Jean Renoir - Director

Nationality: French/American. Born: Paris, 15 September 1894, son of painter Auguste Renoir, became citizen of United States (naturalized) in 1946, retained French citizenship. Education: Collége de Sainte-Croix, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1902; Ecole Sainte-Marie de Monceau, 1903; Ecole Massina, Nice, until 1912; University of Aix-en-Provence, degree in mathematics and philosophy, 1913. Military Service: Served in French cavalry, 1914–15; transferred to French Flying Corps, 1916, demobilized 1918. Family: Married 1) Andrée Madeleine Heuschling ("Dédée," took name Catherine Hessling following 1924 appearance in Catherine ), 1920 (divorced 1930); 2) Dido Freire, 1944, one son. Career: Worked as potter and ceramicist, 1920–23; directed first film, La Fille de l'eau , 1924; joined Service Cinématographique de l'Armée, La Règle du jeu banned by French government as demoralizing, 1939; Robert Flaherty arranged Renoir's passage to United States, 1940; signed with 20th Century-Fox, 1941; signed with Universal, then terminated contract, 1942; re-established residence in Paris, retained home in Beverly Hills, 1951; active in theatre through 1950s; Compagnie Jean Renoir formed with Anna de Saint Phalle, 1958; taught theatre at University of California, Berkeley, 1960. Awards: Prix Louis Delluc, for Les Bas-Fonds , 1936; Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, 1936; International Jury Cup, Venice Biennale, for La Grande Illusion , 1937; New York Critics Award, for Swamp Water , 1941; Best Film, Venice Festival, for The Southerner , 1946; Grand Prix de l'Academie du Ciném for French Cancan , 1956; Prix Charles Blanc, Academie Française, for Renoir , biography of father, 1963; Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts, University of California, Berkeley, 1963; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1964; Osella d'Oro, Venice Festival, 1968; Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Royal College of Art, London,

Jean Renoir (standing atop camera) on the set of French Cancan
Jean Renoir (standing atop camera) on the set of French Cancan
1971; Special Oscar for Career Accomplishment, 1975. Died: In Beverly Hills, California, 12 February 1979.

Films as Director:


La Fille de l'eau (+ pr)


Nana (+ pr, adaptation)


Catherine ( Une vie sans joie ; Backbiters ) (co-d, co-pr, sc, role as sub-prefect); Sur un air de Charleston ( Charleston-Parade ) (+ pr, ed); Marquitta (+ pr, adaptation)


La Petite Marchande d'allumettes ( The Little Match Girl ) (co-d, co-pr, sc)


Tire au flanc (+ co-sc); Le Tournoi dans la cité ( Le Tournoi ) (+ adaptation)


Le Bled


On purge bébé (+ co-sc); La Chienne (+ co-sc)


La Nuit du carrefour ( Night at the Crossroads ) (+ sc); Boudu sauvée des eaux ( Boudu Saved from Drowning ) (+ co-sc)


Chotard et cie (+ co-sc)


Madame Bovary (+ sc)


Toni ( Les Amours de Toni ) (+ co-sc)


Le Crime de Monsieur Lange ( The Crime of Monsieur Lange ) (+ co-sc); La Vie est à nous ( The People of France ) (co-d, co-sc); Les Bas-Fonds ( Underworld ; The Lower Depths ) (+ adaptation)


La Grande Illusion ( Grand Illusion ) (+ co-sc)


La Marseillaise (+ co-sc); La Bête humaine ( The Human Beast ; Judas Was a Woman ) (+ co-sc)


La Règle du jeu ( Rules of the Game ) (+ co-sc, role as Octave)


La Tosca ( The Story of Tosca ) (co-d, co-sc); Swamp Water


This Land Is Mine (+ co-p, co-sc)


Salute to France ( Salut à France ) (co-d, co-sc)


The Southerner (+ sc)


