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The Jean Renoir File – Part 1

The Jean Renoir File - Part 1

Jean Renoir is not only my favorite picturemaker, I fervently believe he is the greatest director the West has produced. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If I want to reassure myself that the movies have the power to produce a work of art on the level of a symphony by Mozart, or a painting by Turner or Rembrandt, or a novel by Dostoevsky or Dickens, I run a Renoir film, and breathe a sign of relief: yes, it can happen. You never catch him “directing,” he is never obvious, yet the style is so simple and sophisticated both at once that it’s difficult to describe. His pictures just seem to happen, like life. He never made a bad one, either: some are better than others, but each of them is a unique treasure to be savored like fine wine, and returned to frequently, because they just seem to keep getting better. I was fortunate enough to know Renoir over the last fourteen years of his life, and there was something saintly about him, and extraordinarily sensitive and wise. And he could be funny too, filled with irony and warmth. It was impossible not to love him, and to know that when you were in his company you were at the best place in the world.

In 2008, The New York Observer ran a long article I did about Renoir, called “The Best Director, Ever.” If you are interested in reading this, click here.

The following are the Renoir pictures I saw between 1952 and 1970, during which time I kept a card-file of all the movies I saw, rating them and writing a brief comment.

THE GOLDEN COACH (LE CARROSSE D’OR) (1953; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1958: (Except for the wonderful Anna Magnani and the exquisite settings, costumes and color photography, there is not really much to speak about in this rather tedious tale of an 18th century Italian acting troupe in Latin America.)

Added 2015: François Truffaut loved this film so much that he named his production company after it: “Les Films du Carrosse.” And I have tried to like it more, at least twice since the 1958 comment, and I do, actually. Nevertheless, it is a Renoir film that I do not return to often. I think the problem is mainly to do with the fact that it was shot in English and that neither Magnani nor Renoir were as conversant with the language as they were with, say, French or Italian. So there’s a stilted quality to the playing which bothers me. It is beautifully directed, however, and costumed and set, and the pace and story are good. I should probably try to see the Italian-language version.

FRENCH CANCAN (ONLY THE FRENCH CAN) (1954; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1958: Excellent* (Jean Renoir has exquisitely recreated the leg-swinging, lilting, flamboyant showmanship of the Moulin Rouge era, and his picture has all the dash, color, sadness, gaiety and romance of a painting by his father; a true delight and a masterpiece.)

Added 2015: The rating now would be: Exceptional* and this has become one of my ten favorite films of all time. It is the most brilliant evocation of the difference between show business people and the rest of the world, the civilians, as we call them. It is a bedroom comedy, a piece of history, a love story, and most particularly, a kind of Renoir love letter to the art of entertainment. Jean Gabin and Francoise Arnoul are brilliant in the leads, and the whole thing looks like a Renoir painting come to life. As a portrait of the Belle Époque, it is unsurpassed. As a realistic look at show business mores and manners, it is very knowing, clothed in the guise of a musical comedy. The picture’s overriding message is that “there’s a reason animals in the jungle stick to their own, lambs do not lie down with lions, on pain of death.” It’s the same way between show business people and the rest of the world. Also, just for the record, the final lengthy cancan sequence is possibly the most moving and exuberantly beautiful dance number in the history of movies.

THE LOWER DEPTHS (LES BAS-FONDS) (1936; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1959: Good* (Interesting version of Gorki’s drama; static, but very well acted and certainly personal in direction. Requires further viewings for better evaluation.)

Added 2015: The rating today, after seeing this film again early in the 21st century would be: Exceptional*. It is an absolutely brilliantly acted drama—at least two extraordinary performances from Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet. Since its basis is Maxim Gorki’s play, the picture has been criticized as not being Russian enough. On the contrary, Renoir has only illuminated the play’s universality by making it not only comfortable in French, but deeply moving. Actually, it’s a great film.

LA GRANDE ILLUSION (GRAND ILLUSION) (1937; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1959: (Classic Renoir film — a deeply humanist statement set during World War I — brilliantly played by Erich von Stroheim, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio; beautifully written, directed, photographed.)

