Plenty has been written about Jean Renoir, by himself and others. Nevertheless a new book on the filmmaker is always received with interest. After all, Renoir was not only a true artist himself but also the son of one; he made some universally beloved movies; he had cinematic careers in both the old world and the new, in Paris and in Hollywood; he became in his later years a popular Los Angelino whose house was a gathering place for Gallic Hollywood, as well as a site of pilgrimage for young cineasts from all over; he had a long life, and was eager and able to talk about it; he remained youthful in spirit to the end, even in spite of declining health. He was a genius and a nice man—a rare enough combination.
Human, all too human, is the aroma emanating from his persona and his oeuvre.
Renoir’s fame rests on relatively few films, of which only two seem to enjoy undisputed favor: La grande Illusion and La Règle du jeu. Connoisseurs may have their own favorites as well; mine are Le Crime de Monsieur Lange and Une Partie de campagne. Most of the rest, fine as some of them are, strike me as debatable, especially the American films, preferred by the cultists from the Cahiers du Cinéma. Everybody, however, is at one in liking the man; the rotund, jolly Frenchman who genuinely fancied actors, relished food, and cared about people. That he was homely (remember him as Octave in La Règle du jeu?) redounds to his credit, as does the limp that was the legacy of a World War I wound. Human, all too human, is the aroma emanating from his persona and his oeuvre.
It helps, too, that the young filmmakers of the New Wave adopted Renoir as their precursor and patron saint. A connection can indeed be traced, particularly in his love of location shooting or, failing that, being able to work inexpensively in small, intimate spaces (although he could also, as in The River, rake up a hefty budget). He was not at all arty, and was one of the first major directors to embrace color, which many purists at the time considered vulgar. He often wrote his own screenplays, and always at least collaborated on them. He was one of the few directors to have something like a permanent acting company, at least in his French films; in Hollywood, such a thing was and is inconceivable. Only three women were important in his life: he was married to the first and, eventually, the third; as good as married to the second. Which does not mean that he lacked an eye for the ladies, but the eye was a platonic one.
He hated school, and did not have much of a formal education; few filmmakers do. Yet he was also quite a decent writer, as his books about his father and about himself, and his various plays and fictions, demonstrate. He was a man of endearingly zesty contradictions: though a tremendous gourmet, he couldn’t cook anything except a leg of lamb; though a lover of language, he could not learn proper English in all his many American years; though a peaceable fellow, he was energetically active in World War I in the French cavalry and, later, air force; though the son of a master painter, he owned very little art other than his father’s work, and sometimes refused the offer to buy even that. And unlike many famous men’s sons, he never rebelled against his old man.
All this and much more emerges from Ronald Bergan’s new biography, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise, a useful, readable book that manages in under four hundred pages—short by today’s standards—to tell a good deal about Renoir’s life and work.1 If it has any special strengths, they are a general levelheadedness and a profusion of satisfying gossip. For example, I have often wondered why Jean would have chosen Valentine Tessier, gifted actress though she was, to play Emma in his film of Madame Bovary, given that she was forty and looked it. I learn from Bergan, as I did not from other books, that she was the mistress of Gaston Gallimard, publisher of the mighty Nouvelle Revue Française and owner of the Nouvelle Société des Films, which was financing this venture. With so much nouvelle to back her up, Mlle Tessier could afford to be a bit vieille for the part.
Probably the most detailed analysis of Renoir’s films can be found in Alexander Sesonske’s Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924–1939. But Sesonske was Renoir’s fan and friend, and wrote under the master’s watchful eye. Thus he tells us nothing about Tessier’s private life, and certainly not, as we read in Bergan, that the actress fell during the filming ever more deeply in love with the actor who played her husband: Pierre Renoir, the director’s older brother. Bergan writes: “Gallimard found out and wrote her desperate letters from Paris, which Tessier returned unopened. There was also a rumour that the jealous Gallimard stole into the lab at Billancourt Studio one night, found the wedding night scene in which Valentine and Pierre kiss, and burned it out of the film.”
