The Best Director, Ever

I met Renoir about six years later. He had yet to make Le Petit théâtre, walked still with the limp from his World War I injury, heavyset, tall, open if reserved, articulate and outgoing. One time, when he and Dido came over to my L.A. home, where we had a screening room to run 35mm prints, my occasional valet Rudolfo brought him some orange juice, which Renoir had requested. Rudolfo didn’t have any idea who this 80-year-old man in a wheelchair was, or what he did. But from the way everyone was acting, the man was clearly an important one in the world, so Rudolfo served the orange juice on a silver tray with a bright panache, sweeping the tray in front of him. Jean looked at Rudolfo and said, enthusiastically, “Thank you! I like how you presented it.” Well, there wasn’t a happier person in L.A. than Rudolfo. He beamed and grew in height by several inches.

That’s what Renoir had, this ability to make others feel elevated by his presence and attention. One time, I brought my mother over to meet Jean and Dido. She was a great admirer of his work—as my artist father also had been. It was a lovely afternoon, sitting in the living room, sipping some white wine from antique sterling silver cups. At one point, while we were discussing dubbing of voices in movies, Jean said, “In a really civilized time, like the 12th century, a man who dubbed voices would be burned at the stake as a heretic for presuming that two souls can exist in one body!” Later, we got onto world politics and Nixon, who was still president then, and my mother remarked that Nixon’s gestures never seemed to fit with what he was saying. Everyone agreed. Suddenly, Jean called out to her: “Madame! I have it! Nixon is dubbed!” Renoir was as delighted with his conclusion as my mother was.

On some of the Criterion DVDs, there are illuminating vintage interviews with Renoir (mostly by New Waver Jacques Rivette), together with a filmed introduction by Jean, originally shot for French TV. You can see for yourself the lucidity, the charm, the humor and humanity of this wonderful artist. I was reminded of Renoir when reading a poem (by the second Lord Falkland) about the great Elizabethan poet, Ben Jonson, and described by Robert Graves (in The White Goddess) as “a summary of the ideal poetic temperament.” It could as accurately have been written about the Jean Renoir I knew:

He had an infant’s innocence and truth,

The judgment of grey hairs, the wit of youth,

Not a young rashness, not an ag’d despair,

The courage of the one, the other’s care;

And both of them might wonder to discern

His ableness to teach, his skill to learn.

 

The last time I saw Renoir was only a week or so before he died, in February 1979. I went over to Leona Drive, and Jean grew very excited when he saw me—but he was quite frail; lying in bed and having forgotten most of his English, he now spoke only French. He started to talk to me with great intensity, but my French wasn’t good enough, so I told Jean I wasn’t understanding him. He said, “Get Dido!” So I went to find her, brought her back, explaining that Jean seemed to want to tell me something. By the time we got back, though, he had forgotten what he was trying to say. One final gift he couldn’t give me, yet he had given me so many.

Just knowing him was an amazing present, and he had shown me so much through his work, his actions, his personal vision. When I told him I was going to film a story in Singapore (Saint Jack), and felt it might be a black-and-white picture—I then asked, what did he think? He said, “I think if people know the film was shot in Singapore, they would like to see the colors of Singapore.” I shot in color. Another time, I asked if he thought I should act in my own pictures. He said, “I think you should act in your own pictures—once in a while.” As he had done, most memorably in The Rules of the Game. The single most instructive and liberating thing Renoir ever said to me was in response to the question (I was about to make my second film, The Last Picture Show), did he know before he started a picture what it would look like? He answered, “Of course not. If I know what the picture will look like, I have no reason to make the picture.” He also made the strangely comforting remark, “Death is a part of life.” His funeral was well attended at a church in Beverly Hills, and the body was flown back to Essoyes, Burgundy, to be buried in the family plot by his father, mother and brother.

Dido, a very strong, witty, forthright person, lived another decade but deeply missed Jean the whole time, though she remained very active and outgoing. I visited her, as it turned out, the night before she died of cancer. She was lying in bed, and at one point I said something to the effect that I was certain Jean would be with her again. She nodded, and said plaintively, “It takes so long. …” If anyone had imperishable spirits, it was the Renoirs, and they are happy somewhere, having left behind a legacy of love for human beings, greatly imperfect though they may be.

I get very irritated when I hear someone sounding off about how some of Renoir’s films are not as good as others, and how there are certain ones that don’t fully work. Who gives a damn!? Look at how much does work. Anybody who could in one lifetime make The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Chienne, The Crime of Monsieur Lange, French Cancan, Boudu Saved From Drowning, Toni, La Marseillaise, La Bête humaine, The Lower Depths, The River, Partie de campagne, The Southerner and Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir does not have to make another movie to be the best there has ever been. Who else comes close? (From the East, Kenji Mizoguchi gives him a run for his money.) But I remember Orson Welles (who named The Grand Illusion as his single desert-island movie) rhapsodizing to me on Greta Garbo, and—still being a bit of a pedant at the time (I was all of 32)—my saying that yes, she was terrific, but wasn’t it too bad she had been in only two really good movies? Welles looked at me for a long moment, raised his eyebrows, and said, quietly, “Well, you only need one. …”

Finally, then, Jean emanated love of life and people. It’s all in his films, down to the extras—nobody handles crowd scenes as well as Renoir—with his lifelong penchant for keeping the camera on extras (whom we’ll never see again) after the main characters have left the frame. Jean gives them their moment—they are people, too; they live, they die. At the heart of Renoir is the heart. No other director in the Western world has shown so much of the human condition in such a timeless way.