Jean Renoir was one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. He was born in 1894, the son of painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, and started making films in the silent era, blossoming in the 1930’s with a remarkable series of eloquent, socially conscious works. La grande illusion, made in 1937, still stands as one of the finest pictures about war, and La regle du jeu, from 1939, has occasionally jostled with Citizen Kane for the crown of best film ever made. In the 1940’s, Renoir worked in the US for a decade or so, before a glorious return to Europe in the 1950’s. He made his last film in 1970, and died in 1979.
Renoir in America
Compared to some other great directors, it’s more difficult to convey anything of Renoir’s achievements in just a few sentences (even while allowing how such attempts are always hopelessly reductive). He’s often cited for the following observation in La regle du jeu: “There's one thing, do you see, that's terrifying in this world, and this is that every man has his reasons.” Actually, people often just cite those last five words, emphasizing Renoir’s good humour and empathy; the full quotation, of course, is much darker, acknowledging how society is a network of threats as well as of possibilities (one of his last pictures was a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story). Renoir’s films often overflow with character and incident and interconnection, with a sense of delight and engagement that never becomes merely pictorial or indulgent. There’s nothing shrill or over-emphatic in his work; he coaxes out meaning rather than imposing it. The depth of his work, I find, tends to grow on you over time - again, even more than for any great director.
Renoir’s five American films, if not his very best, may form an obvious starting point for the uninitiated, and I recently rewatched two of these. The Southerner (for which Renoir received his only directing Oscar nomination, losing to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend) was made in 1945. It’s the story of Tucker, a poor farmer and his family, breaking away from the big local employer to make it on his own on an abandoned patch of land, keeping on going despite heartbreaking setbacks. Where La regle du jeu took place within an intricately established set of social and moral codes, The Southerner examines a country still being formed; when the aristocrats hunt in the former film, it’s mere ritual, but in the latter it’s for their basic survival. Already though, the sparse community has accumulated a store of myths and ideologies; the old grandmother constantly recalls how things were even tougher in her own younger days, and Tucker is constantly tempted by his best friend to join him on the factory floor, where he’d earn the unimaginable sum of $7 a day. Most instructive is the character of Devers, a prospering farmer on the adjacent plot of land; he despises Tucker on sight, deriding him as someone with ideas above his station, even though Devers fought his way up in much the same way. Later on it comes out that Devers wanted the land for himself, and Tucker’s intervention is blocking his dreams of greater capitalist achievement. Looked at now, you see an omen there of how profoundly America’s vision of itself as the land of achievement would be poisoned by vested interests and a calcified sense of entitlement.
Renoir in America
For now though, the film is primarily optimistic, allowing a truce between the two antagonists on the basis of a shared interest in catching a local catfish, and finding unambiguous nobility in the belief of the next season being better than the last. At the same time, the ending acknowledges the farmer’s dependence on those confining factories for the plough and the rifle and much else that fuels the dream. Every man has his reasons, and in such a time and place, they’re rendered particularly stark.
A couple of years later, Renoir made the lesser-known The Woman on the Beach, a very strange and rather lonely piece. It’s essentially a triangle of desire, constructed around a troubled coast guard (Robert Ryan), a great artist who’s now blinded (Charles Bickford) and the artist’s wife, a self-described “tramp” who severed her husband’s optic nerve with a bottle during a drunken fight. In The Southerner, Renoir immersed himself brilliantly into a culture far removed from his own, but The Woman on the Beach starts with a weird, turbulent dream sequence and plays out in a largely deserted, almost abstract environment, owing relatively little to naturalism. The closing stretch feels as much like a dramatized psychology manual as a cinematic narrative, but up to then it’s remarkably spare and haunting, a film noir carved out of sand and loss.
The River, made in 1951, forms a bridge of sorts between the American-set films and the subsequent return to Europe. It’s also in English, but set in India, and it was Renoir’s first film in colour. It’s a simple story of an English family; the father owns a factory and the mother essentially has one child after another; the oldest girl develops a crush on a military officer who comes to stay next door. India’s majestic complexity and serenity (at least as depicted here; the film doesn’t claim to be sociologically all-inclusive) interacts with the girl’s growing uncertainty about her place in the world to form a gorgeously rich meditation on the journey toward self-understanding and acceptance. As I mentioned, The Woman on the Beach deploys dreams to dramatize inner fractures; when The River uses fantasy, it’s an illustration of the multiplicity of possibility and the capacity for self-invention.
At other times, the film is surprisingly raw: a father muses out loud – not unkindly – that maybe it would be better if his Anglo-Indian daughter had never been born (she matter-of-factly observes simply that she was born) and later – when a young boy is killed by a snake – opines that maybe it’s not so bad if the occasional child escapes submitting to the restrictions of adulthood. Such statements, of course, would conventionally be viewed as “incorrect” if not reprehensible, but in The River we understand them as being rooted in a deep humanity, expressing itself by searching the boundaries of things.
Freedom is vital to Renoir’s cinema. La grande illusion is about escape from confinement, and in one of his last films he revisited the prison camp through a protagonist who won’t stop escaping. The closing scenes of his final film, Le petit theatre de Jean Renoir, have a town coming together to celebrate an unconventional domestic arrangement. But he’s always aware of the inherent limits of such freedom, and of those of the frail humans who seek to attain it. If you look to cinema to inform and enrich your ideas on how to live and love and think, Renoir’s films are a necessary destination.