Listing his favorite directors for me one time—among them John Ford and Howard Hawks—Orson Welles concluded: “… And Jean Renoir! I’ve loved him most of all. …” In the 1950s, the Young Turks of the French New Wave—Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol, etc.—acclaimed Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock but reserved the highest place in their pantheon for Jean Renoir: They called him “the father of the New Wave.” He was, simply, the best. I came to the same conclusion, and today if I want to remind myself that the movies are capable of achieving a level of transcendence comparable to a painting by Rembrandt or Turner, or to a symphony by Mozart, I run a film by Renoir.
As a person—I was privileged to know the man over the last 14 years of his life—he was very warm, very encouraging to young artists, witty, quick, sharply interested in everything, brilliantly intuitive, backed with a deep sense of culture in the sometimes reckless yet always disciplined way of the French at their best. But as his friend, master picturemaker Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, An Affair to Remember), put it to me one time: “I have such respect for him. He’s too good for the business.” I said, “I always felt he was a kind of saintly person,” and McCarey nodded. “Yes, that’s what I mean,” he said.
The son of the glorious French Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean started in the movies during the silent 1920s, during which he made a number of experimental and challenging early works (some of them available in excellent prints on a new three-disc Lionsgate DVD called “Jean Renoir: Collector’s Edition”). But he hit his stride in the 1930s and made a virtually uninterrupted series of both diverse and consistently quite extraordinary masterworks, including the tragic love story, Toni (1935), precursor of the Italian neorealists, shot entirely on location in the south of France; the chilling, haunting La Chienne (1931), with the riveting Michel Simon; and the astonishing excusable-homicide comedy-drama, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), all of which, unfortunately, are currently unavailable on DVD here (there are British, German and French DVDs of Toni). But the Lionsgate collection includes the 1938 masterpiece La Marseillaise, a little known, extremely powerful and strikingly believable historical panorama of the French Revolution.
The Criterion Collection, meanwhile, has done a great job with a number of Renoir’s most important pictures, among them Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), featuring Michel Simon’s most iconic role; the ultimate film noir, La Bête humaine (1938), with Jean Gabin and Simone Simon steaming up the screen; a very French version of a very Russian play, The Lower Depths (1936), with Gabin and the incomparable Louis Jouvet; the originally reviled, now cherished comedy-tragedy The Rules of the Game (1939); and his most famous, yet again with the irreplaceable Gabin, The Grand Illusion (1937), the World War I POW classic, and the first of the precious few foreign films ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Add Renoir’s first color film, The River (1951), shot entirely in India; plus Gabin one last time, as the creator of the Moulin Rouge, in French Cancan (1954), and you’ve got a list of movies that haven’t been surpassed and won’t be.
The seeming simplicity of Renoir—he never calls attention to himself, yet it is so clearly his eye through which we are seeing the world—belies an amazing complexity in his understanding of people, of the human comedy. His films seem to grow out of the moment you are watching rather than being frozen in time. Their movement is like a river—a frequent image in the cinema of Renoir—with both an inevitability and a surprise at each turn, because nothing is ever what you’d expect, any more than you can predict a river. Or life.
Of all the great filmmakers, Renoir is most the humanist poet, the one director who only made pictures about people—not stereotypes, not archetypes, not myths, but real human beings. Having grown up with his father’s vibrant, penetrating portraits, how could the son not be interested in the people being portrayed? How not want to bring them to vivid, honest life? No matter which Renoir film—a seemingly ultra-realistic piece like the railroad workers of La Bête humaine, or an aggressively stylized musical-comedy about show business like French Cancan—the people feel fresh and authentic; they have lived somewhere.
Part of Renoir’s method in creating this magically spontaneous life onscreen was to plot out complicated choreography for the camera that would enable his actors to play out a sequence in its entirety during one or maybe two continuous shots. This necessitated deep-focus photography (and more intense lighting to preserve the focus) so that figures far from, or close to, the camera would be in equal sharpness, helping to minimize the need to cut and thus interrupt the flow (another river image) of the performances. Ford, Welles, Hawks and cinematographer Gregg Toland were all going there in the late ’30s and early ’40s, but Renoir had been doing that from the early ’30s, from the start of full sound in the late ’20s and its seismic change in the art of film.
Renoir immediately realized this would lead to greater realism in pictures and at the same time a need for more fluidity to the filmmaking process, to help authenticate the reality of the action—it is happening uninterrupted, so, in fact, it happened just as you see it. Like a documentary of the instance. Renoir was doing that from his earliest talkies, and all his films were carefully examined by serious American directors. When John Ford saw The Grand Illusion, he was so impressed that he went to Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century-Fox, and begged him to buy it so that Ford could direct an English-language remake. Zanuck proved why he was such a terrific studio head with his response: “Forget it, Jack. You’ll just ruin it.”
Nobody said that to Fritz Lang when he had the nerve to direct two American remakes of Renoir films, both largely inferior. The better one is Scarlet Street (1945), Lang’s version of La Chienne (The Bitch), about a painter taunted into the murder of his beloved mistress. Although Edward G. Robinson is excellent, as usual, he’s still not Michel Simon, and the rest of the film is equally down a few notches—obvious where Renoir was subtle, exaggerated where Renoir was pure. Lang’s Human Desire (1954) practically pales out to nothing next to the original, La Bête humaine, with poor Glenn Ford incapable of competing with Jean Gabin, the greatest star actor in French film history—the one who did four of the best films of all time with Renoir, now widely acknowledged as France’s greatest filmmaker. Though Lang’s remakes actually imperiled for a while the Renoir negatives, Jean never spoke a harsh word against Lang. But Dido Renoir, Jean’s second wife and the love of his life, never forgave Fritz.
