Jean Renoir was the narrative cinema’s poet of the everyman, its first realist and greatest humanitarian. As a person and artist he was a man of the earth, yet his players danced on air. Good humor emanates from every pore of Renoir’s work, but tragedy was always lurking around the corner. The proletariat gets plenty of face time in the director’s early oeuvre where his protagonists are driven by irrational acts and human desire. We enter the messy lives of lowly clerks with artistic inclinations, desperate housewives with delusions of grandeur, peasants falling in love, bums falling in the Seine, and street walkers just trying to make it through the day. Yet, under the filmmaker’s benevolent gaze these slightly shady characters are just hungry souls adding tones and timbre to a rich palette.
After the war and self-imposed exile in America there is a decided change in Renoir’s work. The mature master drifted from chronicling the working classes to make stylized, yet altogether charming, pictures about the petit bourgeois. In these exuberant and tender films we are mesmerized by the exploits of vain actresses, foolish soldiers, high-kicking can-can dancers, troubled families and love-struck princesses—courtesy of an artist who had experienced life to its fullest.
A portrait of the director as a young child would have likely found Jean in the arms of the lovely Gabrielle Renard, his father Pierre Augustus Renoir’s favorite model. Unlike many other Impressionists, Renoir Sr.’s paintings ultimately found an audience and he cultivated a comfortable lifestyle for his family. But as Pierre was already in his fifties when Jean was born, it was Gabrielle (the cousin of Pierre’s wife) who introduced the little boy to the wonders of the cinema and theatre. Little Jean was also an unwilling sitter immortalized in several of Pierre’s family paintings, most famously as an androgynous angel with gold locks then later as a handsome teenage boy readying himself for a hunt.
As a young man Renoir fought in the trenches for France during the First World War where he caught a German bullet in the leg which left him with a lifelong limp. After the war, Pierre Auguste died and Jean married the model Catherine Hessling with whom he would form his first production company. Taking inspiration from Chaplin, Griffith and the American cinema, the grassroots company set out to help revolutionize a moribund French movie industry. But Renoir’s silent films turn out to be an uneven bunch as the director struggled in his search for a voice.
His first solo effort, La fille de l’eau, cast Catherine as Virginia Rosaert, a young woman living on a riverboat with her father and drunken Uncle Jeff (Pierre Lestringuez). When her dad falls overboard and drowns, Virginia escapes from the clutches of Jeff and takes up with a poacher (Maurice Touze) and his gypsy mother. The little band of vagrants runs afoul of a pompous farmer who burns their caravan. Virginia escapes into the night only to be rescued by the kindly Georges Raynal (Harold Livingston) who takes her to his family home to recover. But to her horror Jeff makes an appearance and forces her to hand over money given to her by Georges. Virginia tells Georges of her betrayal and the smitten hero refuses to believe her guilt in the matter. He catches up with Jeff and gives him a good pummeling and leaves with Virginia on a trip to Algiers.
The plot is Griffith-esque and Hessling’s performance resembles any number of roles played by Lillian Gish, but the real centerpiece of this, and many Renoir films to come, is the river where life begins and fates are destined to be played out. What stands out most in La fille de l’eau is the elaborate dream sequence depicting Virginia’s flight. Using slow-motion techniques, gimmicky camerawork, and experimental editing, the scene goes far to anticipate the shocking surrealist films of Bunuel and Dali of the late 1920s.
Keen to make a film in the tradition of another of his idols, Erich Von Stroheim, Renoir adapted Nana, Emile Zola’s scandalous novelabout the rise and fall of a beautiful, greedy and none-too smart courtesan. Set during the heady, decadent days of the Second French Empire, Nana (Hessling) makes a big splash playing the statuesque Venus in a popular Parisian play. Failing to grasp the limits of her talents, she presses the smitten Count Muffat (Werner Krauss) to use his influence to buy her the leading role in a production by the great playwright Bordenave (Pierre Lestringuez). Nana flops miserably but she succeeds in winning the heart of Muffat’s nephew Georges (Raymond Guerin-Catelain).
Set up in a luxurious apartment by Muffat, she blows through the aristocrat’s money and then humiliates him in front of Georges who commits suicide. Nana’s cruelty also causes the untimely demise of Muffat’s close friend Vandeuvres (Jean Angelo) who can’t bear to live without her. Upon hearing this bad news Nana retreats to the theatre where she parties with her friends and mocks Muffat when he tries to win her back. She collapses in exhaustion, a victim of smallpox, but in the end it is Muffat who dares sit with her as the disease claims her beauty and life.
Those only familiar with Renoir’s naturalist masterpieces of the 1930s might be taken aback by the broad acting, grandiose sets, and slick production values in Nana. But, it is not a stretch to say it is the best of the director’s silent films. Hessling gives a bizarre performance as the mean-spirited courtesan. Nana has vibrant sexual energy and a penchant to tantalize and destroy all those who profess to care for her. Unlike the other men we will see in Renoir, Nana’s lovers show little spunk. Indeed, they tend to be masochists almost giddily anticipating all the punishment their cruel mistress can dole out. Nana never found its audience and the bath Renoir took in financing the expensive film caused him to readdress his approach to filmmaking.
Renoir used left over film scraps from Nana to make Charleston, a truly weird sci-fi short featuring the cute, and nearly naked, Hessling playing the only human survivor of a European holocaust. This “savage” is visited by an African explorer who lands in Paris in his spaceship. The girl does her best to welcome the African (blackface performer Johnny Huggins) by showing off her native dance “The Charleston”. The explorer is a fast learner and soon the two are dancing up a storm until the weary African returns to his ship. The girl follows and they fly back to Africa.
Sadly, a lack of funds kept Renoir from having a musical score written to accompany the piece, but the performances remain infectious after all these years. Hessling is at turns spastic and sensual and Huggins compliments her crazed gyrations with a nimble-footed, soft-shoe approach. The little film’s blatant racism is really a lark as the explorer turns out to be a gentleman and Hessling is identified as the real primitive here. And what would a French sci-fi film be without a wink at Georges Melies’ grotesquely funny A Trip to the Moon. One should not read too much into Charleston, though, as it was intended to be a private entertainment.
La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl), a dark fairy-tale fantasia based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, is one of Renoir’s most poetic films. The winsome Match Girl (Hessling) stalks the cold and snowy streets of a big city, tormented by the local children and despairing of selling any of her matches. She tries to light a few to keep warm then suffering from the cold and hunger she drifts off into hallucinogenic dream inspired by a display of toys she saw in a shop window. Even by the limited technological standards of the day the elaborate dream sequence is primitive, but the girl’s pathetic efforts to survive in the snowstorm remain among the most striking and touching scenes in Renoir’s body of work.
Renoir’s final silent feature Le Bled was his most ambitious film since Nana and, indeed, this unusual tale of a familial rivalry set in the desert of Algeria borrows freely from Zola and Stroheim’s Greed while planting the seeds of a timeless story which would reach full bloom six years later (Toni). Taking into consideration the experimentation and aimlessness of these early films few could have expected Renoir’s career to take off just as France was beginning to feel the effects of the Great Depression.
