This week sees the Criterion Blu-Ray release of Jean Renoir‘s 1951 Technicolor wonder “The River.” The film’s narrator recounts memories of her childhood in India, how “time passed, unnoticed.” It’s a sentiment that pervades every great Renoir film, and of the 40 or so he directed, none are bad, most are great, and more than a few are essential. As the son of French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste, Jean Renoir’s life-long involvement with creativity was a foregone conclusion.
A true director’s director, loved and admired by the likes of Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and all the then-young guns of the emerging French New Wave, Renoir’s infallible romanticism and humanity flowed into all of his films. His motifs include theatricality, an idealization of country life, and the concept of a river, which often represented as the ultimate escape and always in flux. In his Observer article on Renoir, (with the no-nonsense headline, “The Best Director, Ever”), Bogdanovich writes “his films seem to grow out of the moment you are watching rather than being frozen in time,” and likens them to the movement of a river. It’s a perfect description of that je ne sais quoi element in Renoir’s films; never flashy, comical with a purpose, a bottomlessly deep understanding of cinematic storytelling, and uncanny timelessness.
In so many ways, Renoir is the progenitor of various techniques and movements that would go on to change cinema forever. He’s also famous for remarking “the awful thing about life is this: everybody has their reasons,” in his most lauded work, “The Rules of the Game.” Herewith, the Playlist’s rundown of 10 essential Jean Renoir films leading up to and including “The River.”
You know where to go to tell us about your favorite Jean Renoir film. ‘Til then, bon appetit!
“Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932)
Renoir and actor Michel Simon transitioned from silent films to talkies hand-in-hand, working twice together before partnering up for a third and final time for “Boudu Saved From Drowning.” This familiarity, combined with Simon’s intimate understanding of “the perfect tramp,” (the actor played the part on stage before immortalizing it on the screen) and Renoir’s firm grasp on emerging technical aspects, make ‘Boudu’ a winning trifecta of director, actor, and character. The now-classic story follows Monsieur Lestingois (Charles Granval), an uppity bourgeois clump of a man, as he saves Boudu’s (Simon) life and decides to domesticate the shameless tramp and turn him into a gentleman. Hilarity ensues as Boudu upends every moral and ethical code in the Lestingois household. Renoir invested René Fauchois‘ play with an innate talent for cinematic storytelling, and changed elements of the story (most crucially the ending) in order to reflect his own sensibilities on class disparity, free will, and the complex societal fabric stitched by human relationships —themes that course through Renoir’s entire filmography. Early signs of his seamless directorial control are everywhere; a personal favorite sees Boudu searching for his dog and seeking help from a police officer. In a single take, the cop ignores him, only to help an affluent lady in a similar predicament (her dog is worth 10,000 francs, you see). Boudu is a free-spirited force of nature, rebelling against haute culture, and one of Renoir’s most entertaining characters. Special recognition should go to Simon’s staggeringly brilliant performance —he careens his eyes in angled lunacy and laughs at respectability wherever the current takes him.
By the mid-1930s, Renoir was already reaching an enviable position in the French film industry, but before working on grandiose sets and turning actors into stars, he filmed an intimate story centred around immigrants in the South of France, shooting on location and using non-professional actors. “Toni” is a film that usually gets buried under the cinematic weight of Renoir’s later masterpieces, but it deserves this slot for inspiring a major cinematic movement in another country (more on that below) and is a phenomenally well-realized film on its own right. It depicts a tragic love triangle as Italian immigrant Toni (Charles Blavette) is unhappily married to local hostess Marie (a monumental Jenny Helia) and infatuated with fellow immigrant Josefa (Celia Montalvan), all set against the sun-licked backdrop of blue-collar Provence. With this film, Renoir introduced another reason for his everlasting legacy: here was a director who didn’t have to rely on experienced actors in order to create something eternally affective. Think of the framing and camera movement when a local singer bursts into an eloquent serenade, or the scene transitions surrounding Marie’s suicide attempt. The single take of Marie rowing away from land and towards the limitless vastness contains an indescribable visual strength, and holds up as my personal favourite amongst the plethora of glorious long takes found in Renoir’s filmography. It’s a simple story elevated by the skillfulness of its director, and Luchino Visconti, who assisted Renoir on the picture, clearly got the message. He took the blueprint of one of the greatest Italian neorealist films not directed by an Italian back home with him, and the rest is cinema history.
