hen Jean Renoir died in 1979, Orson Welles called him “very probably the greatest of all directors—a gigantic silhouette on the horizon of our waning century.” Other film directors of like stature, among them John Ford, Fritz Lang, Martin Scorsese, and François Truffaut, have regarded him no less highly, and critics feel the same way: La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), Renoir’s masterpiece, is the only film to have been one of the top 10 picks in all seven of the “Greatest Films of All Time” critics’ polls published at decade-long intervals since 1952 by Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute.
The general esteem in which Renoir is held is all the more striking given the fact that his approach to the art of cinema cuts against the grain of contemporary critical taste, which favors genre movies, films with an explicitly political point of view, and homages—films about film—in which content takes a back seat to style. Renoir was not, to put it mildly, that kind of director. To borrow Truman Capote’s phrase, he was a “styleless stylist” whose filmmaking technique was naturalistic, deliberately transparent, and wholly content-oriented. And while his films, La Règle du jeu and La Grande Illusion (1937) in particular, embody a strongly personal point of view that is sometimes charged with political implications, the films themselves are scarcely ever idea-driven. Instead, they are content to show us the world as it is, inviting us to draw our own conclusions about what we see of it on screen.
Be that as it may, no one has ever seriously challenged Renoir’s place in the cinematic pantheon, to which the latest tribute is the newly published English-language version of Pascal Mérigeau’s immensely important Jean Renoir: A Biography, which features a foreword by Scorsese.1 An exhaustively researched primary-source biography, it sets the record straight on innumerable matters of fact. (Renoir, like so many other artists who publish memoirs, was given to self-mythologizing.) It is also, alas, a very French book, bloated with sententious theorizing that could and should have been trimmed. But in between spasms of intellectual posturing, Mérigeau tells you all that needs to be told about the man who, more than any other director of the 20th century, showed that films can say as much of permanent interest about human nature—and do it as artfully—as do novels and plays.
enoir’s career stands in sharp contradiction to the well-attested truism that to be the child of a great artist all but guarantees that you will not become one yourself. Born in 1894, he was the second son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, then the most admired and popular of the French impressionist painters. Because of his father’s success, Jean did not have to work for a living, thus putting him at a further disadvantage in finding his own path. Had he sought to follow in Auguste’s footsteps, he would surely have died a thwarted man.
Instead, Jean spent World War I in the French cavalry and, later, as a reconnaissance pilot. Wounded in the war, he spent his convalescence watching the films of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Fascinated by the still-new medium and freshly married to one of his father’s models, he decided to make films of his own in which Dédée, his first wife, would act, selling his father’s paintings (Auguste had died in 1919) to underwrite his career.
As much as he loved silent movies, Renoir never felt entirely at home making them. Dialogue was to be his métier, and it was only with the advent of talkies in 1928 that he emerged as a director of significance. It took even longer before he started filming original screenplays. He initially preferred as a rule to adapt novels and plays for the screen, many of which, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1934) and Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (filmed as Les Bas-Fonds in 1936) were well known in their own right. Many of his early efforts, in particular La Chienne (The Bitch, 1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932), and La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), are noteworthy, but it was not until he collaborated with Charles Spaak on La Grande Illusion that Renoir made a film of the first rank that was conceived from the outset in cinematic terms.
By then Renoir was a committed supporter of the pro-Communist Popular Front, and his left-wing political convictions had been on prominent display in such films as Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), a comedy about the superiority of socialism to capitalism. La Grande Illusion seems at first glance to be similarly inclined, for its title makes explicit reference to The Great Illusion, the widely read 1909 book in which Norman Angell argued that it is futile for economically interdependent nations to wage war with one another. But La Grande Illusion is not a pacifist tract: It is, rather, a penetrating study of what Renoir called “the problem of caste.”
On the surface, of course, La Grande Illusion is nominally a prison-break movie (and as such left its mark on John Sturges when he made The Great Escape in 1963). But Renoir is far more interested in the inability of the French prisoners to communicate with one another, separated as they are by the canyon of class, which proves to be vastly more consequential than their shared nationality. Even at the dinner table, they meet on the common ground of misunderstanding: “Not bad, this cognac.” “Comes from Fouquet’s—in mouthwash bottles.” “Fouquet’s?” “It’s a bar on the Champs-Elysées.” “When I went to Paris, I ate at my brother-in-law’s. It’s cheaper.”
