Jean Renoir's Mod Anarchy


One of the (many) revelations to come out of the month-long Jean Renoir retrospective at BAM was 1959's The Doctor's Horrible Experiment. Based on it's pedigree — a late-period made-for-TV feature loosely adapting endlessly-adaptable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with an exploitation-like, B-grade title — it's understandable to think you took this day off from immersing yourself in Renoir's work. But you short-changed yourself. While the film is a "minor" work (that is, not titled Grand Illusion or Rules of the Game), The Doctor's Horrible Experiment finds Renoir rising above his film's pulp roots and addressing the looming culture war between youth and traditionalism.

Besides being a lurid interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's warmed-over tale of duality — the doctor, the repressed psychiatrist Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault), develops a potion to release his raging and depraved id, in the form of Opale, which allows him to engage remorse-free in bondage, rough sex, lady-groping, child-molesting, baby-snatching, and murder — Renoir presents a society at a generational crossroads. When Cordelier transforms into Opale, he morphs from a cold, well-manicured silver fox war veteran in an immaculately tailored three-piece into a shaggy, hairy, mealy-mouthed livewire weirdo in a baggy, ill-fitting suit, who jerks, halts, and bops as he careens through the streets brandishing a walking stick. As the old, upstanding citizen, Cordelier is imprisoned by societal convention; becoming the drugged up mod Opale frees him to indulge hang-up free in literally every desire.

The Cordelier/Opale dichotomy is a microcosm of the generational changes happening throughout this town on the outskirts of Paris. At the beginning of the film, when Opale tries to knock out and kidnap a young schoolgirl, the lawyer Joly (Teddy Billis), another old war veteran in a three-piece suit (and friend of Cordelier) thinks nothing of taking off after Opale, despite Opale's menacing appearance, and keeps up the pursuit despite being tripped, whacked, and kicked.

This is contrasted later when two young lovers making out along a wall of ads, the girl in a proto-boho outfit of baggy coat and shawl and the guy in wannabe greaser get-up of a cheap leather jacket and attempted pompadour, react slowly and cowardly as Opale attacks a wheezing old man, murdering him in a flail of kicks and cracks of his walking stick. It's only after Opale takes off down the street and around a corner does the guy go after Opale. In the next scene, the police futilely interrogate the couple, who can offer no details about Opale, before being confronted by Joly who can give them everything they need.

Basic human decency says that Opale is repugnant — he sexually abuses a woman (off-screen) in the flophouse he uses as a den of depravity, as judged by the arsenal of whips the police discover in his room. And the young couple had a moral obligation to do more to save the old timer and apprehend Opale. But are they wrong? Are the old folks who scoff at uninhibited gratification and who throw themselves selflessly into the line of danger the bedrocks society should be built on?

Don't look to Renoir for answers. He lays out arguments for the prosecution and defense of both generational groups and leaves it to us to act as jury. Opale is a self-admitted monster, but Cordelier would never have unleashed him if society hadn't put him into a pleasure-less prison. The old folks are selfless, yet they cling to tradition regardless of its ill effects. The young people are servants; the old, masters. The old people are unbending; the young, perhaps too flexible.  You cheer on Joly as he chases after Opale when Opale is just a monster stalking the night. But later, you find yourself wanting to spend more time with the free-wheeling Opale, slimy as that might be, than those old fuddy-duddies at their dinner parties.

In engaging in this conversation with his audience, Renoir laid the groundwork for countless anti-hero counterculture films of the 1960s and '70s. Perhaps the most relevant is A Clockwork Orange. Opale is the grandfather to Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Alex DeLarge. Like Opale, Alex takes to the night with a cane that is instrumental in his ultra-violence (sticking it into a hobo before beating him with it; using it to incapacitate the hapless husband of a rape victim; hiding a knife) and his crimes, like Opale's, are random and repulsive. Alex is a little more graceful than the strung-out Opale, but both are charismatic predators who make older people look intolerably boring and fussy by comparison. Opale is mod via Beat; Alex is punk via mod. Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell owe Renoir and Jean-Louis Barrault a debt of gratitude.

The Doctor's Horrible Experiment might rank minor in Renoir's filmography, but it's well worth discovering (it's available in the Jean Renoir 3-Disc Collector's Edition DVD box set). It's also one of the most enjoyable adaptations of Stevenson's over-adapted story as you're likely to find.