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 instinct always trumps etiquette. A Sunday painter is at the center of Renoir’s first sound film, La Chienne (1931), and a teenage poet is the main character of his first color film, The River (1951), an overwhelming story of unrequited love set in colonial Benghal. The Golden Coach (1953), which marked his artistic return to Europe after World War II, is set among a commedia dell’arte troupe visiting Peru in the eighteenth century, a time before Romanticism when, Renoir argued, “art simply meant doing.” And in his last great film, French Cancan (1954), a laundress who dances at the local inn is plucked for the spotlight by the wily, aging impresario Danglard, played by Gabin in their fourth and final collaboration.

At the time of the ORTF interview, Renoir had recently completed a biographical memoir of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir,1 in which the Impressionist painter, fifty-three when his second son was born, exhibits a similar taste for the unselfconscious—arguing, for example, that the essence of Italy can be found in a humble convent roof. (When Mary Cassatt calls his technique “too simple,” he takes it as a compliment.) There’s no doubt that Renoir inherited a great deal from his father. In the translation of Pascal Mérigeau’s biography of the director, the first in twenty-five years, we learn (from the translator, Bruce Benderson) that much as Auguste called himself a workman-painter, so Jean rejected the conventional word for a film shoot, tournage, in favor of tournaison, which he felt was more modest.

Still, it seems that his long immersion in his father’s world caused the sixty-six-year-old Renoir to overstate the degree to which he had always shared these tendencies. In doing so, he played down his own many-sidedness and the eclecticism of his impulses. During the 1920s, he expended a great deal of effort on what in his memoir My Life and My Films he called “Technical Tricks”—“a scheme for presenting actors against a miniature background,” for instance, or a wooden alternative to the metal “track” on which the camera moved. His films often involved meticulous preparation. In an earlier interview with Rivette and Truffaut from 1954, he compared himself to a man who obsessively rehearses a declaration of love and then ends up saying something completely different. But, he conceded, “having prepared the speech does help a little.”


At times he used shagginess in a self-conscious way. Early in The Rules of the Game, guests are arriving at a country house for a shooting party. The marquise, Christine (Nora Gregor), stands beside the aviator André and, in an effort to diffuse rumors of their affair, delivers a speech in praise of friendship. It’s a formal moment—Gregor and Toutain are the stiffest actors in the film—and the floor of the entrance hall is laid out like a chessboard. Into the space between Christine and André wander Christine’s husband, Robert (Marcel Dalio), and their friend Octave (played by Renoir himself), who proceed to mug and fidget, offsetting the scene’s potential staidness.

In his worldview, too, Renoir achieved a remarkable balancing act. It has become routine to talk about his “humanism,” with reference to the acts of kindness between enemy combatants in Grand Illusion and the claim made by Octave in The Rules of the Game that “everyone has his reasons.” But this is to miss the toughness that runs alongside his warmth. He is never coddling or falsely consoling. The naive mentality, for all its appeal, is shown to be unsustainable in the hard-nosed real world: the Sunday painter and the amateur writer both end up as killers; Nini, the onetime laundress, discovers that life as a professional cancan dancer is built around repetitive practice and concentration on technique.

Truffaut wrote that Renoir’s brew consisted of “warm piss and deep faith,” and his desire for human harmony never blinds him to the forces ranged against it. Renoir was a poet of the handshake and the embrace, a believer in romantic love and spiritual kinship, who also shot memorable scenes of selfishness, treachery, calamity, and violence. A recurring symbol in his films is the open window that extends a promise of connection. Sometimes the distance cannot be breached, or else a heavy price is paid for crossing it; connection for some entails exclusion for others. In La Marseillaise (1938), a would-be revolutionary with family obligations is pained to hear his comrades leaving for Paris. His mother urges him to go. Moments later, he can also be heard, running and singing as he hurries to join the group. But the camera stays with the mother, who sits glumly at the kitchen table, begging her daughter-in-law to close the window.