The grim financial reality of the early 1930s went far to determine what sort of films Renoir would make throughout the decade. This son of a beloved national treasure came down clearly on the side of the little man and the humanist principals he applied to his work would result in an extraordinary period of creativity. Most importantly, Renoir embraced the innovation of the talking film which he hoped would rid the industry of over the top acting styles and create more natural actors who owed more to instinct than theatrical technique.
Renoir found his muse in the lumbering genius of Michel Simon. The director first cast the Swiss-born stage actor in his inspired spoof of the military life, Tire au flanc (1928) and three years later in his first talkie On purge bebe (1931), a loony farce about a constipated baby.
The collaboration wouldn’t hit full stride until Renoir adapted the Georges de La Fouchardiere novel La chienne for the screen. Though no fan of the book, Renoir saw possibilities in the plot and took a daring step in changing the tone from comic to tragic. Simon is Maurice Legrand, an unhappily married Montmartre clerk who takes refuge in painting. Returning home from a company banquet one night, he comes to the rescue of Lulu (Jamie Marese), an attractive young woman who is being beaten by her lowlife boyfriend Dede (Georges Flamant). Maurice falls in love with the sexy Lulu and sets her up in an apartment. The cruel woman tires of the oaf, but when Dede discovers Legrand’s paintings have value he sells them to a dealer claiming they are the work of Clara Wood, a reclusive American artist. Dede has Lulu masquerade as Clara, forcing Maurice out of the picture.
When his wife’s presumed dead husband shows up and tries to shake Maurice down he sets up a fateful meeting between former lovers. Free to pursue Lulu, Maurice finds she’s been sleeping with Dede all along and the unsavory couple is living well off his art. In a fit of passion, Maurice murders Lulu but his crime is attributed to Dede who was seen leaving her apartment near the time of her death. Dede goes to the gallows and Maurice takes to the streets where he finds solace in a life free of complications.
Like fellow realists Lang and Hawks, Renoir understood the nuances and implications of sound. Instead of narrowly focusing on plot, Renoir developed his mise-en-scene, capturing the ambient sounds and intriguing sights of everyday life. This organic take on filmmaking brings an extraordinary richness to his work during an era when narrative films were in danger of becoming too processed and anonymous. Renoir also worked wonders in capturing the range of humor and emotion Simon had to give. Unlike Lang’s deterministic take on the same material (Scarlet Street), Simon’s henpecked clerk feels little guilt in getting revenge on his tormentors. It matters little that others make a mint off his paintings; Maurice seems happiest as a panhandler sharing an unexpected meal with his wife’s first husband.
Renoir exploited Simon’s Rabelesian acting style in the uproarious comedy of the classes, Boudu Saved from Drowning. Having already played Boudu on stage Simon let it rip as the Mephistophelian tramp who wreaks havoc on a Parisian family. Initially, Boudu’s prospects look none-too promising after he is deserted by his dog in the park. In a fit of despair he decides to drown himself in the Seine. His leap from a city bridge attracts a huge crowd but no one wants to help the dying man except local bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) who through a Herculean effort fishes Boudu out of the river. Edouard brings the homeless man where he is revived and given food and shelter much to the horror of his wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia).
At first, Edouard is charmed by his new lodger’s spontaneity and reckless behavior but when the crazy fellow tries to seduce his maid/mistress Chloe (Severine Lerczinska) and spits in a volume of Balzac the furious bookseller is ready to toss Boudu out. This turns out to be easier said than done as Boudu has entered into a lusty liaison with Emma. Seeing no other way out, Edouard arranges a marriage between Chloe and his wife’s seducer, but during their wedding party the restless Boudu wanders away and takes up his old life as a vagrant.
Simon gives a delightfully amoral performance as the monster who takes full advantage of his landlord’s liberal guilt in this sly satire of the French bourgeoisie. Granval is also superb as the good-hearted proprietor who gives away rare editions of books and can’t tolerate any form of disrespect towards his beloved writers. To wash his hands of his former project, Edouard conveniently foists Boudu off on the working class Chloe who actually seems to love the rascal. But upon Boudu’s flight, Chloe will be left alone to suffer from her employer’s capriciousness.
The huge success of Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny trilogy persuaded many French directors to shoot on location in the country where they could keep the budgets down. Renoir’s first contribution to this rural genre included a controversial adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which the director claimed was disemboweled in the editing room. Though many literary critics maintain this mother of all psychological novels is impossible to transcribe to the screen, Renoir felt Flaubert’s descriptive powers made for an ideal film treatment.
Unfortunately, his Madame Bovary has little fire. In the role of the chronically dissatisfied Emma Bovary, the matronly Valentine Tessier has always bore much of the blame. But Renoir made Tessier look more like a crass Normandy housewife than a lonely creature capable of hidden desires and petty cruelties. If this Emma is living in a world of her own, we are hardly aware of it.
Since the original film was said to have run three hours, we have to presume some important exposition ended up on the cutting room floor but it is also possible Renoir chose not to put his spin on Flaubert’s glorious text. Ironically, Vincente Minnelli’s Romantic take on the same material (featuring the intense Jennifer Jones as Ms. Bovary) came much closer to capturing the vain heroine’s delusions of grandeur than either the Renoir film or Claude Chabrol’s chillier adaptation (starring Isabelle Huppert).
This filmmaker of the people was much more at home with Toni, a tragedy of working-class Marseilles. Using a multi-national cast of mostly unprofessional actors, Toni follows the plight of an Italian quarryman (Charles Blavette) who after being rebuffed by Spanish immigrant Josefa (Celia Montalan), the lovely Spanish immigrant he loves, marries his former lover Marie (Jenny Helia). Toni still pines for Josefa who is locked in a loveless marriage with the cruel Albert (Max Dalban). Marie and Albert are none too pleased about Toni’s romantic attraction to Josefa and for two years the couples live in a state of chronic unhappiness. When Josefa’s uncle asks Toni become the godfather to her child Marie tries to commit suicide. She is saved but she banishes Toni to the hills where he keeps an eye on Josefa’s farm.
Meanwhile, Josefa runs away with her cousin Gaby (Andrex) but when they are caught by Albert, she shoots her husband. Toni volunteers to hide Josefa’s gun but he is quickly caught by the gendarmes. After confessing to Albert’s murder Toni manages to escape. He is tracked down and shot by the police right above the ferry where another group of immigrants arrive to begin anew.
With its socially relevant content matter and emphasis on location shooting, it’s not a stretch to call Toni the first neo-realist film. And on the heels of the stultifying Madame Bovary, the rough and tumble passions here come as a breath of fresh air. Toni, Josefa and Marie are all unlucky in love and clearly paired-off with the wrong mate, yet none of them apologize for their feelings no matter how much they hurt those who love them. Already anticipating the poetic-realist noir of La Bete Humaine, Renoir fills Toni with a sense of doom. In a world where workers and immigrants are treated like second-class citizens, nobody gets out unscathed.
