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 of the naturalistic and theatrical. Also the absence of cutting in Stroheim’s films, the disavowal of montage, the steady concentration of physical detail, the background that is brought to the foreground, added, surely, to Renoir’s repertoire; for contrary to André Bazin, his countryman did not miraculously happen upon “deep focus” or “the continuation of dramatic space and, of course, its duration,” at the end of the Thirties with The Rules of the Game. Stroheim had broken the ground earlier—and in Hollywood.
But Renoir did go beyond his predecessors, I think, in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Partly because, though he had been at work in the Twenties, it was only with the advent of sound, which he found exhilarating, that he really hit his stride. (How often what his characters say and how and why they say it seem exquisitely matched.) Partly too because of the expansiveness of his nature, the ease and freedom and rapidity of movement with which he works—and the eccentricity as well. And partly—or most of all—because of the sheer breadth and verisimilitude of his canvas.
Renoir can be both plain and eloquent, joyous and somber, can blend the sweet and salty, the sour and bitter. He has an extraordinary sympathy for the human body, for its failings and its glories, for “the gesture of a laundress, of a woman combing her hair before a mirror, of a street-hawker near a car”—images gleaned, as he says, from a study of his father’s paintings and the paintings of the other Impressionists, to which he would add his own disarming sense of the casual or idiosyncratic: how people work or play or gather in groups (a Renoir specialty), how out of provincial or urban gloom, a foredefeated routine, unexpectedly a freshet springs, a storm erupts; or one of those brisk winds, prevailing in his comedies, suddenly sweeps away the pollutants of a stale life, carrying health and energy in its wake.
During the Thirties Renoir never seemed to have much of the showy, the emphatic style popular among his competitors, and so was often thought inferior to them. Yet he could create visual vignettes in a matter of seconds. The geranium in Grand Illusion flourishing in Stroheim’s rocky fortress where nothing grows but ivy and nettles, which we alter see him pluck after the death of Pierre Fresnay—that scene has an oddly chaste and perfunctory quality which always strikes me as far more moving than similar symbolic touches in Duvivier and Feyder. Or the fog in La Nuit du Carrefour or La Chienne—artistically it’s rather crude, but today how uncomposedly full of life, how much more genuine it appears when we compare it to the decorous oppressive weather of a film by Carné.
Fogs, rivers, trees, houses, courtyards, sunlight, shade—in Renoir things exist in their own right. (“Things are. Why manipulate them?” asks Rossellini, echoing the older director.) The Paris-Le Havre train so prominent in the drama of Human Beast, under which the hero plunges to his death—that is there as a brute stubborn fact of nature or of the environment, not as some sort of tone poem as are the more famous instances of trains in Brief Encounter or Shanghai Express. Character actors, minor performers, too, always have their day; Gaston Modot or Julien Carette, with their laconic or homey irascibility, often appear more indispensable to Renoir than his star.
Yet even when he does use a star, a sacred monster, as he does enchantingly with Ingrid Bergman in Elena et les Hommes, tempestuously with Anna Magnani in The Golden Coach, though allowed an aria here and there, these ctresses are never encouraged to disturb the balance, ultimately must prove their mettle in ensemble. For that is how Renoir sees the world: not as figures in a landscape but a landscape absorbing the figures in it—that is, if they’re ready to allow the absorption, “to absorb material,” “to digest it and pass it on”: a sacred or profane transfiguration which, as he says over and over, should be the proper pursuit of every artist.
Of course there are things wrong with Renoir too. In his fidelity to life, including the famous “dance of life,” Renoir can seem, intermittently, circuitous, even sloppy. He has none of the perfectly crafted moods, the superbly sustaining longueurs of later directors, of Bergman or Antonioni. And though he has a strong sense of narrative connectives, of “sequence shots” (he must be one of the few fashionable auteurs who consistently tell a story), these traditional properties are disjunctive rather than tensed, with Renoir forever roughening or sharpening the edges. And that can be dismaying.
In The Rules of the Game, that gallopade of the French haut monde and its wicked ways on the eve of the Second World War, there are so many turnabouts, so many snippets of slapstick that no matter how often I’ve seen the film there are always the moments where I’m left wondering how things can ever be set straight. But then will come, say, the scene of the hunt and the shoot—the Marquis, his guests, his estate, the pheasants and rabbits, the marshlands and forests, the rivalry between the servants, even the flimsy business of the Marquise discovering the adultery of her husband—and suddenly how the farcical bits and pieces cohere, how galvanic and tender and surpassingly humorous the story seems! For Renoir is one of those daredevils who delights in keeping his mastery in reserve, in pretending he’s just an old duffer out for a stroll, and then in a flash making his leap, his coup.
Similarly in A Day in the Country, initially we’re watching an unpromising set of caricatures, the sort of folk who’d be at home in Carverville with Andy Hardy, until we witness, early in the film, the mother and daughter in their white Parisian frocks laughing and sitting on the swings beneath the trees in the garden of an inn, guiltily espied by a passing group of young seminarians in black—and at a stroke, we have a whole other world: nineteenth-century bourgeois France in miniature.
As we all know Renoir is the most democratic, most ecumenical of directors: in his films everyone is always a little bit right and always a little bit wrong. The most memorable line of The Rules of the Game—spoken by Octave, the amiable fraud, sardonic sponger, artist manqué, who is played by Renoir himself—is, “There’s one thing, do you see, that’s absolutely terrifying, and that is that everyone has his reasons.” Of course Renoir never explores the terror; he’s both too earthy and diffident for that. Rather he domesticates it. In him the family romance is extended and embodied in the romance of different classes, different types; in the contrasting, affectionate, biting portraits of warder and poacher, lover and cuckold, bourgeois and bohemian; in those contrapuntal touches or surprises; the northerly effects we get in his warm transparently simple rustics, the southerly effects in his suave knotty sophisticates. And if he’s stoical or realist enough to accept that there are political, social, and psychological irreconcilables among us, still he’s humanist enough to believe that a shared sorrow, a shared adversity can spring traps, that an enemy wounded is an enemy no longer, that empathy, if we dig down deep enough, is at the heart of the world—his world, anyway.
There’s a beautiful illustration of what I’m talking about in a scene from probably the most popular of his films, Grand Illusion, which is about German prison camps during the First World War. Jean Gabin has gone stir crazy, shouting and banging his head against the wall of his small cell. An old German wearily enters, attempts to comfort the distraught fellow. But they share no common language. He offers him cigarettes, but that does no good; he offers him his harmonica, but the result is the same; he drops the harmonica on Gabin’s bunk and leaves. A little while later we hear the faltering strains of a melancholy waltz. The old German beams, and then when another guard asks him what the ruckus was about, he sighs and says, “It’s the war. It’s gone on too long.” The scene is just a sketch, no doubt even a bit sentimental, but emotionally it has an unspoilable rightness and tact. We learn everything about Gabin through the old German, everything about the old German through his reaction to Gabin. That’s the Renoir strategy of reconciliation, his famous double movement, opposing forces that unite, each in his own way.