Although such details may not help one’s critical understanding of Renoir’s work, they re-create the atmosphere in which the film was shot, and make for lively reading. And this attitude of irreverence liberates Bergan’s critical judgment. Sesonske, for instance, defends the casting of Tessier and the equally overage Pierre Renoir. He observes that “neither character ages physically during the film; this creates a notable deviation from the novel, for Flaubert describes the changes in Charles that annoy Emma.” So far, so good; however, we read that “this is a fault only in the relation of the film to the novel. Within the film, nothing indicates that the age of the persons should be other than it is. If we can overlook this departure from Flaubert, there is a solidity in each performance which more than compensates.” Rubbish.
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Sesonske’s special pleading continues for a couple of pages. Bergan is much shorter and nearer the mark with his “fatal miscasting of the title role… . Tessier, obviously a stage actress of considerable presence and range, is too much the ‘grande dame’ in the part, too emotional, and certainly too old… . She is never Flaubert’s romantic young girl, fresh from the convent, who escapes the monotony of her provincial environment by carrying on illicit affairs which she invests with false glamour. She suggests, rather, a woman who has once lived an exciting life before marrying Charles.” In its sensible, unassuming way this is practical criticism, free from such absurdities as Sesonske’s “If we can overlook this departure from Flaubert …” The advanced and immutable ages of the characters would not make sense under any circumstances, even if the film were not based on a famous novel. But how can one overlook such departures from a masterpiece that everybody knows and loves?
Well, maybe not everybody. Bergan amusingly adduces Auguste Renoir’s view of the novel as “the story of an idiot whose wife wanted to become somebody. When one has read these 300 pages one can’t help thinking, ‘I can’t be bothered with these creatures.’” There speaks a great painter and an illiterate. Yet Bergan’s usefulness does not stop there. He tells us that originally the screenplay was to be written by Gallimard’s friend, the celebrated novelist Roger Martin du Gard (Les Thibault), and that Jacques Feyder (Carnival in Flanders) was to direct. “But after a disastrous lunch with Gallimard and Tessier, Feyder said he could not see Valentine in the role. As a matter of fact, although he was being honest, Feyder was hoping to get the plum part for his actress wife, Françoise Rosay… . However, the forty-two-year-old Rosay would have been even more miscast than the forty-year-old Tessier. When Feyder withdrew, so did Roger Martin du Gard.”
This seems to me at least as useful as Sesonske’s highfalutin and detailed—sometimes almost frame-by-frame—analyses, vitiated as they are by adulation. And Bergan makes the obvious but necessary comment, “Only those privileged few who saw it in its original three-hour version, before it lost seventy-three minutes on release, were able to judge the film as it was conceived.” It is terrible that when the distributors successfully fought off the producers’ insistence on releasing the uncut film, they were also able to destroy the cut parts of the negative. This sort of ruthlessness was common in those days, and is by no means unusual now. Still, it is amazing with what equanimity Renoir, as Bergan puts it, “cut a bleeding chunk” from the film.
Perhaps the most egregious case of cut and destroy in the history of cinema was what RKO did to Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, for which the chief blame rests with George Schaefer and the sidekick who replaced him as head of the company, Charles W. Koerner. That was the man who (as we learn from This Is Orson Welles) was instrumental “in causing the studio’s disastrous break with Welles.” Hence it is fascinating to read here that this same Charles W. Koerner gave complete freedom to Renoir and his scriptwriter, Dudley Nichols, in the making of one of Renoir’s worst films, the ghastly agitprop This Land Is Mine, and even more so that “Koerner was someone Jean greatly admired.” Renoir is quoted: “[Koerner] was an understanding man, a man who knew the film market … but who allowed for experimentation just the same.”
This about the butcher of Ambersons from the victim of Bovary and other similar acts of vandalism? What are we to conclude? That Renoir lacked the Menschenkenntnis needed to judge people’s worth, or worthlessness? (In a letter, he described the notorious Lee and Paula Strasberg as admirable!) Or that, unlike the intractable Welles, who fought for his rights like a tiger—or, more aptly, a rogue elephant—Renoir was amenable, soft? A little bit of both, I suspect. He was certainly putty in the hands of his first wife, the predatorily ambitious Dédée (i.e., Andrée Madeleine Heuschling), who became his first, and in many ways worst, leading lady.
