Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was born at the same time as cinema, as the son of the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. His interest in painting was limited to marrying the last model of his father, Catherine Hessling, but he started making films because he wanted to immortalize her beauty, thinking moving images a better medium than paint. He made about 40 films between 1924 and 1962. His peak was in the 1930s, although even at that time he was not always recognized; fame came after WWII when he was highly praised by both Francois Truffaut (and other French New Wave directors) and Orson Welles.
In order to finance his first films, Jean Renoir gradually sold his father's paintings from his private collection. In fact, many family members were engaged in the film business: brother Pierre was an actor who played for example the role of Maigret in Renoir's adaptation of Simenon's Night at the Crossroads, brother Claude was a film producer and nephew Claude (the son of Pierre) was a cinematographer who would photograph Renoir's most beautiful films.
Renoir's humanist films reveal his fondness of all social strata. In the 1930s he endorsed the Popular Front in a series of films celebrating working class solidarity and when the Nazis invaded France, Renoir left the country for the United States (Hollywood), where he became a naturalized citizen. He would never again live in France, although he would return for film making in the 1950s.
Renoir started with some strong experimental work in the age of the silent film (such as Nana based on Zola's novel, or the short film The Little Match Girl based on Andersen - see my post about Best Silent Films), but really came into his own in the 1930s with sound technology. In this decade, he produced his best work and made several of the immortal masterworks of world cinema (The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game). Renoir was drawn to shooting on actual locations and experimented with long takes and deep focus compositions and the traveling shot. He expressed his auteurist ideal in the phrase: "My dream is of a craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books."
As his style was very different from that usual in Hollywood (and as Renoir was a strong individualist who didn't fit into conformist American corporate culture), he only made a handful of films in the 1940s, none among his best. The Diary of a Chambermaid is for example marred by lack of focus, political correctness and outright silliness. In the early 1950s, Renoir returned to France via India where he made The River, one of his masterworks and his first color film.
The films he made in France in the 1950s were very different from his earlier work: instead of realistic films shot on location, these are theatrical films with lots of spectacle and music, such as The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena et les hommes. His expert use of color may remind viewers of the paintings of his father. The last twenty years of his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Renoir almost made no movies anymore and only did some TV work. He died in Beverly Hills but was buried in France.
Here are his best films:
- La Chienne (1931)
"La Chienne" means "The Bitch" (in both senses), but obviously that would not be a suitable English title, so it is usually left in French. In this comedy-tragedy, Michel Simon (in a superb performance) plays a henpecked office clerk and amateur painter who becomes so smitten with a prostitute (Lulu) that he makes her his mistress. The weak-minded, respectable middle-class man thinks he has finally met real love in this "vulnerable woman" (who is in reality just a low-class prostitute), and refuses to see the obvious: that she and her pimp boyfriend are taking advantage of him. Lulu is really in love with her pimp and only accepts the clerk so that she can cash in on his paintings and so satisfy her boyfriend's need of money. The love triangle in this profoundly humane but unsentimental film finally leads to a very ironic conclusion: when the clerk finds Lulu in bed with her pimp, he kills her in a jealous fit (a great silent sequence in the film), but the pimp gets convicted of the murder and goes to the gallows. La Chienne was remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood as the nightmarish Scarlet Street, but this remake lacks the irony and wisdom of Renoir. It also lacks its seedy sexiness, which was too much for U.S. censors, who banished the original film until 1975. Full of Renoir's elegant compositions and interesting camera movements and filmed on location in the noisy streets of Montmartre.
- Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) (1932)
An outrageous, anarchic farce about a tramp played by Michel Simon in a singular performance: not sentimental in the Chaplin style, but on the contrary, a big, smelly, loutish bum with only one belief, that in complete personal freedom. Boudu is saved from suicide by a Parisian bookseller (a true uppity bourgeois) and ends up taking over his benefactor's home, his wife and his maid/mistress! Never take a tramp into your house! The film also forms a lively document of prewar Parisian society, with interesting location shooting around the Quartier Latin. There are delightful touches, too, as when early in the film, Boudu searches for his dog and seeks help from a police officer - in one and the same take the patrolman ignores him, only to offer his services to an affluent lady in a similar predicament. See my full review here.
