Jean Renoir (1894–1979) would have been 116 years old tomorrow (September 15). One is hard pressed to name a twentieth-century artist in any medium whose work reflects a richer diversity of feelings and ideas. Renoir’s broad and serious concern with the social state of mankind is combined with a warmly romantic sense of humor, and the whole is given expression through an almost effortless command of the complex tools of his métier. He was a self-proclaimed realist, an improviser, and the infinitely loving apostle of egalitarian humanism.
Renoir was, of course, the son of the great Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He once said,” I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of my father’s influence on me.” Following a nearly fatal crash as a World War I aviator (memorialized in his La Grande Illusion, 1937), Renoir tried his hand at ceramics before entering the movies. (One of his earlier films, the 1927 short Charleston, was included in our recent French avant-garde program.) His eight silent films are interesting (particularly his lavish homage to Emile Zola, Nana, in 1926), but his choice of subjects was eclectic and gave few clues to the career that was to come. In 1931 he made La Chienne with Michel Simon (remade in 1945 in America as Scarlet Street by Fritz Lang with Edward G. Robinson), followed by a Georges Simenon adaptation, La Nuit de Carrefour, starring his brother Pierre as Inspector Maigret.
Michel Simon (1895–1975) was not exactly a matinee idol, but he managed to star in films for nearly all of the best French directors of the period—Jean Vigo, Marcel Carne, Julien Duvivier, Rene Clair—and he made three films for his lifelong friend Renoir. Simon remained active until his death, specializing often in gross characters who projected a kind of primordial rakishness. I remember seeing him on the arm of a young woman in the early 1970s (he had a son but no daughter) appropriately, in relation to Boudu sauve des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), in Central Park, looking much like he had just stepped from the Duck Pond (or the Seine forty years earlier.)
Renoir said,” I cannot conceive of cinema without water. There is an inescapable quality in the movement of a film which relates to the ripple of streams and the flow of rivers.” Both of the films on this program reflect this view. Andrew Sarris brought an auteurist twist to the metaphor: “Renoir’s career is a river of personal expression. The waters may vary here and there in turbulence and depth, but the flow of personality is consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life.” Jean Renoir was Humanism incarnate, a philosophy broad enough to include the very dregs of the species. As the father of auteurism, Andre Bazin, suggests, “Boudu’s charm lies in its glorification of vulgarity. It portrays the most blatant lubricity in a civilized and nonchalant manner. Boudu is a magnificently obscene film.” It is also very funny.
Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country), although attenuated by a lack of funds, is a much greater film, one of the cinema’s purest delights. The film strays very little from the Guy de Maupassant story on which it is based. It is a simplification to consider A Day in the Country as Renoir’s homage to his father’s paintings, but there is a certain validity to that view. Such lovely, lyrical passages as Henriette’s (Sylvia Bataille) ride on the swing evoke specific images captured by the painter. The lighting of the film as a whole appears entirely natural and suggests that of the Impressionists—within the clear limitations, of course, of black-and-white cinematography. The film’s fluid and lovingly created imagery elicits a response like that of Henriette to the country, a feeling of tenderness, of vague desire: “It almost makes you want to cry.”
Within this setting, Renoir enacts his most sensual and hedonistic drama, Henriette’s seduction by Henri (Georges Darnoux), culminating in an exquisitely poignant close-up of her tear-moistened face. It begins to rain, and Renoir’s camera skims gracefully back up the river to Joseph Kosma’s turbulently romantic music. Nature weeps as Henriette returns to her betrothed, to a future that holds no romance, to a relationship that has no room for feelings. Years later, the two lovers are briefly reunited, and they tell each other how much the memory of their one afternoon together has meant. The feckless husband wakes up and takes his possession back to Paris. We see them row out of the frame, and we see Henri alone beside the river—alone, that is, except for his treasured memory. It is perhaps consoling to recall Renoir’s view, expressed in his marvelous novel, The Notebooks of Captain Georges, that “the only things that matter are the ones we remember.”