Jean Renoir: The not so simple man

Acclaimed by critics and film buffs, Jean Renoir was the master of French domestic dramas. So why are his works so rarely seen? By Geoffrey Macnab
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If you want one scene that encompasses the pet obsessions of French film-maker Jean Renoir, watch his 1936 feature, Une Partie de Campagne. Two jack-the-lads drinking pastis in a countryside tavern open the blinds to reveal the beautiful Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) standing on a swing. Sunlight surrounds her. In her white dress and bonnet, she looks like a figure from one of Renoir's father's paintings. Gradually, Henriette swings higher and higher. Her hat blows off, her skirts billow and all the passers-by stop to gawp at those shapely legs. One of the lads leans out of the window, twisting at his moustache, and stares at her with undisguised lust. Eventually, she sits down. That means every time she swings upward, there is a chance to peep under her skirts.

The sequence, lasting for several minutes, combines bawdy humour with eroticism and intense lyricism. It's shot in improvisatory fashion. Renoir never liked to plan his films too fully. All he wanted was "a rough scheme, like a salmon going upstream, no more than that". He may have been one of the great auteurs, but many of his films still have the spontaneity of home movies. His delight in nature is self-evident, but there is also a feeling of foreboding. Henriette may briefly seem like a Venus, but we know that she is a shopkeeper's daughter from Paris on a day out in the countryside. Once she returns to the city, the spell will be shattered. All that waits in the future - we soon discover - is drudgery, an unhappy marriage and the prospect of turning into a plump, blousy busybody like her mother, Madame Dufour.

Partie De Campagne is exhilarating fare, but wasn't seen anywhere in its completed version for close to 60 years. One of the lingering mysteries about Renoir, who died 26 years ago, is that his work is little more accessible now than when he was alive. Somehow, he never quite fitted in. "He has talent but he's not one of us," Fox boss Darryl Zanuck observed after hiring the French director to make Swamp Water (1941).

While critics and fellow film-makers have long revered Renoir and films like La Règle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion nestle high up in many top 10 lists, few of his 40 or so other features are in active circulation. When he started his career in the 1920s, he sold his father's paintings to finance projects. At the end, despite his reputation, he still struggled to find anyone willing to back him.

Even La Règle du Jeu was ridiculed when it was first shown in 1939. To booing French audiences, it seemed perverse for Renoir to be making a country house drama at a time when Europe was about to be engulfed by war. They didn't realise that by showing the decadence of the French upper classes, the film was spelling out precisely why war was inevitable. "I wanted to depict a society dancing on a volcano," the director said.

What makes Renoir films so hard to categorise is their refusal to make judgements. There are few clear-cut heroes or villains. "The terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons," the philosopher-clown Octave (played by Renoir himself) suggests in La Règle du Jeu. The line became almost a motto for a director who acknowledged the inscrutability of the human personality.

Renoir eschewed self-conscious artistry and rarely tackled "big" topics. As he told one interviewer, "I'm not in favour of the tour de force in art; the more we use the intellect, the more we produce works which are far from the human being." Nor did he stick by genre rules. If he took a genre project, it was only so that he could subvert it. Not that there was anything aloof in his approach. He knew he needed audiences. "If you want to persuade the public to accept a new point of view, you have to play the part of a prostitute, to put on a bit of make-up in order to attract," he cheerfully admitted.

Renoir was equally at home making films about aristocrats (La Règle du Jeu), workers (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange) and tramps (Boudu Sauvé des Eaux). He was a paradoxical figure: a leftist with a coarse sense of humour who could never quite escape being Auguste Renoir's son. Despite the anti-militarism of his 1937 film, La Grande Illusion, Renoir had served in both the cavalry and air force during the First World War. In 1915, he was hit in the leg and almost crippled. While recuperating, he discovered cinema. His chief passion was Charlie Chaplin. It wasn't until some years later that Renoir learned the real name of the tramp, known to French audiences simply as "Charlot", but he relished the heady mixture of humour and pathos.

It's not hard to find the Chaplin touch in Renoir's movies. Whether it's Michel Simon's tramp throwing away his wedding clothes and dressing up in scarecrow's outfit at the end of Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (1932), or the jealous gamekeeper running amok through the country house in La Règle du Jeu, there are many Chaplinesque moments in his movies. At the same time, he deals far more frankly with sex than Chaplin ever did.

Arguably, the richness of his work lies in the extraordinary range of influences he soaked up. There was his father who, he claimed, "taught us never to shut our eyes to anything, for he was open to any impression, all the time hoping to reach out to a kind of truth". A polymath, he was also intrigued by French literature, commedia dell'arte, Mack Sennett-style slapstick, dime novels and classical tragedy.

With his cheery, rotund features and fast-thinning hair, Renoir looked like a smiling Buddha. He often sounded like an Eastern sage, too. "I cannot conceive of cinema without water," he wrote. "There is an inescapable quality in the movement of a film that relates it to the ripple of a stream and the flow of rivers."