- A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) (1936)
A lyrical short film based on a famous story by Maupassant (a friend of Renoir's father). The film is only 40 minutes long as bad weather prevented its completion (the negative side of location shooting), but as it can perfectly stand on its own, it was ten years later brought out as a featurette. The film follows a Parisian shopkeeper, his wife, daughter and the shop assistant his daughter is to marry as they spend a Sunday along the Seine, in the countryside. While the two men fall asleep over their fishing poles after a copious lunch, both mother and daughter are (separately) wooed by two strongly muscled rowers and enticed to come to an island in the middle of the river. What happens there (or doesn't happen there) gives insight into the sad lives of both women. A warm and summery film that could have been Renoir's absolute masterwork had he been able to complete it. As it stands, it is the best short film ever made. See my full review here.
- The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le crime de Monsieur Lange) (1936)
A whimsical Popular Front film about a likable courtyard world of print-shop workers and laundresses, with a naive hero (Monsieur Lange, a writer of adventure stories), a vivacious and practical heroine (Valentine), and their boss, Mr Batala, as the ultimate cinematic scoundrel, an obnoxious fascist pig, this propaganda piece rises to high art (and is good fun, too). When the bad boss fakes his own death to avoid paying back a loan, the abandoned workers decide to form a cooperative, full of the spirit of "liberté, égalité, fraternité." They have great success with printing Lange's cowboy stories, but then Batala returns "from the dead" to reclaim his publishing company. After an argument, Lange shoots and kills him, and flees with Valentine to escape France by crossing the border into Belgium. At a time that fascism and Nazism were rife in Europe, this film about an "excusable homicide" questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should or shouldn't cross. But Renoir makes also clear that the idea of a socialist cooperative is, like the story, nothing more than a romantic fantasy, albeit a beautiful one.
- Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) (1937)
The title of this (anti-) war movie refers to the illusion that WWI was seen as "the war to end all wars." Forbidden by the Nazis (Goebbels tried to destroy all copies of the film), it tells the story of a group of French prisoners of war in German captivity, with working class hero Jean Gabin sharing a cell with middle-class Jew Marcel Dalio and the aristocratic Pierre Fresnay, under the strict monocled eye of Commandant Erich von Stroheim. The film is as much about class as it is about the prisoners efforts to escape. Initially "class" is stronger than "nation" as the German aristocrat treats his French aristocratic prisoner with special respect, even becoming friends with him. This also shows what an immense watershed the Great War meant for European culture, as it was the end of the class relations described in the film, and the beginning of the epoch of the "commoners." The last part of the film is different from the rest, as we see how Gabin and Dalio trek across the Alps towards freedom, with beautiful long shots in the snowy landscape. Orson Welles much adored this film and picked it as his "desert-island movie." A humanistic film, showing how important compassion is among the senselessness of war.
- La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938)
Jean Gabin wanted to make a film in which he could drive a steam locomotive and Renoir made that possible by adapting Zola's naturalistic novel. Gabin plays a solitary train engineer, Lantier, who drives a locomotive between Paris and Le Havre, a man whose tainted blood subjects him to fits of homicidal mania. He falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon), the sexy wife of the deputy station master in Le Havre, who has helped her husband murder a man who tried to seduce her. Although Lantier was a witness, he says nothing to the police and begins an ambiguous emotional blackmail. One night, Séverine rewards him, but also suggests that he should get rid of her husband. Lantier lies in wait for the man but is unable to do the foul deed. Instead, in one of his fits of madness he ends up killing Séverine and the next day jumps to his death from the speeding train. What makes this hardboiled film noir great are the scenes with the steam locomotives: the film is larded with impressive traveling shots with the camera on the huge locomotive, racing through the French countryside or entering under the roof of a large station, spitting out steam. In a double sense a "steamy movie," this thriller was the greatest commercial success in Renoir's career.
- The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939)
Again a scathing critique of the class system, this time in the form of a country house farce "with teeth." A weekend at a marquis' castle in the countryside lays bare some ugly truths about a group of upper middle class acquaintances. Made on the eve of WWII, it shows European society and its disintegrating values as doomed. There is no protagonist, but in this lavish ensemble piece we see the hosts and guests as a group, as the class that was responsible for the hopeless situation of Europe. "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons" (as the most famous line in this film goes), and those reasons are used to justify acts like murder and suicide. In the center of the film stands a long hunting scene (with Renoir's expert long shots) that reveals the volcano seething below the feet of the characters. Booed and banned (and nearly destroyed) at its premiere, The Rules of the Game was rehabilitated by the New Wave and shown at the 1956 Venice Film festival. It is now generally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
- The River (1951)
Jean Renoir's first Technicolor feature, shot entirely on location in India (with American capital and Indian cooperation - among them future Indian film maker Satyajit Ray), is a bittersweet, Ozu-like account of the growing-up pains of three (colonial) young women, contrasted with the immutability of the river flowing in front of their homes, and full of gorgeous documentary-like color-shots of life in India. Harriet - whose father runs a jute mill - has five sisters and a ten year younger brother. The life of the young woman is shaken up when the charming Captain John, a cousin of the family next door who has lost his leg in the war, comes visiting. Harriet falls in love with him and shows him her secret diary, but he reacts only in a friendly, fatherly way. She later is shocked to see him kiss her best friend - but this is just sport for Captain John, who is really in love with Melanie, the mixed-blood daughter of the family where he is staying. But Melanie finds him stiff and overbearing and senses a big cultural gulf between them. The Captain eventually leaves (still a single man), but not before Harriet - who also feels responsible for the death of her small brother because of a snake bite - has lost the will to live and tries to commit suicide by floating down the river in a small skiff - happily, she is rescued by fishermen. Not only a visual tour de force, but also a very poetic and wise film, enriched by Renoir's subtle understanding of India and its people (a new, non-colonial view; although the story is set in colonial times, Renoir made the film just after India's independence in 1947). The wisdom shows in the retelling of a beautiful Indian legend with the message that things are not always as they seem, and that other persons may see the same things differently, and also in the contrast between the transitory emotions of the protagonists and the unchanging flow of the River, a symbol of everlasting Nature. The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival of 1951 and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
- French Cancan (1954)
A loving tribute to art and the theater that reminds me of a painting by Degas come alive. A lyrical film full of movement, color and romance in which Renoir was reunited with Jean Gabin for the final time. Gabin plays a Belle Époque Parisian nightclub impresario determined to transform the cancan, an outmoded folk dance, into the rage of the city. The spectacle of the dance in the finale, with its crashing waves of color, is justly famous. The lives of the characters in the film and especially their loves, are just as fluid and evolving. The film also demonstrates the difference between show business people and the rest of the world. The female lead is expertly played by Francoise Arnoul. Although The Golden Coach (1953) is also very interesting - Truffaut based the name of his production company, Les films du Carosse, on this film - I prefer French Cancan for its joie de vivre and the fact that its bright, frivolous surface hides a deeper undercurrent.
Interesting article on Renoir by Peter Bogdanovich; Orson Welles on Renoir.
With the exception of Le crime de Monsieur Lange, all the above films are available from The Criterion Collection.
References: The Rough Guide to Film (Penguin Group, 2007); Have You Seen...? by David Thomson (Penguin Books, 2008). IMDB, The Criterion Collection, Slant Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal. Photos linked from Wikipedia. This series covers two blogs, Japan Navigator for Japanese directors and Splendid Labyrinths for non-Japanese directors.
1. Jean Renoir 2. Kenji Mizoguchi 3. Luis Buñuel 4. Yasujiro Ozu 5. Max Ophüls 6. Akira Kurosawa