Jean Renoir: Master of the Game

GreenCineStaff's picture

By Sean Axmaker

"Everyone has his reasons," that famous quote from the inexhaustible 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game, has been the standard critical stamp on the work of Jean Renoir. Every individual in a Renoir film is a unique person whom Renoir attempts to understand, or at least make understood to us.

Yet, as David Thomson writes in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Renoir was not a rationalist but an emotionalist." Thomson rephrases the standard line thusly: "Better to say that all his characters have their own feelings, and it is that shared experience that brings them physically together but keeps them apart..." To this Renoir adds the complexity of their social existence: their class, their culture, their society. His characters may be on the screen but they live in the world, and that's what makes their dreams and their passions and their failures so moving.

To mark the release of the Jean Renoir Collector's Edition from Lionsgate, a three-disc set featuring five features and two shorts straddling the reaches of his career, I've taken the opportunity to look back on his career, or at least those films now available to us on DVD. Between Lionsgate (which secured its prints from Studio Canal in France) and Criterion, a rich collection of Renoir's cinematic canvases are available in superior home video prints.

Son of impressionist master Pierre Auguste Renoir and arguably the greatest French director of all time, Jean Renoir is the beating heart of France's cinema history. His feeling for environment, his preference for shooting on location, his emphasis on character over style and his innate connection with his actors was an inspiration to the Neo-realist movement in Italy. Franois Truffaut, speaking for his fellow critics and New Wave directors, called Jean Renoir "the father of us all." Though Renoir was still respected, it took the young auteurist critics to recognize the mastery of Renoir's rich films and champion his supremacy in the French cinema. (For his part, Renoir warmly embraced the passion and the freshness of the new films and their filmmakers.)

For Renoir, filmmaking was a communal activity. He listened to the ideas of his cast and crew. "I'm sort of an opportunist," he once confessed. "I ask others to give me all the ingredients." He liked to call his collaborators "accomplices," and his list of accomplices include future directors Claude Autant-Lara (set-designer on Nana), Jacques Becker, Luchino Visconti ("His was a humanist influence, not a professional one," Visconti said of is apprenticeship) and Jacques Rivette. But the vision that made it onscreen is Renoir's own, a bittersweet celebration of the theater of life in its beauty and its pain.

Lionsgate's Jean Renoir Collector's Edition allows us to trace that vision from the beginning, with his pastoral debut feature La Fille De L'Eau (Whirlpool Of Fate, 1924) and his sophisticated sophomore film Nana (1926). The former is a Griffithian melodrama relocated to the French countryside and directed with an Impressionist's eye, the latter a lavish drama based on the Zola novel about a calculating courtesan who drives her admirers toÊtheir destruction, influenced by the extravagant work of Erich von Stroheim. Renoir self-financed both productions and cast his wife and muse, Catherine Hessling, in the lead for both productions. Renoir is learning his craft by trial and error, directing Hessling to an idiosyncratic performance ("I had got it into my head, and her head, that since the moving picture depended on the jerks of a Maltese cross, it must be played jerkily") and playing with cinematic techniques to create an ethereal quality for a surreal dream sequence in La Fille De L'Eau.

Both films were financial busts and Renoir was forced to sell off much his family legacy (namely his father's paintings) to pay off his debts, yet he persevered, "jobbing" himself out as a work-for-hire director on commercial productions. For his own pleasure, he used leftover raw stock from Nana to make the offbeat fantasy short Sur Un Air De Charleston (Charleston Parade, 1926), a frivolous and playful little lark shot over three days on a single set. Renoir later dismissed his final silent short, an inventive adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes (The Little Match Girl, 1928), as "a purely technical experiment," but it's a delightful fantasy with enchanting imagery and touching poetry.

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