Family & Companions
Renoir is arguably the greatest artist that the cinema has ever known, simply because he was able to work effectively in virtually all genres without sacrificing his individuality or bowing to public or commercial conventions. Although the son of the famed impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, his visual sensibility was entirely his own, and the technical facility that marks his films is the result of long and assiduous study.
Renoir's first serious interest in cinema developed during a period of recuperation after he had been wounded by a stray bullet while serving with the Alpine infantry in 1915. His first active involvement came in 1924, when money raised by the sale of some of his father's paintings (Auguste Renoir had died in 1919) allowed him to began production on "Catherine/Une Vie sans joie" in 1924. Renoir provided the screenplay and Albert Dieudonne the direction; Renoir's young wife Andree Madeleine Heuchling, a former model of his father's, was the star, with her name changed to Catherine Hessling for billing purposes. Renoir's first film as director, "La Fille de l'eau," was shot in 1924, with Renoir also functioning as producer and art director and Catherine Hessling again starring. Anticipating Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante" (1934), the film's plot centered on a young woman who lives and works on a river boat. It's modest success led Renoir to plunge, somewhat impulsively, into the direction of "Nana" (1926), an adaptation from the Zola novel which now looks uncharacteristically stagebound.
Nearly bankrupt, Renoir had to take out a loan to finance his next film, "Charleston" (1927), a 24-minute fantasy that featured Hessling teaching the popular title dance in costumes that were as brief as possible. After it attained only limited success, Renoir accepted a straight commercial directing job on "Marquitta" (1927).
Renoir's next significant film was "Tire-au-Flanc" (1928), a military comedy that Francois Truffaut would later call a visual "tour de force" and which marked the director's first collaboration with actor Michel Simon. The working relationship between Renoir and Hessling, meanwhile, had taken its toll; the couple separated in 1930, though Hessling continued to appear in Renoir's films through "Crime et chatiment/""Crime and Punishment" (1935).
To prove that he understood the new medium of the sound film, Renoir directed a down-and-dirty comedy based on a farce by Georges Feydeau, "On Purge Bebe" (1931). The film was shot on a very brief schedule, with Renoir apparently letting the camera run for as long as possible during each take, in order to work around the clumsy sound-on-disc recording apparatus. He also inserted a number of instances of mild "blue humor" (for example, the sound of a toilet heard flushing off-screen). Perhaps because he had aimed so resolutely for commercial success, Renoir's first talkie was a huge hit, allowing him to rush into production on his first major sound film, "La Chienne/The Bitch" (1931). This was the first of his films to be edited by Marguerite Mathieu, with whom Renoir became romantically involved at this time and who would later take the name Marguerite Renoir, though the couple never married. It was on this film, too, that Renoir developed his early strategy of sound shooting. In the face of objections from his producers down to his sound technicians, he insisted on using only natural sync-sound, recorded for the most part in actual locations. He also made extensive use of a moving camera, particularly in one sequence where the camera "waltzes" around the dance floor, keeping perfect time with the actors.
Renoir next directed his brother Pierre in "La Nuit du carrefour/Night at the Crossroads" (1932), a brilliant but little-seen detective film based on one of Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels. He followed it with the delightful comedy, "Boudu sauve des eaux/Boudu Saved From Drowning" (1932). The film uses Renoir's by now polished on-location sync-sound shooting technique to tell the tale of Boudu (Michel Simon), a bum who is fished out of the Seine after a suicide attempt by a well-meaning bourgeois bookseller, Lestingois (Charles Granval). Taken into the Lestingois household, Boudu wreaks havoc until he escapes during a boating accident, free to wander again. The charm and invention of this beautiful film make it one of the glories of the early sound cinema. (It was remade in 1986 by director Paul Mazursky as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills.")
With the critical and popular success of "Boudu," Renoir embarked upon a project reminiscent of "Nana." "Madame Bovary" (1934) starred Pierre Renoir as Charles Bovary and Valentine Tessier as Emma Bovary. The first cut of the film ran three hours and thirty minutes, but it was eventually trimmed to two hours. Still, the film met with little commercial success; undeterred, Renoir began shooting "Toni" (1934) almost entirely on location in Martigues, using non-professional actors in most of the roles. "Toni" thus presages the Italian Neorealist movement by more than a decade, and in following his inherent bent for "naturalism," Renoir created a beautiful and tragic film which is now recognized as one of his finest works. Nevertheless, the film met with little public or critical favor, a pattern which was becoming increasingly familiar.
Renoir's next film, "The Crime of Monsieur Lange" (1936), marked the director's only collaboration with writer Jacques Prevert, and gave ample evidence of the director's increasing politicization. Marked by beautiful, fluid, yet carefully precise camera work, as well as the excellent ensemble acting of the Groupe Octobre, "The Crime of Monsieur Lange" is one of Renoir's finest and most accessible films. It was followed by "La Vie est a nous/People of France" (1936), a political tract which bears a striking resemblance to Godard's 16mm "cine tracts" of the late 1960s and early 70s. Initially withheld by the censor, the film enjoyed a limited release in the US in 1937 but was not shown to the paying French public until 1969, as a result of the student riots in France the previous May.
Renoir was now nearing the end of his first great stage of directorial activity, and in rapid succession he created a series of unforgettable films: "Une Partie de compagne/A Day in the Country "(1936), based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, completed in the face of considerable production difficulties, and not released in France until 1946 and the USA in 1950; "Les Bas fonds/The Lower Depths" (1936), an adaptation of the Maxim Gorky play; "La Grande Illusion/Grand Illusion" (1937), one of the best known and beloved films of all time, as compelling an anti-war document as has ever been created; "La Marseillaise" (1938), an examination of the events of the French Revolution, characteristically reduced to human scale, despite impressive production values; "La Bete humaine/The Human Beast" (1938), an adaptation of Zola's novel (remade by Fritz Lang in 1954 as "Human Desire"), and finally, "La Regle du jeu/The Rules of the Game" (1939), now universally recognized 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 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.
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First film as producer, writer, actor and co-director "Catherine/Un Vie sans joie"
Sole directing debut with "La Fille de l'eau"
Opened art gallery
Directed first Franco-German collaboration "Nana"
Last silent film as director "Le Bled"
Sound-film directing debut with "On purge Bebe"
"La Grande Illusion" banned in Italy, Germany and Belgium
Co-founded production company, La Nouvelle Edition Francaise to film "Les Caprices de Marianne;" bankrupt after one film
"La Regle du jeu/The Rules of the Game" banned in Paris (ban reimposed during German occupation)
Immigrated to US via Algiers, Casablanca and Lisbon
Signed as director for one year by Darryl F Zanuck at Fox
Ended Fox contract
Signed long-term contract with Universal; asked for release after few days
"Un Partie de Campagne/A Day in the Country" released (shot 1936)
Last US film as director (for RKO) "The Woman on the Beach"
First color film as director "The River"
Stage directing debut with "Julius Caesar" ( 2,000th anniversary of Caesar's discovery of Arles, France where play was staged)
Debut as playwright with "Orvet" (also directed; Paris)
Television directing debut with "Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier/Experiment in Evil"