Tableaus glorying in sawn-off corners

August 31, 2001

Mamoun Hassan revels in the humanism of a unique film-maker.

The film director François Truffaut, never one to hold back - he famously derided British cinema as a contradiction in terms - was quite categorical about Jean Renoir. Renoir was simply an "infallible film-maker". The critic André Bazin, both mentor and fellow combatant of Truffaut and the Nouvelle Vague directors of the 1950s, also thought Renoir could do no wrong. Bazin was not unaware of Renoir's shortcomings and sometimes downright amateurism but he paradoxically transformed these into virtues: evidence of ceaseless exploration and an essential part of Renoir's charm, style and personality. In a career spanning some 45 years of ups and downs, Renoir did not break the rules, he made them - at least for himself. One of his films, La Règle du Jeu ( The Rules of the Game , 1939), still comes near the top of most critics' lists of the ten best movies. Reissues on DVD of Renoir's two masterpieces, La Grande Illusion ( Grand Illusion , 1937) and La Règle du Jeu , give one a chance to re-assess his reputation.

The films make an interesting pairing. The first, which follows a group of French prisoners of war who try to escape as they are moved from camp to camp in Germany during the first world war, is about love: love of one's country, one's class and one's race. Although these affiliations are known to keep people apart as much as bring them together, beyond country, class and race lies a common humanity. By contrast, the second, made just before the start of the second world war, set mostly in a chteau during a house party where masters and servants get up to all sorts of shenanigans in the pursuit of love, is about war: war between men, between women, between men and women and between humanity and nature. Class, gender and race do not provide cohesion; they lay down "la Règle du jeu", the rules of engagement.

Although only two years separate the films, stylistically they are worlds apart. La Grande Illusion looks back on wartime events some 20 years earlier and is classical in composition, unbroken in rhythm and harmonious in form. La Règle du Jeu is contemporary in setting and is visually fluid, rhythmically unpredictable and formally unfettered. But however different their genres - the first is a drama and the second indefinable but often labelled a social satire - both are informed by Renoir's humanism.

Of course humanism - or "fuddy-duddy" humanism as a friend ironically labels it - is done and dusted, isn't it? Or so we are regularly told. So why continue to kick this dog if it is already dead? Maybe because humanism in the cinema gave us Renoir, John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Becker... whereas postmodernism has given us something less than a cuckoo clock. The quintessential postmodern film is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider : a "crossover" movie since it grew out of a computer game, with a bit of this, a bit of that and bit of the other; not even a pretence at dealing with human lives; referential (and how); competently but anonymously made; and - apart from its determination to make money - thankfully free from any commitment or engagement.

In common usage, humanism is undoubtedly a fuzzy word. Anything that is soft, sentimental and lacking in rigour - in short, art du papa - is considered "humanist". In Renoir's case, the maintenance of civilised human relationships matters very much - but they are not, finally, his overriding concern. As Octave, the character Renoir himself plays in La Règle du Jeu , succinctly states (in the most famous line of the film): "You see, in this world there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." A structuralist might say this view avoids the impersonal forces embedded in society's structures. But for a dramatist, it is challenging, benign and rich in possibilities. For it looks beyond heroes and villains, beyond stereotypes and propaganda. No wonder that Stephen Frears - whose own relaxed and unforced rhythm as a director recalls Renoir - can say: "We are all the sons of Renoir." But what about the sons (and daughters) of the sons, that is the up-and-coming directors who have some ambition to be artists as well as to be commercially successful? Their distance from Renoir is very considerable - in story-telling, in the depiction of violence, in the treatment of sex and in the relationship between film-maker and audience. Would a Renoir stand any chance in today's film world? (Luckily, he could partially finance himself. The money came from the sale of paintings left him by his famous father, Auguste Renoir. Jean Renoir ruefully compared the paintings to Balzac's Wild Ass's Skin . Eventually he ran out of skin.)