The troublesome production of A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne)—ten years in the making!—ultimately yielded an exquisite work of filmic poetry, one of Renoir’s true masterpieces. Originally intended as a feature the production was hamstrung from the get-go by bad weather and a miniscule budget. An unanticipated rainy summer put a damper on the location shoot and conflicting schedules shut down the production after only a half hour of film was in the can. Renoir returned to the river locale several times over the years to shoot the film’s memorable epilogue.
A Day in the Country seemed destined to be one of the cinema’s lost masterpieces until a negative was resurrected by the great archivist Henri Langlois after the war. Renoir’s editor and longtime partner Marguerite Renoir reconstructed the footage and bolstered by a lovely score by Joseph Kosma the film finally got its critical due upon release in 1946.
Culled from a Maupassant story, A Day in the Country begins innocently enough as a Parisian salesman, his wife, daughter and her dull fiancée convene for a relaxing picnic in a small riverside village. Two fun-loving local men offer to take the bored women on boat rides and soon the impressionable daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) is swept away by the brooding nature of her melancholic new suitor (Renoir technician Georges D’Arnoux in his only leading role). In a breathtaking sequence, the blissful couple consummates their passion for one another. But time moves on (in an impeccably lyrical use of montage), and we find the family’s practical concerns have won out over true love.
Nature and the countryside would continue to have a significant impact on much of Renoir’s work for the rest of his career but by 1936 he had already returned to Paris to make a series of extraordinary films of political and social impact.
With much of Central Europe reeling from the impact of Fascist governments in German and Italy, many French leftists, including Renoir, threw themselves in with the liberal Popular Front government. In the spirit of the times, Renoir made the communal comedy Le crime de Monsieur Lange, a rambunctious satire about the employees of a publishing firm who band together to promote the comic book figure and pop culture icon, Arizona Jim.
The creator of Jim is the unlikely clerk Amedee Lange (Rene Lefevrre) who becomes miffed when his publisher Batala (Jules Berry) unscrupulously uses the Western hero in his magazines to sell pep pills. Batala also creates strife in the office place by underpaying the staff and sleeping with his secretaries. When his libertine lifestyle and creditors finally catch up with Batala, he fakes his death and disguised as a priest slips off into the night.
Meanwhile, Lange and the staff are left to face the music. But rather than foreclose, the little publishing firm is allowed to survive. Jim and the crew concentrate their efforts on the firm’s biggest breadwinner, Arizona Jim. They create a popular magazine about Jim’s exploits in the old west and have even begun shooting a movie when Batala returns. The phony cleric tries to shake Lange down but rather than be at the beck and calling of a blackmailer, our hero shoots Batala and goes on the lam with his girlfriend Valentine (Florelle).
Perhaps sensing Lefevre and his sunny constituents at the magazine were too earnest Renoir gave Berry plenty of space to chew the scenery as the scheming capitalist and the veteran actor did not disappoint. The manipulative Batala is such a cancer in the office place everyone is relieved when he is declared dead. As a priest the publisher is just as slippery. He thinks nothing of pilfering magazines from a corner peddler and using the collar to make Lange feel guilty about not cutting him a big slice of the Arizona Jim pie. Scene stealing rascals played by the likes of Berry and Michel Simon would slowly disappear from Renoir’s films as his heroes became more assured and his vision more utopian.
Marxism grew increasingly appealing to French artists, like Renoir, who were growing increasingly concerned by all the saber-rattling being made by their neighbors (Germany, Spain & Italy). So, Renoir’s idea for a film version of Soviet playwright Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (Les bas-fonds) didn’t seem as curious then as it may look today.
Based in Tsarist Russia before the revolution, Les bas-fonds opens with The Baron (Louis Jouvet), a crooked government official, losing all his money at a gambling casino. He returns home to find his apartment being ransacked by Pepel (Jean Gabin). Instead of calling the police, The Baron strikes up a friendship with the thief and the two men play cards late into the night. The next morning the Tsar’s agents arrive at the Baron’s apartment and strip the embezzler of his duties until further notice. Pepel is apprehended with a bronze statue belonging to the Baron. The shamed man claims it was only a gift and Pepel is released. The thief returns to his squalid lodging house and reports to Kostylev (Vladimir Sokoloff), his landlord who launders hot goods.
Pepel is the midst of a doomed affair with Kostylev’s wife Vassilissa (Suzy Prim). She recognizes Pepel is really in love with her sister Natacha (Junie Astor), so Vassilissa arranges to marry the younger woman off to a police inspector (Andre Gabriello). Pepel assaults the cop and takes Natacha away, but back at the lodging house she is throttled by Kostylev. Enraged, the thief beats the landlord to death. The jealous Vassilissa turns Pepel in to the authorities. He is sentenced to jail but he does his time content in knowing Natacha waits for him on the outside.
Les bas-fonds is the least memorable film of the Renoir and Gabin collaboration. Set in gloomy Russia, the director brought some Parisian light to the production by letting Jouvet and Gabin go a little nutty in their “bonding” scenes. But, Gabin’s longing for dull Junie Astor doesn’t summons up the intensity of the feeling he will have for the sweet widow Elsa in La grande illusion or bad girl Severine in La bete humaine. His bitter scenes with crass Suzy Prim are far more interesting but once he breaks off their affair the film sinks under the weight of its good intentions.
Connoisseurs of Gorky might prefer Akira Kurosawa’s more pessimistic take on The Lower Depths. Filmed in 1957 and starring Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa eschews Renoir’s irony for his own patented ferocity, taking a patriarchal approach more in step with the material.
Renoir had a difficult time getting funding for his next project, an anti-war war film to be made just as Hitler was building a formidable war machine. But, with Jean Gabin committed to the film Renoir managed to find an enthusiastic first time producer (Albert Pinkovitch) willing to foot the bill. Still, there would be budget and casting issues that turn what was originally a tense tale of escape into quite something different.
Set in two prisoner of war camps of Germany during WWI, La grande illusion turned out to be a complex and noble work of art, a film that views the demise of the aristocracy and gentlemanly behavior with melancholy yet champions the Brave New World social integration would bring. After being captured behind German lines Lieutenant Marechal (Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are imprisoned with a diverse lot of French soldiers who have already begun to dig an escape tunnel underneath the compound. While putting on a drag show (!) for the other prisoners and their German guards, Marechal relays news of a French victory at the front. For starting the ensuing ruckus, he is thrown into solitary confinement.
Fortunately, Marechal is sprung a day before the prisoners plan on escaping, but then the Germans captors decide to scatter the French officers to different camps. Marechal and de Boeldieu wind up at a remote facility run by former pilot and bomber Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich Von Stroheim). His body broken from battle, the bitter German Captain strikes up a friendship with the aristocratic de Boeldieu and the two men spend ample time reminiscing about the Gilded past.
