Jean Renoir Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jean Renoir 1894–1979

French director, screenwriter, actor, and author.

Renoir is considered by many to be the cinema's most important French filmmaker. Best known for his poetic films of prewar France, Renoir is a predecessor of both the nouvelle vague and neorealism; his work reflects a painterly tradition of naturalism inherited from his father, impressionist artist Auguste Renoir. His films are expressions of humanism, passion, and friendship.

Renoir first turned to filmmaking as a means of photographing his wife, Catherine Hessling. His initial silent films served primarily as vehicles for her and contained avant-garde cinematic techniques. Nana, based on Emile Zola's novel, exemplifies Zola's naturalism. Despite the technical aptitude of his early work, Renoir's first films were unsuccessful, and he was forced to make low-budget films which are not considered indicative of his talent. He ended the silent era as an actor.

Sound proved a great asset to Renoir's quest for an accurate naturalism, and he convinced a studio to allow him to make a feature-length sound film, La chienne. Despite the studio's objection to the story of a prostitute, the solemn tone of the film served ultimately as a precursor to the film noir genre. Renoir began moving away from the structures of naturalism while working closely with actor-producer Michel Simon, and in the 1930s Renoir commenced his most prolific period.

La grande illusion (The Grand Illusion), Renoir's best-known film, was created as a denunciation of war and a plea for French nationalism. Considered the culmination of his films of the 1930s, La grande illusion reflects Renoir's belief that men are separated less by nation than by culture, race, or class. Renoir's message proved universal, and the film met with unanimous acclaim.

La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), made as Europe was about to go to war, was, in Renoir's words, "an exact description of the bourgeois of our time." Renoir intended the film as a bittersweet satire of war and camaraderie; however, it enraged the public and was later banned as "demoralizing." Renoir felt that audiences so despised the film because they recognized themselves in the characters. It is only in recent years that La règle du jeu has been accorded critical acclaim.

The violent reaction to La règle du jeu deeply upset Renoir, and he chose to relocate in Italy, where he worked with Luchino Visconti. However, when Italy declared war against France, Renoir opted for voluntary exile in the United States, where he accepted a directorial position with Twentieth Century-Fox. His American films are generally considered more mannered than his earlier work, despite their variety of genres. However, depictions of the American South in Swamp Water and The Southerner show Renoir to be surprisingly adept at probing the essence of rural life. Nevertheless, the studio system proved stifling to Renoir, and he decided to work elsewhere.

In 1950 Renoir made his first color film, The River. Filmed in India, The River pays homage to Auguste Renoir through a newfound interest in pictorial motif, and the film opened to great acclaim. After the success of The River, Renoir was reinstated in the critical world as an eminent filmmaker, and he returned to France.

The films Renoir made upon his return reflect a continuing belief in the universality of humankind, though they are not considered as great as his earlier works. Such films as Le testament du Dr. Cordelier use techniques formerly reserved for television, and correspond technically with the work of Truffaut and Godard. Renoir's last film, Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir), provides his final, amused look at the world. It is blatantly "puppet theater," simple in conception, and most consider it Renoir's means of reverting to the most basic elements of cinema. The film sums up Renoir's entire career, for it encompasses the themes he had long embraced: our relationship to our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 85-88.)