Une Partie de campagne ( A Day in the Country ) (+ sc) (filmed in 1936); The Diary of a Chambermaid (+ co-sc)


The Woman on the Beach (+ co-sc)


The River (+ co-sc)


Le Carrosse d'or ( The Golden Coach ) (+ co-sc)


French Cancan ( Only the French Can ) (+ sc)


Elena et les hommes ( Paris Does Strange Things ) (+ sc)


Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier ( The Testament of Dr. Cordelier ; Experiment in Evil ) (+ sc); Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe ( Picnic on the Grass ) (+ sc)


Le Caporal épinglé ( The Elusive Corporal ; The Vanishing Corporal ) (co-d, co-sc)


Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir ( The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir ) (+ sc)

Other Films:


Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Cavalcanti) (co-sc, role as the Wolf)


Die Jagd nach dem Gluck (Gliese) (role as Robert)


The Spanish Earth (Ivens) (wrote commentary and narration for French version)


The Christian Licorice Store (Frawley) (role as himself)


By RENOIR: books—

This Land Is Mine , in Twenty Best Film Plays , edited by Gassner and Nichols, New York, 1943.

The Southerner , in Best Film Plays—1945 , edited by Gassner and Nichols, New York, 1946.

Renoir: Souvenirs de mon père , Paris, 1948; published as Renoir, My Father , New York, 1958.

Orvet , Paris, 1955.

The Notebooks of Captain George , Boston, 1966.

La Grande Illusion , London, 1968; Paris, 1974.

Rules of the Game , New York, 1970.

Ecrits 1926–1971 , edited by Claude Gauteur, Paris, 1974.

My Life and My Films , New York, 1974.

Jean Renoir: Essays, Conversations, Reviews , edited by Penelope Gilliatt, New York, 1975.

Oeuvres de cinéma inédités , edited by Claude Gauteur, Paris, 1981.

Lettres d'Amérique , edited by Dido Renoir and Alexander Sesonske, Paris, 1984.

Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays and Remarks , Cambridge, 1989.

By RENOIR: articles—

"Jean Renoir à Hollywood," an interview with Paul Gilson, in L'Ecran Française (Paris), 15 August 1945.

Interview with Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1954; reprinted in part as "Renoir in America," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1954.

" Paris-Provence : Inspiration pour un film," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1954.

"Enquête sur la censure et l'éroticisme: le public a horreur de ça," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1954.

" French Cancan ," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1955.

"Nouvel entretien avec Jean Renoir," with Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), Christmas 1957; also in La Politique des auteurs , by André Bazin and others, Paris, 1972.

"Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), July 1961.

"Jean Renoir: propos rompus," an interview with Jean-Louis Noames, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1964.

" La Grande Illusion ," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), January 1965.

" La Règle du jeu ," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1965.

"Renoir at 72," an interview with Axel Madsen, in Cinema (Los Angeles), Spring 1966.

"The Situation of the Serious Filmmaker," in Film Makers on Film Making , edited by Harry Geduld, Bloomington, Indiana, 1967.

"My Next Films," an interview with Michel Delahaye and Jean-André Fieschi, in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), March 1967.

Interview with Rui Nogueira and François Truchaud, in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1968.

"C'est la révolution! (Crème de beauté)," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1968.

"Conversation with Jean Renoir," with Louis Marcorelles, in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1969.

Interview with James Silke, in The Essential Cinema , edited by P. Adams Sitney, New York, 1975.

Articles and interview, in special Renoir issue of Positif (Paris), September 1975.

" La Chienne ," in L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1975.

On RENOIR: books—

Davay, Paul, Jean Renoir , Brussels, 1957.

Cauliez, Armand-Jean, Jean Renoir , Paris, 1962.

Analyses des films de Jean Renoir , Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques, Paris, 1966.

Bennett, Susan, Study Unit 8: Jean Renoir , London, 1967.

