- (1894-1979)Actor, director, producer, and screen-writer. Arguably one of the most significant French filmmakers ever, Jean Renoir was the second son of renowned painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Interested in the image from a very early age, Renoir had an equal fascination with literature and the theater, which he first experienced in the form of Guignol, a puppet show. Renoir's interest in cinema was sparked after his service in World War I, when he and his first wife, Catherine Hessling, spent time watching films. Renoir apparently had a desire to make a film star out of Hessling, who had been one of his father's models.Indeed, nearly all of Renoir's early films feature Hessling quite prominently. These include Une vie sans joie (1924), La Fille de l'eau (1925), Nana (1926), Sur un air de Charleston (1927), Marquitta (1927), La Petite marchande d'allumettes (1928), and Tire-au-flanc (1928). Renoir made two other silent films, Le Tournoi dans la cité (1928) and Le Bled (1929). What unites all of these silent films, despite their wide array of topics, is the predominance of image and the experimentation with form. It is almost natural for a silent filmmaker to be preoccupied with the visuals of films since there was not yet sound. And yet Renoir, even early on, demonstrated an awareness of the symbolic potential of the film image that was well beyond that of his peers. There were early experiments in the light-dark contrasts that would characterize the later wave of Le Réalisme poétique or poetic realism, with which Renoir would be associated. Moreover, there is evident in these silent films a type of impressionism that some have said united elements of his father's philosophy of the image with the poetics of the German avant-garde. All of these films are still in existence with the exception of Marquitta (1927), which is believed lost.If Renoir established his reputation during the silent era, it is typically his early sound films that are remembered as his greatest works. Among these, La Chienne (1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Une partie de campagne (1936), La Grande illusion (1937), La Marseillaise (1938), La Bête humaine (1938), and La Règle du jeu (1939) are all considered masterpieces. Renoir's other films from the 1930s include On purge bébé (1931), Chotard et Cie (1932), La Nuit du carrefour (1932), Madame Bovary (1933), Toni (1935), Les Bas-fonds (1936), and La Vie est à nous (1936), which Renoir later disavowed.La Chienne is one of the first Renoir films to interrogate human nature and the interaction between flawed human beings and an equally or perhaps more flawed social system. It is the story of an aging man, Legrand, who wishes to be a great painter, and it recounts his chance meeting with Lulu, the girlfriend of a thug and con artist. The film depicts Legrand's subsequent involvement with Lulu and the misery this adulterous relationship brings to all involved. The central preoccupation of the film is one of flawed people in a fundamentally flawed society, and it repeats everywhere in Renoir's other films.Boudu sauvé des eaux is the story of a good Samaritan who rescues a homeless man from the Seine and who is then left to deal with the man he has saved, who turns out to be very different than the helpless innocent the man had imagined. Une partie de campagne is the story of a petit-bourgeois family's Sunday picnic. However, the film, which features stunning visuals that reproduce paintings from Fragnonard and Renoir, is a merciless critique of social class and the interaction between class and gender. The critical exploration of class and gender is not quite so brutal as it is in the later film La Règle du jeu, the story of a weekend hunting party at a stately country house, but it is nonetheless quite dark. La Bête humaine, about love and betrayal and life in the working classes, is equally dark, but one could expect little else from a film adapted from the novel by Émile Zola. La Grande illusion is a somber, pensive, visually stunning reflection on the utter senselessness of war, and it is set against an exploration of the potential breakdown of class relations in the context of such destabilizing events as war. It is both hopeful and dark at the same time and widely considered perhaps the greatest film Renoir ever made.Against these somber, yet always meditative explorations of the human condition, Renoir created films such as Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, which presents the murder of the despicable owner of a printing shop and the formation of a workers' cooperative in the shop after his death. There is again the hope and darkness, although the formation of the workers' cooperative has often been read as the hopeful looking toward the Front Populaire in France. The film is also significant for its casting of all the members of the Groupe Octobre. There is also La Marseillaise, which is both homage to the Revolution and a warning that the victories of that revolution could well be lost. This is Renoir from the period in French film associated with Le Réalisme poétique. Renoir's gaze in the films from the 1930s is clear-sighted and critical, hopeful and poetic, light and dark at the same time. The poetry of his images and his play with genre and structure contrast with the often somber realism of the camera's gaze. The great Jean Gabin was the star of most of Renoir's films from this period, although Renoir also cast Marcel Dalio in several of them. He was one of the few directors to make full use of Dalio's great talent.Jean Renoir also began work on Tosca (1941), which was being made in Italy as war broke out. The film was finished without Renoir, who returned to France, but ultimately left again as France surrendered to the Nazis. Renoir spent the war years in Hollywood, where he made films in English, including Swamp Water (1941), The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), This Land is Mine (1943), Salute to France (1944), The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), The Woman on the Beach (1947), and The River (1951). While these films are almost universally seen as less coherent and less forceful than Renoir's French films, they are, nonetheless, solid works that exhibit many of Renoir's filmmaking characteristics. They deal with pressingly realist social issues, from adoption, to Occupation and resistance, to dirt farming, to colonial class politics. They are visually stunning, and they are bittersweet explorations of the human condition. The films have different strengths, although it is worth noting that André Bazin was quite taken with Diary of a Chambermaid, which he classified as a burlesque tragedy, and which he considered the best of Renoir's Hollywood films.Renoir returned to France in 1951 and resumed making films there, although he ultimately renounced his French citizenship and became an American citizen. His later films include Le Carrosse d'or (1953), a French-Italian coproduction; French Cancan (1955), a musical film set in the Moulin Rouge; Eléna et les hommes (1956), the story of a pre-World War I love triangle involving a Polish countess; Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959), a retelling of the Jekyl and Hyde story; Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1959), another painting-in-spired exploration of class and gender roles but in a completely different era than that of Une partie de campagne (1936); and Le Caporal épingle (1962), another exploration of the experiences of prisoners of war. As may be evident, several of these later films directly revisit the themes of Renoir's early films and the visual style remains largely unchanged, although the dominance of color film by this time gives a different dimension to the images on the screen, which become more realist and less poetic. If these films are not quite the equals of the films of the 1930s, it must, nonetheless, be pointed out that no serious critic anywhere ever accused Renoir of ever making a bad film.In addition to directing, Renoir wrote or contributed to the screen-plays of nearly all of his films. He also acted in a good many of them, including Une vie sans joie, Une partie de campagne, La Vie est à nous, La Bête humain, and La Règle du jeu. He also appeared in films by other filmmakers, including Alberto Cavalcanti's Le Petit chaperon rouge (1930) and Roberto Rosselini's L 'Amore (1948). Probably Renoir's most memorable performances in film were as the wolf in Cavalcanti's Le Petit chaperon rouge (1930) and as Octave in La Règle du jeu (1939). Renoir also produced several of his own films including Une vie sans joie, La Fille de l'eau, Nana, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Marseillaise, This Land is Mine, and The River.Renoir retired from the cinema in 1962. He was, even during the 1930s, considered one of the greatest directors to make films. However, it was about the time of his retirement that he was elevated to the status of legend, as many of the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, inspired, no doubt, by their mentor Bazin, rediscovered Renoir's films. Alain Resnais, in particular, was extremely moved by Renoir's films, but all of the directors associated with the movement hailed Renoir as the type of filmmaker in whose footsteps they followed. Renoir's reputation since that time has held fast, and he is regarded as one of the greatest directors ever to make films.
Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. Dayna Oscherwitz & Mary Ellen Higgins. 2007.
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