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The Instant Expert's Guide to Jean Renoir

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One hundred years ago, the son of a celebrated French painter was building a reputation as a ceramicist. However, his wife had ambitions to become a film star. Cinema Paradiso examines what happened next in an The Instant Expert's Guide to Jean Renoir.

Few film-makers have had more influence on the history of cinema than Jean Renoir. He was a masterly storyteller, who drew upon a range of sources to explore the human condition and the devastating truism that 'everyone has their reasons'. As the son of a famous Impressionist painter, however, Renoir also had a magnificent eye for an image. He also had an innate understanding of cinema and filled the frame with telling details whose meaning was refined by the placement and movement of the camera, the blocking of the scene, and the physical and verbal interaction of the characters.

All films should operate along these lines, you might argue. But no one combined Renoir's levels of humanity, socio-psychological insight, and artistry to the same degree. He averred that he spent his life making the same film. Yet, while he consistently challenged the status quo, Renoir's visual style was forever evolving. During his 40-film career, he dabbled in silent pantomime, Expressionism, Poetic Realism, Neo-Realism, Hollywood classicism, theatrical stylisation, and televisual naturalism. For all the diversity, however, Renoir achieved a distinctive visual signature. His use of long takes and deep focus rooted the characters in their miliuex and opened the possibility that anything could happen anywhere in the frame, as his mobile camera roved the mise-en-scène. However, Renoir was always conscious of the space beyond the frame, which bound the specific action on screen to the wider world beyond.

The critics of Cahiers du Cinéma recognised that Renoir used the camera like a pen or a paintbrush and installed him in their pantheon of auteurs. Indeed, only Alfred Hitchcock was more revered by the game-changing cineastes of the nouvelle vague. Cinema Paradiso has 21 gems in its extensive catalogue. So, why not read on and consider which titles to order, as you either discover Renoir or reconnect with one of the all-time greats?

First Impressions

Jean Renoir was born in Montmartre on 15 September 1894. A few months earlier, Thomas Alva Edison and his Scottish assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, had demonstrated the Kinetoscope and launched the age of the moving image. Another year would pass before Lyon brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière would reveal the Cinématographe camera-projector to paying customers in Paris, but the young Jean would soon be exposed to the novelty that he would help turn into an artform.

As the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his wife, Aline, Jean was raised to appreciate the power of imagery and the beauty of the natural world. So were his brothers, Pierre and Claude, who would respectively become a renowned actor and Jean's assistant director and occasional producer. Indeed, Pierre's son Claude would become Jean's favourite cinematographer.

As he disliked being their father's model, Jean was happy to pass this duty on to his younger sibling (who was known as 'Coco') and spend time with his nanny, Gabrielle Renard, who was his mother's cousin. Still in her early twenties, she took Jean to see the Guignol puppet shows and accompanied him to his first screenings, although he was initially frightened and only came to appreciate film at school.

Gabrielle proved unable to persuade Renoir to cut Jean's shoulder-length blonde ringlets, however, which he detested, as he was teased for being girlish. But she coaxed him into posing for the occasional portrait. Moreover, as Jean recalled in his 1974 memoir, My Life and My Films, Gabrielle taught him 'to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché.'

In 1902, Jean was sent to the Collége de Sainte-Croix in Neuilly-sur-Seine. The following year, he moved to École Sainte-Marie de Monceau, where he remained until 1912, although he frequently ran away. When Pierre-Auguste moved south to Les Collettes, near Cagnes-Sur-Mer on the Côte d'Azur, Jean was enrolled at the École Massina in Nice. However, his stay at the University of Aix-en-Provence, where he studied mathematics and philosophy, was interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.

Enlisting with the dragoon cavalry, Jean was wounded in the leg by a sniper in 1915 and credits Aline with saving his life, as she had come to visit him and convinced a surgeon not to amputate her son's gangrenous leg. She would die shortly afterwards and Jean (who was left with a permanent limp) would blame himself for the toll taken on his mother by the arduous journey.

During his convalescence in Paris, Jean became increasingly interested in films. He adored Charlie Chaplin, but quickly came to appreciate the work of D.W. Griffith, who demonstrated that cinema could tell complex stories with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). However, Jean was eager to return to uniform and joined the recently formed air force. Frustrated with being an observer, he trained to become a pilot. But his military career ended after a crash landing aggravated his leg injury and he returned to Paris.

A still from Renoir (2012)
A still from Renoir (2012)

As Gilles Bourdos shows in Renoir (2012), Jean spent time at Les Collettes watching his father paint and discussing his theories of life and art. During one visit, Jean met Andrée Heuchling, a teenage refugee from the disputed territory of Alsace, who had modelled for Henri Matisse. Known as Dedée, she looked after the wheelchair-bound Pierre-August and helped him keep painting by using bandages to bind brushes to his arthritic hands. At his suggestion, she joined with Jean and Claude in making ceramics in a special studio at Les Collettes.

On Pierre-Auguste's death in December 1919, however, the now married Jean and Dedée returned to Paris, where their son, Alain, was born. They continued to make pottery, although they went to the cinema several times a week. Jean was particularly impressed by the work of Erich von Stroheim and Le Brasier ardent (1923), which had been co-directed by Alexander Volkov and Ivan Mosjoukine, the Russian émigré whose image had been used by Lev Kuleshov in the editing experiments that would be key to the evolution of montage (see Cinema Paradiso's article, A Brief History of Soviet Cinema).

With Dedée so keen to become a movie star that she changed her name to Catherine Hessling to appeal to audiences, Jean decided to abandon ceramics and sell some of his father's paintings in order to finance a film. Pierre-Auguste had always advised him to 'float on life like a cork'. But Jean was determined not to trade on his father's fame. In his autobiography, he admitted that he had 'spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me, passing from periods when I did my utmost to escape from it to dwell upon those when my mind was filled with the precepts I thought I had gleaned from him. When I started to make films, I went out of my way to repudiate my father's principle, but, strangely, it is in the productions where I thought I avoided Renoir's aesthetics that his influence is the most apparent.'

Silent Struggle

A still from Napoleon (1927)
A still from Napoleon (1927)

'I must insist.' Renoir wrote in later life, 'on the fact that I set foot in the world of cinema only in order to make my wife a star. I did not foresee that once I had been caught in the machinery, I should never be able to escape.' He had started taking photographs of Dedée shortly after their marriage and had experimented with a few home movies. Unable to find a suitable vehicle to launch her career, he wrote Catherine ou Une Vie sans joie (aka Backbiters, 1924) and hired as director Albert Dieudonné, who would go on to take the title role in Abel Gance's epic masterpiece, Napoleon (1927).

It proved an unhappy collaboration, as Renoir had interfered so much during the shoot that he decided to direct La Fille de l'eau (aka The Whirlpool of Fate,1925) himself. Anticipating Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), the action centred on a Parisian barge. However, it was extremely stylised, as Dedée had taken dancing lessons and Renoir coaxed her into developing an acting technique that was a cross between mime and dance. By now, 'the bug of film directing had now taken root in me and there was no resisting it' and Renoir (who later conceded 'at the beginning of my career, I was only interested in artificiality') became obsessed with experimental flourishes that proved challenging for the meagre audiences who paid to see his early outings.

Such was his stylistic restlessness during this period that no two films looked alike. Inspired by Von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1921), Nana (1926) was adapted from a novel by Émile Zola and borrowed from the tradition of French naturalism, despite being made in Germany. While in Berlin, however, Renoir fell under the influence of Expressionism (see Cinema Paradiso's 100 Years of German Expressionism) and draped shadows over La Petite marchande d'allummettes (aka The Little Match Girl, 1928).

This was released a year after Renoir had taken out a loan to make Sur un air de Charleston, a short that consciously set out to be commercial by centring on Dedée teaching the Jazz Age dance in a skimpy costume. It paid off, as Renoir was hired to direct Marquitta (both 1927), a melodrama that starred Pierre Renoir's wife, Marie-Louise Iribe, and is now presumed lost forever. This was followed by the medieval saga, Le Tournoi dans la cité, which saw Renoir experiment with shooting in depth for the first time, and Tire-au-flanc (both 1928), the screen version of a hit stage comedy that saw Renoir work for the first time with actor Michel Simon. Years later, this army romp would be described as a visual tour de force by the young François Truffaut, who would become Renoir's most ardent champion.

The least laudable picture from this period as a director for hire was Le Bled (1929), which offered unquestioning support for French colonial activity in Algeria. It was edited by Margaret Houlé, who would become so devoted that she assumed Renoir's surname and continued to use it after their romantic liaison ended. Renoir's marriage to Dedée was also dissolved after he failed to oppose a decision to cast another actress in La Chienne (1931).

This was Renoir's second sound feature, after producer Pierre Braunberger had rescued him from a period of inactivity to direct On purge bébé (aka Baby's Laxative, 1931), which was based on a stage farce by Georges Feydeau. He was guided during the shoot by sound engineer Joseph De Bretagne, who persuaded Renoir to use direct sound and shoot in long takes to avoid the difficulties of synchronising the audio and visual elements during editing. As the microphones limited camera movement, Renoir also got into the habit of shooting in depth, so that action could take place at any part of the set without the need to reposition or refocus.

Preferring location to studio shooting, Renoir was also able to bring realism to proceedings, while also using the mise-en-scène to reinforce the personalities of his characters. He also made a habit of filming through doorways and windows to give the impression he was eavesdropping on actual events. Moreover, Renoir was among the first to use sounds from outside the frame to place the story in a wider context and capture the throb of everyday life.

As blimps were introduced to muffle the sound of the camera motor, Renoir was able to refine his visual style by following characters around the set, while retaining the depth of field that kept action in focus in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Improved microphones also enabled him to use dialogue to explore social issues and he soon acquired the reputation of being one of cinema's great humanists. Indeed, he was hailed in some quarters as being the cinematic equivalent of novelists Honoré de Balzac or Émile Zola, as he used the screen to chronicle his times.

A still from The Woman in the Window (1944)
A still from The Woman in the Window (1944)

Scripted, photographed, and edited in just three weeks, On purge bébé was a satire on bourgeois mores. But Renoir was more cutting in La Chienne, in which Michel Simon plays a Montmartre cashier who is lured into a web of deceit by prostitute Jamie Marèse. Following their successful teaming in Fritz Lang's thriller, The Woman in the Window (1944), Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett would take the roles in Lang's classic noir remake, Scarlet Street (1945), which is available to rent on high-quality disc via Cinema Paradiso.

In 1932, Renoir cast his brother Pierre as Inspector Jules Maigret in La Nuit du carrefour (aka Night At the Crossroads), which anticipated the style of film noir, as Renoir filmed on location at night This was the first film to feature the Georges Simenon detective who would later be played by Charles Laughton in Burgess Meredith's The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949), Rupert Davies in Maigret (1963), Michael Gambon in Maigret (1993), and Rowan Atkinson in Maigret (2016). Jean Gabin would also take the role in Jean Delannoy's Maigret Sets a Trap (1958) and Maigret and the Saint-Fiacre Case (1959), as well as Gilles Grangier's Maigret Sees Red (1963), which should all have been released on disc in the UK years ago.

A Master At His Peak

Renoir hit his stride with his third talkie, Boudu sauvé des eaux (aka Boudu Saved From Drowning, 1932), which saw Michel Simon repeat his stage triumph in René Fauchois's play, as Priape Boudu, the scurrilous vagrant who takes over the house of the bookseller who had thwarted in suicide attempt in the River Seine. Puncturing middle-class piety and pomposity, this bawdy farces also benefits from the stooging of Charles Granval and Marcelle Hainia as Edouard and Emma Lestingois, whose roles would be taken by Richard Dreyfus and Bette Midler and Gérard Jugnot and Catherine Frot in Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Jugnot's Boudu (2005), in which the interloper is respectively played by Nick Nolte and Gérard Depardieu.

Now regarded as a classic, Renoir's romp went over the heads of French audiences facing the effects of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, playwright Roger Ferdinand asked him to adapt Chotard et cie (aka Chotard and Company, 1933), which starred Fernand Charpin as a grocer who disapproves of his daughter's suitors. Filmed in Provence, this felt like a Marcel Pagnol film and he would facilitate another exercise in location realism, Toni (1935), after Renoir's take on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1934) had proved a commercial disappointment, in spite of solid performances from Valetine Tessier and Pierre Renoir as the unhappily married couple.

Basing himself at Pagnol's studio in Marseille, Renoir cast non-professional Charles Blavette in the title role of his story about an Italian migrant seeking employment in a Provençal quarry. Claude Renoir's fluid camera captured both the landscape and the simmering suspense, as Blavette falls for a Spanish farm girl after marrying his landlady. In many ways, this is a rare example of rural noir, but it also served as a major influence on postwar Italian Neo-realism.

A still from Le Grand jeu (1934)
A still from Le Grand jeu (1934)

Renoir's next outing, however, owed more to the Poetic Realist style that had been fashioned by the likes of Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite and Jacques Feyder's Le Grand jeu (both 1934). Written by Jacques Prévert (who would form a crucial partnership with Marcel Carné, as we saw in Cinema Paradiso's A Brief History of French Poetic Realism ), Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) was a parable about working-class co-operation that was set around the courtyard of a Parisian tenement and was rooted in the policies of the Popular Front. Enacted by members of the Groupe Octobre acting troupe, it was also a cautionary tale, as while the collective formed by Western writer Amédée Lange (René Lefèvre) flourishes, its former owner tries to mount a comeback and pocket the profits.

Renoir would continue to advance the cause of the alliance of left-leaning parties led by Léon Blum in La Vie est à nous (aka Life Belongs to Us, 1936), a loose collaboration with Jacques Becker that linked a series of socio-political vignettes in the manner that Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin would adopt for such Dziga Vertov Group offerings as A Film Like Any Other (1968) and Wind From the East (1970). Ironically, as the film was withheld from the public and limited to licenced screenings, it was only widely seen in France following the May Days of 1968.

Also in 1936, Renoir further touched upon the plight of the marginalised in Les Bas-fonds (aka The Lower Depths), an adaptation of Maxim Gorky's novel that would also be filmed by Akira Kurosawa in 1957. This would be Renoir's first collaboration with Jean Gabin, the actor who would reflect France's self-esteem over the next three years in Jean Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937) and Carné's Quai des brumes (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939), as well as in his collaborations with Renoir.

In 1937, Renoir demonstrated his solidarity with the Republican forces by supervising the French commentary of Joris Ivens's Spanish Civil War documentary, The Spanish Earth. This is available from Cinema Paradiso in a double bill with Russell Palmer's Defenders of the Faith (1938), a piece of Francoist propaganda that had the dubious distinction of including the first actual combat footage ever photographed in colour. Renoir would also remind compatriots of the power of the people in La Marseillaise (1938), an account (financed by trade union subscriptions) of how a marching song became the anthem of the French Revolution against Louis XIV (Pierre Renoir) and Marie Antoinette (Lise Delamare).

A still from La Grande Illusion (1937)
A still from La Grande Illusion (1937)

However, it was to be a pacifist tract that brought Renoir to international attention. Inspired by the exploits of Renoir's fellow wartime pilot, Captain Armand Pinsard, La Grande illusion (1937) examines the relationship between three French prisoners of war, lieutenants Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) - a mechanic and an upper-middle-class Jew - and their commanding officer, Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay), who has more in common with the camp commandant, Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who is also from an aristocratic background.

The project took three years to finance and Adolf Hitler had already broken the terms of the Treaty of Versailles by re-militarising the Rhineland by the time filming commenced in late 1936. Yet, such was Renoir's conviction in the brotherhood of nations that he and co-writer Charles Spaak included a romance between Maréchal and Elsa (Dita Parlo), the widowed German farmwife who shelters him after his escape, even though they don't share a common language.

Unsurprisingly, La Grande illusion was banned in the Third Reich, where Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels dubbed it 'Cinematic Public Enemy No.1'. But Benito Mussolini was so taken by the film that he arranged for a new award, Best Artistic Ensemble, to be inaugurated at the Venice Film Festival. Furthermore, it became the first film not in the English language to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had requested a special screening at the White House and declared, 'All the democracies of the world must see this film.'

Having scored the biggest box-office hit of his career, Renoir chose to adapt one of Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels, La Bête humaine (aka The Human Beast, 1938). He cast Jean Gabin as Jacques Lantier, the locomotive driver who becomes obsessed with Séverine (Simone Simon), the wife of Roubaud (Fernand Ledoux), the deputy stationmaster at Le Harve who committed a murder that Lantier knows has wrongfully been pinned on Cabouche (Jean Renoir).

Fritz Lang would remake the film as Human Desire (1954), with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Broderick Crawford. But Zola's source was also an influence on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), which was filmed as Ossessione (1942) by Luchino Visconti, who twice served as Renoir's assistant director. Cain's hard-boiled thriller would also be adapted in Hollywood, by Tay Garnett in 1946 and Bob Rafelson in 1981.

A still from The Shooting Party (1985)
A still from The Shooting Party (1985)

Renoir would also take a key acting role, Octave, in his next picture, La Règle du jeu (aka The Rules of the Game, 1939). It was made for Nouvelle Édition Française, a production company he had founded with his brother, Claude, and drew on Alfred de Musset's stage comedy, Les Caprices de Marianne, to suggest that the rise of Fascism in Europe had left France 'dancing on the edge of a volcano'. Yet, despite being shrouded in Poetic Realist fatalism, this country house saga is also wittily satirical and its influence is readily evident on both Alan Bridges's The Shooting Party (1985) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001).

The upstairs/downstairs storylines interweave intricately from the moment heroic aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) arrives at Les Colinière, the country estate of Robert, Marquis de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), the husband of Jurieux's lover, Christine (Nora Gregor). Octave acts as their go-between and their secret is also kept by her maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost). She is married to Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the gamekeeper who suspects his wife of a dalliance with a poacher named Marceau (Julien Carette). Adding to the complexities are the fact that Robert is in love with Geneviève (Mila Parély), while Christine has realised that she would rather be with Octave than André.

Keeping Jean Bachelet's camera on the move, while also shooting in depth to show how these two class-riven worlds interact, Renoir explored prejudice, political indecision, heroism, truth, illusion, and what would now be called toxic masculinity. The rabbit-hunting sequence was also recognised as a metaphor for the futility of war and the complicity of the ruling élite in frittering the hard-won peace established at Versailles and placing the entire continent at risk.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the diplomatic situation becoming increasingly perilous, the French authorities took exception to the film when it was released on 7 July 1939. Renoir tried to remove the more contentious passages, but the 86-minute version was banned after six weeks 'to avoid representations of our country, our traditions, and our race that change its character, lie about it, and deform it through the prism of an artistic individual who is often original but not always sound'.

Such was Renoir's undoubted patriotism that he returned to uniform as a reservist. But he would spend the Second World War in exile, while the original negative of his masterpiece was lost in an Allied bombing raid. The truncated version was briefly reissued in 1948, but the cuts had damaged the narrative logic and it was quickly withdrawn. In 1956, however, 224 boxes of out-takes were discovered at a film laboratory in Boulogne-sur-Seine and they contained enough footage for Jean Gaborit and Jacques Maréchal to piece together a 106-minute restoration. Despite only being available in its bowdlerised form, La Règle du jeu was still voted into in the Top 10 in Sight and Sound's inaugural decennial poll of the greatest films of all time in 1952, Indeed, it remained in the first four for half a century before slipping to 13th in the 2022 edition.

The Wandering Years

In mid-July 1939, Renoir was made a lieutenant in the French Army Film Service and dispatched to Rome to work with Carl Koch on Tosca, which was to draw on both Victorien Sardou's 1887 play and Giacomo Puccini's 1900 opera. Renoir was also required to teach at the film school, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in the hope that such cultural exchanges would maintain peace between France and Italy. The initiative failed, however, and Renoir left Koch to complete the picture after Italy declared war in June 1940.

A still from Nanook of the North (1922)
A still from Nanook of the North (1922)

As a pacifist and a supporter of the French Communist Party, Renoir felt unsafe in Paris and documentarian Robert Flaherty (who had produced such key works as Nanook of the North, 1922 and Man of Aran, 1934) helped secure him and future wife Dido Freire a passage to Hollywood in January 1941. Nettled by accusations that he had abandoned La Patrie, Renoir found himself feted but frustrated by his new employers at 20th Century-Fox.'I was quick to realize,' he wrote in his memoirs, 'that what the studio expected of me was not that I should bring my own methods but that I would adopt those of Hollywood. I argued endlessly with Darryl Zanuck who proposed to get me to film French stories, which was the very last thing I wanted.'

After much negotiation, Renoir agreed to direct Dudley Nichols's adaptation of Vereen Bell's novel, Swamp Water (1941), which Zanuck allowed him to film on location in Georgia. Critics were respectful about a drama that sees Okefenokee resident Dana Andrews shelter fugitive Walter Brennan and daughter Anne Baxter after a local deputy is murdered. But the option on a second picture was dropped and Renoir moved on to Universal to direct Deanna Durbin in The Amazing Mrs Holliday (1943).

The singer had done much to keep the studio afloat during the Depression. But she was upset that regular producer Joe Pasternak had been allowed to leave for MGM and a stand-off with the front office resulted in her being suspended. She agreed to return if Renoir directed They Lived Alone, which followed a schoolteacher's efforts to smuggle some Chinese orphans into the United States. Keen to prove herself as a dramatic actress, Durbin had asked for the song count to be reduced. But Universal insisted on the addition of several numbers after Renoir was fired for slow progress after 47 days of shooting. Much of the retitled picture available to rent from Cinema Paradiso was directed by Renoir, but it's credited to producer Bruce Manning.

Undaunted, Renoir reunited with Dudley Nichols on This Land Is Mine (1943), which showed how cowardly teacher Charles Laughton is inspired to support the Resistance by his love for colleague Maureen O'Hara. Unlike much wartime propaganda, this undervalued film blames the French establishment for being unprepared for war and also avoids caricature by showing the Nazis as a cunningly calculated foe. Yet, when he accepted a commission to make A Salute to France (1944) for the US Office of War Information, Renoir was more positive in telling troops preparing for D-Day that occupation didn't mean collaboration and his compatriots that the Allies were liberators and not imperialists. Neither film went down well in France, however.

Having worked on studio sets to create a continental atmosphere, Renoir insisted on location shooting for The Southerner (1945), which was adapted from George Sessions Perry's novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand. Joel McCrea was set to play the Texas cotton farmer fighting the elements and an embittered neighbour to stay in business, but he fell out with Renoir over the screenplay and was replaced by Zachary Scott. His rapport with Betty Field and J. Carroll Naish and Lucien Andriot's dramatic monochrome cinematography helped earn Renoir his sole Oscar nomination for Best Director, However, he lost out to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend.

Renoir did take the Golden Lion at the 1946 Venice Film Festival, although he delayed his return to Europe after becoming a naturalised American citizen. His next project had a decidedly Gallic feel, however, as The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), reworked a stage play that had been adapted from a novel by Octave Mirbeau. Paulette Goddard took the title role alongside husband Burgess Meredith. But this studio-bound comedy proved disappointing, prompting Renoir to reflect, 'My problem in Hollywood was always the same, that the job I'm trying to achieve has nothing to do with the purely industrial side of film. I have never been able to see cinema only on those terms.'

A still from A Day in the Country (1936)
A still from A Day in the Country (1936)

Back in 1936, Renoir had celebrated the election victory of the Popular Front by adapting Guy De Maupassant's story, Partie de Campagne (aka A Day in the Country). Bad weather had plagued the shoot, which had to be abandoned. However, producer Pierre Braunberger was charmed by the story of masher Georges D'Arnoux's efforts to seduce Sylvia Bataille, the daughter of Renoir's rustic restaurateur. Consequently, he released the 40-minute fragment in 1946 and it was subsequently included in a couple of portmanteau pictures, The Ways of Love (1950) and Il Fiore e la violenza (1962).

Determined to make a success of his Hollywood sojourn, Renoir accepted Joan Bennett's offer to turn Michael Wilson's novel, None So Blind, into The Woman on the Beach (1947). Bennett played the femme fatale, who toys with shell-shocked coastguard Robert Ryan and blind painter husband, Charles Bickford. But, despite a happy location shoot, during which Renoir encouraged the cast to improvise, a test screening to a largely teenage audience produced such negative feedback that RKO demanded drastic cutting and the addition of new scenes. The critics were impressed, but the assignment broke Renoir's spirit and he left California with Darryl Zanuck's damning praise ringing in his ears: 'Renoir has plenty of talent, but he's not one of us.'

Following a two-year break, Renoir ventured to Kolkata to adapt Rumer Godden's novel, The River (1951), with the financing being provided by florist Kenneth McEldowney. Shooting in Technicolor for the first time proved something of a problem, as there wasn't a lab nearby to develop rushes. However, nephew Claude Renoir made a magnificent job of capturing the exotic environs, as teenagers Patricia Walters and Adrienne Corri compete for the affections of war-wounded officer, Thomas E. Breen.

Having hoped to land Marlon Brando, Renoir had no idea when he cast the latter that he was the son of Joseph I. Breen, who was the head of the Production Code Office back in Hollywood. Despite warm reviews, however, the film made only a modest impact, although it did persuade assistant Satyajit Ray to give up his office job and become a film-maker. See Cinema Paradiso's The Instant Expert's Guide to the master of Parallel Cinema. Also look out for Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (2007), which was inspired by Renoir's subcontinental stopover.

Old Familiar Places

Throughout his career, Renoir alighted upon an eclectic range of source material. On returning to Europe, he selected a short story by Prosper Mérimée for The Golden Coach (1952), a co-production that was made in English at Cinecittà in Rome and later dubbed into French and Italian. Anna Magnani bursts through the screen as the commedia dell'arte actress who wins the heart of Duncan Lamont, the viceroy of a remote town in 18th-century Peru, who has ostentatiously ordered a golden coach for his aristocratic mistress.

Lustrously photographed in Technicolor by Claude Renoir, this was designed as a tribute to the theatre and sets great store by the stylisation of the décor. François Truffaut felt this was 'the noblest and most refined film ever made', as it demonstrated that people are always performing, whatever their station in life. With music gleaned from Antonio Vivaldi, it was very much a team effort and confirmed production designer Eugène Lourié's observation that 'Renoir compared the functions of a film director with those of a chef in a restaurant. A chef can create great meals, but they are also the result of his collaboration with his helpers, the meat chefs, the wine stewards, the saucemakers, and the rest.'

Despite Éric Rohmer proclaiming it the 'open sesame' of Renoir pictures, The Golden Coach struggled to recoup its costs. Consequently, the director had to wait two years before he could secure the funding for French Cancan (1954), which saw him work in his homeland for the first time in 15 years. Celebrating café culture in Paris in his father's heyday, it also reunited Renoir with Jean Gabin, who plays a Montmartre club owner who is torn between the belly-dancing of mistress María Félix and the high-kicking of laundress Françoise Arnoul. Truffaut enthused about the colours in Max Douy's Joinville sets and how Michel Kelber's camera captured the fin-de-siècle atmosphere. But Renoir felt conflicted about his homecoming and later confessed: 'We returned after a few years to the scenes of our youth and find we cannot recognize them. That is why, for our peace of mind, we must try to escape from the spell of memories. Our salvation lies in plunging resolutely into the hell of the new world, a world horizontally divided, a world without passion or nostalgia.'

A still from Elena et Les Hommes (1956)
A still from Elena et Les Hommes (1956)

He remained in the past, however, for the final part of his unofficial theatre trilogy, Elena et les hommes (aka Paris Does Strange Things, 1956). Filmed on Jean André's sets at Billancourt Studios, the story is also set in the 1890s and often feels like an Impressionist painting brought to life. At its heart is impoverished Polish princess Ingrid Bergman, who has a busy Bastille Day, as no sooner has she become engaged to shoe manufacturer Jacques Jouanneau than she is swept off her feet by dashing count Mel Ferrer and his heroic commander, Jean Marais.

While some picked up echoes of the themes of class and privilege explored in Renoir's 1930s classics, Truffaut felt it was a treatise on sexual attraction. Jean-Luc Godard identified the influence of Luigi Pirandello on the triptych and this could also be felt in the stage plays that Renoir wrote in the 1950s. Having failed to coax Leslie Caron into headlining French Cancan, he wrote the backstage musical, Orvet (1955), specially for her. He also sponsored a Parisian production of Clifford Odets's The Big Knife (1955) and wrote Carola et les cabotins (1957), which he was planning to adapt for American television in 1973 when he fell ill and Norman Lloyd stepped in to direct Carola, with Caron playing the French actress in Occupied Paris who is asked by her theatre manager lover to flirt with the German officer (Mel Ferrer), who is keen to see her perform.

This is another variation on Renoir's contention that all the world's a stage and it's ironic that he employed the techniques of live television on his next two projects. Georges Leclerc supervised the multiple cameras used to shoot Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1959), a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that starred Jean-Louis Barrault as Dr Cordelier and his malevolent alter ego, Opale. Shot on the streets of Paris in bleak monochrome, this experimental horror would make a great Cinema Paradiso double bill with Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage (aka Eyes Without a Face, 1960).

A still from Picnic on the Grass (1959)
A still from Picnic on the Grass (1959)

A further warning about science running rampant was delivered in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (aka Picnic on the Grass, 1959), which took its title from a painting by Édouard Manet and was filmed in the familiar grounds of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's home at Cagnes-sur-Mer. Something of a colour companion piece to Une Partie de campagne, the story turns on the change of mind experienced by biologist Paul Meurisse, an advocate of mandatory artificial insemination who learns about love after meeting farmer's daughter, Catherine Rouvel. Recalling his return to Les Collettes, Renoir wrote: 'I had the immense pleasure of filming the olive trees my dad had so often painted. That movie was like a bath of purity and optimism.'

With its insights into technological progress, rationalism and romance, and the European superstate, this dramedy manages to feel both very modern and a throwback to more innocent times. The same is true of Le Caporal epingle (aka The Vanishing Corporal, 1962), an adaptation of a Jacques Perret tome that is set during the Second World War, but has much to say about contemporary notions of freedom, resistance, and security. Jean-Pierre Cassel took the title role of the habitual fugitive from Nazi labour camps who breaks out again in the company of the intellectual Claude Rich and the proletarian Claude Brasseur.

Filmed in Austria, this reaffirmation of Renoir's pacifist ideals at the height of the Cold War should have led to further projects, as his status grew as a result of the nouvelle vague. But no one was willing to entrust him with feature funding and he had to content himself with writing a biography, Renoir, My Father (1962), and a novel, The Notebooks of Captain Georges (1966), which has never been adapted for the screen.

In 1968, he teamed with Gisèle Braunberger for the short masterclass, La Direction d'acteur par Jean Renoir (1968), which was made in half a day and featured a workshop for a scene taken from Rumer Godden's novel, Breakfast With Nicolaides. This was followed by Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (aka The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir, 1970), a TV feature that grouped three vignettes around the theme 'C'est la revolution'. Renoir himself acted as compère, while Jeanne Moreau featured in the entr'acte.

Now based in Beverly Hills, Renoir came to London for the National Film Theatre's 1975 career restrospective. But he was too frail to return to Europe and had to ask Ingrid Bergman to collect his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars. He died of a heart attack on 12 February 1979 and was buried beside his family at Essoyes in north-central France. Orson Welles wrote a poignant eulogy in the Los Angeles Times, in which he quoted Renoir's lament: 'When I think of the fruitless struggle with which my life has been filled, I am amazed at myself. So many humiliating concessions and wasted smiles. And above all, so much wasted time!' But how many glorious films?

A still from The Vanishing Corporal (1962)
A still from The Vanishing Corporal (1962)
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