Renoir’s life was long, phenomenally productive, and densely and exotically populated. As a child, he spent summer nights in Normandy in a bed occupied during the winter by Oscar Wilde. Among his companions in his later years were Clifford Odets, Warren Beatty, and Henry Miller, at whose fifth marriage he served as a witness. Mérigeau provides a full account of Renoir’s experiences, constructed from interviews with two dozen subjects and the copious Renoir papers at UCLA, as well as archives in Paris and Brussels. With the help of Renoir’s only child, Alain—who was born in 1921 and became a professor of medieval English literature at Berkeley—he has compiled a five-page account of Renoir’s failed rapprochement with the anti-Semitic novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline over the sympathetic depiction of the Jewish character, Rosenthal, in Grand Illusion—an incident not mentioned in Célia Bertin’s Jean Renoir: A Life in Pictures (1991) and confined to a parenthesis in Ronald Bergan’s Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise (1992). There are sharp chapters on Renoir’s involvement with the Popular Front, for which he served as something like the in-house filmmaker during the mid-1930s, and on his emigration in 1940 to the United States, where he lived until his death in February 1979.

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Pierre Fresnay and Jean Gabin on the set of Grand Illusion, 1937

Renoir grew up in Montmartre and in houses at Essoyes, in Champagne, and at Cagnes-sur-Mer, in Provence, on an estate with hundreds of fruit trees and rosebushes. Mérigeau presents the young Renoir as a loafer and dabbler. But when he was twenty-five, his life began to take shape. Within the space of two months, between November 1919 and January 1920, he was discharged from the military, his father died, and the nineteen-year-old Andrée Heuschling, one of his father’s favorite models, became his wife. Renoir devoted most of the 1920s—and a chunk of his inheritance—to turning Heuschling into a film star, under the screen name Catherine Hessling, and though he failed in this effort, he found his vocation.


Most of Renoir’s oeuvre can be divided into four periods that correspond to four decades. There were the silent films he made with Hessling; the run of fifteen black-and-white sound films he made in France; the work he did for Hollywood studios and distributors; and the late color films made in India and Europe. No one ever called Renoir an important silent director. With one notable exception, The Southerner (1945), a canny portrait of Texas tenant farmers, his career in America is the story of a gun-for-hire struggling to achieve independence from the moguls who oversaw his productions. The Renoir films that today are recognized as his finest belong to the 1930s and 1950s, most notably Boudu, the ravishing short A Day in the Country (1936), Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, and The Golden Coach.

By the 1950s Renoir’s sensibility seemed to have moved from realism to artifice, from pastoral to pageantry, culminating in The Golden Coach, French Cancan, and Elena and Her Men (1956), films about the fragile border between life onstage and off. In fact, he never drew such a clean distinction between the theatrical and the naturalistic. His earliest work in sound, all done with the Swiss stage actor Michel Simon, comprises two adaptations of farces (Purging Baby, 1931, Boudu) as well as the crime drama La Chienne, a realist film that comes bookended with a puppet show commenting on the action. Of his later films, The River has the most glowing picture of the natural world; it also contains an elaborate invented story within the story, and the heroine’s voiceover introduces the viewer to “this motion picture, filmed entirely in India.” In French Cancan, a tale of showbiz chicanery unfolds against a lovingly detailed pastoral backdrop—belle époque Montmartre.

Renoir seemed to have achieved a sense of what he called “equilibrium” more often than he realized. Looking back, he said that he made the “dramatic fantasia” The Rules of the Game as a response to his adaptation of Zola’s La Bête Humaine (about a disturbed train driver who becomes implicated in a murder) in which he had been keen to please admirers of the novel’s flinty “naturalism.” But even when he was making that film, he also tried to channel the “poetic” Zola found in books like La Joie de Vivre (1883), and La Bête Humaine is often grouped with Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938) in the noir-like genre known as “poetic realism.”

His influence was enormously varied. By the time of his death, he had affected the style, philosophy, or methods of at least three generations of filmmakers. While he was making Toni (1935), his unvarnished portrayal of love and murder among Italian immigrants, Renoir gave his assistant, Luchino Visconti, a copy of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti later adapted the novel as the Toni-like Ossessione (1943), his first film, and the first film associated with the blend of documentary and melodrama known as neorealismo. In 1957, Visconti’s colleague Roberto Rossellini told Renoir that “everything that is alive in modern cinema comes directly or indirectly from you.”

This was before Renoir’s most influential film had even appeared in full. A truncated version of The Rules of the Game, imposed by the distributors, had long been a favorite at the ciné-clubs—Alain Resnais recalled a 1944 screening that left him in a state of shock—but in 1959, the year that Renoir’s Cahiers champions became the nouvelle vague, a cut closer to his original version was screened at the Venice Film Festival, bringing it new devotees. The Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci said that seeing The Rules of the Game in the early 1960s had a convulsive, life-changing impact on him. Later in the decade Renoir was an inspiration—and in some cases a friend—to many directors associated with the burgeoning New Hollywood: Robert Altman, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Mazursky, Woody Allen.

