The Complete Jean Renoir

I believe that one of the most important functions of the filmmaker is the destruction of cliché. We are surrounded by clichés. We believe that life is what we are told. Not at all. Life is something very different. Life is a combination of what does exist and what you have in mind.

— Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) is now considered a legendary director, the genius who defines cinematic realism and humanist filmmaking. The rare opportunity to experience all of his films in a short period of time complicates this extremely oversimplified reputation. It allows for the chance to reevaluate those films said to be failures because they do not conform to our received notions, and to enjoy a renewed appreciation for the acknowledged masterpieces.

Renoir was born into wealth thanks to his father, the celebrated painter Auguste Renoir. Enlisting in the army just before the outbreak of World War I, he proved to be a brave soldier, returning to the front, as a pilot in the fledgling French air force, after being gravely wounded in the leg during trench combat.

After the war, Renoir returned to his life as a dilettante, frequenting the artistic circles of Paris and dabbling in ceramics. He was interested in cinema, but never considered trying his hand at filmmaking until 1920, when he married his father’s last model, Catherine Hessling, who aspired to movie stardom. To help her, Renoir began using the sizeable inheritance from his father to become an independent filmmaker. Beginning as a writer-producer, Renoir added directing to his portfolio after his frustrating first collaborative project (Catherine,shot in 1924).

In his early films Renoir alternates between styles: the nascent French cinematic impressionism (Whirlpool of Fate), Stroheimesque naturalism (Nana), and, curiously enough, shorter projects dominated by special visual effects, bordering on the avant-garde (Charleston Parade and The Little Match Girl). Initially he experimented with shooting on location, with deep focus and the potential of offscreen space to generate suspense or surprise, as well as a sense of spatial continuity to the world in front of the camera, chiefly by way of actors’ entrances into, and exits from, the sides of the frame. However, since none of these films brought him much attention, and because he could neither afford to continue as an independent producer nor succeed in making a star out of Hessling, he switched, for his last two silent films, to a conventional style of filmmaking as a way of avoiding financial ruin by working as a director for hire.

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