Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Jean Renoir: The Greatest of All Directors

Once upon a time in Montmartre, a renowned Impressionist painter married a young dressmaker. They had three sons, all of them creative.

The first son, Pierre, became a stage and film actor.

The third son, Claude, had a short film career, but was primarily a ceramic artist.

The middle son, Jean Renoir (yes, his father was THAT Renoir) acted, wrote screenplays, produced films, and was dubbed "the greatest of all directors" by no less a director than Orson Welles.

The Renoir boys were largely raised by their nanny, Gabrielle Renard, who was also their mother's cousin and an occasional model for their father's paintings. Renard took them to Guignol puppet shows* and took little Jean to see his first motion picture when he was only a few years old. Writing of his nanny/second cousin years later, Renoir stated "She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché."

Like many wealthy children of the era, young Jean was sent to expensive boarding schools. He frequently ran away from them.

As a young adult, Jean served in the French cavalry during World War One. After taking a bullet to the leg, he watched the films of Charlie Chaplin (who would later call Renoir "the greatest film director in the world"), D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim (his favorite) and countless others while recuperating. He recovered enough to serve as a reconnaissance pilot - but crucially, he had rediscovered his love of film.

In 1924, Jean directed his first silent film (he made nine), Une Vie Sans Joie. His films weren't profitable at this stage, and he slowly sold off paintings inherited from his father to finance his work.

By 1931, Renoir was making sound films. At last, he found success as a director. In 1938, he and his brother Claude founded their own production company, Nouvelle Edition Française.

One of Renoir's most famous films, La Grande Illusion, which he also co-wrote, tells the story of French POWs making multiple attempts to escape during World War One. Germany promptly banned the film (you know you're doing something right when the enemy tries to censor you), as did Italy...after the film won an award at the Venice Film Festival.

La Grande Illusion was the very first foreign-language film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. (You're definitely doing something right when the Academy takes notice!) Better yet, Renoir got to work with his favorite actor, Erich von Stroheim.

Renoir followed La Grande Illusion with La Béte Humaine. Based on Emile Zola's novel of the same name, La Béte Humaine might well be considered one of the earliest noir films on record. Jean's nephew, Claude Renoir, who became a noted cinematographer, was the camera operator for both La Grande Illusion and La Béte Humaine.

Also of note was The Rules of the Game, a satirical take on French high society. Renoir directed and also played Octave, who ties the story together. The film was panned by critics and audiences alike; however, it has since been called one of the greatest films of all time and has become both a favorite of film buffs and an influence on later filmmakers.

Renoir was a pacifist and had Communist leanings, which led to The Rules of the Game being banned off and on. Still, in 1939 at the age of 45, he joined the French Army Film Service as a lieutenant. The French government sent him to Italy to teach at Italy's national film school and to work on his film Tosca as part of a cultural exchange (Italy had not yet entered World War Two). Renoir abandoned the film and his teaching post to make himself available for military service instead.

The following spring, Renoir fled to the United States after Germany invaded France. Renoir struggled to find suitable projects in Hollywood (producer Darryl F. Zanuck stated "Renoir has plenty of talent, but he's not one of us"). He did, however, receive another Academy Award nomination for directing The Southerner in 1945.

Renoir's son from his first marriage, Alain, joined him in the U.S. in 1942 and joined the American army.

Although Renoir became a naturalized U.S. citizen, he returned to Europe in the 1950s to make more films. When health issues and a lack of financing prevented him from continuing to direct, Renoir retired to his Beverly Hills home, where he wrote his memoir My Life and My Films and his bestselling novel Les Cahiers du Capitaine Georges. (Renoir was approached, many times, about turning the novel into a film. He refused - he didn't want to film it, and he didn't want anyone else to film it either.)

Finally, in 1975, Renoir got his due.

London's National Film Theatre honored him with a retrospective of his work.

The French government awarded him the rank of commander in the Legion d'honneur.

And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with a lifetime Academy Award for his contributions to the field, presented by Ingrid Bergman (unfortunately Renoir's poor health prevented him from attending the ceremony).

Renoir passed away at home in 1979 following a heart attack. He was buried alongside his family in France following a state funeral.

Jean Renoir was honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unfortunately, due to frequent construction, I have yet to get a picture of it.

Alain Renoir did not stay in Los Angeles - he pursued an academic career, founding UC Berkeley's Department of Comparative Literature in 1966. Dr. Renoir became an expert on Medieval English literature.

*For those unfamiliar with Guignol, he's not unlike Punch (England) or Pulcinella (Italy). Do not confuse with Grand Guignol, which is most assuredly not for children.

No comments:

Post a Comment