French director Jean Renoir was born on September 15, 1894. His baby pictures were a little better than average, since his father was Pierre-Auguste Renoir (although he does look like a little girl in several!). He was born in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Montmartre, but as his father’s career took off, he was sent to a series of posh boarding schools, from which he habitually ran away.
Renoir received a bullet in the leg during World War I. During his recuperation, he sat with his leg propped up and watched dozens of films, particularly those by Charlie Chaplin. The whole family seems to have inherited a bit of the great painter’s talent, and Jean was encouraged to become a ceramist. A few weeks ago, I saw some of his pieces at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where they were juxtaposed against his father’s paintings. The same sense of color was evident. Jean’s heart had been captured by the cinema, however, and he set aside his potter’s wheel for a movie camera.
He started out making silent films that starred his first wife, who had been one of his father’s models. To finance his work, he sold the paintings he had inherited. His career began to take off with the arrival of talkies. He wasn’t afraid to take on political subjects. La Grande Illusion, a film about escape attempts by French POW’s during WWI was banned in Germany and Italy. It was also the first foreign film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.
The financial success of this and other films allowed him to create La Règle du Jeu, a satire about French society. It was a commercial disaster upon its release. Then it was banned at the outbreak of war. The original footage was destroyed during a bombing raid. Film enthusiasts and Renoir were able to find enough copies of the footage to stitch together an almost complete movie, which was re-released in the 60s. These two films often top critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made.
A famous line from this movie is, “Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons” (suh key eh tare-ee-bluh soor set tare, seh kuh too luh mohnd ah say rayzohn), which mean “What is terrible on this earth, is that everyone has his reasons.” Having experienced the insanity of war twice would certainly make Renoir well-qualified to shake his head in incomprehension at our ability to justify even our most unjustifiable actions.
Renoir fled to Hollywood during the war where he experienced some professional success. He was nominated for an Oscar for directing The Southerner, a film about Texas sharecroppers. He eventually became a US citizen.
After the war, Renoir pursued color-film projects around the globe. He began to adopt experimental techniques similar to those used in live TV. In one of his last films, he returned to the theme of French POWs, this time from WWII. In total, he made over 40 films in a career that spanned silent films to color. As he neared the end of his life, he began to write. His biography Renoir, My Father is a testament to a loving and supportive relationship. Renoir also wrote his memoirs and screenplays. He received a life-time achievement Academy Award in 1975. That same year, Renoir was made a commander in the Légion d’honneur. He died in Beverly Hills on February 12, 1979, but his body was placed in the family cemetery in Essoyes, France. After Renoir’s death, Orson Welles eulogized him as “the greatest of all directors.”
- #4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir (fanwithamovieyammer.wordpress.com)
- Renoir at work (ladonasmusicstudio.com)