Bergan convincingly evokes Jean’s childhood as the son of an artist for whom painting from nature was a priority, and a mother, Aline, who came from Essoyes in Burgundy, the region associated with the best French cuisine. On both sides, Jean was descended from what used to be called the lower orders, and his sympathies in the films to come were on the side of the people, even as his politics, such as they were, were always to the left. All life long, too, he retained his Burgundian accent with the rolled r’s, much like one of his subsequent admirers, Bertolt Brecht, who similarly preserved his rolled Augsburg r’s. Perhaps the primary influence on Jean was his beloved Gabrielle, the wonderful maid whom the Renoirs cherished: Auguste raptly painted her, Aline depended on her, and the boys, Jean and his younger brother, Claude (Coco), hung from her. It was this warm-hearted girl—“Bibou” to Jean’s childish tongue—who took the future filmmaker to see Guignol and the other puppets in the Tuileries Gardens, puppets that were the adoring child’s introduction to the performing arts. “Guignol,” Renoir was to say, “endowed me with a fondness for simple tales and a profound mistrust for what is generally called psychology.”
Jean was descended from what used to be called the lower orders, and his sympathies in the films to come were on the side of the people.
Another important early influence was little Godefer, the son of poor farm laborers, who became one of Jean’s chums at Essoyes, where Auguste had bought a house. It was Godefer who introduced Jean to the pleasures of freshwater pike-poaching, and poachers duly became an important element in the work of the future cineast. With another friend, Paul Cézanne, the son of the painter, Jean went boating in a flat-bottomed boat propelled by poles, and fell in love with rivers, which were to become likewise a major presence in his films. Auguste had told little Jean, “You have to be a cork, a cork in the current. You have to follow the current,” a piece of advice that stuck with him, re-enforced as it was by those voluptuous river driftings.
Bergan is good at evoking details of Jean’s early life that could have proved formative, but less so at following through on these speculations. Thus we hear about Auguste’s not allowing the child’s long locks to be shorn—they supposedly provided protection against the sun and knocks on the head—so that for years Jean, much to his disgust, was mistaken for a little girl. How, one wonders, did this affect his attitude toward women? For a film director, and a French one at that, Renoir was remarkably abstemious where women were concerned. One gets the feeling that, save for his three consorts, no one shared the director’s bed, or couch. A virtue may be its own justification, but I am tempted to think that this fidelity had something to do with his mother’s memory. When Jean lay wounded in World War I and his leg was about to be amputated, it was Aline who, despite severe suffering from diabetes, journeyed to his bedside and found a specialist who was able to salvage the limb the army doctors were about to hack off, something that might also have resulted in Jean’s death. But she so strained her poor health that Jean believed it was this, and not diabetes, that killed Aline, which filled him with “a feeling of profound guilt … an emotion that lingered for the rest of his life.” And a good son is not unfaithful to his self-sacrificing mother.
With all three of his main women Jean assumed a somewhat subservient, perhaps filial, role. “Just as he had been influenced to go into film-making by Dédée, and to take a more active part in politics by Marguerite [Houllé], he was inclining more toward the spiritual as he grew closer to Dido [Freire],” Bergan writes. In their various ways, all three women proved extremely useful to Jean. And each of them came at exactly the right moment.
Jean’s parents had feared that their middle son would not turn into anything more than a blacksmith or carpenter, and the boy himself thought of becoming a gendarme. Indeed, starting out in life, he, Dédée, and brother Coco (a ne’er-do-well) ran a ceramics workshop. Dédée, however, wanted to be a movie star, and goaded her husband (whom she did not love) into filmmaking. She had originally landed at the Renoir home—Les Colettes, at Cagnes on the Riviera—because Matisse, whose model she wanted to become, sent her there: “You’re a Renoir,” he told her. And she became one with a vengeance, posing for Auguste, and, out of sheer ambition, marrying Jean. She was not, to my mind, a great beauty, and Bergan quotes a girlfriend of hers about her “almost white eyes like a pig’s,” her plump- ish figure, short legs, and big behind. Yet Charles Boyer, who almost acted with her in Jean’s The Little Match Girl, thought her “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.” Be that as it may, it was she who got Renoir to direct; she and the films of Charlie Chaplin, which Jean kept enthusiastically seeing and reseeing. Yet at first he wanted only to satisfy his wife’s ambition, and quickly return to his ceramics.
