Jean Renoir (French: [ʀə'nwaʀ]) (September 15, 1894 – February 12, 1979) was a French film director, actor and author. He was born in the Montmartre district of Paris, France, the second son of the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, then fifty three, and his wife Aline Victorine Charigot, then thirty five, who had entered Auguste's life first as a painting model. As a film director and actor, Jean Renoir made over forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. As an author, he wrote the definitive biography of his father, Renoir My Father (1962).
Renoir is considered by many critics to have been one of the dozen greatest film directors in the entire history of world cinema. Renoir's greatest film, La Règle de jeu (known in English as The Rules of the Game), has often appeared at or near the top of critical lists of the greatest films ever made—such as the one made every decade on the basis a poll of international critics by the British Film Institute's journal Sight and Sound. In its most recent and largest such critics' poll, made in 2002, Rules of the Game came in third behind Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. He was particularly noted for his sympathetic presentation of character, capturing each character's nuance and complexity, as well as his treatment of women characters as equally compelling and interesting as his male characters.
The young Jean grew up among his father’s artwork and artist friends. He and the rest of the Renoir family were the subjects of many of his father's paintings. When Renoir was a child he moved with his family to the south of France. As a young man, his father's financial success ensured that Jean was educated at fashionable boarding schools from which, Jean later wrote, he was continually running away.
By far the strongest influence on him, however, was that of Gabrielle Renard, his mother’s cousin. She had entered the Renoir household at the age of fifteen, shortly before Jean’s birth, to help care for mother and child. She became Jean’s nurse, confidante, mother-surrogate, and comrade, and she remained a model for Jean long after he had grown up. He ended his autobiography, My Life and My Films, written when he was near eighty, with a tribute to her, fifteen years after her death:
Certainly it was she who influenced me most of all. To her I owe Guignol and the Théâtre Montmartre. She taught me to realize that the very unreality of those entertainments was a reason for examining real life. She taught me to see the face behind the mask, and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché.
Women figured prominently in Renoir’s life and work. At least ten of his films have references to women in their titles. Complex and sympathetically depicted women are central characters in many of his films. His life was heavily influenced by four women, each of whom seems to have been somewhat dominating.
First was Gabrielle. Second was his first wife, Andreé Heuschlig (known as Dédée). The third was film editor Marguerite Houllé who became his mistress and who took the name Marguerite Renoir, although they apparently never married. She worked intimately with him as editor on thirteen of his films. The fourth was his second wife, Dido Freire, a Brazilian.
Each of these women seems to have had a dominant role in his life for a time. In fact Renoir’s film work can conveniently and accurately be divided into three periods: The Dédée period, the Marguerite period, and the Dido period.
Dédée had come into the Renoir household at age sixteen as a painter’s model for Auguste. Her youth, health, and beauty had inspired the sickly and elderly Renoir to renewed vigor, and she remained with him until he died in 1919. Jean, meanwhile, had become smitten with her and they were married a few weeks after Auguste’s death. Dédée confided to a friend, however, that she was not in love with Jean but had married him in order to gain access to the Renoir wealth and fame.
At the outbreak of World War I, Renoir was serving in the cavalry. Later, after getting shot in the leg, he served as a reconnaissance pilot. His leg injury allowed him to discover the cinema; he saw a Charlie Chaplin movie and was profoundly affected by it. Later on, in his autobiography, he wrote that he was more than enthusiastic about it, in fact he had been “carried away.” Soon he became a fanatical cinema fan. After the war Jean and Dédée saw many films, concentrating on American movies by such pioneers as D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. In about 1923, they saw Le Brasier ardent, directed and played by the Russian, Mosjukine. It had been produced in France and this led Renoir to conclude that good films could be made in his native country.
In 1924, Renoir saw Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives; in fact he saw it about ten times. Renoir later wrote that it was Von Stroheim's films that made him realize that the creation of a film is the creation of the world within that film. This further strengthened his conviction that good films could be made in France depicting French subjects in French surroundings. He began to make a study of French gesture in his father's and others' paintings, gesture which he believed had enormous plastic value for the cinema.