As men of honor, de Boeldieu, Marechal and their new companion Lieutenant Rosenthal begin to plot another escape but as the fortress is well-armed it will be a difficult task. Sensing his comfortable life will cease to exist after the war, de Boeldieu sacrifices his life so Marechal and Rosenthal can climb the walls and make a run to the Swiss border. During a grueling journey to freedom, the two men bicker and nearly separate before finding shelter at a country farm owned by the attractive Elsa (Dita Parlo). With her husband and brothers having been killed at the front, Elsa and her daughter manage to make-do on the farm. But the lonely woman welcomes the presence of the Frenchmen, especially Marechal with whom she falls in love. After Christmas, the men pull up stakes and continue their journey to the border, but not before Marechal makes a promise to Elsa to return after the war.
Though, the enlightened friendship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein is one of the highlights of La grande illusion, Renoir makes it clear their intolerant aristocracy was to blame for a terrible and pointless war. These heroes of the new generation (a gruff mechanic and Jewish businessman) can be petty and unsavory, but by working together they represent hope for wiping out prejudice, mindless totalitarian regimes and perhaps war altogether. Made only two years before the Third Reich gobbled up much of Europe, such hope turned out to be a naïve notion.
Renoir’s affection for the everyman spills over into La Marseillaise, his singular take on the French Revolution. Following the storming of the Bastille, the sprawling narrative mostly concentrates on a battalion from Marseilles which lends support to the revolution. Along the way they take up the catchy La Marseillaise as a theme song and its call to take arms against oppressors lends credence to the cause. Upon arriving in Paris they are cheered by the masses but find resistance from the foolhardy aristocrats. After dispatching the loyalist soldiers, this people’s army appears ready to lead the new Republic to glory.
La Marseillaise isn’t a historical epic so much as a Renoir film set in a different place in time. As is his wont, the director presents all sides of the issue—in this case, the birth of the French Revolution. Louis XVI (Pierre Renoir) isn’t an out of touch buffoon, so much as a man possessing political curiosity and a healthy appetite. Marie Antoinette (Lise Delamare) is cruel, but her belief the people will come to their senses and support the King doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. The remaining aristocrats are brave and touchingly delusional. They prefer to stay and fight than die meekly at the scaffold.
But, it’s the colorful volunteers who make up the quilt of the people’s army who get the lion’s share of sympathy. Their northward march captures the imagination of a country too long crushed under the boot heel of the King. The soldiers find their constituents to be philosophical and itching to have a say in their new government. The battle scenes are particularly inspired, especially the hilarious give and take sword fights between the tired soldiers and pesky Aristos. Having been made between Renoir’s two official masterpieces La grande illusion and The Rules of the Game, La Marseillaise often gets lost in the shuffle which is unfortunate since it remains a jambalaya of zesty filmmaking. Renoir’s next film would take on a much darker hue.
Born out of Jean Gabin’s desire to drive a locomotive, producers Raymond and Robert Hakim offered Renoir another opportunity to direct his old friend in Emile Zola’s La bete humaine, a ferocious melodrama based set in the days before the Franco-Prussian war. Renoir updated the events to the present day (1938), so he wouldn’t have to build expensive and phony-looking sets to fit the time frame of Zola’s book. This freed him up to have engineer Gabin and his stoker Pecqueux (Julien Carrette) actually man a locomotive on its daily run between Paris and Le Havre. Renoir also stripped La bete humaine of social commentary to concentrate on the fateful love triangle at the heart of the novel.
While on route to Le Havre Jacques Lantier (Gabin) witnesses the deputy stationmaster Roubard (Fernand Ledoux) and his beautiful young wife Severine (Simone Simon) fleeing from one of the train’s compartments where the rich Grandmorin (Jacques Berloiz) has been murdered. At the inquest Lantier covers up for the murderous couple and he soon enters into an affair with Severine. He learns Severine had been Grandmorin’s mistress and Roubard killed the old man in a fit of jealousy. Severine wants Lantier to kill her repulsive husband, but the engineer is not up to the task.
Having nearly strangled his childhood sweetheart Flore (Blanchette Brunoy) in the opening sequences, we are aware Lantier’s inner rage is directed towards the weaker sex. After being teased and taunted to the breaking point, Lantier corners Severine and brutally murders her. Tormented by his savage act, Lantier confesses to Pecqueux before leaping to his death from the moving train.
Along with Marcel Carne’s atmospheric crime films Le quai des brunes and Le Jour se Lève (both starring Gabin), Le bete humaine often gets labeled as noir. But, Renoir was too much of a gray-area artist to buy into the Germanic genre. He preferred the fluid rhythm of tracking shots to fateful camera angles and jagged edits. This highly subjective approach allows one to guess to what’s going on in Lantier’s troubled mind and he remains much more of a mystery than Glenn Ford’s engineer in Fritz Lang’s take on the same material (Human Desire). Lantier’s murder of Severine is the product of encroaching sickness. Though it’s possible Lantier might get away with murder his conscience won’t let him go on, so he takes his dark secrets to the grave. This Impressionistic approach to crime was branded as poetic realism—an apt description of a very French style.
Renoir had longed to make a comedy for years and just as Hitler invaded Austria he finally got his wish. But The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) would be no light burlesque. Indeeed, it turned out to be an indictment of a French bourgeoisie that indulged in superficial liaisons while the rest of Europe fell to pieces. The film opens in a breathtaking fashion as we follow the dramatic airplane landing of Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) who has miraculously crossed the Atlantic in record time. Though lauded as a national hero Andre is devastated to find his beloved Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor) not among the throng assembled to greet him so he voices his displeasure across the airwaves in an attempt to shame her.
The discreet and very married Christine is at home listening to the radio all the while unaware her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) is carrying on with longtime lover Genevieve de Marras (Mila Parely). But upon hearing Jurieux’s very public declaration for Christine, Robert decides to dump Genevieve and return to his wife. Meanwhile Jurieux is comforted by his pal Octave (Jean Renoir), who asks his old friend Christine to invite the daring aviator to a hunting party at her chateau in the south.
As soon as the guests arrive all hell breaks loose as Christine discovers Genevieve in her husband’s arms, her married maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) carrying on with the hired hand Marceau (Julien Carette) and love-stricken Jurieux still hoping to win her. The weekend descends into total farce when Lisette’s husband Schumacher (Gaston Modot) opens fire upon Marceau and Jurieux catches Christine on the arm of another man. Jurieux confronts the bewildered Christine who tells the hero she does indeed love him. As the events escalate, Christine slips away to the greenhouse to confide in her old friend Octave. Finding Octave depressed, she proclaims her love for the charming loafer and pleads for him to take her away.
Octave returns to the house where Lisette discourages him from running away with Christine since he doesn’t have the means to finance her lifestyle. A crestfallen Octave gives Lisette’s coat to Jurieux and tells him to go to Christine who is waiting for him in the greenhouse. While prowling around the grounds, Schumacher recognizes Lisette’s coat and shoots Jurieux in a fit of jealousy. Hoping to quell a scandal Robert proclaims the pilot’s killing an unfortunate accident and asks his guests to return to the chateau for a good night’s rest.
Filmed in the tradition of Beaumarchais and Marivaux, this nifty farce about the upper-middle classes cut too close to the bone for French audiences and The Rules of the Game was hooted out of Parisian theatres. It was the wrong film at the wrong time and its foul reception made it easier for a disillusioned Renoir to leave his homeland just as the Nazis were about to descend on Paris.
Although Renoir correctly assumed his film would shock audiences, it’s hard not to be charmed by all these smitten fools who so eagerly follow their hearts. The pursuit of love levels the playing field between the rich folk and working classes. Yet, after locking horns so fiercely all parties still take time to commiserate about the one that got away. It’s a small world after all. Like La grande illusion, The Rules of the Game was a signature statement about a rotten era and mindset but the price tag for a return to normalcy turned out to be significantly higher.
In 1940, Renoir was gently persuaded by the French government to accept an invitation from Benito Mussolini to go to Rome and make a non-operatic version of Tosca, with his former assistant Luchino Visconti. It was a goodwill gesture by the French as part of a hope to have the Italians remain neutral in the inevitable war between Germany and the Allied countries. But before the production went before the cameras, Renoir was called back to France and the colorful period piece (co-starring Michel Simon) was completed by The Rules of the Game screenwriter Carl(o) Koch.
When the Germans marched into Paris the same year, Renoir fled to the south then Lisbon where he settled briefly. Though Portugal’s fascist government was neutral towards the Nazis, Renoir was never able to get a green light to make a film, so he took a ship to the United States in early 1941. Renoir trekked to Los Angeles where he accepted a contract from Darryl Zanuck to make films at 20th Century Fox. Though Renoir found the Southern California lifestyle to his liking (he would become a permanent resident) he never was able to adjust to the constrictions of Hollywood-style filmmaking.
Not yet comfortable with the English language, Renoir wanted material that would fit his free-flowing style so for his first film he settled upon Swamp Water, a backwoods melodrama written for the screen by John Ford favorite Dudley Nichols. The action is set around the Okefenokee swamps of Georgia, where presumed dead fugitive Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan) hides from the law unbeknownst to everyone in the nearby community including his daughter Julie (Ann Baxter). One day, the trapper Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) stumbles upon Keefer who takes him prisoner. Ragan talks Keefer into setting him free then offers to trade the convict’s raccoon skins in town for a tidy profit.
Meanwhile, Ragan’s father Tom (Walter Huston) and the neighbors led by the thuggish Tim and Bud Dorson (Ward Bond and Guinn Williams) grow suspicious of Ben’s success in the woods. Anxious to hide their dark secret (they had committed the murder Keefer was convicted for), the Dorsons pursue Ben into the swamps where they encounter the angry Keefer and a patch of hungry quicksand.
Renoir had intended to shoot much of this unforgiving film on location in Georgia but when he went over budget the production was brought back to Hollywood soundstages. Unlike Ford and Howard Hawks, who’d taken lyrical approaches in crafting their own songs of the south (Tobacco Road, Sergeant York), Renoir painted a paranoid portrait of a community of failures, loafers and backstabbers. Compared to his hardworking father Ben is an underachiever, but he is accepted as a benign figure about town. Ben’s success as a fur trader and his tossing over of girlfriend Mabel (Virginia Gilmore) for Keefer’s trashy daughter Julie turns the tide of opinion against him. He turns to Keefer for the life lessons (as peculiar as they may be) he never got from gruff Tom Ragan.
Renoir tried to muddy-up the slick Fox production values, making Swamp Water look clammy in comparison to his other rural masterpieces (Toni, A Day in the Country, The Southerner). This claustrophobic spell is broken when the action is transferred to the swamp where the knowledgeable wild man Keeler rules in his primitive brethren.
Hoping to address the sad fate of innocents struggling to live under Nazi occupation, Renoir and Dudley Nichols left Fox to make This Land Is Mine, a story of one man’s resistance. Set in an anonymous European town occupied by Germans, the events are set in and around a local schoolhouse where ungainly teacher Albert Lory (Charles Laughton) is taunted by his pupils for cowardice and his hopeless crush on fellow instructor Louise Martin (Maureen O’Hara).
Lory secretly supports the local resistance but since he has an abhorrence of violence he refuses to get involved, much to the disappointment of Louise. When her brother Paul (Kent Smith) gets arrested, she wrongly suspects Albert has turned in this soldier of the resistance. Though Lory is innocent, he is unable to convince Louise otherwise until he takes a poetic and sacrificial stand against his oppressors in court and in the classroom.
Taking a page from the philosophic La Marseillaise, Renoir’s plea for tolerance and sanity under inhumane conditions is a pleasant contrast to the “get-on-board” spiel so prevalent in the propaganda films of wartime Hollywood. Still, beyond the subtle yet startling scenes of children being forced to tear offending pages from textbooks in the classroom, Renoir seemed content to let Laughton carry This Land Is Mine, which he did, in his inimitable, grandiloquent manner.
As the war in Europe, Africa and Asia raged on, Renoir applied for American citizenship and married his assistant Dodo, but he still felt like a fish out of water in Hollywood. Intrigued by the possibility of making a film based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a George Session Perry novel about a year in the life of a poor cotton farmer and his family, Renoir offered the property around town but had no takers. He finally struck a deal with United Artists, assembled an impressive yet inexpensive cast, and began shooting his new project almost exclusively on location in rural California.
Set in the dry, dusty southwest The Southerner opens with cotton picker Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) comforting his uncle Pete (Paul E. Burns) who is dying of sunstroke. Before he expires Pete advises Sam to get his own farm and start looking out for himself. Turning down a factory job, Sam takes over a desolate property where he will sharecrop until he has enough money to buy it outright. He moves his plucky wife Nona (Betty Field), their children Daisy (Jean Vanderwilt) and Jot (Jay Gilpin), and cranky Granny (Beulah Bondi) to the ramshackle farm where they spend the winter clearing off the promising land and struggling to survive.
When Jot becomes sick and needs nutrition Sam is denied milk by their bitter neighbor Devers (J. Carroll Naish), but Sam’s mother strikes a deal with a friend to have a cow to be sent to the farm. Just as things are looking up for the Tuckers a vicious storm wipes out their crops. Sam is ready to give it all up and take the factory job but, Nona, the kids, and even the malcontent Granny buck up his spirits by promising to clear off the land and rebuild the farm.
At this stage in Renoir’s career The Southerner came as a breath of fresh air. It was his simplest and least complicated film since Toni and, indeed, as the awful and grimly humorous events play out we are hardly aware of a directorial hand. The Southerner has a purity and harsh lyricism almost unknown in American film and often feels more intellectually honest than most of the photographs of Dust Bowl victims lining the walls of our finest museums. Although Sam and Nona have every reason to chuck it all in, they carry themselves with faith and simple dignity, turning the other cheek to the elements and those who want to see them fail.
Renoir was approached by producer Burgess Meredith to direct his wife Paulette Goddard in an adaptation a play based on the erotic Octave Mirbeau novel Diary of a Chambermaid. This adult comedy about an attractive young woman being pursued by a wide variety of men must have struck a chord with Renoir, who would use similar themes and theatrical techniques in The Golden Coach, French Can-Can and Elena and Her Men once he returned to Europe in the 1950s.
Goddard plays the fetching Celestine who takes a job as a chambermaid at the Lanlaire estate in the country. The saucy young woman immediately catches the eye of the eccentric Captain Lanlaire (Reginald Owen), who she mistakes as a hired hand, and the creepy head butler Joseph (Francis Lederer). Anticipating the return of their beloved son Georges (Hurd Hatfield), Madame Lanlaire (Judith Anderson) gives Celestine a makeover hoping the maid’s beauty will keep her boy from returning to the city.
Tired of being a plaything to these peculiar Lanlaires, Celestine flirts with their bizarre neighbor Captain Mauger (Meredith) with the hope the rich old Republican will propose marriage. But, Celestine and Georges hit it off and begin a courtship to the dismay of Joseph who wants the chambermaid to marry him and open a café in the south. When Georges unexpectedly returns to the city, the dismayed Celestine accepts Joseph’s proposal, but unwilling to kowtow to the Lanlaires any longer he kills Captain Mauger for his fortune and attempts to make off with the family’s silver. During the Bastille Day celebration Georges returns, exposes Joseph to the angry locals and sweeps Celestine into his arms.
The Diary of a Chambermaid looks longingly to Renoir’s leftist past, particularly in the scathing treatment of the Lanlaires who long for a return of a gilded age. Tired of being groped and having her heart broken, the opportunistic Celestine is willing to hitch her train to any man who can offer all the creature comforts. Despite her crass intentions, Celestine remains popular among the town’s working class. The women envy her street smarts and the men line up to dance with her at Bastille Day celebration. Georges, the great hope for the Lanlaires, breaks with the family and throws himself in with Celestine and the People, a personal triumph which promises to invigorate him body and soul.
Fresh from working with Fritz Lang on a pair of noir masterpieces (The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street) Joan Bennett enlisted Renoir to direct her next project at RKO, The Woman On The Beach. Bennett plays Peggy the sullen wife of Tod Butler (Charles Bickford) a painter of some renown who has gone blind as a result of a fight with Peggy. While wandering around a beached ship she meets Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan), a ruggedly handsome coastguard haunted by a wartime accident.
The initial friction between the two leads to an unspoken understanding leading Tod to believe they are having an affair. Still, the painter strikes up a friendship with the coastguard who is appalled at how Tod treats Peggy. Scott thinks Tod is faking his blindness but when he is unable to prove it, he decides to drown the painter at sea. But inevitably Scott realizes the manipulative Peggy is no prize either, so he leaves the warring couple to sort out their differences and retreats back into the arms of his benign girlfriend Eve (Nan Leslie).
A disastrous premiere convinced Renoir to cut the film to a mere seventy-one minutes, an act he regretted doing, so it’s nearly impossible to understand the motivations that drive these people to do the rotten things they do. Owing to the narrative’s bilious bite and the Langian presence of Ryan and Bennett The Woman on the Beach calls to mind any number of films made by fateful Fritz, but the Butlers’ willingness to implode their lifestyle then start over again is more typical of Renoir, an even-tempered artist capable of finding safe harbor in the most treacherous of seas.
Renoir spent the next few years unsuccessfully endeavoring to set up an actor’s studio to develop a pool of talent he could use for future productions. Not one to give in to frustration he took his time settling on his next project, The River, a coming of age piece set in India and written by British author Rumer Godden (Black Narcissus). Renoir and Godden collaborated on the screenplay and a fortuitous grant by Kenneth McEldowney and some friendly Maharajas paid for the director and his crew to make the film on the banks of the Ganges River in India. Nephew Claude Renoir would man the camera for his uncle Jean for the first time since before the war and it was decided their film would be shot in Technicolor.
The screenplay condensed events from Godden’s novel concentrating on a real and imagined love quadrangle between a wounded American soldier Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) and three anxious suitors: Harriet (Patricia Walters), the fanciful teenage daughter of British settlers (Nora Swinburne & Esmond Knight), Melanie (Radha), the beautiful half-caste daughter of their neighbor Mr. John (Arthur Shields), and Valerie (Adrienne Corri) the haughty redheaded bombshell who lives nearby.
Having lost a leg in the war and not wishing to spend the rest of his days being an object of pity in his hometown, Captain John comes to India to visit his uncle (Shields) and embark on his own journey of personal discovery. Lonely for male attention at the exotic outpost, the three young women are attracted to the handsome Captain who is flattered by all the attention. He is drawn to melancholic Melanie because she too knows what it is like to be an outcast in her own country. Sensing a union between two lost souls would lead to more unhappiness, the conservative girl spurns the Captain. The soldier spends the next few days brooding near the riverbank in the company of Harriet who tries to win his love with her stories and verse.
But the young girl cannot hope to compete with the fetching and cruel Valerie. After Harriet’s younger brother is bitten by a cobra and dies, the devastated girl throws herself in the Ganges in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She is nursed back to health by her family then given encouragement from the Captain who advises her to live out her dreams through writing.
By stripping the production down to the bare necessities and directing his mostly inexperienced cast with great sensitivity Renoir created a beguiling masterpiece. Living in the cocoon of her loving family in a magnificent Bengali home, the plain but talented Harriet yearns for romance and adventure. The River’s fluctuating heartbeat rises with Harriet’s hopes and crashes with her disappointments. But the true star of the film is the flowing Ganges, the muddy, brown river upon which all local life depends. Renoir artfully threads footage of poor river folk trying to make a day’s wages into his fluid chamber piece about the aspirations of well-off young people. It is a humble and serene touch in a transcendent work.
Renoir returned to Europe in the midst of a filmmaking revolution but even if he was recognized the father of Neo-Realism, he was no longer interested in making politically-charged films. He also put aside the notion of shooting art films like The Southerner and The River for several years to pursue a more theatrical style drenched in nostalgia for the past. Strong and often vain women would take center stage in a trilogy of films which would redefine Renoir to a new generation of cineastes.
Intrigued by the possibility of collaborating with the volcanic Anna Magnani and creating a commedia dell’arte film, Renoir adapted a Propser Merimee play to make The Golden Coach, the story of an Italian acting troupe lured to Peru with promises work and riches. Once they arrive at the provincial town they learn they are nothing more than indentured servants.
The troupe is expected to build a theatre for their greedy landlord and give him their gate receipts in payment for transport from Europe. When they finally do put on a show their classical style of performing leave the local peasants baffled. The lead actresses, especially the feisty Camilla (Magnani), are a big hit with the aristocracy, so they are invited to the viceroy’s home for a command performance. Ferdinand the Viceroy (Duncan Lamont) takes a fancy to Camilla much to the consternation of Felipe (Paul Campbell) the young nobleman who has been courting the actress.
