And so we come to the end of my cards on the ineffable films of
the great Jean Renoir which I saw 1952-1970 and noted in my movie file for
those nineteen years. This includes some of my favorites among his work, and
some of his finest, like The River, La
Bete Humaine, Boudu Saved From Drowning, and La Chienne. But, as I think has been made clear, every Renoir
picture is worth seeing. I believe I’m only missing one or two. By the way,
on a number of the Criterion editions of Renoir films, there are video
introductions by Renoir, or conversations with him, recorded for French TV.
They really give you a terrific image of the man: his sense of humor, of irony,
his wit and passion and eloquence, not to mention his vast knowledge. This most
approachable of men, most encouraging to young artists—he was the patron
saint of the French New Wave—was also the kindest human being. You can feel
it throughout all of his pictures.
LA MARSEILLAISE (1938; d-s: Jean Renoir).
1969: Excellent- (Brilliantly conceived and executed panorama of
the French Revolution, told through a series of not necessarily connected sequences
with characters that do not always meet; with the rising popularity of the
song, La Marseillaise,
as a metaphor for the slow consolidation of the nation and the whole concept
therein. Complex, but remarkably simple in essence, certainly the most human
historical film ever made, filled with humor and honesty, with a technique able
also to cope with the grand sweep of the times.)
Added 2015: I only saw this Renoir once, but its images and
impact remain fresh and immediate, like the work itself. It is truly the most
human of historical films, and also like a newsreel of the times, exceptionally
convincing scenes of crowds or small groups, both naturalistic and slightly
stylized. La Marseillaise is rarely
listed among the great Renoir masterworks, but that is where it certainly
LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR (1932: d; Jean Renoir).
1969: Good* (Odd, heavily atmospheric, gloomy and almost abstract
movie, based on a [Georges] Simenon novel about Inspector Maigret’s investigation of a murder at
a village crossroads; fog-drenched, dark, ominous, with an indecipherable plot,
and unlike any of Renoir’s
other films; an oddity, but of interest in the development of the director’s career.)
THE RIVER (1951; d: Jean Renoir).
1969: Exceptional (A beautiful and deeply human story of a
British family in India, and the growing up of one of its daughters, her love
for an American, the death of a little brother — a story about the flow of life, the metaphor for which is
the river. Magnificent color, remarkably natural performances that grow on you
as real people do —you get
to like them as you get to know them. Deeply personal to Renoir, and among his
most sublimely lyric and evocative achievements; a film like no other.)
Added 2015: Almost universally acclaimed as one of the great
color pictures, this is Renoir at his most sublime. All the (mostly)
non-professional cast perform beautifully, combining to make a kind of visual
poem of a place and time along the river of life. One of the most essential
works in picture history.
LA BETE HUMAINE (THE HUMAN BEAST) (1938; d-s: Jean
1969: Excellent- (Superbly directed and acted film of Zola’s novel about jealousy and
insanity among railroad workers; remade by [Fritz] Lang as Human Desire, Renoir’s original has a classic quality and flawless performances;
different from later, and more personal, Renoir films, in style and quality of
photography; nonetheless brilliant, but not as likable really.)
Added 2015: I had occasion to see this a couple of times before
doing a video introduction to the picture for Criterion’s terrific edition
of this Renoir classic, and I came to rate it ever more highly. It is a
masterful and profoundly touching tragedy in the guise of a film noir, a kind of
thriller even, suspenseful and gripping, brilliantly acted by Jean Gabin,
Simone Simon, et al. This remained the biggest commercial success in Renoir’s
career, and you can see why. He plays by the rules of genre, to a point, but
repeatedly bends the notes, like a great jazz player.
MADAME BOVARY (1934; d: Jean Renoir).
1969: Good* (Evocative, not entirely successful, but most interesting
Renoir version of [Gustav] Flaubert’s
novel; well acted, beautifully photographed, somewhat truncated by lack of
funds, but a touching achievement nonetheless.)
BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (BOUDU SAUVE DES EAUX) (1932; d:
1969: Exceptional (Michel Simon is magnificent as a bum whom a middle-class
family adopts and tries unsuccessfully to tame; an ode to social irresponsibility
and free spirits — hilariously
funny, brilliantly conceived and executed — completely Renoir view of life and filled with compassion
Added 2015: After seeing this in 1969, I went to visit Renoir in
Beverly Hills and asked him what he thought of Boudu; I had loved it. He said that it was
early sound, and some of the recording was not very good; they had no money, he
went on, so they had to get the film stock as they went along, and some of it
match from scene to scene. The music, he said, was not well recorded either,
and the cutting was sometimes too fast and sometimes too slow but, he
concluded, “I think maybe it is my best picture!”
THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER (LE TESTAMENT DU DOCTEUR
CORDELIER) (1959; d-s: Jean Renoir).
1969: Very good- (Jean-Louis Barrault is brilliant in this modern
Jekyll-Hyde story, about a famous doctor who is transformed into a monster;
many little Renoir touches, and his pervasive personality, but the performance
of Barrault as the evil, swinging, demented Hyde carries the movie.)
TIRE AU FLANC (1928; d: Jean Renoir).
1969: Good* (Funny, likable early Renoir comedy, set in a World
War I POW camp — especially
interesting in the light of such subsequent masterpieces as La Grande Illusion and Le Caporal Epingle.
This is a minor work, but charming nonetheless.)
LA CHIENNE (1931; d: Jean Renoir).
1969: Exceptional* (Among Renoir’s greatest works —
a light and deeply human comedy-tragedy about a clerk whose hobby is
painting, and a streetwalker and her pimp-lover who take advantage of him — until he has the ironic last
laugh. Remade as Scarlet
Street by Fritz Lang,
this has none of the latter’s
nightmarish qualities, but is, in fact, a humanist poem —a work of profundity and infinite simplicity. The acting is
superb, in particular by Michel Simon, and Renoir’s direction has never had such grace and economy and wit;
his handling of the murder is among the great silent sequences in cinema.)