Game players, rule breakers

Jean Renoir - Our Films, their Films
March 31, 1995

Jean Renoir made a film, La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), which many people (including this reviewer) think is the greatest work of art in the cinema. He also directed La Grande Illusion, Une Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country), Le Carrosse d'Or (The Golden Coach) and The River, his personal favourite, which was made in English and set in India. Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles hailed Renoir as the greatest director in cinema. Renoir himself was modest, and it is delightful to read his comment on his attempt to teach film direction at a university, written to a Swiss friend from Hollywood at the age of nearly 70 and printed in this new book of letters from and to Renoir. "I wonder if film-directing can be taught, and if it would not be better for all aspiring directors to acquire a solid general culture instead. Knowing a couple of good books, a few good paintings and a few pieces of music, understanding them, absorbing them and digesting them may be the best preparation for becoming a film maker."

As a son of the great painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir was well qualified to make such a statement. He was exposed to the best of French culture from his birth in 1894, particularly France's painters and writers, and his letters are replete with such references. Writing to his close friend Dudley Nichols (a screen writer for John Ford), he genially let drop "what Claude Monet told me a short time before he died, one day when (I was) coming from the sunburnt south of France (and) visited him in his estate of Giverny in blue-green Normandy: 'It must do you good to see a little lettuce.'"

But Renoir was no chauvinist about France. In 1934 he refused to remain in the French cinema technicians' union because it supported the exclusion of foreigners. "Throughout our history," he wrote to the union, "we can see that the most brilliant periods of Art, Literature and Industry are those where our Schools have welcomed many non-French elements." And in 1948, after a protracted struggle to make personal films in Hollywood, he told Clifford Odets, another close American writer friend, that there are writers like Moliere "who by plowing stubbornly the little bit of ground on which they were born finally grew a crop generous enough to cover the needs of the whole world. But there are also good artists who reach the universal by the use of a universal language about universal problems. It is a dangerous technique when it fails. The result is as cheap as a Hollywood movie. When it succeeds it is the classical tragedy: Racine, Giraudoux. Some authors like my Father, Shakespeare, belong to both categories." So did Jean Renoir in his best work.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, who assisted Renoir on La Regle du Jeu and two other films (and even acted in one), puts all this beautifully in a memoir of Renoir that forms a postscript to the letters. "He was a warm man, very cultured, but he loathed pretentious intellectuals. You simply had to be cultured to work with him, by which I mean a fundamental culture, like his father, of whom he spoke a lot. Jean had intelligence about everything, in the way that an animal is intelligent, and not cerebral. He was not a specialist of anything except generosity, and life for him always came first. I owe him a great deal."

La Regle du Jeu is described by Cartier-Bresson as "a premonition of everything that was to happen in the world." It is therefore extraordinarily interesting that of all his major films, Renoir refers to this one hardly ever in his letters. When, in l969, Francois Truffaut, Renoir's most devoted admirer among French directors, wrote emotionally that "I have never been able - or have never known how - to tell you how much La Regle du Jeu (which I saw over and over again between the ages of 13 and 14, when everything in my life was going so badly) helped me to keep going, to understand the motives of the people around me, and to get through those awful years of my adolescence", Renoir in his response avoided the point altogether. Most likely he had simply been too hurt by the Parisian hostility to the film on its release in July 1939: not only did it provoke a kind of riot in the theatre, the French government banned it as "demoralising".

There is a comparable silence about Satyajit Ray - a single reference only. Here Renoir calls Ray "a great director", an accolade he bestows on no other director in his letters with the exception of (by implication) Chaplin. And the silence is significant, for it was Ray who, as a young man with a passion for movies, gave Renoir some invaluable advice about The River when Renoir visited Bengal in 1949/50. Though Renoir took note, and changed his script accordingly so as to make the film more authentic to Bengal, he never acknowledged Ray's help. When the two of them were brought together on stage in Hollywood in 1967 for a special screening of The River, introduced by the comment "Ray owes a lot to Renoir", Renoir told the audience, "I don't think Ray owes anything to me. I think he had it in his blood. Though he's very young still, he's the Father of Indian Cinema."

In fact Ray did owe something to Renoir, as he made clear in describing him as "my principal mentor" when he received the Legion of Honour from President Mitterrand in Calcutta in l989. In l949, he had written a finely modulated piece, "Renoir in Calcutta", which was published in London by another passionate film buff, Lindsay Anderson, in his magazine Sequence. It was reprinted as part of a collection of Ray's writings, Our Films Their Films, in India in 1976, and has been in print ever since. Now, for the first time, this book appears in a western edition. Our Films Their Films and Jean Renoir: Letters are the two richest and most readable books on cinema I know: reading them cannot fail to rejuvenate one's awareness that film is an art. My only major regret is that Ray's post-l976 writings have not been added. These include his profound and brilliant article written for the 50th anniversary of Sight and Sound in 1982, in which he wrote: "There is a subtle, almost imperceptible kind of innovation that can be felt in the very texture and sinews of a film. A film that doesn't wear its innovations on its sleeve. A film like La Regle du Jeu. Humanist? Classical? Avant-Garde? Contemporary? I defy anyone to give it a label. This is the kind of innovation that appeals to me."

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES, is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. BBC TV will show a two-part documentary on Renoir in April and three of his films, including The Rules of The Game.

Jean Renoir: Letters

Editor - David Thompson and Lorraine Lobianco
ISBN - 0 571 17298 9
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £25.00
Pages - 605

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