Seeing Von Stroheim's film led to his decision to enter the cinema. (Von Stroheim would appear later in a leading role in Renoir’s great anti-war movie, Grand Illusion.) Moreover, Dédée had begun to think of herself as an actress on the model of Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford. She took the name Catherine Hessling, and Renoir made his first (silent) films featuring her. These included Une vie sans joie (1924), La Fille de l’eau (1924), Nana (1926), Sur un air de Charleston (1927), and La Petite Marchande d’allumettes (1928).
The films of this period are notable for their visual innovations and for Renoir’s growing mastery of the film medium. This includes a dream sequence in La Fille de l’eau. Renoir produced these films with his own money and they did not return their investment, so he and Dédée were reduced to selling many of the paintings of Auguste that they owned. In 1927, however, with Marquitta, he began to direct films produced by others, receiving a salary for his work. These films did not feature Dédée, and she seemed to lose interest in him because of it. But her career ended after her appearances in only two films made by other directors.
In 1928 Renoir directed Tire-au-flanc, featuring actor Michel Simon in his first film role. Renoir made several more films in 1929, most notably Le Bled, the first of his films to be edited by Marguerite Houllé, who edited all his subsequent films (except for On purge bebe, 1931) through and ending with Rules of the Game in 1939.
In 1931, Renoir directed La Chienne, in sound. By choosing to make this film, which did not have a role for Dédée, Renoir brought about a final break with her.
During the 1930s Renoir enjoyed great success as a filmmaker. In 1931 he directed his first sound film La Chienne (known in English as Isn't Life a Bitch?), and the following year Boudu Saved from Drowning (originally Boudu sauvé des eaux), a film that was strongly influenced by Chaplin's little tramp. Here Michel Simon, the vagrant, is rescued from the Seine River by a bookseller, and the materialist bourgeois milieu of the bookseller and his family is contrasted with the attitudes of the tramp, who is invited to stay at their home. There have been several remakes of this film, most notably Down and out in Beverly Hills (1986) with Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss, and Bette Midler, directed by Paul Mazursky.
By the middle of the decade Renoir was associated with the Communist-leaning Popular Front; several of his films such as Le Crime de Monsieur Lange reflected the movement's politics.
In 1937, Renoir made one of his most well-known works, a film that some critics regard as his masterpiece, La Grande Illusion. A pacifist film about a series of escape attempts by French POWs during World War I, the film was enormously successful but was also banned in Germany, and later in Italy by Benito Mussolini after having won the "Best Artistic Ensemble" award at the Venice Film Festival. This film deals, among other things, with French officers being held in a German POW camp.
In Grand Illusion one of the themes is the contrast between officers and common soldiers. Although they are on opposite sides, aristocrats Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) have more in common with each other than they do with the ordinary soldiers on their side in the conflict. Another theme is the interplay and tension between the individual and the group. Renoir often contrasts nature and theater and also nature and society. These are sometimes juxtaposed in successive shots or scenes, and sometimes held in tension within a single scene, as in the shot in Grand Illusion of the longing gaze of the prisoners of war upon the man-woman, a soldier actor wearing women’s clothes for a theatrical skit. Two French POW soldiers (played by Jean Gabin, and Marcel Dalio, who played the croupier in Casablanca and who would later play the marquis in Renoir's Rules of the Game) do escape and travel through the German countryside, attempting to walk to their homes in France. On one occasion they meet a lonely German farm woman (Dita Parlo, who played the young wife in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante) in her farmhouse, and she takes them in. There is a tender love scene between her and Gabin. This film was nominated for an Academy Award and won various other awards.
This was followed by another cinematic success: La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast), a film noir tragedy based on the novel by Emile Zola.
This second period of Renoir’s creative work includes La Nuit du Carrefour (1932); Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932); Madame Bovary (1934); The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936); the antiwar film La Grande Illusion (1937; in English The Grand Illusion), considered by many film critics and connoisseurs to be one of the best films ever made; La Bete humaine (1938); and Renoir's greatest masterpiece La Règle de ju (Rules of the Game, 1939).