Poulle, François, Renoir 1938 ou Jean Renoir pour rien. Enquête sur un cinéaste , Paris, 1969.

Leprohon, Pierre, Jean Renoir , New York, 1971.

Braudy, Leo, Jean Renoir: The World of His Films , New York, 1972; 2nd edition, 1989.

Bazin, André, Jean Renoir , edited by François Truffaut, Paris, 1973.

Mast, Gerald, Filmguide to The Rules of the Game , Bloomington, Indiana, 1973.

Durgnat, Raymond, Jean Renoir , Berkeley, California, 1974.

Beylie, Claude, Jean Renoir: le spectacle, la vie , Paris, 1975.

Faulkner, Christopher, Jean Renoir: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.

Sesonske, Alexander, Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924–1939 , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980.

Serceau, Daniel, Jean Renoir , Paris, 1985.

Bertin, Celia, Jean Renoir , Paris, 1986.

Faulkner, Christopher, The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir , Princeton, New Jersey, 1986.

Vincendeau, Ginette, and Keith Reader, La Vie est a Nous: French Cinema of the Popular Front 1935–1938 , London, 1986.

Viry-Babel, Roger, Jean Renoir: Le Jeu et la Règle , Paris, 1986.

Beylie, Claude, and Maurice Bessy, Jean Renoir , Paris, 1989.

Guislain, Pierre, La règle du jeu, Jean Renoir , Paris, 1990.

Bergan, Ronald, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise , Woodstock, 1994.

Cavagnac, Guy, Jean Renoir: Le désir du monde , Paris, 1994.

O'Shaughnessy, Martin, Jean Renoir , New York, 2000.

On RENOIR: articles—

"Renoir Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1952.

Brunius, Jacques, "Jean Renoir," in En marge du cinéma français , Paris, 1954.

"Renoir Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), Christmas 1957.

Rohmer, Eric, "Jeunesse de Jean Renoir," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1959.

Belanger, Jean, "Why Renoir Favors Multiple Camera, Long Sustained Take Technique," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1960.

Dyer, Peter, "Renoir and Realism," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1960.

Callenbach, Ernest, and Roberta Schuldenfrei, "The Presence of Jean Renoir," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1960.

Russell, Lee, (Peter Wollen), "Jean Renoir," in New Left Review , May/June 1964.

Millar, Daniel, "The Autumn of Jean Renoir," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1968.

Godard, Jean-Luc, "Jean Renoir and Television," in Godard on Godard , London, 1972.

Diehl, Digby, "Directors Go to Their Movies: Jean Renoir," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1972.

Fofi, Goffredo, "The Cinema of the Popular Front in France (1934–38)," in Screen (London), Winter 1972/73.

Harcourt, Peter, "A Flight from Passion: Images of Uncertainty in the Work of Jean Renoir," in Six European Directors , Harmondsworth, England, 1974.

Gauteur, Claude, editor, " La Règle du jeu et la critique en 1939," in Image et Son (Paris), March 1974.

Greenspun, Roger, "House and Garden: Three Films by Jean Renoir," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1974.

Thomas, P., "The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Bazin and Truffaut on Renoir," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1974/75.

"Renoir Issue" of Cinema (Zurich), vol. 21, no. 4, 1975.

Willis, D., "Renoir and the Illusion of Detachment," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1977.

Beylie, Claude, "Jean Renoir (1894–1979)," in special Renoir issue of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 July 1980.

Strebel, Elizabeth Grottle, "Jean Renoir and the Popular Front," in Feature Films as History , edited by K.R.M. Short, London, 1981.

Sesonske, A., "Discovering America: Jean Renoir 1941," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1981.

Rothman, William, "The Filmmaker within the Film: The Role of Octave in The Rules of the Game ," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Summer 1982.

Turvey, G., "1936, the Culture of the Popular Front, and Jean Renoir," in Media, Culture and Society (London), October 1982.

