to a Hollywood comeback.

The character of General Rollan was based on the historic General Boulanger, who in 1886 popular support despite the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.  Some supporters urged him to conduct a coup d’état but he did not.

In the end, as the coup d’état dissolves into a coup de théâtre, Renoir suggests the power of self-presentation and performance, on stage and off.

An admirer of Jean Renoir and Ingrid Bergman, critic-soon-to-be-major director Francois Truffaut observed in his review that “sex is the only focus of attention.” Truffaut was right to note that “Renoir preserves a strong erotic and romantic thread all the way through the movie’s farcical elements.”

Indeed, true to form, there is not much sex or overt eroticism as a whimsical depiction of amorous men who would do anything and everything to get the attention of Bergman, who simply glows with her natural elegance and radiant face.

Cast

Ingrid Bergman as Princess Elena Sokorowska.

Jean Marais as General François Rollan.

Mel Ferrer as Count Henri de Chevincourt.

Magali Noël as Lolotte, Elena’s maid.

Juliette Gréco as Miarka, a gypsy singer.

Dora Doll as Rosa la Rose, madame of the brothel.