Review: Renoir Melodrama 'Nana' Gets Gorgeous 4K Restoration from Kino

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 20, 2021

Review: Renoir Melodrama 'Nana' Gets Gorgeous 4K Restoration from Kino

The early cinematic style of celebrated filmmaker Jean Renoir ("La Grande illusion," "The Rules of the Game") can be appreciated in his second feature, "Nana," thanks to a gorgeous new 4K restoration Blu-ray by Kino Lorber that looks near-pristine — a high compliment, considering the motion picture is close to 100 years old.

And for a nearly-three-hour silent film it is, surprisingly, never dull, although I'm not sure it merited such a lengthy running time. I imagine the story of such an incredibly vain, selfish, and emasculating vamp could never have been told during the production code era, so kudos to Renoir and co-screenwriter Pierre Lestringuez for bringing this wildly melodramatic story, adapted from the Émile Zola novel, to the 1926 screen.

When we first meet our titular character, she is literally climbing up a ladder (the film likes to slam on the symbolism). We are then told via a card that she has no voice or talent. Nana (Catherine Hessling) is a coquettish actress who, alas, isn't very good. She's exceptional at greeting suitors at the stage door and using her allure (and her amazing hair and strut) to seduce them to get what she wants, like the part of the good girl in a new play instead of the slut role she is given. But after one final flop she turns her back on the stage and becomes a courtesan.

Yet, even the avalanche of gifts and new gentlemen callers do not satisfy this terribly selfish creature. She even buys a racehorse (which she names Nana). She seduces an uncle and toys with his nephew until both come to horrible ends. And she humiliates her original benefactor, literally treating him like her lapdog. Ultimately, as a title card puts it, Nana is "left alone with her terror."

Despite all of the above, Renoir seems to want us to sympathize with Nana. And I did. After all, Nana may be wicked, but these men are all wealthy liars, cheats, and power mongers. Renoir's anti-hypocritical bourgeoisie feelings, which will develop in his later films, have hatched.

And Nana is a wild, sexual woman — one that fascinates and destroys because she cannot be controlled or contained.

Hessling's performance is beguiling. She's remarkably over the top, even for silents. But it feels appropriate. Nana is a larger than life figure who must be allowed to leap off the proverbial cliff. Hessling's career is a curiosity. She was married to Renoir for 23 years (although separated from most of that time) and made only 15 films, most of them silents. Yet there is something most alluring about her, and one wonders what might have been had she not felt so betrayed by Renoir (that's the rumor, anyway) and turned her back on cinema.

The extras include a restoration comparison that shows the great work done by those involved in bringing this film to Blu-ray. And an audio commentary by the always-welcome Nick Pinkerton adds many an interesting fact and juicy tidbit about Renoir and the making of "Nana."

I highly recommend "Nana" for a peek into the early career of director Jean Renoir, but also to discover Catherine Hessling, a transfixing figure you won't soon forget.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton
  • Before-and-After Restoration Comparison
  • Music composed and performed by Antonio Coppola


    "Nana is available on Blu-ray on July 20, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute