French-born Jean Renoir (1894-1979) directed two of the twentieth century's most critically acclaimed films, La Grande Illusion and La Regle du jeu (Rules of the Game), and is credited with inspiring the subsequent film noir and French New Wave cinematic movements.
The son of Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir today seems predestined to become one of film's most visually compelling directors. While mastering such signature visual styles as deep focus for the respective mise-en-scenes of his body of work, Renoir's reputation is for his films that depict "life as a tissue of disappointments," in which the boundaries of human comedy and tragedy seamlessly overlap. Rather than offer subjective moral observations of his characters, however, Renoir held firmly to the dictum that "Everyone has their reasons," which freed him from exploring character motivations and the inevitable long-term results of their actions. Instead, his films force the viewer to witness the actions of his actors—most of whom display both positive and negative qualities—in relation to the situations in which he places them. He underscores this dramatic element by allowing the audience to acknowledge that they are observing the characters' actions from a camera's perspective, framing the action so that the characters may freely walk off camera. The combination of the actions of Renoir's characters freed from motivations and consequences, and his technique of filming them so that the audience is conscious of the camera's presence is acknowledged by critics as a profound method to display the complexities of humanity as being neither completely good nor completely evil, prompting Jay Carr to note: "The films of Jean Renoir never land heavy on the eye or the spirit. There are no conquering heroes in them. Identifying profoundly with uncertainty and frailty, Renoir became the poet of chaos theory. He humanized it long before existentialism and physics got their hands on it." Renoir's career as a filmmaker is commonly divided into several groups: His silent pictures which display the cinematic influences of directors Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin and featuring Renoir's first wife; his early sound pictures in which he adapted plays and novels; his films of political engagement, communism, and pacifism made just before the outbreak of World War II; his films made during his tenure in Hollywood; and his films made following his return to Europe that celebrate European history.
As the son and model of an enormously successful and wealthy painter, Renoir enjoyed a childhood surrounded by art and artists. His father's success and exacting critical standards, however, intimidated Renoir, and he sought to distance himself from his father's artistic milieu. He attended several schools, including the College de Sainte-Croix, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1902; Ecole Sainte-Marie de Monceau, 1903; and the University of Aix-en-Provence, where he earned a degree in mathematics and philosophy in 1913.
Seeking to distance himself from his father's fame at the onset of World War I, Renoir enlisted in the French cavalry in 1914. He nearly lost a leg in battle, however, and transferred to the French Flying Corps in 1916. His pilot duties included aerial photographing of German troop movements. After aggravating his leg injury during a particularly bad landing of his aircraft, Renoir was sent back to Paris to work behind the lines as a full lieutenant until 1918. While he recuperated, he entertained himself by attending the Parisian movie houses. After the war, he expressed his intent to become a ceramic artist.
Following the war, Renoir married Andree (Dedee) Madeleine Heuchling, who adopted the stage and screen name Catherine Hessling when her husband began making films. Renoir explained his decision to become a filmmaker: "I set foot in the world of the cinema only in order to make my wife a star, intending, once this was done to return to my pottery studio. I did not foresee that once I had been caught in the machinery I should never be able to escape. If anyone had told me that I was to devote all my money and all my energies to the making of films I should have been amazed."
Renoir financed his first films by selling paintings by his father. For these films, he served as producer, screenwriter, financier, and actor. In 1924, Renoir directed La Fille de l'eau, a melodrama starring Hessling. Unable to obtain distribution for the film and nearly bankrupt as a result, Renoir resigned himself to running a ceramic gallery and studio. His retirement from film was premature, however, as evidenced by the inclusion of a surreal dream sequence from La Fille de l'eau in a revue of film excerpts compiled by Jean Tedesco. The overwhelmingly positive audience reaction convinced Renoir to continue his vocation, and he soon adapted Emile Zola's novel Nana and Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Match Girl. He also accepted assignments to direct Marquitta for the Artistes Reunis production company; the slapstick war comedy Tire au flanc; and two films for Henry Dupuy-Mazuel, Le Tournoi and La Bled. The latter film was shot on location in Algeria.
Primarily influenced by the films of D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, Renoir's first films were "more interesting for their technical innovations and visual inventiveness," according to Martin O'Shaughnessy. In several of these films, he pioneered the use of the camera as a narrative device with a limited frame of reference and objective point of view. By allowing characters to move freely outside of the camera frame, Renoir displayed the limitations of the cinematic narrative, making the audience aware that it is incumbent upon them to engage their intellect while viewing the film. The films are noted also for their use of outdoor-location photography, an element that became an essential component of many of Renoir's subsequent sound films.
