Ingrid Bergman has a spell over me. Her effortless line delivery and charming smile lull me into a complacency that allows me to forgive everything she is in. In Elena and her Men, Bergman is able to not only put the charms on the men that fall in love with her but also a lackluster script and indifferent co-stars.
Elena is an impoverished princess living at the turn of the century in France. She effortlessly attracts men with large wallets but unfortunate looks. This changes when she joins a Bastille Day parade and bumps into a dashing military man. She spends a wonderful afternoon kissing this man in a cafe, but she must wake up and return to the man she promised to marry. Before their afternoon is over, the military man introduces her to a general poised to take over the government. The general is immediately smitten by her and asks to know her better. The military man tracks her down to find out that she is sitting in a lonely mansion waiting to get married to a boot manufacturer. The military man must convince her to forego her engagement and seduce the general in order to get him to rise up and take control of the government. But he is in love with her too. What is a beautiful woman to do?
This film plays for comedy at every turn and I think this is it’s main default. The motives behind each character seems to be not real in this world. Although we follow several men who want to radical change to happen to the state of France, there is little hand wringing and politicizing. Instead we get exchanges with the fiance of Elena’s who wants heavier taxes on imported items because it would help his business, only to reverse his request when he strikes a deal with a company outside of the country. Taken for itself, it seems to be a witty exchange. However, once you put it inside an almost apolitical political film, it sticks out like a desperate attempt to keep the little amount of politics present light. It is infuriating when a movie that had so much potential to say something fails so utterly. Elena is willing to prostitute herself and betray the man she loves in order to champion a cause she only half heartedly believes in and doesn’t benefit from being not from France. That has so much potential, but instead we see whirlwind conversations with people who don’t really help the main plot. From the short introduction on the Criterion DVD, Jean Renoir is even acutely aware of the waisted potential, especially when it came to Ingrid Bergman. She is given nothing to do here except to be a statue that men fall in love with. But what a beautiful statue. She is able to make magic out even the worst dialogue and situations. Renoir talks about wanting to use Bergman for something truly challenging, but his backing didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I wish that finances weren’t as much of an issue with Renoir. We would have gotten something truly magical from him and Bergman. Instead we get a half-baked idea presented in blinding Technicolor.