In 1939 Renoir was finally able to finance and produce his own projects, and in this way he made Rules of the Game, widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece. This film depicts the French bourgeois in the eve of World War II. It is set in the country estate of Jewish Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Dalio) and his Austrian wife Christine (Nora Gregor, herself an Austrian noblewoman, wife of Prince Ernst Ruediger von Starhemberg, and operetta diva, stage and film actress, who would die of suicide in 1949 in Santiago, Chile; some commentators have claimed that her acting is the weakest in the movie), and takes place over a weekend. The film is a satire on contemporary French society, made with an ensemble cast. Renoir himself played the character Octave, a sort of master of ceremonies in the film. The film was greeted with derision by Parisian audiences upon its premiere and was extensively re-edited by Renoir, but without success. It was his greatest commercial failure. Audiences hated it, and Renoir reports that at the world premiere screening one man tried to set his newspaper on fire in order to burn down the theater. The Vichy government later banned the film as demoralizing and during the war the original negative of the film was lost. It was not until the 1950s that two French film enthusiasts, with Renoir's cooperation, were able to reconstruct a complete print of the film.
Rules of the Game is at once a comedy, a farce, and a tragedy. The people of the country manor—the bourgeois as well as the servants—have their rules and abide by them. Everyone is involved in various adulteries and flirtations, but they are done with style and within the rules as these people understand them. But two of the principles do not play by the rules of these people: The famous aviator André Jurieux (played by Roland Toutain) who has just flown the Atlantic and who had the bad form to announce over the radio at the airfield after landing his airplane that he was disappointed because the woman he loved and for whom he had flown—Christine de la Cheynaye, wife of the marquis—had not come to the airport to greet him; and the gamekeeper Schumacher (played by Gaston Modot), who thinks that adulterers should not be tolerated and who thus has no qualms about shooting someone who he thinks is pursuing his wife.
The contrast between natural impulses and societal conventions reverberates throughout Rules of the Game. Among other things, there is a clear contrast between Marceau, the “natural Man”—a game poacher who becomes a servant—and Robert de la Chesnaye, the marquis and the owner of the estate. The marquis is fascinated by and collects mechanical things—music boxes, mechanical birds,and the like—and is wrapped up in social conventions (one major point in the film is his interaction with his mistress Geneviève de Marras, played by Mila Parély, and his somewhat feeble attempt to break up with her, as well as his wife Christine's knowledge about this affair and the issue of what, if anything, she will do about it), but also wishing, at least sometimes, that he could transcend them. Adding to the film’s ambiguity, Christine, wife of the marquis, is a mystery; in the space of a quarter hour she declares her love for four different men and we are left permanently unclear about her real love or desire or intentions. It’s as though Renoir is both deploring the follies of his characters while simultaneously saying that those follies are only natural, given the perpetually confused state of humanity. Moreover there is a highly suggestive association in that Renoir himself plays Octave, the roly-poly ne'er-do-well friend of all—especially André Jurieux, the marquis, and Christine—and hanger on, who subsists mostly on the good graces of the marquis and other members of his class. (In one scene in the movie, with Christine, Octave bemoans his lack of success in life.)
Rules of the Game is so subtle and rich that it defies summary and requires multiple viewings before anyone can begin to plumb it. Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001) both owe a great deal to it. Altman in fact remarked that he learned the rules of the game (of filmmaking) from viewing Rules of the Game.
After completing Rules of the Game, Renoir married Dido Freire, who had been script girl on the film; this also marked Renoir's becoming an international filmmaker. After their marriage they traveled to Italy, where Renoir was supposed to work on a film of La Tosca. But in July 1940, Italy entered the war and Renoir had to leave the film and return to France. The films of this third, Dido, period are characterized by some softening in the irony and darkness of those made in the second, Marguerite period. Renoir seems to have found a kind of human salvation through theater.
In 1943, Renoir produced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in France: This Land Is Mine.