Renoir's first sound films are noted for his development of mobile panning and tracking shots in which the camera follows the movements of the characters. In these films, he adapted his screenplays from such sources as popular theater and fiction. In order to secure financing, however, he needed to convince possible monetary backers that he could make films economically by writing and directing On purge bebe, an adaptation of an Ernest Feydeau play concerning a constipated baby and the adults who accidentally ingest the baby's laxative. The film's success afforded Renoir the opportunity to direct La Chienne, a comedy about an adulterous relationship between a married banker and a prostitute that leads to murder. Based on a novel by Georges de la Fouchardiere, the film generally is considered Renoir's first important work.
His next film, Boudo Saved from Drowning, based on a play by Rene Fauchois, is a lampoon of bourgeoisie life, concerning a bum who alters the life of a middle-class family and narrowly escapes marriage. This successful comedy was followed by adaptations of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Georges Simenon's La Nuit du carrefour, the first film appearance of Simenon's most famous character, Inspector Magritte.
The political climate in Europe during the 1930s inevitably impacted the remainder of Renoir's films of the decade. The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism in Italy, the increasingly vocal Socialist and Communist parties in France, and a firsthand experience of Nazism in Germany— where he witnessed Nazi soldiers force a Jewish woman to lick the ground—caused Renoir to confront contemporary issues in Toni, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, and La Vie est a nous. The latter film was a Socialist collaborative effort between directors Jean-Paul Le Chanois and Jacques Becker that combines drama and documentary. He also attempted to create cinematic representations of his father's paintings in A Day in the Country, which was not edited and released until after World War II because he had to leave the film in order to fulfill a contractual obligation to direct Les Bas-Fonds. Renoir claimed that he never completed A Day in the Country, but critics consider it to subtly convey Renoir's pantheistic tendencies, genius as a visual artist, and political sensibilities.
Critics generally acknowledge Renoir's next film, La Grande Illusion, as a masterpiece of war cinema. Starring Erich von Stroheim as the commandant of a prison-camp, the film presents a powerful pacifist argument. Rules of the Game, however, is considered Renoir's cinematic triumph, a film that displays how the venality of human nature can create situations where violence and war can erupt. Each of the characters is presented in a sympathetic way, prompting Jay Carr to note: "Subtle, prismatic, acute, infinitely embracing, Rules of the Game is one of the century's undisputed masterworks. Renoir thought he was reworking Beaumarchais and de Musset, but Rules of the Game— right down to its figure of the little poacher bringing mischievous nature indoors—seems kin to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. It is a sublime comedy of the mutability of human feelings that manages, without ever becoming sentimental, to turn into a celebration of humankind."
Renoir left France for America in 1940. He arrived in Hollywood, where he made several films that he—and many critics—consider among his weakest due to the restrictive effects of the Hollywood studio system on a director accustomed to working independently. Among the films he made in America are Swamp Water, This Land Is Mine, The Southerner, The Diary of a Chambermaid, and The Woman on the Beach. Of these films, The Southerner, on which he worked with uncredited writer William Faulkner, is considered his best Hollywood film. James Agee, in a June 9, 1945, review, wrote: "When a good man gets a real chance in Hollywood it is not only news; the least one can do is salute those who, aware of the gamble, gave him the money and the chance and protected him in it. So, with pleasure, I salute David Loew and Robert Hakim, thanks to whom Jean Renoir has made The Southerner, his own adaptation of George Sessions Perry's Hold Autumn in Your Hand. … Though its people are exceedingly poor, this is not a political or social 'exposure' of the tenant system, nor does it pay any attention to class or racial friction. It tries simply to be a poetic, realistic chronicle of a farm year's hope, work, need, anxiety, pride, love, disaster, and reward—a chronicle chiefly of soil, seasons, and weather, the only other dramatic conflict being furnished by a pathologically unkind neighbor."
Renoir's next film was an adaptation of Rummer Godden's novel, The River, which he filmed on location in India. The film was beset by illness, bad weather, and cost overruns. While agreeing that his use of color photography is visually compelling, most critics negatively dismissed the film. For the remainder of his career, Renoir made films in France that drew attention largely due to his growing reputation as the director of La Grande Illusion and Rules of the Game. These films never came close to matching the artistic successes of his previous work, but served as tutorials for the French New Wave cinema movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as laying the groundwork for the moral ambiguity displayed in American film noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. Although he never worked with a Hollywood studio, Renoir became an American citizen and lived in California for the remainder of his life.
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Bergan, Ronald, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise, The Overlook Press, 1992.
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O'Shaughnessy, Martin, Jean Renoir, Manchester University Press, 2000.
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"Jean Renoir, Director" French Culture, http://www.frenchculture.org/cinema/festival/renoir. □