Jean Renoir's The Southerner has no heroes or villains, only courage and optimism in the face of hostility
The Southerner, the third of the five films Renoir made in America, tells the story of the Tucker family, plantation workers who decide to grow their own cotton as tenant farmers on a piece of leased land.
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French filmmaker Jean Renoir, son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, moved to Hollywood following the German occupation of France in 1940. The Southerner, the third of the five films Renoir made in America, tells the story of the Tucker family, plantation workers who decide to grow their own cotton as tenant farmers on a piece of leased land. It turns out that, though fertile, the stretch of land they get requires a great deal of work. Worse, when they move in, the Tucker family finds that the ramshackle house on the land is barely inhabitable. But they decide to persist against the odds: the immense physical labour required of them, the ill-will of their neighbouring farmer Devers (J Carrol Naish), the spring fever that affects their child and, most of all, the forces of nature. Structured over four seasons of a year, The Southerner stars Zachary Scott and Betty Field as Sam and Nona Tucker.
Adapted from by George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, The Southerner is reminiscent of certain Depression-era films. The Tucker’s overloaded jalopy has echoes of the Joads’ vehicle from The Grapes of Wrath. The sharecropper backdrop, the Tuckers’ rickety home and their struggle with the land recalls King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread. But Renoir’s interest is neither social nor political. As a man from the Old World, he’s captivated by the unmistakably American subject of the story. Early in the film, Sam’s dying uncle asks him to grow his own crops instead of working as a farmhand. This characteristic American notion of being able to chart one’s own path, no matter one’s station in life, is at the focal point of Renoir’s film.
Renoir, whose final production before he left France was the classic haute bourgeoisie portrait The Rules of the Game, is manifestly fascinated by the self-sufficient, austere quality of this life close to nature. Throughout The Southerner is a dialogue between Renoir’s European sophistication and the New World pragmaticism of the Tuckers. This remove between the filmmaker and his subject is made evident by a scene that doesn’t exactly work: a boisterous wedding party in which the revellers take turns downing alcohol and knocking each other down. The simplicity and vulgarity of the celebration, in Renoir’s handling, seems too theoretical, too studied in comparison to similar scenes by, say, John Ford or Howard Hawks.
On the other hand, the filmmaker’s French sensibility affords him a distance that allows him to trace out a meta-narrative of America from the story. He emphasizes the Tuckers setting up a home in what is practically wilderness: shots of Sam securing the porch, Nona lighting up the stove, the chimney smoking for the first time, all acquire a symbolic weight that harks back to the pioneer settlers of the continent.
At the same time, there’s a timelessness to The Southerner that makes it more than a film about America and takes it closer to the story of mankind itself. To be sure, the setting is Texas during the first half of the 20th century and there’s a passing reference to the ongoing war. But, unlike the strongly contemporary and Californian Our Daily Bread, very little in The Southerner ties it to a particular place and time. In a microcosmic reflection of civilization, the Tuckers move from fishing and hunting to agriculture for their sustenance over the course of four seasons. This lack of particularity was taken to task by the critic James Agee, who found the depiction of Southern life in the film inauthentic.
However, for Renoir, this is an existence in constant tussle with nature, alternately established against its forces and lived at its mercy. He locates a streak of violence in the life of the Tuckers. The scene in which Sam smokes out a possum from the hollow of a tree and then shoots it down carries a touch of environmental dread redolent of Robert Flaherty. When Sam brings the animal home for supper, Nona says “Reckon we can eat now, folks”, sharpening her knife in a rather disturbing gesture. The Tuckers transform the land through their hard labour into a flourishing plantation, but nature has its own plans, sending down an off-season rain to destroy the crops.
There’s little space for culture in this tug-of-war between man and nature. Save for a couple of photos and a picture calendar, the Tuckers have no contact with culture. In a rather nasty barroom fight, the participants destroy rudimentary signs of culture — a jukebox, the sculpture of a woman — while, a bit later, Sam finds himself in knee-deep rainwater wearing a tuxedo. Much of the poetry of The Southerner derives from the idea that domesticity and culture need to be wrested out of a fundamentally hostile universe. The film’s final passage presents vignettes of this cosmic battle: cows and chicken stranded in the rainwater, ripe cotton flowers drowned, the Tucker’s home wrecked once more.
In this warlike scheme of things, men and women are expected to assume their conventional roles. The drive of the menfolk is also what blinds them towards more pressing realities: in his dogged determination to make something of the land, Sam rejects taking up a job at the town factory, which could save his ailing son right away. Devers the neighbour cuts the rope of his well to spite Sam even at the cost of having no water for himself. The womenfolk, on the other hand, are icons of care and consideration. Devers’ daughter secretly secures a pail of milk for Sam’s son against her father’s wishes. When Sam decides to give up farming after the floods, it’s the silent courage and optimism of Sam’s granny (Beulah Bondi) and Nona that encourage him to change his mind.
There is courage and optimism, but there are no heroes or villains in The Southerner. Renoir being Renoir, everyone in the film has their own reasons. Granny Tucker is a caricature of a nagging old woman, but the film lets you see her bitterness as the product of a long, bitter life marked by loss and grief. Devers’ resentment towards Sam’s success doesn’t come across as jealousy as much as an anxiety about the limited resources of the region and about his own failed life. Unlike the typical Hollywood villain, Devers incites pity, not anger. In an exchange about farming and factory work, Sam’s friend Tim (Charles Kemper), whose character and physicality both resemble Jean Renoir, tells Sam that “it takes all kinds to make up the world”, a cogent summation of the French filmmaker’s worldview.
As is expected of a Renoir film, The Southerner is alluring in its visual beauty: deep space compositions in natural locales, tracking shots through cotton fields and floodwaters, gentle pan shots inside the Tucker household, a measured editing rhythm, intimate two shots with Sam and Nona, Vidor-like framing of the horizon and a painterly shot design with foreground elements acting as repoussoir. But if there’s one element that most characterizes The Southerner as a Renoir work, it’s the harsh, realistic outlook that pervades the narrative. In contrast to the Hollywood tradition, no triumphalism marks the Tucker story. There are no miracles here that turn Sam’s farming enterprise into an immediate success. Renoir recognises the impossible odds and appeals for a stoicism in the face of these failures. Their farm washed out, the Tuckers get back to fixing their house. The stove burns once more, there’s coffee for now, the fields need to be ploughed and the seeds planted again. C’est la vie.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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