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The Artistry of Jean Renoir
Article by Claude Beylie in The Movie. Orbis, 1979

Introduction: Claude Beylie was a leading French film academic. A Professor at the Sorbonne and a significant figure with such journals as Cinéma, Cahiers du cinema, Écran and l'Avant-Scène du Cinéma, his 1975 book Jean Renoir: le spectacle, la vie is a major example of the characterisation of Renoir as ‘the timeless humanist par excellence’ (Keith Reader). The article reprinted here was included in an unusual, weekly-parts publication of the type that proliferated in the UK in the Seventies and Eighties. Although the standard of writing in The Movie was generally high (such writers as Tony Rayns, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Julian Petley contributed), it has been mostly forgotten. In the absence of an English translation for Beylie’s book on Renoir, the following piece serves as a most useful introduction to his writing on the director.

Renoir’s career, more than that of any other director, summarizes the whole evolution of the cinema, from the first hesitant steps of silent films to the French nouvelle vague (of the late Fifties), encompassing advances in sound recording, colour and even television techniques. At each stage of his life he was open to suggestions from those around him, while retaining a fine sense of his own artistic integrity. The critic and theorist Andre Bazin has written that Renoir always knew ‘how to adapt to the evolution of the cinema and the taste of his contemporaries’ – not out of some vain opportunism but because ‘the need to renew himself was part of his genius’. The 38 films which he directed between 1924 and 1969 have profoundly influenced the art of the screen and most have stood the test of time.

That said, Renoir’s work curiously defies investigation and confounds the kind of critic who is fond of attaching labels to works of art. It seems to advance without any guiding line or internal logic: it cannot be pigeon-holed. Renoir would change his style without warning and cheerfully contradict himself from one film to another – if not within the same film.

Between 1931 and 1939 (his most prolific period) he tackled every type of film with equanimity: naturalist melodrama in La Chienne (1931), thriller with La Nuit du Carrefour (1932), broad farce in Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (1932), respectful adaptations of great writers such as Flaubert, Maupassant, Gorky and Zola, examinations of French society like La Vie Est à Nous (1936) and La Marseillaise (1937), moving human dramas like La Grande Illusion (1937), culminating in that modern sequel to the enchantments of Beaumarchais and Marivaux that is La Règle du jeu (1939). Though superficially a ‘mad imbroglio’, it is a perfectly constructed film which (with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, 1941) is the source of everything of importance in modern cinema. With a couple of exceptions, all theses films were, in their day, received with total incomprehension by both public and critics.

It seems almost impossible, therefore, to encompass Renoir’s multiple, abundant, unclassifiable and contradictory oeuvre – its broad contrasts are an expression of its richness. If one sees Renoir as a sensualist, it immediately becomes apparent that he does not disdain general ideas, abstraction or intellectual rigour. He could be sarcastic, good-natured, licentious, nonchalant, endearing – according to subject, mood and circumstances. In a film like Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959) he seemed obsessed by human failings and sought to place spiritual pursuits beyond the whims of the flesh. Immediately afterwards he made Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959), which was a hymn to nature and to the joy of living. The ‘mixture of irony and tenderness, humour and sensuality’ which Renoir discerned in his father, the painter Auguste, applied equally well to himself. Renoir was, as it were, a cross between a peasant, whose temperament and work had their roots in the soil, and an artist, whose vocation was universal. His comedies were caustic, his dramas light-hearted. His life, too, was in the image of his films – one of constant wandering, of inspired disorder.

It was long believed that the adjective ‘realist’ sufficed to account for the diversity of his gifts. Historians and critics wished (and still wish) to make Renoir the leader of a so-called ‘realist’ school, including personalities as unlike him as Carné, Duvivier, Grémillon and Pagnol. No doubt his path at some time crossed theirs. He made, for instance, at least one film strongly influenced by the theories and sensibilities of Pagnol – Toni (1934). But this does not prove that Renoir was a realist. If one means by realism the direct, objective reproduction of reality, without any reworking, the kind of reproduction whose logical conclusion was the invention of first photography and later cinema (whose initial claim was to describe ‘life as it is’), it is clear that Renoir was not a realist in that sense. He never ceased to affirm the primacy of the narrator over the narration, the painter over the painting, man over nature. Contrary to those mediocre directors naively concerned with ‘getting close’ to the reality (psychological, social, political) of their time, it would appear that Renoir contrived to get as far away from it as possible. He saw such a reality as a constraint. He did not so much wish to destroy it as restructure it in a more agreeable and harmonious fashion. Renoir’s early films twisted reality, were all flights into imaginary worlds and fairy-tales.

