Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir
Harold and Maude
Hugo says that forty is the old age of youth and that fifty is the youth of old age. These summer and autumn moods where perhaps one is most aware of the poignancy of what has been or what is to come, these seasons of accommodation where one plants and where one reaps, seem to me the apt setting, the characteristic boundaries, of Jean Renoir’s gently radiant, gravely humorous art. In the best of his films—even the Indian exoticism of The River, where three nubile girls stand on the threshold of love, the elegant eleventh-hour romps of The Rules of the Game, the last flings and follies of Boudou Saved from Drowning—there’s always that typical Renoir ripeness, the authority of natural forces, natural events, those strains of lyric simplicity and dark but mellow accountability which Renoir makes so much his own.
The particulars of experience and of character, the particular consequences of choosing—these are for him the only absolutes. He is a man who doesn’t “believe there are such things as absolute truths,” but who does “believe in absolute human qualities”—generosity, most especially. And when one is too young, the heart is generous, but usually only to oneself or to another mirroring oneself. When one is too old, the heart has gone dry, campaigns have ended, advice and sour ironies are what’s left. It’s when one is caught in the middle of the journey, in life’s flow, that one is most open, often against one’s will, to the imperatives of others and the world. Jean Renoir is not the ideal director I would choose, say, for either Romeo and Juliet or Krapp’s Last Tape.
He is the ideal director, though, and has been for years, for the sort of film he virtually invented. When Americans were developing genres, Italians those series of white telephone soap operas that fascinated Mussolini, and the Soviets socialist realism, Renoir in the Thirties brought to the French film a subject and a sensibility that had never been there before, the bittersweet, mildly sardonic, reluctant celebration of one’s humanity and one’s fate that is found so often in the tales of Chekhov and Turgenev and Maupassant. “Mou-Mou,” for instance, a story by Turgenev, where a browbeaten serf is cornered by his chattering distracted mistress into doing away with his one companion in the world, his dog, could easily, in its tart severity, have been a Renoir film. One can even imagine his favorite actor, the shambling, crudely sensitive Michel Simon, in the lead, and one of those feathery forlorn Joseph Kosma scores on the track.
Of course there were earlier examples of what Renoir was after in some of the silents of René Clair and Stroheim and Cavalcanti. Stroheim, in particular, is an acknowledged influence. The exteriors and interiors of San Francisco and Death Valley in Greed, the gaudily emblematic Monte Carlo set in Foolish Wives—these taught Renoir the twin uses …
Renoir’s Spell November 14, 1974