Jean Renoir (1894-1979), generally now considered the finest picture maker the West has produced, never made a bad movie, so they’re all worth watching, especially if you’re interested in films comparable in quality to Mozart’s music. From his first mature period (1931-1939), which included such famous masterpieces as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, you might want to try the 1932 satirical comedy, Boudu Saved From Drowning (available on DVD). It stars the incomparable Michel Simon as a wildly undomesticated tramp saved by a deeply middle-class shop owner, and shows how little the fellow appreciates the good deed, seducing most of the women in the house — wife, daughter, maid — and generally behaving atrociously, hilariously.
If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because there was a milder American remake called Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986; directed by Paul Mazursky, with Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte), which was quite popular. The original is one of the great early sound classics. After I saw it for the first time in the late 60s, I went to visit Renoir (he lived in Beverly Hills); I raved about the picture, and then asked Jean what he thought of it himself. “Well,” he said, “it was made in the beginning of sound, and sometimes the sound recording is not so good. Also, we had no money, so we could not buy all the film stock at the same time, and for this reason the shots in a sequence sometimes do not match. Occasionally the cutting is a little too fast and sometimes it is a bit too slow, but I think maybe it is my best picture!” So much for technical perfection. In a French interview, Renoir once said that: “When we achieve perfect realism, we will achieve perfect decadence.” Which is about where we are today, it seems to me, with the “perfect realism” of CGI.
Another great film, in a totally opposite vein, is his 1938 adaptation of Emile Zola’s dark novel, La Bete Humaine (available on DVD) with France’s biggest and longest-lasting star, Jean Gabin, in the title role of the “human beast,” a close-mouthed and excellent railroad engineer who occasionally has an uncontrollable compulsion to kill, and does. The beautiful, sexy and talented Simone Simon, with whom his character is in love, becomes one of his victims. All the train sequences — which are strangely hypnotic and exhilarating — were shot on a real train engine, Gabin actually handling the controls. The picture became the biggest box office success of Renoir’s career, and might well be considered perhaps the first film noir.
This, too, had a softened American remake, Human Desire (1954; directed by Fritz Lang, with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame), but again, the original is a landmark film and remains one of the most disturbing, even shocking, of pictures, exposing both the heights and depths of human male behavior. Within a year of its release, World War II had begun and Hitler, among others, would reveal this with the widest and most horrific scope.
As Ingrid Bergman’s personal and professional life with Italian director Roberto Rossellini was coming to a painful end, and while her American career was in eclipse, Renoir offered her a 19th-century romantic comedy to star in, and the subsequent film’s 1956 success in Europe re-established her commercial appeal there: Elena and Her Men (available on DVD with The Golden Coach and French Cancan) never really opened properly in America, and that same year saw the release of 20th Century-Fox’s live-action Anastasia, which won Bergman her second Oscar and the forgiveness (for running off with Rossellini) of the press and public.
Renoir’s Elena (originally released in the United States, badly dubbed and re-cut, as Paris Does Strange Things) is by far the better film, of course, and was the director’s final buoyant look at his painter-father’s past as memorialized in those beautiful paintings. Mel Ferrer and French matinee idol Jean Marais co-starred with the divine Ingrid, who never looked lovelier than in Renoir’s heartfelt tribute to her passionate ability to overcome any and all male obstacles.
From Renoir’s fascinating American period (1941-1948) — his second U.S. film, and one of the best of these — is 1945’s The Southerner (available on DVD) with Zachary Scott and Betty Field as heads of an impoverished farming family desperately struggling to exist. As always with Renoir, there is a poet’s eye at work here, and though he may not be as comfortable with the sound of the language as he is in French, his unique way of seeing is what properly dominates, and beautifully.
But maybe my all-time favorite by Renoir is the one backstage musical he made, and it’s certainly the absolute finest in that genre, the 1955 color delight, French CanCan (available on DVD). A fictionalized, and in many ways stylized, version of the creation of the famous Parisian nightclub, the Moulin Rouge, it again stars the great Jean Gabin as the unstoppable, untamable entrepreneur-showman who attracts and creates (and seduces) stars, and brings back the cancan — triumphantly.
On a serious level, the film questions the ability (or even the advisability) of “normal” citizens having love relationships with show business people. But it’s the most joyous examination of that theme, and simply gorgeous to look at, featuring a rare appearance and song from the legendary Edith Piaf, and the most dazzling, breathtaking cancan sequence ever filmed.
I was fortunate enough to have known Renoir over the last 15 years of his life and can say unequivocally that no other artist I have met approached his humanity or poetic vision. (There is a long piece I did about him in this blog: our “Special Links” section has an new introduction (and a link) to the article as it appeared in 2008 in The New York Observer, titled “The Best Director – Ever”.) In trying to describe him, I was reminded of a poem once quoted by Robert Graves (in The White Goddess) as “a summary of the ideal poetic temperament”; the second Lord Falkland wrote the lines in tribute to that greatest of Elizabethans, Ben Jonson, but they apply perfectly to the Jean Renoir I knew:
He had an infant’s innocence and truth,
The judgment of gray hairs, the wit of youth,
Not a young rashness, not an ag’d despair,
The courage of the one, the other’s care;
And both of them might wonder to discern,
His ableness to teach, his skill to learn.