The five movies that Renoir made with Catherine Hessling, as Dédée chose to call herself because it sounded American to her, are all undistinguished. But they do show moments of inspiration and technical inventiveness worthy of an admirer of D. W. Griffith, whom Jean worshiped next to Chaplin. Even so, it was not until his eleventh effort, La Chienne (1931), that the hand of a master became unmistakable. But from the very beginning, Renoir films were, a bit like the ceramics workshop, a cottage industry, the product of a co-operative—as were to some extent the famous later ones. They were the work of a group of friends, with the house and property of one of them often providing the needed locations. Almost everyone would chip in with a performance, including Jean’s young son, Alain, to whom Dédée was a wretched mother—often pretending the kid was her nephew—but Jean a doting father.
The coming of sound and more exacting film procedures marked also the arrival of Marguerite Houllé as Jean’s editor and mistress. A woman of indisputable talent, she was to serve Jean in good stead, and though he did not marry her, mainly because Dédée wouldn’t give him a divorce, he allowed her to use the name Marguerite Renoir henceforward. A committed leftist, she propelled Jean in that direction—though not to extremes—and the results were to be films such as Toni (1935), an earthy tale of working-class people; La Marseillaise (1938), Jean’s best historical film; La Bête humaine (1938); and the four masterpieces: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935), co-scripted with the incomparable Jacques Prévert; Une Partie de campagne (1936, but not released until 1946), which reincarnates the work of Auguste in cinematic terms; La grande Illusion (1937), probably the finest prisoner-of-war film ever made; and La Règle du jeu (1939), the film that seems to figure on more top ten lists than any other and, I think, rightly so.
But Dido Freire, the Brazilian who became his second wife and sharer of his American years, was the one who, as Bergan puts it, inclined him toward the spiritual. Jean had been a reasonably good Catholic all along, Auguste having sent him to a Catholic school. “In Protestant schools,” the painter had declared, “you become a pederast, but with Catholics it’s more likely to be masturbation. I prefer the latter.” In California, with Dido, Jean was a regular Sunday churchgoer, but the film in which spiritual values figure most tellingly is The River, where the religion is Brahmanism. Of no small importance either was that Dido, though she didn’t cook, kept a comfortable house for Jean, and was a good mother to Alain, so shabbily treated by his real one. And when Jean was too old to make movies, Dido kept him alive by encouraging him to write instead. Even as he was dying in 1979, at age eighty-four, Renoir was still planning a new novel.
The amazing thing is that Renoir ended up liking Los Angeles. As it did to all young Europeans, filmmakers or not, Hollywood seemed a kind of earthly paradise to him. But only from a distance: a slip of Renoir’s tongue about his delight to be working for Fifteenth Century Fox says it all. His boss, Darryl Zanuck, took a liking to him, which guaranteed he was not going to starve. But neither man really understood the other, and the chronicle of the cross purposes at which they labored comprises some of the most interesting and distressing pages of Bergan’s book. It was a misunderstanding in equal measure ludicrous and pathetic. Consider only Renoir’s being made to direct a Deanna Durbin movie, though he lasted but a short time on it; or his bringing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry out to Hollywood to work with him on an adaptation of Terre des hommes, for what Jean hoped would be his most beautiful film, only to have his project fall on deaf ears.
Oddly enough, though, this did not prevent Jean from liking life in California. He imported some of the olive trees from Cagnes; his beloved Gabrielle and her New England painter husband, Conrad Slade, moved into the house next door; the Hollywood French colony, which included some of his actors from the old days, such as Marcel Dalio, made the house their social and cultural center. He traveled back to Europe to shoot some movies there—movies that may have suffered from his topographical and psychological dividedness—but he never gave up his new home. What would have happened had he moved wholly back to France—something he couldn’t have done for many years with Dido until Dédée was finally bought and coerced into divorcing him—we shall never know. French Cancan (1955) is, for me, the only interesting movie of his final period. Le Carrosse d’or (1953), made on the cheap with the by now overage and homely Anna Magnani and a bargain-basement supporting cast, leaves me cold; Eléna et les hommes (1956) may have been good in its pristine European version, but the badly cut Paris Does Strange Things (as it was released here) does nothing for me, strange or otherwise. And the last four films strike me as senile and pitiful.
