Thursday, January 5, 2012

Remastering the Film: Jean Renoir

Of the master filmmakers I singled out two years ago on this blog, Jean Renoir is the most remote in time. Though he made a film as late as 1969, appropriately titled The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, and he died in, of all places, Beverly Hills in 1979, his last great film was The Rules of the Game, made in 1939.

Of the millions killed in the Second World War and the millions more who were displaced and found themselves at war's end far from home or with no home to return to, it seems almost futile to mention the artists who were exiled by the war, who lost their way and couldn't find it again. Though Renoir managed to escape to the free world before the Germans attacked France in May 1940, and despite France's capitulation before the wholesale destruction of Paris, the destruction of Renoir's world - the Third Republic, Léon Blum, and the Front populaire - was, by the time he returned in 1945, complete. Because he was the creator of La Grande Illusion (1), which had the effrontery to suggest in 1937 that all men (French, German, British, and Russian) are brothers, Renoir would certainly have been arrested by the Gestapo. There was no way he could have strayed and continue working like Carné, Delannoy, and Christian-Jaque.

Reflections of that lost world informed all of his films of the 'thirties. The greatest of these, the short Une partie de campagne, the half-forgotten Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, La Grange Illusion, and La Règle du jeu, are exquisite expressions of Renoir's love for the people of the age.

But Renoir's career was effectively derailed in 1940. He made films in Hollywood (Swamp Water, This Land Is Mine, The Southerner) that were earnest but meagre, and his return to France induced in him a nostalgia that did not serve him well (Le Carrosse d'or (2), French Cancan, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe).

Renoir developed from free literary adaptations like Boudu Saved from Drowning (3) and The Lower Depths to original scripts written by Charles Spaak or Jacques Prévert. His best films are redolent of the political climate in France that set it apart from the Fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Their politics may have left the French ill-prepared to defend themselves, but a great deal of the political convictions that fuelled the Resistance came from the people who were part of the Front Populaire.

(1) Stanley Kauffmann corrected the common English translation of the title, Grand Illusion, as The Big Illusion.
(2) François Truffaut evidently loved Le Carrosse d'or enough to name his production company "Les Films du Carrosse".
(3) There was irony (which nobody noticed) in Paul Mazursky's mirthless remake, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). Mazursky returned to the original ending of the play - and completely blew the wistful anarchism of Renoir's substitute ending - by making his hobo reform.

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