Rivers do indeed feature all over Renoir's work. They stand for continuity, renewal and the inexorable flow of time. One of the centrepieces of the National Film Theatre retrospective is a restored version of Renoir's 1951 feature, The River. Shotentirely on location in India, this adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel is about adolescence and first love. Just as he had been attacked for ostensibly ignoring the war in La Règle du Jeu, he was chastised for making a film in India in which almost all the main characters are white Westerners. Nonetheless, The River has an authenticity that sweeping epics about the social and political changes in post-war India or exotic adventures featuring tigers and maharajahs simply couldn't have matched.

Renoir is deliberately working on an intimate scale. His subjects are an English family - a gruff, cheery father working in the jute factory, his endlessly patient wife and their five children. The oldest is 14-year-old Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is just beginning to learn about her sexuality. The action is mostly confined to the family home, but there are still seismic moments. In particular, Renoir deals with the death of a child in freakish circumstances in hugely affecting fashion. This was his first film in colour. At times, when we see the Ganges flow by and listen to the homely wisdom of the kids, it seems almost like a Buddhist treatise. You endure and you go on. Ripeness is all.

Renoir was certainly the most phlegmatic of the great auteurs. In his life story, there are no betrayals or melodramatic bust-ups with studio bosses. There is little trace of the egotism or vulnerability you find in the careers of Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles or DW Griffith. Nor is there any bitterness. As he wrote in the New York Times when he turned 80 in 1974, "I have made films that I wanted to make. I have made them with people who were more than my collaborators; they were my accomplices. This, I believe, is one recipe for happiness: to work with people you love and who love you."

The Jean Renoir season is ongoing at the NFT; a restored version of 'The River' is released on 17 February

'Jean became my anchor in Hollywood'

I was 17 years old, a dancer in the Ballet de Roland Petit, and I had been in London for three days, having screen tests with J Arthur Rank. My mother and I were going to take a plane back to Paris. I had to dance the next night. It was extremely foggy, there was one of those famous London fogs, and all the people at the airport were advised to take the train. On the platform, I noticed an extraordinary couple. The man was extremely round, with a limp. The woman next to him was as dark as he was rosy and as tall as he was round. Everybody rushed on to the train. It was extremely difficult getting a seat. My mother told me to sit on a suitcase and look miserable, and I found myself looking at this couple again. I didn't know who they were. It's indelible in my mind. I never forgot this couple. That's the first time I saw Jean Renoir and his wife, Dido.

A year or two later, we met at a party in New York. We introduced ourselves and I said that I remembered very well seeing him on the train. He said that he remembered me, too. At that stage, he had been looking for actors and actresses for The River, and he told me that he had thought about me for the leading role. I had never seen any of his films. Our friendship started because of his personality - his immense charisma. Little by little, I got to see his films. He became my anchor in Hollywood. His affection and friendship were like that of a father. There came a point when I didn't know where to go in my career - whether to be a dancer or an actress. He wrote the play Orvet for me, to teach me to become an actress. I remember he used to start each day's rehearsal by saying, "Come on, friends, let's get to work".

Renoir always had a great deal of difficulty in setting up his films, and he frightened producers with his honesty. He shocked and disturbed an awful lot of people. At the premiere of La Règle du jeu, the audience tore up their seats. But he had a capacity to look at reality and at people's foibles with a kind eye. He had an immense compassion and humanity, and a wonderful sense of humour.

He told me early on that he was used to failure because of his father (the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir). His father's paintings were booed off the walls and he received nothing but insults in the papers. It was only at the end of his life that his father was appreciated.

So, Jean Renoir was used to hostile critics and to facing difficulties. For him, that was a fact of life. He had long since accepted that fact. Hollywood didn't understand him and the official French cinema world didn't understand him either. His biography of his father and his subsequent novels all reflected his light-hearted dismay at the blackness of the human heart, along with his delight at people and his great appreciation of women.

He wanted to do a film of Three Rooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon, in which I was to play a girl who was down- and-out. Nobody was interested. Then he had several ideas of his own for films in which I was to play, and he couldn't get those financed either. I later did a TV-play called Carola that he had written for Ingrid Bergman. He adored Ingrid. When she was in desperate straits after splitting with Roberto Rossellini, was desperately poor and had all those children to support, Renoir quickly got to work and wrote two things for her, the film Elena et les hommes and the play Carola.

The plot of Carola (about a theatre company in occupied Paris) was exactly the same as Truffaut's film, Le Dernier Métro. At the time, I thought that was quite shocking and reproached Truffaut, but I discovered that this had been done very much with the blessing of the Renoirs. Truffaut was really the adopted son of Renoir. I think Renoir had a great influence on Truffaut, and Truffaut came faithfully about twice a year to Hollywood when Jean was sick, to boost his morale and give him hope. Every time Truffaut finished a film, he would hop on a plane and come and show it to Jean. There was a profound affection and admiration between them both.

Leslie Caron