Comic Adaptation Week: Jean Renoir's Doom Patrol
One could be forgiven for concluding that my suggestion of a film adaptation of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol by Jean Renoir is little more than a self-indulgent lark. What could the French master of poetic realism possibly have in common with Morrison's madcap masterpiece? But critics and casual moviegoers tend to forget that Renoir had a career outside of his justly famous French films of the 1930s. In his early career, Renoir experimented heavily with filmmaking forms and effects and many of his films of the 1920s have more in common with Doom Patrol at its most surrealistic than, say, Grand Illusion.
1927's Charleston Parade (Sur un air de charleston) is bizarre mash of scifi and flapper culture, which imagines a post-apocalyptic 2028 in which Africa is the center of civilization and Europe is a dark terra incognita. In Renoir's jazz age retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928), an inappositely lusty Catherine Hessling--Renoir's first wife--descends into a phantasmagoric dream world, in which the inhabitants of a toyshop window come to life.
But as much as these early experimental works establish a visual, stylistic connection between these seemingly disparate artistic poles, it is the human stuff that first made me think Renoir could do this material justice. In Morrison's incarnation of the book, Doom Patrol is only tertiarily about superheros. What's really at the heart of this group of misfits is precisely their misfit status--they are quite literally the only people that will accept each other. Renoir's celebrated movies of the 1930s, particularly Grand Illusion, but also The Rules of the Game, tread similar territory. The ensemble casts of these films are populated with just the sort of people who were facing increasing hostility in the politically charged France of the 1930s: Jews, foreigners, homosexuals. The theme that pops up again and again in these movies, regardless of the subject matter, is that the boundaries that we use to separate people are wholly arbitrary. It was as though he had been engaged in trying to convince a Europe that he knew was about to destroy itself that it didn't really need to happen.
Perhaps even more striking is the similarity between the ways that both Morrison and Renoir have expressed the paradoxical impossible possibility of love. In the scene from Doom Patrol from which the above panel was culled, Cliff is pouring out his heart to Jane about the difficulty of living without a body. A big part of this is his reminiscence of the things that he used to be able to do and FEEL, particularly racing, that are now forever closed off to him. The corresponding scene from The Rules of the Game plays out almost identically, even down to the rarefied setting. Octave, played by Renoir himself, is reminiscing to his friend Christine about his younger days as a musician with her father, a famous Austrian conductor. As he puts it in the film, he misses the sound of the audience and the feeling of performance and feels that now that he does not perform, he lives only as a parasite. In The Rules of the Game as in Doom Patrol, the scene culminates with the woman confessing her love for the broken man. But again in both cases, it's an impossible love, in Doom Patrol because Cliff doesn't have a body and in The Rules of the Game because Christine is married to the Marquis de la Cheyniest, piling on a class division to the already problematic societal mores concerning marriage.
Finally, Doom Patrol was ultimately a vehicle for Grant Morrison to wield his satiric sabre against any number of social and cultural sacred cows. Benevolent Horatian though he may have been, Renoir was ultimately a satirist who created stories that allow us to love the targets of his mockery.