The scenario becomes increasingly muddled when the town’s macho bullfighter Ramon (Riccardo Rioli) proposes to Camilla. Ferdinand angers his subjects by giving the town’s treasure, a magnificent golden coach, to the actress as a grand token of his love. Overwhelmed by the gesture, Camilla donates the coach to the town Bishop, an act which reaffirms the Viceroy’s place in the heart of the public and eases the actress out of an impossible relationship.
In The Golden Coach we are introduced to the privileged world of the theatre where talent and inspiration is its own form of aristocracy. While the players in Camilla’s company are commoners their can-do spirit and artistic arrogance lift them above the hoi polloi and the effete snobs who sit at the head of the town’s crooked government. Renoir directs the boisterous fare with surprising restraint and his smoldering lead actress gives one of her most mellow and generous performances. The busy mise-en-scene prompted contemporary viewers and prominent critics to champion The Golden Coach as a return to the director’s glorious past but nothing could be farther from the truth. This new approach to filmmaking harkened back to his father’s old, idyllic world before War changed everything.
Originally intended as a project for director Yves Allegret French Cancan was ultimately transferred to the one living man in the film industry who had firsthand knowledge of the Montmartre art scene. The sixty year-old Renoir relished the opportunity to recreate the early days of the Le Moulin Rouge and reunite with old friend Jean Gabin.
Here, the middle-aged actor plays entrepreneur Henri Danglard who is intrigued by the idea of opening a night club in the bohemian neighborhood outside the center of Paris. Henri closes his old club and puts every centime he owns into the building of the ostentatious Moulin Rouge. As a gimmick to draw in audiences Danglard revives the bawdy old Cancan and hires a group of high-kicking dancers not afraid to show their wares. Not afraid to mix business with pleasure Danglard enters into an affair with his lead dancer and former laundress Nini (Francoise Arnoul) much to the consternation of her boyfriend Paolo (Franco Pastorino) and Henri’s current lover Lola de Castro (Maria Felix).
Nini enters into her affair with Henri hoping he will turn her into a star but she ends up spurning Paolo and another princely suitor (Giani Esposito) because she has fallen in love with the old scallywag. When she finds Henri in the arms of a singer on opening night, Nini refuses to go on until Danglard chastises her for letting down her fellow dancers and the crowd who won’t get to see her display her great talent.
French Cancan is a bit of a trifle, but it contains scenes of spontaneity and joy not felt in Renoir’s filmmaking since The Diary of a Chambermaid. As with The Golden Coach the players are treated as aristocrats in a large part because they are in league with the impressive Danglard. Henri transforms his working-class players into haughty stars, bucking up their egos so they can survive in the competitive world of showbiz once he finishes using them. The show’s the thing for Henri and that’s ok because everyone will benefit from having attended his school of graceful living and hard knocks. The spectacular finale of French Cancan is a lusty culmination of the dancers’ hard work and Henri’s good taste.
Renoir had long wanted to make a comedy with his former Hollywood neighbor Ingrid Bergman. Having recently completed a series of intense post neo-realist dramas with husband-director Roberto Rossellini, the actress happily accepted Renoir’s invitation to head the cast of Elena and Her Men. Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Bergman plays a Polish Princess who ditches her musician lover to take up simultaneously with the jaded aristocrat Henri de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer) and French military hero General Francois Rollan (Jean Marais). Under Elena’s earthy influence Rollan learns he is not cut out for politics and wishes to return to his troops. The Princess also has a positive impact on her real soul mate Henri who steps in to masquerade as Rollan so the unhappy General can skip town.
Belying the frothiness of the material, Elena and Her Men turned out to be a difficult shoot for Renoir and the international cast. It is Renoir’s most strained comedy and though the leads give it the good old college try, their efforts end up making his film look even more confusing and chaotic. To his credit, Renoir wasn’t completely discouraged by the negative reception given Elena. But from here on in, Renoir would eschew the past and embrace the tumultuous present as he tried to hold ground in an increasingly unsettled European film industry.
In 1959 Renoir was offered to film a play for French television. Fascinated by the possibilities of the new medium and the dangers of pop psychology, he decided to do a modern, Parisian version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Le testament du Docteur Cordelier a respected psychologist (Jean-Louis Barrault) baffles his friends by making one of his patients, the creepy Opale, the prime benefactor in his will. Clearly a degenerate, Opale is seen prowling the streets of the city attacking young girls and pushing cripples to the ground. Struggling with his conscience Dr. Cordelier experiments with a drug which will alter the human soul much to the horror of his former associate Dr. Severin (Michel Vitold). Severin breaks with the mad Cordelier and tells him off in no uncertain terms.
As Opale’s crimes escalate Cordelier’s friends and employees become worried about the Doctor’s behavior. When Severin is found dead the police begin to investigate Opale’s twisted existence and follow the criminal back to Cordelier’s flat. There, the doctor’s old friend Joly (Teddy Ellis) finds Opale in Cordelier’s office. The monster declares he is in fact Cordelier but he will die if he takes the serum that will change him back into the mild-mannered doctor. Unable to talk his friend out of this certain suicide, Joly ends up consoling Cordelier’s anguished staff.
The spry and wickedly funny Le testament du Docteur Cordelier gave notice to the Godards, Truffauts and Chabrols that the old lion still had a lot of roar left in him. Using multiple cameras to film the action, the low-budgeted film had a jagged rhythm and plenty of bounce, all the better to follow the ebb and flow of Barrault’s wonderful dual performance. As a critique of modern medicine and medical methods, the film doesn’t have much leg to stand on but Renoir’s little horror flick remains a satirical take on the soullessness of modern man.
Renoir’s other project that year Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (Picnic on the Grass) would turn out to be gentle diatribe against sanitized men of science and progress made at the expense of the human experience. Nodding to the popular and silly sci-fi films being churned out by Hollywood the action takes place in a tidy France of the future. Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse) is a nerdy, elitist scientist running for the President of the United States of Europe. His major campaign issue is making artificial insemination mandatory, presumably to discourage the masses from the altogether unnecessary activity of sex. Etienne gets no arguments there from Marie-Charlotte (Ingrid Nordine), his upright fiancée, who oversees an organization for virtuous young women.
Trying to drum up support for their candidate, Etienne’s staff organizes an elaborate picnic. But their preparation for a day in the country only angers Gaspard (Charles Blavette), a goat shepherd and human force of nature, who blows a liberating wind into the Alexis camp. Etienne strays from his band of followers and stumbles upon a merry band of washerwomen. He is irresistibly drawn to the earthy and beautiful Nenette (Catherine Rouvel) bathing in a nearby pond. Etienne is pleased to find she is a fan of artificial insemination and their mutual admiration turns to passion. The unlikely couple jump into some secluded brush where they make love.
Driven apart by the candidate’s political machine, the couple separate and Etienne prepares to marry the much more acceptable Marie-Charlotte. But when Etienne bumps into the pregnant Nenette on his wedding day he has a change of heart and philosophy. Alexis breaks with his bloodless fiancée to wed the fetching working girl then promises to rule Europe without the unyielding philosophy of scientific correctness.