Added 1969: Exceptional* (The above is lip-service, but this time around I realized the greatness of this genuine masterpiece — definitely among Renoir’s greatest movies — a profound and moving affirmation of life amidst death and chaos. Magnificent performances and a directorial touch that borders on spirituality.)

Added 2015: Orson Welles used to say that if he could only take one film to a desert island, it would be Grand Illusion. And Renoir was Welles’ favorite director. This one picture would be enough to place its director on the highest level of achievement in the medium. It is not just a film about a group of French POWs in a German Camp during World War I, it is an evocation of the end of an era, the end of the European aristocracy. There is so much that is magical about this movie that it is hard to be succinct, but suffice to say that if you haven’t seen it, you haven’t seen one of the great works of art of the 20th century.

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL (LA PETITE MARCHANDE D’ALLUMETTES) (1928; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1960: (Quaint, stylish, but dated silent film version of the well-known Andersen fairy tale of the sad plight of a little match girl.)

Added 2015: I haven’t seen this film again, but I remember images from it, so it’s probably better than I said it was. It’s an early Renoir experiment in combining realism with fantasy.

PICNIC ON THE GRASS (LE DEJEUNER SUR L’HERBE)
(1959; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1960: Very good* (Exhilarating, delightful, beautifully color photographed, directed, written and played comedy-fantasy about an affair between a famous biologist who, on a platform of artificial insemination, is to be elected President of Europe, and a lovely farm girl who symbolizes the freedom of nature. Filled with Renoir’s inspiring sense of humanity and depth of life.)

Added 1966: (A truly delightful work, completely personal, timeless and universal in its meaning; among Renoir’s most abandoned works.)

Added 2015: I’d definitely change the rating to Excellent* today. A really charming picture.

THE RULES OF THE GAME (LA REGLE DU JEU) (1939; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1960: Exceptional* (One of the great films: a superbly acted, brilliantly directed and written tragi-comic allegory of the fall of the French upper-middle class before World War II. About the farcical, then tragic, goings-on among a group of people in a chateau for a fortnight of hunting and revelry. Among Renoir’s most perfect achievements — in which he also plays very personable a leading role — moving, often deeply melancholy, as often richly satiric and devastatingly pungent.)

Added 1966: (A masterpiece, beautifully photographed, filled with an overwhelming compassion for the human comedy.)

Added 2015: This is also one of my ten most favorite films. An extraordinary combination of comedy and tragedy that was so despised in its native land on its original release, that Renoir left France and never lived there again. I met him in Beverly Hills in the 60s. And he would return to France for a visit or to shoot a picture, but he would always come back to LA. The picture is now considered a great French classic, after the New Wave revived the work at the end of the 50s. It’s just the most.

A DAY IN THE COUNTRY (UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE)
(1936; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1961: Exceptional (Tender, sad, melancholy, deeply moving vignette — actually an unfinished film — based on a Maupassant story about an idyllic love that dies as quickly as it begins one summer afternoon in the country. Superbly photographed, directed, played: a small masterpiece of mood and feeling, filled with humor and humanity, depth of character and a personal and beautifully evoked atmosphere of loss.)

Added 1966: (As good as anything Renoir has ever made; honest, lyric and achingly true; a lovely film.)

Added 2015: This is the greatest short film ever made. It was supposed to be a half hour longer, but they ran out of money and then eventually Renoir decided he had enough to make a short film out of it, and it was released in the 50s. The picture is the most touching illustration of the loss of innocence in movie history. It’s like a beautiful poem. Renoir has a small part and he’s delightful as ever.

THIS LAND IS MINE (1943; d-s: Jean Renoir).

1961: Very good* (Charles Laughton is superb in this fine Renoir film about a cowardly schoolteacher in a French town occupied by the Nazis, and his final act of heroism. Done with style, wit, and depth; a touching, beautiful piece of work.)

Added 2015: Its rating should probably be Excellent*. One of Renoir’s handful of Hollywood films, with Laughton at his best, and with lovely Maureen O’Hara as well. Since Renoir made only a few pictures in America, each one is all the more precious.

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