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Renoir, Jean (1894–1979)

RENOIR, JEAN (1894–1979)


French filmmaker.

The second son of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Jean was born in Paris in 1894. He studied philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Provence, before joining the cavalry in 1913 as part of his compulsory military service. After war broke out in 1914, he served as an officer in the Alpine unit and as a pilot in the French Flying Corps. He was wounded by a bullet to his thigh and never lost a slight limp. The year of his father's death, 1919, was also the year of his marriage to the actress Andrée Heuchling, who worked under the stage name Catherine Hessling.

Fascinated by film during the war, Renoir set up a film production company in 1924 with the resources of his inheritance. His early work was in the silent film period, and many of his scripts were vehicles for Hessling. All his ventures were commercial failures. When talking films became the rule, he began to work with a film editor, Marguerite Mathieu, who became his working partner and lifelong companion.

Renoir's most creative period was the 1930s, when he created three films, each considered a masterpiece. The Grand Illusion (1937) is the most powerful war film made in this period—or in any other period—and shows everything about war without showing a single battle scene. Jean Gabin plays Maréchal, the French everyman in this film, who escapes from a German prisoner-of-war camp with his Jewish companion, Rosenthal, played by Marcel Dalio. Their escape is made possible by the choice of nation over class by a fellow French prisoner, de Boildieu (Pierre Fresnay), who rejects his social bond with the German commandant and social equal, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), and goes to his death to enable his fellow Frenchmen, though social inferiors, to get away. En route to Switzerland, Maréchal and Rosenthal are cared for and protected by a German widow, played by Dita Parlo. Maréchal falls in love with her, and though impelled to leave to rejoin his unit, swears to come back and marry her after the war. Is that the "Grand Illusion," or is it that the decency of these men and women are about to be thrown away again, this time in an even more devastating war, which everyone in 1937 could see was just around the corner?

The Human Beast came the following year, 1938, and also starred Jean Gabin in an adaptation of Émile Zola's novel. It is a political work in which Gabin, as Jacques Lantier, plays a tragic figure. Renoir believed that "Jacques Lantier interests us as much as Oedipus Rex," and film had to include workers and give them "all the preoccupations which, in ancient literature, seemed reserved for single bourgeois and aristocratic individuals" (Sesonske, p. 123). That is why he adapted Zola's well-known tale of a railway disaster.

Renoir himself acted in his third masterpiece of the 1930s, The Rules of the Game (1939). In this film, shot in a château in the Loire, Renoir shows the absurdity of the rhythms and content of the lives of the privileged classes and of those who serve them. The technical virtuosity of his camera work, his mixing of foreground, background, and middle distance, influenced many later film directors. These techniques were effortlessly deployed by Renoir, whose respect for his actors enabled them to present the story seamlessly, humanely, movingly. No other film director married these technical and literary skills to such great and enduring visual effect. A famous shooting party scene in the film again suggests the mayhem and war looming just over the horizon, about to swallow up these terribly vulnerable and confused men and women.

In The Rules of the Game, as elsewhere, Renoir constructed the film as a collective piece of work. His actors formed part of the creative core of the enterprise, to a degree not matched until the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1946–1982) and the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949) resumed the practice fifty years later.

Renoir left France in 1941 during the German occupation and became an American citizen. He worked in Hollywood during World War II but never adapted to the studio focus of filmmaking in the United States. His later films all hovered between theater and cinema, but none reached the poetic and visual power of the trilogy of masterpieces completed in just three years between 1937 and 1939. Renoir died in 1979.

See alsoCinema.


Braudy, Leo. Jean Renoir, the World of His Films. Garden City, N.Y., 1972.

Curot, Frank, ed. Nouvelles approches de l'oeuvre de Jean Renoir: Actes du colloque international de Montpellier, 17-18-19 septembre 1994. Montpellier, France, 1995.

O'Shaughnessy, Martin. Jean Renoir. Manchester, U.K., 2000.

Serceau, Daniel, ed. L'homme prisonnier des images: Étude de Partie de campagne de Jean Renoir. Clermont-Ferrand, France, 1996.

Sesonske, Alexander. Jean Renoir, the French films, 1924–1939. Cambridge, Mass., 1980.

Jay Winter

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