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by By Jean Roy

Jean Renoir, the Unwavering "Boss"

Translated by Charles L-V

Translated Sunday 18 December 2005, by Charles

A woman’s director? A hopeless optimist? An activist? A materialist and an atheist? Renoir, a multi-faceted director, Renoir himself . . .

In Renoir’s universe, everything is always a family affair. First of all biological, with an older brother, Pierre, who will be the private detective Maigret in The Crossroad Murders as well as Louis XVI in The Marseillaise. With a nephew, Claude, who will become his chief cameraman. Especially with a father, who was a painter to whom he devoted a book, Pierre Auguste, and whose model, Catherine Hessling-who posed nude in his father’s studio—Jean took as his first wife when he was twenty-five years old. Catherine became Jean’s actress, Jean who would love steadfastly those well-rounded, sensual, voluptuous, curvaceous women, right out of the canvases of the master impressionist. Remember Jean preparing his tarragon omelet at the beginning of A Day in the Country, while a family arrives to spend a pleasant moment in his open-air restaurant. “Me, I prefer the mother” he exclaims with sparking eyes staring at this curvaceous creature, ignoring the skinny girl, despite the fact she is played by Sylvia Bataille whose charm did not leave Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan indifferent.

From another point of view, the family in Renoir’s works is also the extended family: the companions on the set, you have fun teaming up with for the shooting, those around the table, with whom you share your fondness for food and the good life, those involving the close affinities thanks to which Life is Ours—a film of propaganda for the Communist Party for the 1936 elections—has the most beautiful theme song in the history of French cinema, because each person is so proud to be in it. Finally, it is fitting to not forget that the Renoir family also includes his spiritual lineage, that school of thought, which, for one reason or another, extends up until today: "Jean Renoir, the boss,” as Jacques Rivette has put it so well, thus calling his dialogue with the elder director for Directors of our time. If you compare the interviews of filmmakers working today, from all the different generations, you will notice that only two names come back with clockwork regularity: Renoir and Bresson.

If Renoir is loved so much, even though some of his movies have been terrible failures, it is undoubtedly because he embodies better than anyone else the French spirit, which is so indefinable. If you say one thing about him, the opposite is also just as true. Let’s draw on the old clichés, in whatever order they may come. Renoir the most French director of all times? Certainly, but if we limit ourselves to that, we would be forgetting the movies from his American period, or The River, that great movie of eternal India. Renoir: A woman’s director? Yes, Catherine Rouvel has never been as desirable as when she swims naked in Lunch on the Grass. But The Grand Illusion or The Elusive Corporal are above all movies having to do with manly friendship. Renoir: an activist filmmaker? He took up the just causes. In addition to Life is Ours, The Marseillaise is a movie glorifying the people, produced in part with money from the CGT workers union, The Human Beast, a title that lays its cards on the table, The Rule of the Game, the perfect portrait of the class-based society of his time, The Crime of Mr. Lange, scathingly anarchistic, Toni, the work that anticipated neo-realism, Salute to France and This Land is Mine, movies marked by the Resistance. But stopping there would be an insult to the author of The French Cancan and Elena and Men. Renoir: A materialist and an atheist filmmaker? Of course, he is at times violently anticlerical in the movies from the period of the Popular Front, a great deal under the influence of his friends in the October group, and we never expected him to bring Bernanos to the screen.

His work is based on, however, as of its beginnings, a vision of the world opposing Dionysiac and Apollinian forces, ignoring the secular doxa of the Third Republic, as it will later on include an interrogation on what in a human being goes beyond the human being: see The River and The Testament of Doctor Cordelier. Renoir: A hopeless optimist? Yes, if you oppose him to Duvivier and in so far as the forces of life coming from nature and sex abound in his works. But, at the same time, so many somber and dark works that reveal the disfigured ex-serviceman from WWI who had believed that at least this one was the last of the last, so many endings marked by a return to order, be it conjugal in A Day in the Country or social in The Rule of the Game. Is Renoir at the service of the actor or does Renoir make the performer adapt to the organization of his vision? Both, my Captain. The Rule of the Game can be analyzed image by image as a film by Lang, Hitchcock or Ozu. However, if you observe attentively the acting of Dalio, Carette, Berri, Michel Simon, Jean Gabin, Gaston Modot, or Renoir himself, it is obvious that there are moments in which they are just coasting along and the filmmaker lets the camera run for the simple pleasure of having them with him. In fact, Renoir is unwavering, and that is why we love him.

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