Jean Renoir Andrew Sarris - Essay

Andrew Sarris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Renoir's career was a river of personal expression. The waters may have varied in turbulence and depth, but the flow of his personality was consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life. If the much abused term "humanism" could have been applied to Renoir's art and to no one else's, it might have provided an accurate definition for his work as a whole. In Renoir's films, man's natural surroundings are almost always prominently featured, and it is this emphasis on man in his natural environment photographed by an unblinking camera that is the true precursor of neorealism. As Murnau represented the formal antithesis to Eisenstein's montage principles, Renoir represented the thematic alternative to Eisenstein's dialectics….

Renoir's stylistic personality can be expressed at times by no more than a beat's hesitation in the rhythm of the players' movements. In one sequence of La Regle du Jeu, Renoir gallops up the stairs, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and then, with marvelous post-reflex continuity, resumes his bearish shambling to the heroine's boudoir. If one could describe the musical grace note of that momentary suspension—and it is difficult to do—one could begin to understand the full range of Renoir's creative interpretation of human behavior. It might help if we thought of Renoir's cinema as a long dance, with Renoir himself as a dancing bear, that is, as both a performer and a creator of a social ritual. Film by film, from the '20s into the '70s, Renoir displayed the interdependence of art and nature, theatre and cinema, politics and ethics, people and things—and all on the screen at the same time.

Andrew Sarris, "Jean Renoir: The Grand Illusionist" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 9, February 26, 1979, p. 41.