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Overview for Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir


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Also Known As: Died: February 12, 1979
Born: September 15, 1894 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Montmartre, Paris, FR Profession: Director ... director screenwriter actor producer art gallery proprietor author playwright teacher (University of California at Berkeley) craftsman


returned to France.

In 1940, however, Renoir came to America at the behest of documentarian Robert Flaherty. His "American period" would be marked by a number of uneven films, but saw the production of at least two of great beauty and accomplishment. Renoir enjoyed modest success with his first American film, "Swamp Water" (1941), starring Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, John Carradine and Walter Brennan and filmed on location in Georgia. Meanwhile, however, his admirers in France had turned on him. At a crucial moment in his country's history, they complained, the director had "gone Hollywood." Disregarding the controversy for the moment, Renoir signed to shoot a Deanna Durbin musical, then abandoned the project nearly two-thirds of the way through shooting.

This misadventure was followed by "This Land Is Mine" (1943), a story of the French resistance shot entirely on studio sets, starring Charles Laughton, Kent Smith, George Sanders and Maureen O'Hara. The film did acceptable business in the US, but received a truly hostile reception in France. Renoir attempted to make amends with a 20-minute short, "Salute to France" (1944), which was produced by the Office of War Information from a script by Philip Dunne, Renoir and Burgess Meredith, who also acted in the film. Kurt Weill supplied the music for this well-intentioned effort, which did nothing to salvage Renoir's reputation at home, although it was well received in the US.

Renoir's next film was an independent production, "The Southerner" (1945), starring Zachary Scott, Betty Field, J. Carrol Naish and Percy Kilbride. Working with his old associate Eugene Lourie as set designer, Robert Aldrich as assistant director and William Faulkner as dialogue consultant, Renoir created one of his most satisfying American films, a tale of the trials and tribulations of an Southern cotton farmer. "The Southerner" received the best contemporary critical notices of any of its director's American efforts.

"The Diary of a Chambermaid" (1946) was a curious choice for Renoir, and the result was a highly uneven film. The cast included Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith (who also co-produced and co-authored the screenplay), Hurd Hatfield, Reginald Owen, Judith Anderson, Irene Ryan and Francis Lederer. Shot on severely stylized studio sets, the film is overtly theatrical and eschews almost entirely the style Renoir had so carefully developed in his early sound films of the 1930s.

Renoir's last American film, "The Woman on the Beach" (1947), was directed for RKO. He originally developed the idea for the film with producer Val Lewton, justly famous for his series of horror films for RKO in the 1940s. However, Lewton left the production before shooting commenced and the film was substantially cut before its release. At least two versions now circulate; the most complete edition begins with a long undersea nightmare sequence reminiscent of "La Fille de L'eau," in which the film's protagonists, Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett, encounter each other at the bottom of the ocean. Jacques Rivette, Manny Farber and other critics have hailed the film as a masterpiece. Mutilated as it is, it displays a maturity of vision equal to the precise grace of "The Rules of the Game" or "The Crime of Monsieur Lange." In truncated versions running as short as 71 minutes, the film is only a fragment of what it might have been, but Rivette has aptly compared it to Erich von Stroheim's "Greed" (1925).

Renoir's third and final period as a director begins with "The River" (1950), an independently produced film based on Rumer Godden's novel. Shot entirely in Calcutta, it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. This relaxed and contemplative coming-of-age story, beautifully photographed in Technicolor, represents a return to the naturalism of Renoir's early work. "Le Carosse d'or/The Golden Coach" (1952) shares with "Diary of a Chambermaid" an intense interest in theatrical film style, and gave Anna Magnani one of her greatest roles as Camilla, the fiery diva of a traveling theater troupe. Though Eric Rohmer has called "Le Carosse d'or" "the 'open sesame' of all of Renoir's work," the film was not well received upon its initial release.

Renoir was unable to find backing for another film until "French Cancan" (1954, sometimes known in the US as "Only the French Can"), his first made in France in over 15 years. This valentine to the Moulin Rouge met with great public success and featured a number of French music hall performers in cameo roles, including a very brief appearance by Edith Piaf. "Elena et les hommes/Paris D s Strange Things" (1956) starred Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer in another, lightweight love letter to a bygone age.

"Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier" (1959), though not regarded as one of Renoir's finest works, has him using multiple cameras for the first time, blocking the film as though it were a stage play in the manner now routinely used by TV sitcoms. Based on "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," the film stars Jean-Louis Barrault as Dr. Cordelier and his mad alter ego, Opale, and is shot in stark black-and-white, in contrast to the lush coloring of Renoir's other film of this final period.

"Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe/Picnic on the Grass" (1959) followed, a topical fantasy film which has much in common with "Une Partie de campagne." Shot in delicious pastel colors, the film is at once ephemeral and melancholic, as if the director were acknowledging his bewilderment in the face of the "civilizing" forces of modern society. "Le Caporal epingle/The Elusive Corporal "(1962) is a return to the drabness of "Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier;" it recalls "La Grande Illusion" in its WWII tale of the numerous escape attempts of a corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) who is incarcerated in a series of German prison camps.

In 1968, Renoir appeared in and directed a short film, "La Direction d'acteur par Jean Renoir" which shows him directing the actress Gisele Braunberger in a scene from a Rumer Godden novel, "Breakfast with Nicolaides." Shot in a half-day, the film's direction credit is sometimes given to Ms. Braunberger. The following year, Renoir directed his last feature, "Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir," which was released in 1971. Jeanne Moreau is featured in four sketches which Renoir wrote, directed and narrated for French TV; when released theatrically in the US, it was warmly received, even though it was far from the director's most accomplished work.

At last, the public had caught up with Jean Renoir. "The Rules of the Game" had long since been reconstituted and enshrined as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director was pleased to accept an honorary Oscar in 1975 for his lifetime achievement in the cinema. The year before, Renoir had completed his memoirs, "Ma Vie et mes Films/My Life and My Films," which contain valuable insights into the director's method of scripting, direction and his ability to retain a sense of "self" in a highly commercial and competitive industry. In 1977, Renoir received his final major honor, the French Legion of Honor.zed as the director's masterwork, although, amazingly enough, it was reviled upon its initial release. This astutely observed tale of romance among the aristocrats and working class during a sporting weekend in the country was a complete box-office failure on its initial release. The film was withdrawn after a brief run and not revived until 1945, and later 1948--and then only in a mutilated version which gave no sense of the original. It was not until 1965 that the "definitive" version of the film was painfully reconstructed from various archival materials.

Renoir spent much of 1939 in Rome, teaching at the Centro Sperimental di Cinematografia. He co-wrote, with Carl Koch and Luchino Visconti, a screen version of "La Tosca" and began production on it in the spring of 1940, only to be interrupted by Italy's entry into WWII. Koch completed the film, and Renoir

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