What is obvious from the viewing of any film by Renoir is that he loved his actors, who repaid this love with great performances.
Renoir’s last achievement was his talk. All through the closing years of his life he was being interviewed by everyone under the California sun and Paris moon, and he thrived on these interviews. As Bergan remarks, “For him, the making of a film was a good excuse to be in the company of people he liked and loved”; it is nice to know that in Jean’s last years the interviewers (sometimes several in tandem, viz. Truffaut and Louis Malle) re-created for him the convivial atmosphere of a film shoot.
What is obvious from the viewing of any film by Renoir is that he loved his actors, who repaid this love with great performances. Not for him was John Ford’s advice —given in French, no less—“Mon cher Jean, don’t ever forget what I’m going to tell you. Actors are crap.” Bergan quotes Renoir: “In the end technique consists in taking the actors as seriously as one takes cars when filming a car accident. You always film with three cameras because you’re not going to destroy several cars, but actors are treated with less consideration.” Great as his stage and screen career was, Louis Jouvet was never better than as the Baron in Renoir’s The Lower Depths. Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Julien Carette, always wonderful, reached special heights in Renoir films. Was there greater symbiotic acting than that of Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in La grande Illusion? When were Mila Parély and Paulette Dubost as fine as they were in La Règle du jeu as, respectively, the Marquis’s temperamental mistress and the Marquise’s devoted maid? Could Pierre Renoir and Lise Delamare have been bettered as the doomed royal couple in La Marseillaise? Or Nora Swinburne and Esmond Knight as the sympathetic parents in The River? And surely the remarkable Jules Berry created one of the most charming, unforgettable cinematic villains for Renoir as Batala in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange.
The list could go on and on; generally, the whole ensemble in a Renoir film acts in harmonious, joint excellence. And what marvelous music in all those movies, by the likes of Darius Milhaud, Jean Wiener, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, George van Parys—only Arthur Honegger was, strangely, overlooked. And, again and again, there was the matchless Joseph Kosma, whose complete film scores, should they ever become available on CD, would be a revelation to all of us.
There is also, of course, superb cinematography in these films, often by Jean’s gifted nephew, Claude Renoir (Pierre’s son), which reaches an early climax in the very first solo job he did for his uncle in Une Partie de campagne. In forty-five minutes the two Renoirs create a sense of a whole mode of life, of what the outdoors can do to a bunch of city folk in one Panic outburst. As Bergan puts it, “Claude Renoir’s travelling camera moves along the river dwelling on the water and the banks—the rain sweeping the river is magnificently used—balanced by Kos- ma’s music, including a lovely, lilting tune hummed by Germaine Montero, creating wistful but unsentimental nostalgia for the days of the director’s childhood. Renoir’s glowing, witty, bitter-sweet, sensuous tribute to the countryside through which a river runs has seldom been surpassed.” Seldom? Never.
When the much older Renoir returned to a similar subject in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1959), for all that the film was in color (but not photographed by Claude), this celebration of his father’s world—shot mostly at Les Collettes, where the scapegrace Coco still lived, and Auguste’s olive trees were as graceful as ever—did not come off nearly so well. Only the actress playing the heroine, Catherine Rouvel, still embodied the old— or young—Jean Renoir charm. As Raymond Durgnat describes her in his Jean Renoir, “Her animality rivals Bardot’s, but generously rather than aggressively, sunnily rather than defiantly.” That, for me, conveys also the way Renoir set out in pursuit of the truth: generously rather than aggressively, sunnily rather than defiantly. He seems, in his best movies, to be improvising even when he isn’t; there is no excogitated Renoir style: celare artem is his great specialty.
