Jean Renoir (1894-1979)

Jean Renoir (1894-1979)

Arguably one of the most significant French filmmakers ever, "Jean Renoir was born in Paris, Chateau des Brouillards, near the Butte Montmartre on the 15 September 1894, son of the renowned painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, then 53, and his wife Aline, née Charigot. Jean's elder brother, the actor Pierre Renoir, was born in 1885, and his younger brother Claude in 1901. Claude became a film producer and should not be confused with the younger Claude Renoir, born in 1913. who is Pierre's son, and the director's nephew. Young Jean was sent to the College Saint-Croix at Neuilly, described as "a sort of elegant prison" from which he played truant at frequent intervals. At the turn of the century the family began their regular visits to the South of France, staying from 1903 at the Maison de 1a Poste at Cagnes-Sur-Mer. While his parents were at Cagnes, Renoir attended the Lycée at Nice, obtaining his baccalaureat with distinction in 1910.

Young Jean Renoir

"I began to realise that my father was an imponant artist, and it rather frightened me, and 1 tried to set my mind to everything that was contrary to art. So I dreamed of being a businessman, a grocer, an agriculturalist in Algeria. I was very fond of horses, and so I wanted to be a cavalry officer." In 1913 he enlisted in the cavalry, not, as his social background would have indicated, as an officer, but as an ordinary soldier. The first World War found him an N.C.O. in the Dragoons stationed at Vincennes. Arter a fairly serious injury occasioned by a kick from his horse, Jean was sent to the front early in 1915 as a sub-lieutenant in the Chasseurs Alpins (light infantry). In April a bullet fractured the neck of his femur. Gangrene set in and his leg would have been amputated bUI for his mother's intervention. After months of convalescence Jean was left with a marked limp for life.

His mother died at 56 in June 1915, and Jean was sent home from hospital on crutches to find his father painting in his wheelchair. He discovered the cinema, and was immediately enthusiastic. "Rare were the weeks in which I didn't see 25 films, all American, of course. It was almost an enchantment." There was still no thought of making films.

Jean Renoir

By early 1916 Renoir was accepted as an observer in the photographic branch of the flying corps. He survived further injuries sustained during a crash land ing and eventually flew Voisins and twin-engined Brequets. He returned home in 1918. Some critics have implied that Renoir was taken prisoner but no detailed biography mentions any such event.

Unclear as to which direction in life to take, and following his father's advice not to make up his mind too quickly, he collaborated as a ceramicist with his father and his brother. A few weeks after his father's death in December 1919, he married Andrée Heuschling who was his father's model and who became, for his films, Catherine Hessling. His son Alain was born in 1922 and is now Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. By this time Jean had set up a ceramic workshop with an associate of his father's in the Midi. His works earned him some esteem and many were immediately acquired by galleries and museums. Financial viability was of little importance since Auguste had left each of his sons a number of canvases and a very substantial fortune.

In an article entitled Souvenirs, written in 1938, Jean Renoir has recounted his own discovery of the cinema. His first memory is of a showing of some views of Paris and a comic film, The Adventures of Auto-Maboul (Auto-Maniac), one Sunday morning in 1902 at school on a strange apparatus, the cinematograph. He was eight years old. "The postwar period was something of a golden age for film enthusiasts. It was the great moment of the American cinema. The major theatres despised it and preferred pretentious idiocies clumsily played by antiquated actors, or else absolute ly ridiculous Italian features. The American movies came out in the very cheap little theatres. The programme changed twice a week. For months at a time I saw two or three shows a day."

La règle du jeu - Jean Renoir

"One day, at the Colisée, I saw Le brasier ardent, directed by and starring Mosjoukine. The theatre booed and whistled. I was overwelmed. At last I had before my eyes a good film made in France. Naturally, it had taken a Russian to make it, but it had been made at Montreuil, in a French atmosphere, under our own skies: and it was being shown in a major theatre. Without success, but it was being shown. After four years, I decided to put aside my craft, which was ceramics, and attempt to make films."

Pierre Renoir and his wife, Vere Sorgine, were already leading lights in the Paris theatre, and had starred in movies. They introduced Jean to Alberto Cavalcanti, and to their theatrical colleagues. According to Pierre Leprobon, the actor Alben Dieudonne (later Abel Ganee's Napoleon) took the initiative and found in Renoir a financier-producer more congenial to artistic freedom than the magnates for whom he had hitherto worked.