Early in his career, Renoir demonstrated that the vocation of cinematography lay in fantasy, even science fiction (Charleston, 1927), bending plots and characters to fit the conventions of fantasy. So the heroine of La Fille de l’eau (1924) recklessly takes refuge in escapist day-dreaming to console herself for the indignities of everyday life, just as the main character in La Petite Marchande d’allumettes (1928) will do one cold Christmas night. In the same way Nana (1926) is firmly ensconced in self-made woman’s mythomania, while Marquitta (1927), a humble street-singer, imagines she is a grand-duchess. As for the madcap soldiers of Tire au flanc (1928), their substitute for dull routine of the barracks is rowdyism, irreverence, wrangling, lechery and finally a wild Bacchanalia.

Almost all of Renoir’s characters seek comfort in dreams: Maurice, the wretched clerk of La Chienne, fleeing the drab greyness of his middle-class life and seeking solace in art and a doomed love affair; the federates of La Marseillaise heroically pursuing a revolutionary ideal which never ceases to elude them; Monsieur Lange, who, in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935) creates a romantic universe made to his own measure; Madame Bovary (1934) and her romantic fancies, and Toni with his unrequited love for the beautiful, fickle Josefa. What are the prisoners of La Grande Illusion looking for if not to escape, to regain their freedom even if they know that by doing so they will only be plunged back into a chaotic world at war.

In each case, for better of for worse, imagination attempts to triumph over reality. For some characters, indeed, the price to be paid for this relentless quest will be their own lives. In the later films, fantasy, humour, gaiety – the ‘superior form of civilization’ as one of the characters in Eléna et les homes (1956) calls it – will carry the day. Camilla in Le Carrosse d’or (1952) and Nini in French Cancan (1955) will find their vocation in art: they have both understood that they are not made ‘for what is called life’, that their place is ‘among the acrobats, the clowns, the mountebanks’, that their happiness lies not in the petty concerns of reality but in the grand illusion of the stage. Renoir shared with his father the conviction that the task of a true artist is not to copy nature, however faithfully, but to re-create it. He has commented:

“What will remain of any artist is not his imitation of nature, since nature is changeable and transient: what is eternal is his approach to nature, what he can achieve by the reconstruction, and not the imitation of nature.”

In The River (1951) Renoir asked his director of photography, his nephew Claude Renoir, to paint the turf, as he found it ‘not Indian enough’. In La Bête humaine (1938) Renoir compared the locomotive to ‘a flying carpet in the Arabian Nights ‘, and wanted to retain only the poetic side of Zola’s original novel to the detriment of its naturalistic message. Neither of these actions or statements can possibly be described as being realist in motivation. Renoir has declared more than once: ‘It’s not by being realistic that one has the greatest chance of capturing reality’, and has said, even more dogmatically, ‘All great art is abstract’. This so-called realism, which a whole critical tradition hoped to attach to his work at any price, is for Renoir only the façade of fantasy, a mask which must be ripped off to uncover the work’s true dimension. Life is a dream, a ‘rich comedy with a hundred different acts’; and the film-maker (like every artist) must try to feel the upsurge of the imaginary at the heart of the real, the quest for the irrational that makes the world go round. This is the key to Renoir’s aesthetics and philosophy. At the opposite pole to realism, his art is an art of magic and fantasy.

Renoir’s last film Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir (1969) gives a crucial insight into the director’s genius. It is just the film one would expect from a creator whose oeuvre is complete and who chooses nonchalantly to recapitulate its principal themes, as one might leaf through an album of memories. The film’s premise is put in a nutshell by wise old Duvallier who introduces each section of the film. ‘Life’, he exclaims, ‘is only bearable because of constant little revolutions … revolutions in the kitchen … in bedrooms … on village squares … storms in teacups’. This is, according to Renoir, the way of the world: in his films the bonds of society are slightly stretched, irregularities are committed by committed by certain characters who are cleverer than others, risks are calmly taken by free spirits. Some find undreamed of happiness by the end, some die pointlessly; it hardly matters since, as Duvallier says, all that will remain when all is said and done are the lyrics of a bitter-sweet song, which generations to come will sing in chorus:

When everything is ended

When your hopes have died

Why lament the days gone past

Why regret the vanished dreams …

The discreet exit that Renoir contrived with Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir is in keeping with his character. The film critic Jean Collet wrote: ‘When the red curtain falls on the stage of the Little Theatre, as it fell at the end of The Golden Coach, we have the feeling that Renoir is leaving us with a fragile secret, a secret that was lost and found again a thousand times’.

Renoir said something similar about his father’s work, at the end of the painter’s life. As he looked with emotion at his father’s ‘extremely simplified palette’ composed of ‘a few tiny droppings of colour’ it seemed as if the artist had been approaching ‘the secret of universal harmony as if it were the most natural thing in the world’.