“The Crime of Monsieur Lange” (1936)
Another title that is much too easily forgotten when discussing Renoir’s greatest achievements, “The Crime of Monsieur Lange” is essential viewing for any Renoir fan who wishes to get an understanding of his political persuasions —it’s a film “touched by grace” according to Francois Truffaut. European cinema was perforated by the growing Nazi movement in the 1930s, and Renoir, together with Jean Castanyer and Jacques Prevert, developed a politically biting storyline that directly questions authority and the ethical boundaries one should and shouldn’t cross. Mild mannered and meek Amedee Lange (Rene Lefevre) has committed a crime and is on the run with his girlfriend Valentine (a magnificent Florelle). When he’s recognized by a group of inn patrons, Valentine recounts their story and what Lange’s crime really is, before giving them the chance to turn him in to the police. In this way, one of the most absorbing settings in a Renoir film is introduced: the world of publishing collective “Javert,” designed to bring together detective stories, first under the materialistic supervision of Monsieur Batala (a deliciously villainous Jules Berry) and later, as a genuine cooperative spearheaded by the success of Lange’s work. Renoir played with funky dissolves and bombastic musical cues from long-time collaborator Joseph Kosma, but it’s the quieter moments, like when Valentine sings to Amedee, and minor characters like the old soldier who doesn’t have a receipt, that imbue the picture with Renoir’s extraordinary tenderness and appreciation for his fellow man. While the film has grown beyond its frames and acts as an artistic recording of a very particular political period in France, it’s still very much alive and is one of Renoir’s uncanny signatures.
“The Lower Depths” (1936)
Truth be told, Renoir’s version of Maxim Gorky‘s “The Lower Depths” squeezed in only by a hair onto this list. But even if Akira Kurosawa‘s version from a few decades later would prove superior (an opinion that Renoir himself held as well), there are a couple of very important reasons why it’s essential viewing for any Renoir fan. It was the first time Renoir worked with Jean Gabin, who would go on to make three more films with Renoir and solidify one of cinema’s greatest actor-director collaborations. It provided a role for one of the most memorable supporting performances in any Renoir film, that of the Baron, played by the irrepressibly magnetic Louis Jouvet. It’s also significant in the way Renoir adapted the play —just like how he tweaked Fauchois via his personalized version of ‘Boudu,’ he refashions Gorky and expands the limits of the setting to show more of the world surrounding the flophouse at its centre. Gabin’s iconic portrayal of the thief Pepel, who dreams of escaping the flophouse and taking his lady love (Junie Astor) with him, is countered by Jouvet’s gambling Baron who goes from riches to rags and finds that the flophouse suits his proclivities just fine. “The Lower Depths” is also one of the greatest examples of how much attention Renoir devoted to marginal characters, so that viewer gets to relive the film’s vitality through the doomed actor or the blonde Nastia (Jany Holt). And even though Renoir infamously hated Astor’s wooden performance (seriously, she’s like a plank next to Gabin), the same film gives us iconic scenes like the one with Gabin, Jouvet, and a snail on the riverbank. Scenes like this, not found in the original source but imaginatively concocted by Renoir’s spontaneous genius, make this version of “The Lower Depths” indelible.
“A Day In The Country” (1936)
Bad weather thwarted the completion of Renoir’s following film “A Day In The Country,” and in doing so stopped short what could’ve been his magnum opus. Luckily, no one dared to encroach on Renoir’s vision, and the film was released as is about a decade later. This featurette is a testament to what Renoir can do in 40 minutes, capturing a bucolic world full of affections with such immense warmth that transcends the screen and dives straight into your heart. Only a handful of directors have ever had this capacity, and even then they’d usually need at least a full hour and a half running time. Adapted from a short story written by Guy de Maupassant (who was friends with Pierre-Augustine Renoir, btw), “A Day in the Country” follows a group of Parisians as they spend a Sunday afternoon in the country. Daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille, who for my money delivers the greatest female performance in any Renoir film) and mother (Jane Marken) are consequently wooed and amused by two country boys. And in one fateful moment, encapsulated by a hauntingly piercing closeup, Henriette’s life is changed forever. The film is resplendent with its bucolic imagery, with its glorious shots of the sky and surrounding nature that Henriette is so moved by, and a final tracking shot that ominously glides on the surface of a river disturbed by raindrops representing the passing of time and symbolizing the end of Henriette’s innocence. “A Day in the Country” is the most impressionistic of Renoir’s work: it’s a visual poem pitting the idyllic world of the country against the banalities of urban society, and while short, it’s in many ways the longest breath of fresh air in Renoir’s filmography.