In about 1945, Renoir and Dido moved to America and Renoir made a number of films in English there, including Swamp Water (1941), This Land is Mine (1943), The Southerner (1945), a film about Texas sharecroppers that is often regarded as his best work in America and one for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Directing, Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947). Critic, and author of the highly influential book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris included Renoir in his Pantheon of American directors, even though Renoir made only a small number of his films in America, and not his best ones. But despite the merits of these American films and despite the fact that Renoir and Dido seem to have had a happy life in Hollywood, Renoir never became a favorite of the studio moguls who controlled Hollywood, because they deemed him not to be sufficiently commercial, so Renoir had increasing trouble getting his scripts and proposed films produced.
In 1946, Renoir discovered a review of the novel The River by the English author Rumer Godden. Renoir read the novel, was impressed by it, and succeeded in getting the film rights to it. He also got Godden to agree to collaborate with him on the script. The result was the film The River (1951), shot in India.
The film was produced by Kenneth McEldowney, a successful florist and real estate agent in Los Angeles. He had complained to his wife, an MGM publicist, about one of her studio's films; in response she dared him to do better. So he sold their home and floral shops, and from 1947 to 1951 worked to produce this film. It opened in New York to a record 34-week run at reserved-seat prices and was on several ten-best movie lists in 1951. McEldowney then returned to real estate and never made another movie.
This was also the end of Renoir's filmmaking in America. This was his first color film, and no less a commentator than director Martin Scorsese has declared that this is one of the two greatest color films ever made (the other is The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). Bengali Indian citizen Satyajit Ray, who would go on to become an internationally acclaimed director in his own right with films known as The Apu Trilogy and a number of of others set in Bengali India, was Renoir's (uncredited) assistant on that film. Based on the novel of the same name by Rumer Godden, The River is both a meditation on human beings' relationship with nature and the sensitive story of three young girls coming of age in colonial India. The film won the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. As with all of Renoir's best films, this one too benefits from repeated viewings.
After returning to work in Europe, Renoir made a trilogy of technicolor musical comedies on the subjects of theater, politics, and commerce: Le Carrosse d'or (The Golden Coach, 1953) French CanCan (1954) and Eléna et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956), which starred Ingrid Bergman in her first film since leaving Roberto Rossellini.
Renoir's next films were made in 1959, using techniques he admired and adapted from live television at the time. Le Déjeûner sur l'herbe (Picnic on the Grass, 1959), starring Paul Meurisse, was shot on the grounds of Les Collettes, the Renoir estate where Auguste had made many paintings. It presented Renoir’s recurring theme of the contrast between nature and society
Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959) focused on the dangers Renoir saw in the over development of the human rational faculty at the expense of the education of the senses and emotions. It was made in the streets of Paris and its suburbs.
In 1962, Renoir made what was to be his penultimate film, Le Caporal épinglé (The Elusive Corporal). Set among French POW's during their massive internment in labor camps by the Nazis during World War II, the film explores the twin human needs for freedom, on the one hand, and emotional and economic security, on the other. Renoir believed it was his saddest film.
Renoir’s cinema cannot really be reduced to or explained by references to themes, plots, obsessions, or ideas, although his films certainly have all of these. For Renoir, plot or story is the occasion for the more important and deeper interest: Character. His primary concern, therefore, is the particularity of the acting, the way each character comes across as a unique and complex being, and so affects the course of the acting.
For Renoir, getting the acting right was the central concern. Frequently his scripts and intentions changed depending on the skills and particularities of the actors who played the parts. One of the most memorable shots in Rules of the Game—Renoir has said that it’s the best shot in all of his films—has the marquis demonstrating his newest acquisition, an elaborate musical organ, to his guests. The camera pans across the fanciful and noisy contraption to Dalio. He is silent, but a full range of emotions—pride, shyness, hope, shame–-plays over him in a simultaneous mélange. In fact, it took two days to get this shot right. A lesser director might have been satisfied with a simple, illustrating shot, but Renoir (and Dalio) persevered until all the complexities of the character in that moment had been revealed.