Lourié, Eugene, "Grand Illusions," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1985.

Everson, William K., "Deana Durbin and Jean Renoir," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1986 (see also June/July and October 1987).

Viry-Babel, R., "Jean Renoir à Hollywood ou la recherche américaine d'une image francaise," in Cinémas , vol. 1, Autumn 1990.

Tesson, Charles, "La production de Toni," in Cinémathèque , May 1992.

Tesson, Charles, "La production de Toni," in Cinémathèque , Spring-Summer 1993.

Harrendorf, M., "Soziale Utopie und ästhetische Revolution. Neue Forschungen über Jean Renoir und die 30er Jahre," in Film-Dienst (Köln), vol. 46, 21 December 1993.

Bagh, Peter van, Jean Renoir ja elämän teatteri," in Filmihulu (Helsinki), no. 6, 1994.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 479–480, May 1994.

Positif (Paris), special section, July-August 1994.

"Tout Renoir," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1994.

Génin, Bernard, "Renoir et la comédie humaine," in Télérama (Paris), 14 September 1994.

Curchod, Olivier, and others, in Positif (Paris), no. 408, February 1995.

Gallaher, Tag, "The Dancers and the Dance Jean Renoir," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 32, January-February 1996.

Scorsese, Martin, "Ma cinéphile," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 500, March 1996.

Williams, Alan, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, April 1996.

On RENOIR: films—

Gritti, Roland, L'Album de famille de Jean Renoir , Paris, 1956.

Braunberger, Gisèle, La Direction d'acteurs par Jean Renoir , Paris, 1970.

* * *

Jean Renoir's major work dates from between 1924 and 1939. Of his 21 films the first six are silent features that put forward cinematic problems that come to dominate the entire oeuvre. All study a detachment, whether of language and image, humans and nature, or social rules and real conduct. Optical effects are treated as problems coextensive with narrative. He shows people who are told to obey rules and conventions in situations and social frames that confine them. A sensuous world is placed before everyone's eyes, but access to it is confounded by cultural mores. In Renoir's work, nature, like a frame without borders, isolates the impoverished subjects within limits at once too vast and too constricting for them. Inherited since the Cartesian revolution, and the growth of the middle class after 1789, bourgeois codes of conduct do not fit individuals whose desires and passion know no end.

The patterns established in the films appear simple, and they are. Renoir joins optical to social contradictions in the sense that every one of his films stages dramas about those who cannot conform to the frame in which they live. For the same reason his work also studies the dynamics of love in cinematography that marks how the effect is undeniably "scopic"—grounded in an impulse to see and thus to hold. Sight conveys the human wish to contain whatever is viewed, and to will to control what knows no border. As love cannot be contained, it becomes tantamount to nature itself.

The director has often been quoted as saying that he spent his life making one film. Were it fashioned from all of his finished works—including those composed in the 1920s or 1940s or 1960s in France, America, or India—it would tell the story of a collective humanity whose sense of tradition is effectively gratuitous or fake. The social milieu of many of his films is defined by a scapegoat who is killed in order to make that tradition both firm and precarious. All of Renoir's central characters thus define the narratives and visual compositions in which they are found. Boudu (Michel Simon), who escapes the confinement of bourgeois ways in Boudu sauvé des eaux , is the opposite of Lestingois (Charles Granval), ensconced in a double-standard marriage à la Balzac. Boudu, a tramp, a trickster, and a refugee from La Chienne (1931), changes the imagination of his milieu by virtue of his passage through it. The effect he leaves resembles that of Amédée Lange (René Lefevre) in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange , who gives life to a collective venture—an emblem of Leon Blum's short-lived Popular Front government launched in 1936—that lives despite his delusions about the American West and the pulp he writes. Lange is the flip side of Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) of La Bête humaine (1938), a tragic hero whose suicide prefigures André Jurieux's (Roland Toutain's) passion of La Règle du jeu (1939).