“La Grande Illusion” (1937)
Now comes one of Renoir’s most readily recognized and fondly remembered films, a masterpiece with the kind of magnitude and far-reaching vibrancy that brought him his first taste of international fame. Adored by Orson Welles, who picked it as his desert-island movie, and the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “The Grand Illusion” is one of the greatest POW films ever and probably the greatest film about international and interclass brotherhood. Renoir re-teams with his biggest star player Gabin, and conducts themes so close to his heart and anti-war persuasions that the legacy of the film is hardly surprising. French Aviators Marechal (Gabin) and Boeldieu (a fabulously posh Pierre Fresnay) go from one prison camp to another, mixing with fellow inmates, plotting escapes and running into aristocratic German captain von Rauffenstein (a fantastically rigid Erich Von Stroheim). The way Renoir films these interactions —be it a discussion about the preference of restaurants between prison inmates, or the honor behind upholding one’s nobility between two aristocratic generals— is where magic dwells in “The Grand Illusion”. And whenever one of the three actors mentioned is featured, the film’s legacy is reinforced that much more. Its three-part structure has been endlessly analyzed by film scholars, its overarching theme of compassion amid the senselessness of war has influenced countless anti-war films to come, and its graceful rhythm (think of the dramatic tonal shift when Gabin interrupts the vaudeville show) remains unmatched. You’d think a film with so much testosterone would strong-arm any female performance, but “L’Atalante“‘s Dita Parlo makes a late appearance, and in a few short scenes wrings out whatever is left of your heart.
“La Bête Humaine” (1938)
Anxious to continue their successful collaboration after ‘Illusion,’ Jean Gabin brought the idea of adapting Emile Zola‘s celebrated novel “La Bête Humaine” to Renoir. It’s a unique Renoir picture because it’s his darkest (“Toni” is a close second), featuring a macabre storyline involving murder, the unhappy marriage between Severine (Simone Simon) and Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), and an unlikely anti-hero in train engineer Jacque Lantier (Gabin), a man plagued by violent outbursts due to a corrupted bloodline. With the exhilarated rush evoked in the opening moments that follow a speeding train arriving at a station, “La Bête Humaine” simultaneously bridges the stark poetic realism permeating the pre-WWII cinematic milieu with the incoming wave of film noir pictures in the ’40s and ’50s. This film sees Renoir working with an atmosphere of unaccustomed and irregular intensity, all gloom and pessimism amplified even further by Curt Couran‘s austere cinematography and the omnipresent locomotive fumes that never seem to entirely dissipate (the train is often a sinister presence, an unstoppable machine cutting through the frame and invading the otherwise peaceful serenity). Despite its subject matter and the impending dark cloud that will cover much of Europe looming closer, Renoir still manages to sprinkle the picture with his signature pathos, through characters like Pecqueux (Julien Carette) who takes life as it comes, or the dance towards the end which no other director would spend as much time on. Nevertheless, the three tragic characters at the centre of “La Bête Humaine” are doomed from the start, and all three actors (most especially Gabin, delivering perhaps his career-best performance) do an impeccable job of evoking their innermost fears and demons, thus helping Renoir carve yet another unforgettable celluloid gem.