Everyone who has written about Renoir has wrestled with assessing and expressing the filmmaker’s particular quality. In his pioneer study, André Bazin wrote: “The climate of fraternity which reigned within his company eventually established itself between the film and the spectators, for it was always Renoir’s desire to elicit from the public not admiration but a sense of complicity, a friendly connivance quite foreign to the mechanical impersonality of the medium.” This is very true, but it applies equally to many other great directors. In Jean Renoir: The World of His Films, Leo Braudy speculates, “The greatness of his films more often lies in their inconclusiveness, their openness, and their rich tentativeness than in any absolute formulation of the truths of nature or the truths of the theater, the claims of the individual or the claims of society.” There is something to this, but again, all true art shies away from absolute formulation.
Bergan attempts no such definition. But he quotes enough from Renoir, tells enough anecdotes, adduces enough factual material to enable the reader, provided he has seen some of these films, to undertake his own conclusions. I am especially grateful for this quotation: “If I were a dictator, I would forbid all pieces of chalk on stage and on sets. What’s really important is to bring to life a certain character, and the rest is a joke… .” Yet the irony is that, as Bergan tells us, Renoir did use chalk marks on the floor: it saved time and cut expenses. But this was also the Renoir who told a producer, “When you are actually filming, you must not think of the cost. You can always get money, you cannot always get truth.” I guess it depended on whether Renoir himself was the producer, or whether someone else was left holding the money bag.
Repeatedly, a certain childishness and an undeniable shrewdness jostle each other in Renoir. As Bergan notes, Marguerite (Houllé) Renoir, his mistress and the editor of his best films, is hardly ever mentioned by him in his memoirs and interviews. Is this a man fearing Dido’s jealousy or a child taking his mother for granted? For years Jean thought the American silver dollar was named after the gallery owner Ambroise Vollard, his father’s art dealer and biographer; late in life, he would still refer to the coin as “a vollard.” His jokes were often childish, as when he called Hollywood “Tonsiltown.” This too was the chap who, as Leslie Caron reports, would take any pill in sight, even pills for menstruation if he happened to see a woman taking them. Above all, this was the man whose autobiography ends with the words to his childhood nurse, “Wait for me, Gabrielle.” He was then eighty, and Gabrielle had been dead for fifteen years.
Yet this was also the man philosophical enough to be able to see both sides of an issue, and whose most celebrated line of dialogue (from La Règle du jeu) runs, “The terrible thing about this world is that everybody has his reason.” He was, likewise, canny enough to realize that “vamps have to be played by women with innocent faces. Women with innocent faces are the most dangerous ones.” And he was mature enough to perceive that, in the end, he was neither French nor American: “The environment which has made me what I am is the cinema. I am a citizen of the world of film.”
Perhaps the farthest Bergan goes in trying to capture the essence of the filmmaker is the remark, “Mozartian is an adjective that often comes to mind when describing a number of Renoir films.” But this aperçu is barely expanded on, and the epithet “Mozartian,” like “Shakespearean,” has lost what little value it may have had through facile overuse. Altogether, analytical acumen is not Bergan’s strong suit. In trying, for instance, to establish the indebtedness of La Règle du jeu to Marivaux (beyond that to Musset’s Les Caprices de Marianne, which is manifest), he tells us that “its title echoes Marivaux’s best-known play, Le Jeu de l’amour.” Now, the full title of that play is Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard, and that, in its implied anomie, is as far as you can get from La Règle du jeu. Next, he tells us that Nora Gregor in the movie “presents a touching, fragile, rather vain Marschallin.” Christine, whom Gregor portrays, does have an extramarital affair like the Marschallin in Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, but that is where the similarity ends. Certainly the opera’s Marschallin is neither fragile nor vain, though she is touching, but then so is Little Red Riding Hood. Bergan, however, proceeding from the coincidence that Gregor was married to Prince Stahremberg, an Austrian nobleman, and that the Marschallin is also an Austrian noblewoman, rushes into a useless and misleading comparison.