Boudu floats through the frame in ways that the migrant laborers of Toni or the souls of La Vie est à nous cannot. The latter are bound to conventions of capital exploitation that incarcerate humanity. In these and other films the characters all "have their reasons," that is, they have many contradictory drives that cannot be socially reconciled but that are individually well founded and impeccably logical on their own terms. When Renoir casts his characters' plural "reasons" under an erotic aura, he offers superlative studies of love. His protagonists wish to find absolution for their passion at the vanishing points of the landscapes—both imaginary and real—in which they try to move. The latter are impossible constructs, but their allure is nonetheless tendered within the sensuous frame of deep-focus photography, long takes, and lateral reframing. Rosenthal and Maréchal (Marcel Dalio and Gabin) seek an end to war when they tramp into the distance of a snowscape at the end of La Grande Illusion. Lange and Florelle (Valentine) wave goodbye as they walk into the flat horizon of Belgium. But Jurieux can imagine love only as a picture-postcard when he and Christine (Nora Grégor), he hopes in desperation, will rejoin his mother in snowy Alsace. Or Lantier can be imagined jumping from his speeding locomotive into a space where the two tracks of the railroad converge, at infinity, beyond the line between Paris and Le Havre. In Une Partie de campagne , Henri (Georges Darnoux), frustrated beyond end at the sight of melancholy Juliette (Sylvia Bataille) rowing upstream with her husband sitting behind her in their skiff, looks tearfully at the lush Marne riverside. Sitting on the trunk of a weeping willow arched over the current, he flicks his cigarette butt in the water, unable to express otherwise the fate he has been dealt.

These scenes are shot with an economy that underscores the pathos Renoir draws from figures trapped in situations too vast for their ken or their lives. If generalization can seek an emblem, Renoir's films appear to lead to a serre , the transparent closure of the greenhouse that serves as the site of the dénouement of La Règle du jeu. The "serre" is literally what constricts, or what has deceptive depth for its beholder. It is the scene where love is acted out and extinguished by the onlooker. The space typifies what Renoir called "the feeling of a frame too narrow for the content" of the dramas he selected from a literary heritage ( Madame Bovary, The Lower Depths ) or wrote himself, such as Rules. Renoir's films have an added intensity and force when viewed in the 1990s. They manifest an urgent concern for the natural world and demonstrate that we are the "human beast" destroying it. Clearly opposed to the effects of capitalism, Renoir offers glimpses of sensuous worlds that seem to arch beyond history. A viewer of La Fille de l'eau (1924), Boudu , or Toni surmises that trees have far more elegance than the characters turning about them, or that, echoing Baudelaire's pronouncements in his Salons of 1859, landscapes lacking the human species are of enduring beauty. Renoir puts forth studies of the conflict of language and culture in physical worlds that possess an autonomy of their own. His characters are gauged according to the distance they gain from their environments or the codes that tell them how to act and to live. Inevitably, Renoir's characters are marked by writing. Boudu, a reincarnation of Pan and Nature itself, can only read "big letters." By contrast, Lantier is wedded to his locomotive, a sort of writing machine he calls "la lison." The urbane La Chesnaye (Dalio) in Rules cannot live without his writing, the "dangerous supplements" of mechanical dolls, a calliope, or human toys. These objects reflect in the narrative the filmic apparatus that crafted Renoir's work as a model of film writing, a "caméra-stylo," or ciné-écriture. Use of deep focus and long takes affords diversity and chance. With the narratives, they constitute Renoir's signature, the basis of the concept and practice of the auteur. Renoir's oeuvre stands as a monument and a model of cinematography. By summoning the conditions of illusion and artifice of film, it rises out of the massive production of poetic realism of the 1930s in France. He develops a style that is the very tenor of a vehicle studying social contradiction. The films implicitly theorize the limits that cinema confronts in any narrative or documentary depiction of our world.

—Tom Conley

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