At the dawn of the French New Wave Renoir found it difficult to get funding for projects. Once again, he accepted a screenplay intended for another director and proceeded to make The Elusive Corporal, arguably his best film since The River. Set in the days after French capitulation to Germany in 1940, the action takes place in various prisoner of war camps across the Fatherland.
Unable to comprehend why they’re being held prisoner after the signing of the Armistice, the captives led by the Corporal (Jean-Pierre Cassel) embark upon several spontaneous mad dashes for freedom. The mysterious Corporal is held in high esteem by his working-class partners in crime which seems curious since all of his escapes end up in failure. The Corporal is sent to a punishment camp where he finally slips away undetected until he lands in the compartment of a train with a group of German passengers. Just as he is about to be arrested the train is knocked off the track by a RAF air raid. The Corporal and his companion Pater survive the wreck and continue their journey to a farm at the French border where they encounter another escaped P.O.W. living happily with a German widow. The couple helps the vagabonds cross the border, so they slip up to Paris and live in anonymity.
Too often dismissed as a weak rehash of La grande illusion the free-spirited The Elusive Corporal holds up well against its esteemed predecessor and in many ways surpasses it. Gone is the polite behavior and unspoken class warfare from the Kaiser’s internment camps. In its place is a self-contained world consisting of Frenchmen from all walks of life anxious to get back to the jobs and families they left behind. It’s a chirpy group of guys who share quarters with the Corporal and their escape attempts are more motivated by survival than duty.
Rather than plot then procrastinate like the captives in von Rauffenstein’s camps, the Corporal and his mates take a pro-active approach in breaking free from their bonds. They exploit the perceived weaknesses of the enemy and try to slip through the cracks. It doesn’t occur to them they might get shot, because they are not going up against Hitler’s War Machine but peasants in German uniforms who, like themselves, just want to get through the day. Relaxed and humane, The Elusive Corporal would have made for a splendid swansong but the grand old man of French cinema turned out to have one last ace up his sleeve.
Made for French television La petit theatre de Jean Renoir is collection of four stories and vignettes that evoke a not so splendid past, pay heed to the free and easy present, and anticipate the materialistic future. The Last Christmas Eve is a bittersweet fable that recalls Renoir’s lyrical silent film based on the Hans Christian Andersen story La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl). Here, a poor hobo (Nino Formicola) is hired to stand outside the window of an exclusive restaurant and lick his chops while a rich cad and his friends enjoy a savory meal. The joke quickly goes sour, so to keep valued customers from leaving the restaurant the staff gives the hobo a meal fit for a King. On this cold and bitter night, the old man returns to a secluded spot near a bridge where he shares the meal and fond memories with his destitute paramour (Milly). They are found frozen to death the next morning by a pair of vagrants who relieve the old lovers of their food but not their dignity.
Le roi d’Yvetot is a Continental take on the swinging ’60s featuring a middle-aged businessman Duvaillier (Fernand Sardou) who has riches beyond his dreams and a beautiful young wife (Francoise Arnoul) to boot. The resentful locals think Duvaillier will inevitably become a cuckold to a younger man, but when the prophecy becomes true he surprises them all by making friends with the handsome veterinarian who has intruded upon his bliss.
The most ambitious piece in the ensemble The Electric Floor-Waxer recalls the director’s satirical prodding of science and progress from Picnic on the Grass. Here, a clean freak housewife Emilie (Marguerite Cassan) talks her husband Gustave (Pierre Olaf) into buying a state of the art machine that will buff their hardwood floor beyond compare. The problem is the waxer does too good a job prompting Gustave to slip and accidentally kill himself on Emilie’s immaculate floor. Her second husband Jules (Jacques Dynam) is so infuriated by the racket made by the infernal machine he throws it out the window. Insensitive to his wife’s obsession, he watches in shock as Emilie leaps out into oblivion after her beloved waxer.
By cleverly employing a Yuppie chorus as his social commentators Renoir softens the easy cynicism implicit in the vignette while remaining ahead of era’s hip curve. Though not a humorist per se, it is telling this forever young filmmaker was still able to deftly interpret complicated human foibles in such a witty way, lifting this little theatrical experiment far above its modest intentions.
Books on Renoir:
Jean Renoir – Andre Bazin ****1/2 A passionate collection of essays in which the father of modern film criticism discusses his favorite auteur. Bazin’s simple, lucid language rarely fails to sway the reader to his argument. Don’t be put off by the sketchy editing; this is essential reading for all cineastes.
Jean Renoir – Raymond Durgnat ****1/2 If you choose to read one just book about Renoir then you need to track down Durgnat’s authoritative critical history on the director. Durgnat covers the whole arc of the Renoir’s vast career, analyzing the films, plays, novels and even his memoir of father Pierre Auguste. Out of print.
Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 – Alexander Sesonske **** A meticulous breakdown and analysis of Renoir’s golden period. Having had plenty of access to his friend Renoir, Sesonske leaves no stone unturned in discussing story treatment, acting and shooting methods in this invaluable work of criticism.
My Life and My Films – Jean Renoir **** This charming and insightful memoir finds the great artist in his old age talking about his art and the people who helped him along the way. The style is anecdotal but as with Renoir’s films much is revealed in what the author leaves to the imagination.
Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays, and Remarks – Jean Renoir **** A welcome, indiscreet slice of Renoir in a revealing collection of interviews over the years in which he talks about filmmaking, French and world cinema and his passion for life. Out of print.
Jean Renoir: Interviews – (ed. Bert Cardullo) **** Another welcome entry from the University Press of Mississippi interview series, this collection finds the grand old man of French cinema at his most loquacious and makes for a splendid supplement to his jolly memoir. A delightful read.
Films by Renoir:
1924 La fille de l’eau ***
1926 Nana ***1/2
1927 Charleston ***
1928 (La petite marchande d’allumettes) The Little Match Girl ***1/2
1928 Tire au flanc ***½
1929 Le bled ***1/2
1931 On purge bebe ***
1931 La chienne ****
1932 La nuit du carrefour ***1/2
1932 Boudu Saved From Drowning ****
1934 Madame Bovary ***1/2
1935 Toni ****
1936 Le crime de Monsieur Lange ****1/2
1936 A Day in the Country (Partie de compagne) ****1/2
1936 Les bas-fonds (The Lower Depths) ***1/2
1936 La vie est a nous ***
1937 La grande illusion *****
1937 La Marseillaise ****
1938 La bete humaine ****
1939 The Rules of the Game *****
1941 Swamp Water ***1/2
1943 This Land Is Mine ***1/2
1946 The Southerner ****1/2
1946 Diary of a Chambermaid ****
1947 The Woman on the Beach ***1/2
1951 The River *****
1954 The Golden Coach ****
1956 French Cancan ****
1956 Elena and Her Men ***1/2
1960 Picnic on the Grass ****
1961 Le testament of Dr. Cordelier ***1/2
1962 The Elusive Corporal ****1/2
1969 La petit theatre de Jean Renoir ***1/2