As an archive-trawling sort of biographer, Mérigeau isn’t much inclined toward critical reflection, but he also fails in basic duties. Though he devotes around fifteen pages to each of Renoir’s films, from Une Vie sans Joie (1924) to The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (1970), he rarely provides a plot synopsis. We don’t hear any of Renoir’s shifting views on art, creativity, or his own practice, partly because Mérigeau is suspicious of his subject’s own testimony and partly because he is too busy skewering long-forgotten rumors (no, that isn’t Renoir’s assistant Jacques Becker in a 1936 photograph), obsessing over tiny discrepancies (over the number of people at a screening), and killing off theories that barely exist—for example, that Truffaut’s film The Last Metro was indebted to Renoir’s play Carola.2

Mérigeau’s accounts rarely illuminate the films. He says that the sequence in French Cancan in which the impresario Danglard notices Nini at the White Queen, the cheap dance hall that makes way for the Moulin-Rouge, was compromised by a tight schedule. In fact, the relatively brief ten-week shoot—as opposed to twelve or fifteen—would have been mitigated by the production’s access to two studios. It’s an example of research (and defective at that) clouding the matter—blocking the screen. In a marvelous forty-second lateral shot, Renoir brings together a cast of characters—pimps, officers, laundry girls, entertainers, royalty—necessary to his portrayal of a Paris riven by competing interests and ideals. Mérigeau supplies detail about the script’s successive drafts, but, seemingly more interested in the versions that weren’t made (directed by Yves Allégret, or starring Leslie Caron) than the one that was (with Françoise Arnoul in the lead), he doesn’t track the emergence of the film’s most surprising and radical feature—the way that Danglard, after years specializing in exotic entertainment, chooses instead late in his career to peddle a consoling, caricatured Frenchness, presenting to his Moulin-Rouge patrons a vision of the Montmartre he has just had a part in destroying.

Mérigeau’s blinkered approach to French Cancan—he thinks the film consists of “music, songs, colors, movement…nothing more”—is typical of his distaste for the postwar Renoir, whom he presents as a cynical self-mythologist telling the indulgent and credulous Cahiers crowd exactly what they wanted to hear. Words of caution about Renoir’s persona—bumptious and wistful, aw-shucks yet all-seeing—date at least as far back as Raymond Durgnat’s excellent study Jean Renoir (1974).3 Mérigeau writes as though his subject had never before been doubted, rebuking him for cultivating “the Renoir legend,” for “playing Jean Renoir” with glee and skill. He seems especially annoyed that Renoir, who only proselytized because the occasion “called for it,” was treated as a philosopher. Yet like so many before him, he cannot resist quoting, again and again, the phrase “everyone has his reasons” from The Rules of the Game, which he plainly views as a wise and perceptive motto.

If Mérigeau really wanted to present a new version of Renoir, he should have scrutinized the context of this sentiment in The Rules of the Game, where it is uttered by the hapless Octave and exposed as an idealist position impossible to reconcile with the realities of human conduct. The idea that everyone has his reasons works better as a principle governing a storyteller’s relationship to his characters, though Mérigeau badly misrepresents its import here as well. He calls Renoir “a director whose movies fully take the side of every character, one after another,” at one point going as far as to say that in his work, “everyone has his reasons, of course, and one person’s reasons are worth just as much as another’s.” It’s true that Renoir’s films acknowledge disparate points of view; his unusual wartime propaganda film, This Land Is Mine (1943), gives even the Nazi position a hearing. But claiming to know his characters’ reasons, let alone comparing them, is what Renoir wants to resist. With a couple of exceptions—in La Bête Humaine, for example, he retained Zola’s account of the hero’s inherited flaws—it’s hard to think of a Renoir film that makes anything like these presumptive claims. Mérigeau’s reading denies Renoir’s greatest attribute—his embrace of the tentative, his aversion to the doctrinal and fixed.

There is a moment in The Rules of the Game of which Renoir felt especially proud. Robert, the marquis, stands before a roomful of guests, preparing to unveil a vast mechanical organ. Though he can barely contain his glee—it’s the pride of his collection—his body language is jittery and he gives a nervous laugh. Talking to the actor Marcel Dalio decades later, Renoir called it “the best shot I’ve ever done in my life…. The mixture of humility and pride, of success and doubt. Nothing definite. It borders on many things.”