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||Jean Renoir (1894-1979)|
One of the greatest film directors of France, a humanist and "the least arrogant of all men," whose most creative period in the 1930s produced such masterworks as The Grand Illusion, The Human Beast, and The Rules of the Game. Renoir conceived all his work as a collaborative effort by director, writer, technicians and actors. Typical for his films are continually changing relationships between people, deep-focus frame, moving camera, and long takes which recorded the intimate thoughts of his characters. "In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed," Renoir once said.
"Simplicity is absolutely essential to creation. Those people who make love while saying: "We're going to have a magnificent child"; well, they won't have a magnificent child, they may not have any child at all that evening... The magnificent child comes by chance, one day after a good laugh, a picnic, fun in the woods, a roll in the hay, then a magnificent child is born!" (from Renoir on Renoir, 1989)
Jean Renoir was born in Paris, the second son of the famous Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir – his works were an inseparable part of Renoir's early years. Renoir divided his childhood years between the family's house in Paris and a country estate in the south of France, developing there love for the nature. At the age of five, he became interested in puppet theater and later he found the adventure books of Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers, La Tour de Nesle and others. Especially he was fascinated by the sense of honor between the musketeers. Renoir studied philosophy and mathematics at the University of Aix-en-Provence, before joining in 1913 the cavalry. During World War I, he served as a second lieutenant with the Alpine Infantry and a pilot. Renoir was wounded two times. A bullet in a thighbone left him with a permanent slight limp.
Renoir's father died 1919. Next year he married his father's beautiful model Andrée Heuchling, who gained fame as an actress under the name Catherine Hessling. Renoir had became interested in the cinema already during the war. With his inherited money, he set up an independent production company. 1924 he produced and wrote his first film, Catherine ou Une vie sans joie. His first direction was La Fille de l'eau (1924), starring Catherine Hessling. She was in Renoir's adaptation of Zola's famous novel Nana (1925), a complete commercial failure. Charleston (1927) was an erotic fantasy, again made for Hessling. However, in the beginning of the sound era they separated. Her place was taken by Marguerite Mathieu, a film editor, known as Marguerite Renoir although the director never married her.
Renoir's first major talkie was La Chienne
(1931). "... I adore, I love, I'm quite excited – platonically – by the
women one meets on the streets of Paris," Renoir told about the idea of
the film. In Georges de la Fouchardière's novel, on which the story was
based, the protagonist is a prostitute. La Nuit du carrefour (1932) was an adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel. Renoir's brother Pierre played the famous Inspector Maigret. Michael Simon dressed as a hobo in Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932, Boudou Saved from Drowning), which was remade in 1986 in Hollywood under the title Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
In this version Nick Nolte was the bum, who changes the life of a
middle-class family. Like a number of artists and intellectuals in the
1930s, Renoir felt sympathy for the struggle of the working class. He
agreed to produce and direct La vie est à nous
(1936) for the French Communist party, but let his assistants, André
Zwobada and Jean-Paul de Chanois, direct most of the film. Its
exhibition to the general public in France was restricted by the
censors until 1969.
Les Bas-fonds (1936, The Lower Depths) was based on the play by Maxim Gorki. Although there were enormous differences between Renoir's script and Gorki's play, the author himself approved it wholeheartedly. The Lower Depths started Renoir's cooperation with Jean Gabin. "He's certainly the most honest man I've ever met in my life," said Renoir once and after thinking for a moment he added: "Oh! wait, I know one other honest person, Ingrid Bergman." With her Renoir made in 1956 Elena et les Hommes. Renoir took the idea for the film from the life of General Boulanger (1837-1891), who prepared a coup d'état, fled to Belgium, and committed suicide on the grave of his mistress.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
was Renoir's first international success, but in Germany it was banned
by Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, who persuaded also Italians to
ban it. However, embarrassment was great when it won in Venice Film
Festival the "Best Artistic Ensemble" award. Grand Illusion was
based on a true story from World War I and illustrated the power of
wartime camaraderie between the French and German soldiers. Erich von
Stroheim played Von Rauffernstein, and Jean Gabin was Marechal, who try
to find a way out with Pierre Fresnay from the escape-proof fortress,
Wintersborn, commanded by Von Rauffenstein. Inside the walls, the
prisoners are treated well and there is some kind of natural bond
between all men. Von Rauffenstein is an aristocrat. He reluctantly
shoots Captain De Boeldieu, whose self-sacrifice helps two of his
comrades, Gabin and a Jewish officer, to escape from Wintersborn, back
to war. Paradoxically, outside the walls is freedom but not peace or
Renoir was sensitive to his actors' bodies and gestures, stating once: "I began to realize that the gesture of a laundress, of a woman combining her hair before a mirror, of a streethawker near a car, had an incomparable plastic eloquence. I made a sort of study of French gestures through the paintings of my father, and those of his generation." Von Stroheim, understanding Renoir's ideas, added a neck brace and a corset to make his character look outside even stiffer and inhuman, but inside he represents virtues of the old order – patriotic heroism, chivalrous manner, and honor. Asked years later how much effect pacifist films have, Renoir answered, "In 1936 I made a picture named La Grande Illusion in which I tried to express all my deep feelings for the cause of peace. This film was very successful. Three years later the war broke out. That is the only answer I can find..."
