‘Everything That Is Alive in Modern Cinema’

Jean Renoir: A Biography

by Pascal Mérigeau, translated from the French by Bruce Benderson, with a foreword by Martin Scorsese
Ratpac Press/Running Press, 942 pp., $35.00 (paper)
David Seymour/Magnum Photos
Jean Renoir with Mel Ferrer and Ingrid Bergman on the set of Elena and Her Men, 1956

In 1961, on a television program for the French network ORTF, the filmmaker Jean Renoir talked about the superior quality of primitive art. The immaculate technique displayed by Greek sculpture of the seventh and fifth centuries BCE is “perfectly boring,” he told the interviewer, Jacques Rivette. But he thought the figures from the Mycenaean period (circa 1600–1100 BCE), though “poorly formed, barely squared-off,” were overwhelming in their artistic and emotional expression. He found similar qualities in Egyptian painting, Etruscan pottery, tapestry before the arrival of high warp and dyeing, and the films of Charlie Chaplin.

In his own work, Renoir—who was born in Paris in 1894—adopted a similar attitude, which he called “simplicity” or “naiveté.” Talking to Rivette and François Truffaut in 1957 for Cahiers du Cinéma’s second Renoir issue, he gave the analogy of a couple who announce: “We’re going to have a magnificent child.” Really, he said, the child “comes by chance, after a good laugh, a picnic, fun in the woods.” Openness to accident was part of his working method. Renoir preferred filming on location, with directly recorded sound, and frequently ignored the shooting script to improvise with regular collaborators like Pierre Renoir (his older brother), Michel Simon, and Jean Gabin. When he was shooting his first film with Gabin, an adaptation of Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths (1936), a snail appeared in the shot. He kept rolling as the actor Louis Jouvet let it crawl on the back of his hand while he delivered a speech. Renoir was keen to preserve the integrity of a performance, and his camera work frequently displays a responsive quality, jerking or pivoting as it strains to track a moving actor or squabbling group without recourse to a cut.

Many critics found Renoir’s work clumsy. Though he gained a popular following with the World War I drama Grand Illusion (1937) and the thriller La Bête Humaine (1938), both of them starring Gabin, it was not until the 1950s that André Bazin, one of the founders of Cahiers du Cinéma, developed a critical language to celebrate Renoir’s ad hoc approach, which he saw as an alternative to the stylization of German Expressionism and the coerciveness of Soviet montage.

Renoir’s taste for the spontaneous and the guileless was reflected in his choice of subjects. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) is about a vagrant who refuses to be civilized after a well-to-do bookseller takes him into his home. The title character of The Crime of Mr. Lange (1936)—an extraordinary fusion of social comment, moral inquiry, satire, suspense thriller, and romance—composes western adventure stories in his spare time. André Jurieu (Roland Toutain), one of the many not-quite-protagonists of Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939), is a great aviator for whom…

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