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 (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.
Renoir’s disposition toward realism did not allow his filmmaking to fully blossom until the coming of sound. He sat out the transitional period of late 1929 and 1930, since no producer wanted to take a gamble on a sound film from such an unproven commodity. Finally making his sound debut in 1931 with the scatological comedy On purge bébé, Renoir immediately continued his adventurous streak by shooting live sound on set. But it was his second 1931 film that finally brought him positive critical attention: La Chienne, a chilling return to his penchant for Stroheimesque naturalism, with its emphasis on decadence and corruption. Here Renoir combines location shooting and location sound recording, deepening his ability to immerse audiences in realistically depicted space.
For Hitchcock, preproduction was the key: the screenplay and the storyboards. For Eisenstein, it was editing—post-production. But Renoir liked production: the collaborative nature of shooting and the accidents and improvisations. He was open to changes and responsive to his performers, as well as his other collaborators.
Unlike his contemporaries, such as Lang, Hitchcock or von Stroheim himself, Renoir was no martinet on the set. Rather, he worked by charming his cast and technicians, by listening to them and making them into a team. An examination of Renoir’s biography reveals that this is also true of his life away from the camera. He was also capable of cowardice and hesitation, and these qualities are reflected not only in the extraordinary sympathy he conveys for all his characters but also in the mixture of rigor and limpidity that he brings to his visual style.
Renoir’s reputation rose and fell throughout the early 1930s when he had yet to garner much popular attention. His critical profile surged to new heights with Toni, for which he combined location shooting and sound recording (in the south of France) with an episodic narrative taken from real life and a cast that included many non-professionals. The result was a true revelation in France and adds undeniable weight to the argument that Renoir was the inventor of neorealism, particularly since Luchino Visconti was his assistant on this film and carried Renoir’s working method to Italy.
His real breakthrough for both critical and popular attention was The Crime of M. Lange in 1936. The film captures the spirit of the leftist uprising taking place in France called the Popular Front, an alliance between political parties, labor unions and cultural organizations, with support from the Communist International. From that point through the end of the 1930s, Renoir was France’s leading filmmaker. And in the mid-to-late part of the decade, with German and Soviet filmmaking in the clutches of authoritarian control, he was also probably the leading filmmaker in all of Europe, with Hitchcock his closest rival—which is to say that he was the greatest filmmaker outside of Hollywood, with only Mizoguchi a formidable competitor.
The summit of Renoir’s popularity in France corresponds with the beginnings of his international reputation, with the three films he made starring Jean Gabin in the late 1930s: The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion and The Human Beast. But it all stopped short with The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir dropped the populist, noirish naturalism of his other work in favor of a sophisticated social satire on class in a France on the verge of war. Now recognized as one of the great films, the abject failure of Rules in 1939 lead Renoir to a decision that shocked many of his associates.
Accepting an invitation from Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son, to make a film in fascist Italy, Renoir had just begun shooting La Tosca when the Nazis invaded France. He returned to Paris and then fled to the south of France, where he worried about what his close ties with the French left, plus the Nazi loathing for Grand Illusion,still the film he was best known for, would mean for him in occupied France, even in the Vichy south. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Flaherty, he managed to get an official invitation to come to the US and arrived in Hollywood in January 1941.
Over the next five years, he worked for Fox, Universal, RKO and independent productions on a series of six films. Renoir’s collaborative, rambling, improvisatory nature as a director while shooting meant that he never found working in Hollywood comfortable; for the studios, time was money. And yet, Renoir fell in love with southern California, and nothing he heard from occupied or postwar Paris made him eager to return.
However, with his prospects for work in Los Angeles dwindling, Renoir entered a brief period of working on international co-productions that would include his first two films in color: The River, shot in English, in India; and The Golden Coach, adapted from French sources and shot shot in Italy with an international cast speaking English. The former was enough of a success to revive Renoir’s international reputation. The latter, now celebrated as one of Renoir’s masterworks, was a huge critical and financial disappointment, and occasioned Renoir’s return to France.
Upon his arrival in 1953, Renoir was no longer the revered figure he had been at the point of his departure in 1940. On the other hand, the French critical establishment remembered his string of 1930s masterpieces, and The Rules of the Game was just beginning to enjoy rediscovery. André Bazin, probably the most influential critic in postwar France, used his editorship of Cahiers du Cinéma to remind readers of Renoir’s past achievements and to support his new films, aided by the young critics Bazin was gathering who adored Renoir and who would eventually pay homage to him in their own films: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer.
Until his last film, in 1969, Renoir never stopped experimenting with special effects, deep focus, sync sound, camera movement, offscreen space, color, multiple cameras—all in the service of destroying the visual cliché in favor of the real. Deep focus, in particular, is such an important element of Renoir’s visual style because it creates a screen space within which all the members of his ensemble can find their proper places. It also represents a connection between the filmmaker and his father’s generation of painters: figures are not simply posed in front of a landscape, they inhabit it.
More generally, the vast amount of innovation and experimentation in Renoir’s work allowed the filmmaker to expand his seemingly endless ability to find new variants on cinematic realism. As Tom Milne has written, regarding Renoir’s ability to turn on a dime between the comic and the tragic, there is the central conflict in his work between theater and reality, desire and fantasy. We can go further and point to the alternations between objective reality and subjective reality–the reality that exists and the potential reality of imagination and thought. – David Pendleton