Despite criticizing established studio filmmakers of the past as the “Cinema du Papa”, the writers of the Cahiers du Cinéma made exception for Jean Renoir. The second son of famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Renoir transformed a failed career in ceramics into a very successful one in film. Most notably, Nouvelle Vague auteur François Truffaut loved Jean Renoir so much that he named his production company after one of his best pictures. The pleasures of Renoir’s films are many and impossible to pinpoint, but if I were to try to summarize and, hopefully not reduce, his genius, I’d say that the wonder of his works is that they balance a cold intelligence for the human condition with a generous affection for human nature. Renoir is as determined to point out our flaws as he is sympathetic to the fact that we can’t help but be any other way. Romantic pleasure or erotic madness frequently gets in the way of best laid (ahem) plans. Criterion’s assemblage of the best of his work doesn’t include his masterpiece Grand Illusion, but it does have plenty of treats that I list here in order of preference.
The Golden Coach (1953)
François Truffaut named his production company “Les Films du Carosse” in tribute to this film. Anna Magnani gives a world-class performance as the leading lady of an Italian theatrical troupe who come to a one-horse town in South America and immediately regret it. Between performances, she manages to whip three different men into a frenzy about her, including the witty viceroy of the region who thinks that he can take up with someone as lowly as an actress and not suffer reprisals from the stuffy aristocrats who surround them. The film’s aesthetics are up there with the best of what you get from an MGM musical but it’s coupled with an intelligent screenplay that navigates politics, sexuality and colonialism in equal measure through the mechanics of melodrama. A rushed ending is the only disappointment.
The Rules of the Game (1939)
A beautiful Viennese ex-patriot is rejecting the advances of a nationally famous pilot who crossed the Atlantic just to impress her, while bored with her estranged husband, whose jealous mistress is anxious for him to leave his wife. They and a number of additional characters get together at a château for wining, dining and card-playing, where their shallow views of human emotions go from polite romance to screwball madness to a dangerous outcome. Jean Renoir skewers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie without ever being unfairly judgmental. He loves the very people he’s making light of for being so irresponsible, and can’t help but throw a bone of pity their way from time to time.
A Day In The Country (1936)
One of Jean Renoir’s most pleasurable films, this short was meant to be a feature until he was called away from production to work on La Bête Humaine and was never able to finish it (and then it wasn’t screened publicly for ten years, by which point Renoir was working in Hollywood). What remains is more than enough, a humorous tale of a Parisian family who head into la campagne to enjoy the fresh air and spend their whole day demanding that the people and their surroundings fall in line with their own ridiculous stereotypes of bucolic life. There’s some delicate heartbreak at its centre, but for the most part it’s a light experience that is brimming over with charm.
La Bête Humaine (1938
Jean Renoir sticks to novelist Emile Zola’s plot and leaves out the author’s more philosophical ruminations, presenting Jean Gabin as a locomotive driver who is prone to violent seizures that make him attack his lady loves, which he believes is the curse of the corrupt men he descends from. Meanwhile, the train’s conductor (Fernand Ledoux) is a jealous man who is married to Séverine (Simone Simon). He is livid when he finds out that her wealthy old godfather has been taking sexual liberties with her, dragging her along with him on a train ride where he murders the old man and makes his wife an accessory. There’s light elements of romance and dark elements worthy of the best noir. It has a great deal of randomness in its plotting, but thanks to Renoir’s ability to focus on his characters’ humanity, it never devolves into a mess.
La Chienne (1931)
Similar to The Blue Angel, this film charts the downfall of a mild-mannered office employee (played by Michel Simon) who becomes obsessed with a streetwalking sex worker whom he saves one night from her violent boyfriend/pimp. He sets her up in an apartment and continues their affair, at home ignoring his shrewish wife and creating gorgeous paintings that he gives to his lady love, not realizing that she and her guy are selling them at high profits. A skillfully written and directed film, Renoir shows his talent for finding the inevitable primal emotions that override our intellectual notions when our desires become too much for us. The American remake, Scarlet Street by Fritz Lang, is also good but places its focus more on film noir consequences than Renoir’s helpless fascination with caprice.
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)
Renoir’s first massive hit. Michel Simon plays a vagrant who throws himself in the Seine after his dog runs away, then is saved by a well-to-do shop owner who invites him to live with him and supports his recovery into respectable life. The household, complete with a frustrated bourgeoise of a wife, is shaken to its very core thanks to a man who is as much an anarchist as he is a clown. It is a sweetly light and perfectly punctuated comedy that smartly examines the moral nature of middle-class generosity. Later remade by Hollywood as Down and Out in Beverly Hills starring Nick Nolte and Bette Midler, and again in France as Boudu by Gérard Jugnot in 2005 with Gérard Depardieu.
Elena And Her Men (1956)
Ingrid Bergman is radiant as a Polish princess living in France whose love of romance has her flitting from man to man. She gives them daisies for luck and refuses to settle with any of them. Her favourable impression on an army general (Jean Marais) inspires a group of sneaky politicians to enlist her help to convince him to run for federal office, which she’s happy to do except that another gentlemen (played by a dubbed Mel Ferrer) is also in love with her and on hand to cause trouble. Featuring a supporting performance by Juliette Greco (who contributes her voice to the film’s collection of charming songs), this film may have little in the way of actual substance but its gorgeous cinematography and the weight of its relationships (particularly Bergman’s ability to bring you into her emotional reality) make it so satisfying.
French Cancan (1955)
This exuberant musical circumnavigates the history of the Moulin Rouge and focuses more of the action in the most famous nightclub in Paris history (as opposed to John Huston’s film three years earlier, which was really more a fictionalized biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec). Jean Gabin plays the entrepreneur who risks everything (and nearly loses it all) to open the club, courting trouble when he abandons his current lover (María Félix) in favour of a young dancer (Françoise Arnoul) who inspires his new love of the titular dance. The personal, professional and political are seamlessly weaved in a surprisingly lightweight but wholly enjoyable film that is blistering with colour and capped by a fantastically energetic dance. Look for a cameo by Édith Piaf.
The Lower Depths (1936)
Jean Renoir liberally adapts Maxim Gorky’s play, in which Louis Jouvet loses his fortune at a gambling table and is forced into a poorhouse, where he befriends a thief (Jean Gabin) who is having an affair with the wife of the man who runs the house. Gabin is also in love with her sister, but the romantic plot is just a set-up for Renoir’s as-usual sharp observations of human interaction. Nazi oversight of French film production forced Renoir to avoid the bleak outlook of the original play, and as a result the film is somewhat caught between dowdy naturalism and romantic fancy, but acting is superb. Remade more faithfully by Akira Kurosawa in 1957.
Toni is a portrait Immigrants from all over Europe who live and work in the south of France, mostly working either picking fruit or in the stone quarry. Among them is Toni, who has come from Italy and is living with jealous Marie but is in love with Spanish Josefa. Josefa marries his foreman Albert after becoming pregnant, but the degradation of her marriage eventually leads to betrayal and murder. Unusual for Jean Renoir, the aesthetics aren’t plush here, it looks more like something that would come out of Italian neorealism a decade later. Its realistic tone gives the hopelessly melodramatic plot a lot more respectability than it necessarily deserves.
The River (1951)
Renoir’s enlightened film about India is a product of its time, avoiding the exoticism of tiger hunts but also focusing on British characters. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Black Narcissus author Rumer Godden, it focuses on the eldest of six children and her coming of age thanks to the appearance of her neighbour’s strapping American cousin. The cinematography is stunning but the acting is weak. I enjoy being in the atmosphere of The River, but I find none of its narrative content compelling.
On Purge Bébé (1931)
A one-act play by Georges Feydeau is adapted to the screen with little, it seems, augmentation, the majority of it taking place in the one setting. Its satire on bourgeois propriety has a doddering father and obsessive mother preparing for the visit of a client while expressing their anxiety over their son’s constipation. Humorously bringing low concerns into a high setting, this minor charmer’s themes are in line with Renoir’s usual concerns (the corporeal at odds with the intellectual) but also shows his strength with editing, sound and pace. It’s rare that movies from the early days of sound move this smoothly.