Part of the beauty of La Grande Illusion lies in its refusal to pass judgment on any of its characters. A case in point is the friendship of Captain de Boildieu (Pierre Fresnay), a French pilot shot down over Germany, and Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), the haughty commandant of the camp in which he is imprisoned. Elegant and dignified, they immediately spot each other as brothers under the skin, so much so that they converse in English, the international lingua franca of Europe’s prewar upper classes (a characteristically subtle touch). Both men understand that the aristocratic world of their youth is in the process of being destroyed by the war, though Boildieu, unlike Rauffenstein, suspects that its demise is not merely inevitable but desirable: “Boildieu, I don’t know who will win this war, but whatever the outcome, it will mean the end of the Rauffensteins and the Boildieus.” “We’re no longer needed.” “Isn’t that a pity?” “Perhaps.” But Renoir never stoops to caricature in portraying the two men, nor does he suggest that their fate—Rauffenstein is forced as a matter of duty to shoot Boildieu—is anything other than tragic. Instead of ostentatious censoriousness, there is sympathy and understanding.
The same open-eyed sympathy pervades La Règle du jeu. Filmed in France on the eve of World War II, it plays for much of its length like a Feydeau-style bedroom farce in which a group of haute bourgeois friends who are spending a weekend in the country endeavor to sleep with persons not their spouses. Only toward the end of the film does it become clear that high comedy is on the verge of precipitating into violent tragedy. We are led by stealth to see how the romantic games at which Renoir’s irresistibly charming characters connive have been made possible by the moral disintegration of the society in which they live, which has left them adrift on a sea of relativity. In the words of Octave, a failed musician (played by Renoir himself with elephantine grace) who lives by sponging off his wealthy friends:
What is terrible about this life is that everyone has his reasons . . . . Today everybody tells lies. Pharmacists, advertisements, governments, the radio, the movies, the newspapers. So how can you expect simple people like us not to lie as well?
In such a world, there is no truth, only the empty shell of etiquette, lovely to look at but incapable of standing up to the slightest stress, as Hitler’s Nazis—and their obliging French stooges—were soon to prove. Small wonder that the premiere of La Règle du jeu sparked what by all accounts was a near-riot: The members of the audience must have felt as if they had been slapped in the face. “The truth is that they recognized themselves,” Renoir explained in My Life and My Films, his 1974 autobiography. “People who commit suicide do not care to do it in front of witnesses.”
Disinclined to work under the Vichy regime, Renoir emigrated to Hollywood in 1941, seeking with some success to accommodate his improvisational style of filmmaking to the assembly-line requirements of the studio system, though none of his five American feature films approaches Règle or La Grande Illusion in quality. (The best is The Southerner, made in 1945.) In 1951, though, he returned to form with The River, an independently financed English-language screen version of Rumer Godden’s coming-of-age novel about a family of British expatriates living in India. Shot on location in sumptuous Technicolor, The River is an all-but-plotless study of everyday life at the intersection of two seemingly incompatible cultures. Renoir would complete seven more feature films, all made in France and all worth seeing, but The River is the last of his incontestably major efforts, a film so powerfully evocative of the distant world it portrays that to see it is to come away feeling as if one has just returned from a long stay there.
nlike his father, whose paintings are the epitome of pure, unreflective pleasure, Jean Renoir was deeply concerned with the problems of modernity. It is that concern that makes him the more profound artist. But far more often than not, he expressed his nagging doubts about the modern world without a trace of portentousness. This is especially true of La Règle du jeu, which François Truffaut, one of his most passionate advocates, called “the film of films.” In no other movie—and in precious few other works of art, irrespective of medium—are the dark truths about man’s divided soul told with so light a touch. The results can only be compared with such other immortal masterworks of the lyric theater as Shakespeare’s Tempest, Verdi’s Falstaff, and George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, in which joy and melancholy are indissolubly commingled.
Truffaut went on to say that “Renoir does not film ideas, but men and women who have ideas, and he does not invite us to adopt these ideas or to sort them out no matter how quaint or illusory they may be, but simply to respect them.” This observation recalls T.S. Eliot’s oft-quoted remark that Henry James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” No attitude could be less fashionable today, and it is surely for this reason that Renoir is no longer at the center of the contemporary critical conversation about film. For all the self-evident brilliance of his mind, he was the least “intellectual” of serious filmmakers: “I try to get closer to the way in which characters can adapt to their theories in real life while being subjected to life’s many obstacles, the many minor events, the many little sentiments that keep us from being theoretical and from remaining theoretical.”
As an artist, he spurned ideologies, even the ones in which he believed, preferring to trust in the irreducible reality of the flawed, inconsistent human beings whom he put on the screen. Therein lies his glory. Knowing that “everyone has his reasons,” he saw everything, imposed nothing, and forgave what he could, increasingly sure that “the only thing that I can bring to this illogical, irresponsible and cruel universe is my love.” It is that love—and the supreme artistry with which he expressed it—that makes Jean Renoir the most humane of all the great film directors, the one whose work, as David Thomson has rightly said, “justifies cinema.”
1 Ratpac Press, 942 pages