Article abstract: Considered by many to be the world’s greatest film director, Renoir explored his characters’ relations to society and nature and their humanity during his forty-five-year career.
Jean Renoir was born September 15, 1894, in Paris. His father, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, had married his mother, Aline Charigot, a dressmaker’s assistant, in 1890, although the couple’s first child, Pierre, had been born in 1885. Among the many artist friends of the elder Renoir who visited his country house at Essoyes were Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. Renoir later described growing up amid an extended family of artists, models, art dealers, relatives, and their children as the happiest time of his life. By 1901, his immediate family included his younger brother, Claude.
Beginning in 1903, the Renoirs lived much of the year at Les Collettes, a villa in Cagnes-sur-Mer near Nice, where Jean attended school. He was always a poor, restless student, and his parents hoped he would eventually find some career working with his hands. In 1913, after finishing his studies in philosophy at the Nice extension of the University of Aix-en-Provence, Renoir joined the cavalry, hoping to become an officer. He was a sergeant when World War I broke out, and, after being kicked by a horse, he transferred, over his parents’ objections, to the infantry as a sublieutenant. In April, 1915, his thighbone was fractured by a bullet. Since Renoir’s wound left him with a slight limp, he was unable to return to the infantry. With time on his hands, he began going to films and soon became addicted, seeing as many as twenty-five American movies a week. He persuaded his father (his mother died in 1915), confined to a wheelchair, to buy a projector so that they could watch Charlie Chaplin films together.
In 1917, Renoir fell in love at first sight with Andrée Heurschling, one of his father’s models. Pierre-Auguste Renoir died in December, 1919, and Jean married Andrée on January 24, 1920. After working in ceramics with his brother Claude at Cagnes-sur-Mer for a while, Renoir moved to Paris in 1921, had a kiln built, and started a pottery enterprise. Ceramics did not fulfull Renoir’s need to create, and the inheritance from his father afforded him the freedom to take his time deciding what to do with his life. His only child, Alain, was born in 1922. By 1923, he had decided to make films.
Through his brother Pierre, who had become an actor, Renoir met Albert Dieudonné, later the star of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), who wanted the wealthy young man to finance a film for him. Renoir wrote Une Vie sans joie (1924; A Joyless Life), and Dieudonné directed and costarred, against her will, with Renoir’s wife, now known as Catherine Hessling. Renoir and Dieudonné quarreled over the melodrama, leading to the latter’s reediting the film and rereleasing it in 1927 as Catherine. Not discouraged by this experience, Renoir immediately directed his first film, beginning his lifelong custom of filling the cast and crew with his friends, making the experience of filming a friendly collaboration. (Renoir would direct thirty-six films, writing or cowriting twenty-eight of them.) Through such early works as La Fille de l’eau (1924), he learned the techniques of filmmaking, taking great pleasure, as an artisan, in creating scale models of landscapes and streets.
Inspired by the force of the director’s personality in Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), Renoir made the most expensive French film up to 1926, adapting Nana from the novel by Émile Zola. The stylization of Nana, especially in Catherine Hessling’s pantomime-like performance, indicated Renoir’s originality and maturing talent, but, as with several later films, its quality was not recognized in France at the time. His next film, Charleston (1927), a dance fantasy shot in four days, also failed at the box office. The release of La Petite Marchande d’allumettes (1928; The Little Match Girl), from the story by his beloved Hans Christian Andersen, was delayed by a plagiarism suit brought by two writers who had created a stage version of the story. In the interim, talking pictures arrived, and Renoir was forced to add a bad sound track. After making two commissioned silent films, he played opposite his wife in two films directed by his friend Alberto Cavalcanti. Because he loved actors so much, Renoir believed he should try acting. He and Catherine separated in 1930.
Unlike many French directors, Renoir welcomed the advent of sound as offering new possibilities to the art of the cinema. He directed On purge bébé (1931), based on a Georges Feydeau farce, just to prove he could make a sound film quickly and cheaply. He deliberately chose a less commercial project as his next effort. The producers were so shocked by La Chienne (1931) that they drove him from the studio and called the police to keep him out. When they were unable to reedit the film, Renoir was allowed to restore his version. This early example of film noir, now considered one of Renoir’s masterpieces, was another commercial failure.
La Nuit du carrefour (1932), an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, with Pierre Renoir as Inspector Maigret, was also a failure. Renoir considered it such a mess that even he did not understand it. Among his assistants on this film were his brother Claude and Jacques Becker, later a prominent director himself, whose sense of order helped compensate for Renoir’s more informal approach to his work. In explaining his seemingly haphazard methods, Renoir said, “[Y]ou discover the content of a film in the process of making it.” He followed with another masterpiece, Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932; Boudu Saved from Drowning), in which he continued the use of deep-focus cinematography, a technique he helped pioneer. Such films, with their fluid, seemingly improvisational styles, led the French cinema away from an overreliance on dialogue.
Despite such artistic successes, Renoir continued having difficulty with the practical side of filmmaking. Because Madame Bovary (1934), his adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, was more than three hours long, the distributors...
(The entire section is 2636 words.)