“The Rules of the Game” (1939)
By 1939, Renoir had built up enough clout to do whatever he wanted, and with WWII edging ever closer, he chose to revisit familiar territory for his next project: relationships between classes, but explored in a drastically different and more lighthearted way than his previous picture. By holding a mirror to the various delusions afflicting upper-class society, Renoir created an incredibly energetic tapestry of broken individuals surrounded by disintegrating societal values. The film quickly became the most expensive French production ever up to that point, and was met with scathing criticism when it was released, specifically for not providing the kind of escape French audiences were desperate for (on the contrary, the film directly criticized their way of life). It’s the film that drove Renoir out of France and into the Hollywood system, one that he was forced to cut down into an uncomfortably claustrophobic 85 minutes inviting a record number of negative reviews. It wasn’t until 1956, when the film re-emerged at the Venice Film Festival in its intended form, that “The Rules of the Game” started to garner the kind of admiration which would eventually see it rise in esteem, above all other Renoir pictures. Today, it’s often cited as one of the greatest films ever (safely secured in the top 10 of Sight & Sound’s universal poll for decades), and remains a cinematic cornerstone for social satire. As his most lavish ensemble piece, populated by unforgettable characters like Robert (Marcel Dalio), Christine (Nora Gregor) and Octave (Renoir), and a technically dazzling rabbit hunting sequence that introduced the wondrous effects of deep focus photography to western filmmaking, “The Rules of the Game” embodies what makes Renoir’s perception of the human condition so eternally entertaining in 106 minutes.
“The Southerner” (1945)
Disappointed with the reception of “The Rules of the Game” and driven out of his home country by fascists, Renoir moved to America and entered a shaky period in his career. Of the five films he directed in the 1940s (among them a decent adaptation of “Diary of a Chambermaid”), “The Southerner” contains the most heartwarming resonance and in spirit is most closely connected to the majesty of his bountiful ’30s period, perhaps because it’s the first film Renoir made on American soil without studio interference. It tells the story of the impoverished Tucker family; husband Sam (Zachary Scott), wife Nona (Betty Field), their two young children, and Granny Tucker (Beulah Bondi). Sam is a cotton-picker determined to make his family’s farming life into a prosperous one, but he’s constantly met with obstacles caused by merciless nature or unfriendly neighbours, and that’s not counting the bitter nagging of his mother (Bondi’s crooked expressions are absolutely priceless here). The picture is essential in the Renoir canon for simultaneously being a master filmmaker’s brutally honest depiction of harsh life in The Land of Opportunity and a reflection of the director’s own artistic inclinations at the time. How much World War II and the poison of Nazism changed Renoir’s artistic mood is most readily sensed in his representation of nature (one imagines the Baron from “The Lower Depths” wouldn’t enjoy lying in this grass all that much…). With poignant performances by Scott and Field and Renoir’s camera enlightening the desolate American landscape, “The Southerner” makes up for its minor flaws with heaps of heart.
“The River” (1951)
A reconnaissance trip introduced India to Renoir, and he returned the favor by introducing the enchantment of the country to western audiences. In a place where “the river brings everything,” an adorably superstitious Indian nanny (Suprova Mukerjee) supervises the children of English settlers, and three young girls come of age in Renoir’s most peculiar picture, an adaptation of Rumer Godden‘s novel. Told in a tremendously evocative voice-over by June Hillman, the story centres around the narrator Harriet as a young girl (Patricia Walters), her American friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and their Indian-British friend Melanie (Radha), as their quiet lives are gently stirred by the arrival of Captain John (Thomas E. Breen). Of course, this being a Renoir picture, the complete story involves every corner of the frame and a dozen or so supporting and minor characters from various walks of life. Most effectively, the film is a cinematic love letter to India’s rich culture and traditions, where scenes depicting the Hindu Festival of Light, a row of workers carrying jute, or the bustle of an Indian bazaar infuse Renoir’s production with the only element thus far missing in his body of work; marvelous, enriching, vivacious color. The odd structure, where diversions include a story-within-a-story featuring one of the characters from the film and a hypnotic montage of dissolves showing a handful of characters resting peacefully, recalls every Renoir film in which plot and narrative sprout organically, creating a wholly cinematic experience and a serene meditation on love, death, and the continuance of all things. Famously adored by Martin Scorsese, “The River” heralded the final chapter of Renoir’s career and remains his most visually stunning piece of work.
Renoir would continue to work up until the late ’60s, though one can argue that the only two films after “The River” worthy of the “essential” label are “The Golden Coach” (1953) and “French Cancan” (1954, which reunited him with Jean Gabin for one final time). In any case, it is blindingly clear (to use a phrase from ‘Boudu’) that when talking about any picture directed by Jean Renoir, we’re talking about one of the purest masters of the craft. A director of such grandeur that even his least essential film contains within it an entire world alive with a joie de vivre that remains unmatched to this day.