Actors are not parts of scenery for Renoir, to be manipulated for the sake of the story or the idea. Instead he shows audiences characters as nuanced and formed individuals. Frequently, as best exemplified in Rules of the Game, these characters are edgy, changeable, ambivalent, and a combination at once of the deeply tragic and comic. They are never clichés or stereotypes, although they do, of course, occupy social, sexual, class, military, educational, commercial, and other niches, and behave in ways that fit within those roles.
In order to allow the actors room for the full and complex range of their activity, Renoir often used long takes with a moving camera and deep focus, keeping both near and far in focus within the scene (most notably in Rules of the Game—and that before the invention of the Steadicam). He often has several sets of characters interact at several places within the same frame and take; the camera moves among them and shows all, and all that within one shot.
Through showing particular persons in their complex and contradictory individuality and interacting with other, very different persons in often fateful ways, he produced a cinema of near-infinite, but also understated, human complexity. Renoir’s films do not tell their audiences things; they show information with subtlety and vividness. Presenting implications, not conclusions, they reward the viewer with new richness every time they are viewed again. And they need to be viewed over and over before the viewer can take in what is there.
Renoir was the great humanist of film directors. But it is a humanism of great depth, including joy, pathos, confusion, highs, and lows.
Gerald Mast, author of one of the best studies of Rules of the Game, has pointed out that Renoir's films are acknowledged and admired by every school of film criticism–literary: auteurist, humanist, scholarly, popularist, sociological, and technical. In a study reminiscent of Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox, Mast points out that Renoir's films are both entertaining and intellectual at the same time. His dominant intellectual and artistic trait, Mast wrote, is his doubleness, a multiplicity and ambivalence that allowed him to see more than one side of every person and to question and express this in his films. Some directors are single-minded, Mast claimed, and this meant that they could make only a few great films, but what Renoir lost in singleness he gained in a many sidedness of vision—Mast compared him to Shakespeare and Dickens and Ibsen in this respect—and this permitted him to express his artistic consciousness in many forms.
Mast went on to point out that Renoir was both an optimist and a pessimist, a romantic and an ironist, a cynic and a mystic. His films are often dependent on theater, on painting (he got this from his father), and on tones and rhythms as in music. Mast claimed that Renoir had a historic sense that allowed him to see the past in the present and the present in the past. In addition he had a sociological sense that allowed him to see the same characters in different cultures, and a dramatic sense that allowed him to see the farce in tragedy and the tragedy in farce.
Every character in Renoir's large oeuvre, no matter the person's occupation, station, or activity, is presented largely sympathetically. But each character's frailties, faults, and pathos are also presented. Even though his films contain murderers and other criminals, there is probably only one true villain in all of Renoir's work: The crooked boss Batala in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (one of Renoir's communist-produced and influenced works). But even here this wicked capitalist has sufficient charm and wit that he elicits the sympathy of most viewers.
As many commentators have noted, the central line in all of Renoir's movies, and a fitting summary to Renoir's attitude altogether, occurs in Rules of the Game when Octave, played by Renoir, says to the Marquis: "The terrible thing about this world is that everybody has his reasons (Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons.)"
There is also ambiguity about the process of making the films themselves. Some of them, such as Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and Rules of the Game, are sometimes reported to contain a great deal of improvisation, yet their structure, when analyzed, is shown to be extremely strict and formal and careful.
Renoir’s last film was Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir (1969). Thereafter, unable to find financing for his films and in declining health, Renoir spent the last years of his life receiving friends at his home in Beverly Hills and writing novels and his memoirs.
In 1962, Jean Renoir published a loving memoir of his father titled Renoir, My Father, in which he described the profound influence his father had on him and his work. As funds for his film projects were becoming harder to obtain, Renoir continued to write screenplays and then wrote a novel, The Notebooks of Captain Georges, published in 1966.
In 1975 he received an Academy Award for his lifetime contribution to the motion picture industry. Jean Renoir died in Beverly Hills, California on February 12, 1979. His body was returned to France to be buried beside his family in the cemetery at Essoyes, Aube, France.
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