Again, at the end of his chapter on The River, Bergan observes: “It was only after The River that Fritz Lang visited India in 1956 to make Taj-Mahal, though the project was abandoned, and Roberto Rossellini went there to direct India (1958). The River inspired James Ivory to make films in India, and Louis Malle’s Phantom India (1969) followed.” This display of erudition is impressive, but what has it to do with criticism? The Rossellini and Malle films were documentaries, and owe little or nothing to The River, which is a feature. Taj-Mahal was never made, so why bring it up? As for James Ivory, his Indian films are a far cry from Renoir’s. Is this, then, the legacy of The River or just ostentatious free association, which Bergan mistakes for the higher criticism?
Repeatedly, a certain childishness and an undeniable shrewdness jostle each other in Renoir.
He also has trouble with languages. In French, he seems to have a fixation on the feminine. Thus Truffaut’s Domicile conjugal become conjugale, the Nouvel Observateur becomes Nouvelle (like the cuisine), Sur les Bords de la rivière becomes Sur Les Bordes, etc. (capitalization in the book, incidentally, is totally insane, both in French and in English: sometimes everything including le and la, the and and gets capitalized, sometimes nothing does). We also read about Montmartroise humor and the Montmartroise Renoir, Arlésienne extras (both men and women), a Provençale tale, and so on. His next favorite is the unwarranted plural. So we get “politiques des auteurs,” “a Boches film” (for a German movie), and “the cuisine chez les Renoirs,” where the idiom is “chez Renoir.” Other errors include “Manifeste de [sic] Surréalisme” and, most embarrassingly, Jean Vigo’s famed documentary, A propos de Nice, as L’Apropos de Nice, which is bad film history and worse French.
Nor is Bergan luckier with German: the Brecht-Dudow film called Kuhle Wampe becomes “Kühle Wampe,” wrong, although the umlaut might seem indicated. But his biggest problem is with English. We read “the amount of times,” “more perfect,” “exhorbitant,” “superceded,” “between three men,” “neither The River nor Le Carrosse d’or were successful,” “emotionally suppressed,” “indispensible,” etc., not to mention a number of instances of poor syntax.
There are factual errors as well. Jean’s friend André Zwoboda is always “Zwobada,” the distinguished cinematographer Pierre Lhomme becomes “L’Homme,” and Images d’Epinal [sic] is not one particular “book with colored pictures” but a type of garish illustration in a whole series of cheap books. Some people, to be sure, may not be bothered by errors of this nature; indeed, grammar, syntax, orthography, and attention to detail may all be things of the past. Too bad, I say.
This said, Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise may still be an informative book for the general reader, especially since Bergan often quotes judiciously. I am particularly in his debt for two quotations. One is in an account of how the Jean Renoirs and the Paul Cézannes fled south from the Germans in 1940. One night they spent in a barn in the Limousin, which Paul hung with some of his father’s precious works. This, wrote Jean, was a setting Paul’s father would have relished: “At night in that barn we fell asleep amid the great peace that emanates from masterpieces.” Only someone who himself was a master could have come up with that inspired insight and its perfect phrasing.
Then there is Renoir’s statement of his aims in Le Carrosse d’or: “I tried, if you like, to erase the borders between the representation of reality and reality itself. I tried to establish a kind of confusion between acting on a theatrical stage and acting in life.” If for “theatrical stage” we substitute “cinematic screen,” we have a pretty fair description of what Jean Renoir’s oeuvre is about. A Renoir film finally triumphs because of its lifelikeness: you enjoy or admire all kinds of movies; Renoir’s you believe.
But why, you ask, this belief; how is this trust engendered? I can illustrate it best with an anecdote about Jean’s son, Alain, whom I knew when we were fellow graduate students in comparative literature at Harvard. Alain (who helped Bergan with this book, and is frequently mentioned in it) was to become a distinguished professor of Old English at Berkeley. But back then, a charming and witty young man, he used to have us all in stitches just by reciting a passage in Anglo-Saxon or Middle English with his wonderfully French accent, something he could no more lose than his father could. If you haven’t heard Beowulf or Chaucer with a French accent, you have missed out on one of life’s smaller but more exquisite wonders. And that is what so enriches the oeuvre of Jean Renoir: the delicious little incongruities of existence captured in all their redolent aliveness.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 2, on page 33
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