Hollywood's first three script priorities are plot, plot and plot. Modern cinema is tending towards soap opera formulas, where twists and turns constantly renew a flagging story. Renoir did not give a damn about plot. His adaptation of Zola's La Bête Humaine shows how. In spite of the difficulty of squeezing any novel into a film, it opens with a wordless, and viscerally exciting, four-and-a-half minutes of train journey as seen from the driver's cab; it ends with three minutes of the train's return journey. Similarly, Renoir's adaptation of Maupassant's Une Partie de Compagne leaves out most of the plot. What we are left with is pure cinema. As for the plots of both La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu , they are minimal. But while the first film seems simple, the second seems complex. There is so much more going on in Renoir's best films than story-telling. Which may partially explain why he always found it difficult to raise finance, particularly in Hollywood during his exile there in the second world war. He tried to change himself so as to fit in but it was not a happy period. Darryl Zanuck, his boss at 20th Century Fox, said of him: "Renoir has a lot of talent. But he's not one of us." And Zanuck was right.

For although La Grande Illusion was financed commercially and starred the biggest French movie actor of his day, Jean Gabin, and the story was about war, it is not at all a conventional Hollywood war picture. Like his protagonists, Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin) and Captain de Boïeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Renoir had been a pilot in the first world war. But there is no sense in the film of the war's terrible slaughter, even more traumatic for France than it was for Britain. This may seem surprising when one considers how important realism was for Renoir; his earlier film Toni about Italian peasant labourers is arguably the first Neo-realist film. But Renoir made a distinction between "outer" and "inner" reality: he gave as an example the fact that Gabin wears Renoir's own pilot's tunic in the film, while Erich von Stroheim dresses extravagantly and inaccurately as the Prussian commandant Captain von Rauffenstein - yet both characters seem real because they are psychologically convincing. All right - but surely the main point here is that a realistic depiction of war's slaughter would have poached our attention from the central story: the shifting affiliations and loyalties of a working-class mechanic, a Jewish haut bourgeois , a French aristocrat and a German aristocrat.

Another reason for omitting the gore may be that Renoir abhorred violence. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was an assistant on La Règle du Jeu , told Kevin Brownlow that Renoir asked him to film the pheasant and rabbit shoot because he could not face the slaughter of the animals. (Cartier-Bresson had been a hunter in Africa.) Generally, Renoir tries to avoid showing violence. In La Bête Humaine , for example, Simone Simon is murdered off screen by Gabin. Perhaps it came from his childhood when Auguste Renoir would saw off the sharp corners of tables so that his children did not hurt themselves. Whether that was good for them in later life is questionable, but there can be no question that the solicitous and benign spirit of Auguste Renoir - with his fleshy adoration of women - is very much present in the films of his son.

Jean Renoir was fascinated by women. His film career started in collaboration with his wife, the actress Catherine Hessling, who had been a model for Auguste. La Grande Illusion is unusual for him in being primarily about men (although the film ends with an affecting encounter between Gabin and the German countrywoman, widowed by war, who nevertheless shelters the fugitive POWs). From his first film to his last, few directors have introduced us to such a complex array of female characters. Renoir was no prude. He once seriously considered adapting the work of the marquis de Sade - an erotic rather than pornographic adaptation - for Madame Regina, proprietress of a number of "houses" in the Midi. But his films portray yearning, desire and obsession rather than lust. The mixture of longing, joy and sadness on Sylvia Bataille's face as she brushes past the camera and falls into her lover's arms in Une Partie de Campagne is one of the most memorable close-ups in cinema.

Most prewar films, if they exist at all in this country, are shown in the form of scratched and patched-up dupes or dupes of dupes. Criterion's reissue of La Grande Illusion is therefore all the more startling, with its absolutely superb picture quality. One is tempted to say that it is better than the original. Criterion went to a great deal of trouble to locate original material, and one of the DVD's "special features" shows how digital transfer was used to clean up the best negatives and prints the company could find. So there is no need for special pleading; this is the film as Renoir intended it to be seen and heard.

Regrettably, the quality of La Règle du Jeu on this DVD is not of the same standard. Also the extra feature, a documentary that analyses the film, is almost enough to put one off the film, being self-satisfied, pretentious and alienating. But whatever the technical quality of the DVD, the film itself remains one of the most important in the history of cinema, made by one of its greatest artists. Renoir was, of course, privileged, and also lucky to have lived and worked in France for most of his life. One cannot imagine an English Renoir being allowed to develop and flourish in the same way. His constant explorations and experiments would not have been tolerated for long. The commercial climate that dominates movies now will ensure that we are unlikely to see such an independent film artist again in any country with a developed film industry.

Mamoun Hassan is dean of editing, International Film and Television School, Cuba, and director, Alchemist Films, a film investment group.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.