Festival of Foreign
Occupation: Director, author
Also: Screenwriter, producer, actor
Born: September 15, 1894, Paris, France
Died: February 12, 1979, Beverly Hills, California
Jean Renoir was born in
the Montmartre district of Paris, France. He was the second son of
his mother, Aline Charigot, and his father, French painter Pierre-Auguste
Renoir. As a child, he and his family moved to the south of France, where
his father's financial success ensured that the young Jean Renoir would be
educated at fashionable boarding schools. He later wrote that he
continually ran away from these boarding schools.
World War I broke out while Renoir was
around the age of 20. He served France in the French cavalry.
However, he received a bullet in his leg, and served as a reconnaissance pilot.
This leg injury caused him to have a permanent limp, however, this allowed him
to discover cinema. While recuperating from his leg injury, Renoir began
watching the films of Charlie Chaplin, among others. After the war, he
followed his father's suggestion and started crafting ceramics, but was soon
inspired by Erich von Stroheim's work to make films.
Renoir directed the first of his nine
silent films in 1924. Most of these films starred his first wife,
Catherine Hessling, whom was one of his late father's last models. These
films were not successful at producing a return, and Renoir gradually sold his
father's paintings in order to continue financing them.
In 1931, Jean Renoir directed his first
sound films, On purge bébé, and La Chienne (The Bitch).
In the following year, he made the film Boudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu
sauvé des eaux), a farcical take of the pretensions of a middle-class
bookseller and his family, who meet with amusing, and ultimately disastrous,
results when they attempt to reform a vagrant, who was played by Michel Simon.
By the mid-1930s, Renoir was associated with the Popular
Front, an alliance of left-wing movements in France, and several of his films,
such as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange),
La Vie Est a Nous (People of France) and La Marseillaise,
reflect the movement's politics. In 1937 he made one of his most well-known
films, Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion), starring Erich von
Stroheim and the immensely popular Jean Gabin. A film on the theme of
brotherhood about a series of escape attempts by French POWs during World War I,
it was enormously successful but was also banned in Germany, and later banned in
Italy after having won the "Best Artistic Ensemble" award at the Venice Film
Festival. This was followed by another cinematic success, The Human Beast
(La Bête Humaine), a film noir tragedy based on the novel by Émile Zola
and starring Simone Simon and Jean Gabin.
Now able to finance his own films, Renoir made The Rules
of the Game (La Règle du Jeu) in 1939, a satire on contemporary
French society with a large ensemble cast. Renoir himself played the character
Octave, a sort of master of ceremonies in the film. The film was greeted with
disdain by Parisian audiences upon its premiere and was extensively re-edited,
but without success. It was his greatest commercial failure. A few weeks after
the outbreak of World War II, the film was banned. The ban was lifted briefly in
1940, but after the fall of France it was banned again. Subsequently, the
original negative of the film was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. It was
not until the 1950s that two French film enthusiasts, Jacques Durand and Jean
Gaborit, with Renoir's co-operation, were able to reconstruct a near-complete
print of the film. Today, The Rules of the Game appears frequently near
the top of critics' polls as one of the best films ever made.
In July 1939, just a week after the
disastrous premiere of The Rules of the Game, Renoir went to Rome with
Karl Koch and Dido Freire, subsequently his second wife, to work on the script
for a film version of Tosca. This he abandoned to return to France in
August 1939, to make himself available for military service. At the age of 45,
he became a lieutenant in the French Army Film Service, and was sent back to
Italy, to teach film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and
resume work on Tosca. The French government hoped that this cultural
exchange would help to maintain friendly relations with Italy, which had not yet
entered the war. As war approached, however, he returned to France and then,
after Germany invaded France in May 1940, he fled to the United States with
In Hollywood, Renoir had difficulty finding projects that
suited him. In 1943, he co-produced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in
France, This Land Is Mine, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton.
Two years later, he made The Southerner, a film about Texas sharecroppers
that is often regarded as his best work in America and one for which he was
nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.
In 1945 he made Diary of a Chambermaid, an adaptation
of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, starring
Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith. The Woman on the Beach starring
Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan was heavily reshot and reedited after it fared
poorly among preview audiences in California. Both films were poorly received
and were the last films Renoir made in America. At this time, Renoir became a
naturalized citizen of the United States.
Renoir traveled to India in 1949 and made
The River, his first color film. Based on the novel of the same name by
Rumer Godden, the film is both a meditation on human beings' relationship with
nature and a coming of age story of three young girls in colonial India. The
film won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.
After returning to work in Europe, Renoir made a trilogy of
Technicolor musical comedies on the subjects of theater, politics and commerce:
Le Carrosse d'or (The Golden Coach) with Anna Magnani, French Cancan
with Jean Gabin and Maria Felix and Eléna et les hommes (Elena and Her
Men) with Ingrid Bergman and Jean Marais. During the same period, Renoir
produced, in Paris, the Clifford Odets play, The Big Knife, and wrote and
produced, in Paris, for Leslie Caron his own play, Orvet.
Renoir's next films were made in 1959 using techniques Renoir
adapted from live television at the time. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Picnic
on the Grass), starring Paul Meurisse and Catherine Rouvel, was filmed on the
grounds of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Le Testament
du Docteur Cordelier (The Testament of Doctor Cordelier), starring
Jean-Louis Barrault, was made in the streets of Paris and its suburbs.
In 1962, Renoir made what was to be his penultimate film,
Le Caporal épinglé (The Elusive Corporal) with Jean-Pierre Cassel and Claude
Brasseur. Set among French POWs during their internment in labor camps by the
Nazis during World War II, the film explores the twin human needs for freedom,
on the one hand, and emotional and economic security, on the other.
In 1962, Renoir published a loving memoir of his father,
Renoir, My Father, in which he described the profound influence his father
had on him and his work. As funds for his film projects were becoming harder to
obtain, Renoir continued to write screenplays and then wrote a novel, The
Notebooks of Captain Georges, published in 1966. Captain Georges is
the nostalgic account of a wealthy young man's sentimental education and love
for a peasant girl, a theme also explored earlier in his films Diary of a
Chambermaid and Picnic on the Grass.
Renoir made his last film in 1969, Le
Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir). The film
is a series of four short films made in a variety of styles and is, in many
ways, one of his most challenging, avant-garde and unconventional works.
Thereafter, unable to find financing for his films and in
declining health, Renoir spent the last years of his life receiving friends at
his home in Beverly Hills and writing novels and his memoirs.
In 1973, Renoir was preparing a production of his stage play
Carola with Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer when he fell ill and was unable
to direct. The producer Norman Lloyd, a friend and actor in The Southerner,
took over the direction of the play, which was broadcast in the series program
Hollywood Television Theater on WNET, Channel 13, New York on February 3, 1973.
In his memoirs My Life and My Films, Renoir wrote of
the influence exercised upon him by his cousin, Gabrielle Renard. Shortly before
his birth, she came to live with the Renoir family, and helped raise the young
boy. She introduced him to the Guignol puppet shows in the Montmartre of his
childhood: "She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind
the flourishes," he wrote. "She taught me to detest the cliché." He concluded
his memoirs with the words he had often spoken as a child, "Wait for me,
In 1975 he received a lifetime Academy Award for his
contribution to the motion picture industry and that same year a retrospective
of his work was shown at the National Film Theatre in London. Also in 1975, the
government of France elevated him to the rank of commander in the Légion
Jean Renoir died in Beverly Hills, California on February 12,
1979. His body was returned to France and buried beside his family in the
cemetery at Essoyes, Aube, France.
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