The greatest

By Michael Roberts

"For my part, that every human creature, artist or otherwise, is largely the product of his environment. It is arrogance for us to believe in the supremacy of the individual... We do not exist through ourselves alone but through the environment that shapes us"
~ Renoir's foreword to his autobiography 'My Life and My Films'

It may not be going out on much of a limb to agree with Orson Welles, John Ford and François Truffaut that Jean Renoir was the greatest film director of all time, but it's the depth and lasting impact of his films that forces me to agree with those cinematic heavyweights. Renoir was the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the famous Impressionist artist and grew up in a world of culture and ideas surrounded by women, and after WWI he stumbled into filmmaking primarily in an attempt to make his then wife, Catherine Hessling, a movie star. Renoir worked in silent film, making his independent productions as an impulsive amateur, and often financing them by lifting a canvas of his father's off his wall and selling it. 1926's Nana,  an adaptation of a Zola novel was his first real professional effort and announced the arrival of a significant new cinematic talent.

Renoir embraced sound in ways other great French director's like Rene Clair did not, and found a wonderful collaborator on iconic French comedian and actor Michel Simon. The ir collaborative triumph, Boudu Saved From Drowning  in 1931 set Renoir up for one of the most fertile creative periods of his career. The politically charged atmosphere of the 1930's spurred him into a more personal style of cinema, making statements of art to support his convictions during the leftist 'Front Populaire' period, and soon Renoir was making the relatively new medium his own, commanding it's visual palette as convincingly as his father wielded his paints. The genre of French Poetic Realism fitted his work well during the late '30's and he provided three of it's immortal achievements in La Bete Humaine  and La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game)  and his pre war hymn to humanity La Grande Illusion.

The war forced a move to Hollywood who didn't have much idea of how to handle an artist like Renoir, his American period producing interesting if flawed results, like The Southerner  and The Woman on The Beach, films that hold up much better it must be said than many of their contemporaries.  The politics of post war America were decidedly unfriendly towards left leaning humanists like Renoir, and he left before he would almost certainly have become a victim of HUAC and the blacklist. He returned to France in the '50s, re-invigorated by a side trip to India that produced the beautiful and masterful The River,  and made his late colour masterpieces, films that examined the world and mores of the culture in which he grew up in. Renoir made a series of films that harked back to the artistic and theatrical roots of his youth, tributes to the Paris he knew and loved.

Renoir's lasting legacy is to have created a body of work that is both humanistic and empathetic, focusing on the things that unite us rather than what divides us. As long as cinema endures his work will be part of its essential canon, illuminating and beguiling us with images and stories that speak deeply to every human. To quote Peter Bogdanovich, "When I despair of humanity, I watch a Renoir".

 "I think Renoir is the only filmmaker who's practically infallible, who has never made a mistake on film. And I think if he never made mistakes, it's because he always found solutions based on simplicity—human solutions. He's one film director who never pretended. He never tried to have a style, and if you know his work—which is very comprehensive, since he dealt with all sorts of subjects—when you get stuck, especially as a young filmmaker, you can think of how Renoir would have handled the situation, and you generally find a solution."  ~  FrançoisTruffaut


Also recommended;

Boudu Saved from Drowning

French Can Can

Swamp Water

For Fans Only;

La Marseille

Best avoided;

None that I've seen!