Renoir provided the finance and a story outline for Une vie sans joie, with Dieudonne directing and playing a leading role opposite Catherine Hessling (she later asserted that Renoir had threatened to "assert his marital authority" to force his reluctanl starlet before the cameras). The film was shot during 1924 in the Gaumont Studios with exteriors at Cagnes-Sur-Mer and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, ran about 80 minutes and was released in the same year.

Catherine Hessling in Nana (1926)

All critical accounts of the film are scant and summary. Some publicity material atributed the title of co-director to Renoir. There seem to have been some tensions since Dieudonne went to the trouble of declaring (in Cinéa-Cité, 5 January 1926) that he was the sole director of a screen play which he composed from Renoir's outline, and "furthermore M. Jean Renoir was both my sleeping partner and my pupil." The film did not prove a success, and was no doubt hampered by its drab and depressing title. The following year Dieudonne re-edited it, and added some addilional material. It was released under a more prepossessing title, Catherine, in April 1927." [2]

Jean Renoir apparently had a strong desire to make a film star out of Hessling. "Indeed, nearly all of Renoir’s early films feature Hessling quite prominently. These include Une vie sans joie (1924), La Fille de l’eau (1925), Nana (1926), Sur un air de Charleston (1927), Marquitta (1927), La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928), and Tire-au-flanc (1928). Renoir made two other silent films, Le tournoi dans la cité (1928) and Le bled (1929). What unites all of these silent films, despite their wide array of topics, is the predominance of image and the experimentation with form. It is almost natural for a silent filmmaker to be preoccupied with the visuals of films since there was not yet sound. And yet Renoir, even early on, demonstrated an awareness of the symbolic potential of the film image that was well beyond that of his peers. There were early experiments in the light-dark contrasts that would characterize the later wave of Le Réalisme poétique or poetic realism, with which Renoir would be associated. Moreover, there is evident in these silent films a type of impressionism that some have said united elements of his father’s philosophy of the image with the poetics of the German avant-garde. All of these films are still in existence with the exception of Marquitta (1927), which is believed lost." [1]

La règle du jeu - Nora Gregor, Jean Renoir, Roland Toutain

In 1929, "Renoir's career seemed to many critics in a sad decline from poetic promise to inexpert commercialism. He was already anxious to shoot La chienne, based on a novel by Jean de la Fouchardiere. But nearly two years passed (during which time, in 1930. he and Catherine Hessling were separated) before a film was offered him, and then it was very much of a hack job, obtained thanks to his old friend Pierre Braunberger. Braunberger had formed a company with Roger Richebe, bought the studios at Billancourt, and re-equipped them for sound. Richebe had to be convinced that Renoir could work rapidly enough to justify La chienne, and: "My first sound film was in the nature of an examination. I managed to get the assignment of shooting On purge bébé, adapted from Feydeau."

The scenario of On purge bébé was written inside one week. Shooting took either four or six days in July 1931 (Renoir giving different figures in different interviews) at the rate of 30 or 40 shots a day. In six days the film was edited down from over 2,000 metres to 1,700, and its Paris premiere took place in August, 14 days after shooting ended. The film cost 200,000 francs, recovered its cost during the first week's showing, and rapidly earned its producer well over a million francs.

Though On purge bébé was hardly of Renoi r's choosing, it seems to bridge the motifs dominating his first and second creative periods, and inaugurates Renoir's dominant theme throughout the early 30's. This is the relationship between the bourgeois order and a disorder which is sometimes freedom, sometimes chaos.

Produced by the Braunberger-Richebe team, La chienne was shot partly at Billancourt Studios but also extensively on location. The film was premiered at Nancy early in November 1931 and in Paris on the 19th." [2]

I made the film with no concern whatever for the producers' desiderata. I never showed a single portion of my rough cut or the least scrap of dialogue, and I made arrangements for the rushes to be all but invisible until the end of shooting. And that was when the scandal burst. The producer expected a comedy and found himself watching a sombre, desperate drama whose only attraction was a murder which was by no means agreeable according to the taste of the time. I was chased out of the studio , and in particular the cutting rooms, and as every day I tried to get in, the police were sent for. Once the producer had pieced together the version he wanted, he realised that it wouldn't work and that, having lost either way, he might as well let me manage my way. I got back into my cutting room and could more or less repair the damage.

La chienne "is one of the first Renoir films to interrogate human nature and the interaction between flawed human beings and an equally or perhaps more flawed social system. It is the story of an aging man, Legrand, who wishes to be a great painter, and it recounts his chance meeting with Lulu, the girlfriend of a thug and con artist. The film depicts Legrand’s subsequent involvement with Lulu and the misery this adulterous relationship brings to all involved. The central preoccupation of the film is one of flawed people in a fundamentally flawed society, and it repeats everywhere in Renoir’s other films." [1]

Jean Renoir

"With La chienne Jean Renoir had hit on just this mixture of ingredients which was to prove the passkey for the French film-maker. In a sense it was an aesthetic reaction, a move backwards to the 19th-century novel, with its concern for psychological consistency-in-depth, its sense of social context. But it was also a move towards the cultural mainstream. Whether this particular subject, at this time, put out cold, would have attracted a public capable of recognising its coalescence of attractions and cultures, remains doubtful. But the producer was able to exploit the public's appetite for scandal, and its immense commercial success was a potent influence on the French cinema." [2]

Later, Renoir attributed the renaissance of the French cinema to the advent of sound. "... there was a sudden and magical transformation. It was as if someone had opened a secret door communicating between the film-maker and the audience. It was a great feeling. Everything we did the audience understood. The French cinema would not have made those enormous strides towards maturity without this wonderfully receptive audience."

"If Renoir established his reputation during the silent era, it is typically his early sound films that are remembered as his greatest works. Among these, La chienne (1931), Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), Une partie de campagne (1936), La grande illusion (1937), La Marseillaise (1938), La bete humaine (1938), and La regle du jeu (1939) are all considered masterpieces. Renoir’s other films from the 1930s include Chotard et Cie (1932), La nuit du carrefour (1932), Madame Bovary (1933), Toni (1935), Les Bas-fonds (1936), and La vie est a nous (1936), which Renoir later disavowed.

Les bas-fonds - Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir

Boudu sauvé des eaux is the story of a good Samaritan who rescues a homeless man from the Seine and who is then left to deal with the man he has saved, who turns out to be very different than the helpless innocent the man had imagined. Une partie de campagne is the story of a petit-bourgeois family’s Sunday picnic. However, the film, which features stunning visuals that reproduce paintings from Fragnonard and Renoir, is a merciless critique of social class and the interaction between class and gender. The critical exploration of class and gender is not quite so brutal as it is in the later film La Regle du jeu, the story of a weekend hunting party at a stately country house, but it is nonetheless quite dark. La Bete humaine, about love and betrayal and life in the working classes, is equally dark, but one could expect little else from a film adapted from the novel by Émile Zola. La grande illusion is a somber, pensive, visually stunning reflection on the utter senselessness of war, and it is set against an exploration of the potential breakdown of class relations in the context of such destabilizing events as war. It is both hopeful and dark at the same time and widely considered perhaps the greatest film Renoir ever made.

Against these somber, yet always meditative explorations of the human condition, Renoir created films such as Le crime de Monsieur Lange, which presents the murder of the despicable owner of a printing shop and the formation of a workers’ cooperative in the shop after his death. There is again the hope and darkness, although the formation of the workers’ cooperative has often been read as the hopeful looking toward the Front Populaire in France. The film is also significant for its casting of all the members of the Groupe Octobre. There is also La Marseillaise, which is both homage to the Revolution and a warning that the victories of that revolution could well be lost. This is Renoir from the period in French film associated with le réalisme poétique. Renoir’s gaze in the films from the 1930s is clearsighted and critical, hopeful and poetic, light and dark at the same time. The poetry of his images and his play with genre and structure contrast with the often somber realism of the camera’s gaze. The great Jean Gabin was the star of most of Renoir’s films from this period, although Renoir also cast Marcel Dalio in several of them. He was one of the few directors to make full use of Dalio’s great talent.