When I first met Renoir sometime in 1965, he had already directed his last feature—The Elusive Corporal (1962), an energetic, youthful World War II POW drama (available on DVD in the Lionsgate collection)—and would create only one other work on film, for French television: the beautiful autumnal omnibus picture Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (1969), not currently available. Renoir himself, at age 75, introduces each of the four very different stories: a stylized Hans Christian Anderson tale; a sardonic mock-opera about a woman’s love of her electric floor polisher; a belle epoque song of lost love performed by Jeanne Moreau; and a return to ’30s realism with a pastoral triangle comedy-drama that is vintage Renoir. Again, you’re reminded this is the same man who not only wrote but performed the most profound line ever spoken in pictures. In The Rules of the Game, the artist played by Renoir at 44 says early in the film, in long shot, the French equivalent of (my translation): “The only terrible thing in life is that everybody has their own good reasons.”
The man I knew would have written that; he had compassion for people, and he was self-effacing, modest about his work, thankful of praise. Sometime in the late 1960s the L.A. County Museum of Art did a virtually complete Jean Renoir retrospective, and I went to every film, then spoke to Jean about them. Extremely taken with Boudu Saved From Drowning—the ironic and satirical saga of a bum floating down a river whom a middle-class family “saves”—I went right over to the Renoirs’ beautiful Beverly Hills living room and raved about the film, quietly observed by the giant Renoir portrait of Jean at 15 with a rifle (now at the L.A. County Museum) and a few small Cézannes. Jean smiled and looked delighted: “Oh, thank you so much! You are very kind.” After more effusiveness, I asked what he himself thought of the picture. “Oh, well,” he said with his strong French accent, “you know, we made it in the early days of sound, and sometimes the sound is not so good. Also, because we had no money, we had to buy the film stock as we went along, and some of it does not match, and sometimes the cutting is a little too fast, and sometimes it is too slow, and the music is not so well recorded, but I think, maybe, it is my best picture!”
His living room was a joyful place in that house (gone now), which he and Dido built in the early ’40s, after he left France because of the vicious initial reception he received for The Rules of the Game (it was resurrected in the ’50s by the New Wave). He didn’t make another film in France for a decade and a half, and never resided there again. Jean and Dido became American citizens and moved into their home on Leona Drive, off Benedict Canyon. He became close friends with many Hollywood icons: Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and Charles Laughton, and the much-neglected major American playwright, Clifford Odets. In his brief but heartfelt and unpretentious memoir, My Life and My Films (Da Capo has it in print), Renoir says the reason he didn’t go back to Paris was because he didn’t want to move so far away from his L.A. friends, most particularly Odets, whom I got to know a little bit and who told me he adored Renoir.
Everyone in Hollywood did, actually, but still, he did not enjoy much happiness in the Hollywood studio system. While in France in the 1930s, Renoir made 14 features; in the 1940s, living in America, he made only five, yet they are all quite clearly Renoir pictures. (George Cukor once told me that Jean had said to him, “Oh, years ago, all Hollywood pictures were great.” And George had said, “Oh, no, not really.”) The only one of Renoir’s American films currently available on DVD (through VCI Entertainment) is the best of the bunch, The Southerner (1945), with Zachary Scott and Betty Field as a couple of poor tenant farmers trying to survive. For the record, the others are Swamp Water (1941), partially shot on location in the Okefenokee Swamp, much against Fox Studio’s wishes; This Land Is Mine (1943), with the inimitable Charles Laughton as a cowardly schoolteacher during a World War II occupation, never specified as, but clearly meant to be, France; Renoir’s version of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), with Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith; and, the most damaged by studio interference and cutting, The Woman on the Beach (1947), with Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan.
Also, released for the first time in 1946 was a beautiful short feature Renoir shot 10 years earlier called Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country), based on a de Maupassant story. The shoot ran into bad weather, which made it impossible to finish a couple of sequences. For years, Renoir was hopeful of getting the money to complete the picture. Eventually, it was decided that the piece worked quite effectively without the missing scenes. Renoir has a small role as a rural restaurateur. It contains one of the most haunting close-ups in screen history: the look on the face of a young woman who is about to lose her innocence. (It’s only available on British DVD, through the BFI.)
In the ’50s, Renoir went from being an expatriate French director living in Hollywood to an international filmmaker—beginning with The River, one of the great color films and among the most moving of Renoir’s pictures, about an English family living in India, specifically three Westernized young women. It’s available in a gorgeous print from the Criterion Collection, as is the boxed set of French Cancan; The Golden Coach (1953), with Anna Magnani; and Elena et les hommes (1956), with Ingrid Bergman. French Cancan is one of my favorite films, a kind of an homage, Renoir called it, to show business. The extended climactic cancan, by itself, is among the most amazing and moving dance sequences ever shot.
Truffaut was so in love with The Golden Coach (La Carrosse d’or) that he named his production company after the movie, Les Films du Carrosse. Others in the New Wave particularly liked the English-language version—Renoir’s own preference over the Italian—but the picture never connected with contemporary audiences; neither did Elena. Perhaps they are both too artificial, though the stylization is the driving force of both pieces. Renoir once said, “Reality may be very interesting, but a work of art must be a creation. If you copy nature without adding the influence of your own personality, it is not a work of art.” French Cancan, though also somewhat stylized, comes across more believably and was a huge success with the French public. This enabled him to make his last, fascinating three films, none of them popular: the aforementioned The Elusive Corporal; the science vs. nature parable Picnic on the Grass (1959); and Renoir’s modern Jekyll and Hyde variation, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959), starring a terrifying Jean-Louis Barrault, shot TV-style with multiple cameras—a daring, youthful experiment for a man of 65—again, a way of maintaining continuity for the actor for as long as possible, like live theater or live television.
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.