La Bête humaine (1938, The Human Beast), starring Jean Gabin, was based on Emile Zola's novel. The title of the film was misleading – there are no clear villains or heroes in Renoir's world, and the locomotive was perhaps the most important, nearly human character of the story. To learn about railroads, Gabin drove the train several times from Le Havre to Paris. La Règle du jeu (1939) is considered Renoir's last masterpiece from the 1930s. However, it was a great commercial failure in its time; cut by Vichy censors and banned by Nazis. When the film was shown in July 1939 at the Colisée many people wanted to destroy the seats, and the director received plenty of insults. The original negative was destroyed in 1942 in an air raid. In 1950, Howard Thompson said in The New York Times: "Here we have a baffling mixture of stale sophistication, coy symbolism, and galloping slapstick that almost defies analysis... The master had dealt his admirers a pointless, thudding punch below the belt." The film restored to its original form in 1959. Renoir satirized the French ruling class, balancing between humor and pathos. "During the shooting of the film I was torn between my desire to make a comedy of it and the wish to tell a tragic story," the director later said. One of its most famous sequences is the brutal "rabbit hunt," which parallels with the fatal and farcical game of love and bourgeois partying.
Before directing his first film, Luchino Visconti worked as assistant director on three of Renoir's productions. Renoir gave him a transcript of James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, a triangle drama with a grim conclusion, which Visconti rooted in Italy under the title Ossessione (1942). Made while Mussolini was still in power, its world of gloom and corruption was banned by the censors.
When World War II broke out, Renoir joined the Film Service of the
French army. In 1941, he went to the United States. There he settled in
Hollywood and became an American citizen. In a letter he wrote to his
son Alain, who was still in the defeated French army: "I do not yet
know all the possibilities of Hollywood, because it's a place where you
never see anyone. I saw the heads of Fox one or two times for a few
minutes and that was all. If there weren't such formalities over your
visa and all the problems with the Bank and Taxes, which are very
complicated, we would only see a few friends and that's all." (Renoir on March 8, 1941)
In 1944 Renoir married Dido Freire, his script girl. However, his divorce
from Hessling was not recognized in France. He made an anti-Nazi
propaganda film, This Land Is Mine (1943), starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton, and two years later The Southerner, which was awarded at the Venice Film Festival in 1946. Generally it is acknowledged Renoir's best American film.
The Southener was adapted from a novel entitled Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Sessions Perry. William Faulkner participated in the scriptwriting, but his contribution is uncredited. Faulkner liked the result and would have been pleased to have had the credit. Renoir's co-writer, Hugo Butler, was blacklisted in the 1950s. In India Renoir made The River (1951), his first color production. It was based on a novel by the English writer Rumer Godden, who had been brought up in Bengal.
Renoir's later works in Europe included French Cancan (1955), a great box-office success, starring Jean Gabin, Maria Felix, Françoise Arnoul. "French Cancan
is above all the story of Nini. Nini is a little laundress who walks
around with a basket under her arm. Nothing is more seductive than a
laundress walking in the street with a basket under her arm." (Renoir about the film) Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) was adaptation of R.L. Stevenson's horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Le Caporal épinglé
(1962, The Elisive Corporal) was according to Renoir his saddest film.
In 1975 Renoir received an honorary Oscar for his work and in 1977 he
became an officer of the French Legion of Honor. His autobiography, My Life and My Films,
came out in 1974. Between 1951 and 1969 Renoir wrote at least seventeen
synopses, treatments or sketches for films that were never made. He
published also a biography of his father, Renoir Mon Père (1962).
In 1966, Renoir published his first novel, Les Cahiers du capitaine Georges. It was followed by Le Cœur à l'aise (1978), Le Crime de l'Anglais (1979) and Geneviève (1979), completed only days before his death. Renoir died in Beverly Hills in California, on February 12, 1979. Several of his films were based on novels or short stories. The critic Andre Bazin hailed Renoir as the spiritual godfather of the French "new wave" in the 1950s and 1960s. His influence is seen in the works of Visconti, Satyajit Ray, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and in many of their contemporaries.
For further reading: Jean Renoir: The Complete Films, eds. Christopher Faulkner, Paul Duncan (2007); Jean Renoir: Interviews, ed. Bert Cardullo (2005); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz (1994); Renoir on Renoir by Jean Renoir, tr. Carol Volk (1989); Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 by Alexander Sesonske (1980); Jean Renoir by R. Durgnat (1975); Jean Renoir by Andre Bazin (1971)
Selected writings / books: