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.”