Swamp Waters - Dana Andrews, Virginia Gilmore, Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir also began work on Tosca (1941), which was being made in Italy as war broke out. The film was finished without Renoir, who returned to France, but ultimately left again as France surrendered to the Nazis. Renoir spent the war years in Hollywood, where he made films in English, including Swamp Water (1941), The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943), This Land is Mine (1943), Salute to France (1944), The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), The Woman on the Beach (1947), and The River (1951). While these films are almost universally seen as less coherent and less forceful than Renoir’s French films, they are, nonetheless, solid works that exhibit many of Renoir’s filmmaking characteristics. They deal with pressingly realist social issues, from adoption, to Occupation and resistance, to dirt farming, to colonial class politics. They are visually stunning, and they are bittersweet explorations of the human condition. The films have different strengths, although it is worth noting that André Bazin was quite taken with Diary of a Chambermaid, which he classified as a burlesque tragedy, and which he considered the best of Renoir’s Hollywood films.

LLe carrosse d'or - Duncan Lamont, Anna Magnani, Jean Renoir

Renoir returned to France in 1951 and resumed making films there, although he ultimately renounced his French citizenship and became an American citizen. His later films include Le carrosse d’or (1953), a French-Italian coproduction; French Cancan (1955), a musical film set in the Moulin Rouge; Eléna et les hommes (1956), the story of a pre–World War I love triangle involving a Polish countess; Le testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959), a retelling of the Jekyl and Hyde story; Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959), another painting-inspired exploration of class and gender roles but in a completely different era than that of Une partie de campagne (1936); and Le caporal épingle (1962), another exploration of the experiences of prisoners of war. As may be evident, several of these later films directly revisit the themes of Renoir’s early films and the visual style remains largely unchanged, although the dominance of color film by this time gives a different dimension to the images on the screen, which become more realist and less poetic. If these films are not quite the equals of the films of the 1930s, it must, nonetheless, be pointed out that no serious critic anywhere ever accused Renoir of ever making a bad film.

Le Caporal épinglé - Jean Renoir

In addition to directing, Renoir wrote or contributed to the screenplays of nearly all of his films. He also acted in a good many of them, including Une vie sans joie, Une partie de campagne, La vie est a nous, La bete humain, and La regle du jeu. He also appeared in films by other filmmakers, including Alberto Cavalcanti’s Le petit chaperon rouge (1930) and Roberto Rosselini’s L’amore (1948). Probably Renoir’s most memorable performances in film were as the wolf in Cavalcanti’s Le petit chaperon rouge (1930) and as Octave in La regle du jeu (1939). Renoir also produced several of his own films including Une vie sans joie, La fille de l’eau, Nana, Le crime de Monsieur Lange, La Marseillaise, This Land is Mine, and The River.

Renoir retired from the cinema in 1962. He was, even during the 1930s, considered one of the greatest directors to make films. However, it was about the time of his retirement that he was elevated to the status of legend, as many of the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, inspired, no doubt, by their mentor Bazin, rediscovered Renoir’s films. Alain Resnais, in particular, was extremely moved by Renoir’s films, but all of the directors associated with the movement hailed Renoir as the type of filmmaker in whose footsteps they followed. Renoir’s reputation since that time has held fast, and he is regarded as one of the greatest directors ever to make films." [1]


  • Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (1970)
  • Le caporal épinglé (1962)
  • Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1959)
  • Le testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959)
  • Elena et les hommes (1956)
  • French Cancan (1954)
  • Le carrosse d'or (1952)
  • The River (1951)
  • The Woman on the Beach (1947)
  • The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)
  • The Southerner (1945)
  • Salute to France (1944)
  • This Land Is Mine (1943)
  • The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943) (uncredited)
  • Swamp Water (1941)
  • Tosca (1941) (uncredited)
  • La règle du jeu (1939)
  • La bête humaine (1938)
  • La marseillaise (1938)
  • La grande illusion (1937)
  • Les bas-fonds (1936)
  • La vie est à nous (1936) (collective)
  • Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)
  • Partie de campagne (1936)
  • Toni (1935)
  • Madame Bovary (1933)
  • Chotard et Cie (1933)
  • Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932)
  • La nuit du carrefour (1932)
  • La chienne (1931)
  • On purge bébé (1931)
  • Le bled (1929)
  • Le tournoi dans la cité (1928)
  • Tire au flanc (1928)
  • La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)
  • Marquitta (1927)
  • Sur un air de Charleston (1927)
  • Nana (1926)
  • La fille de l'eau (1925)
  • Une vie sans joie (1924) (co-director)