These notes accompany the screening of Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise on January 19 and 20 in Theater 3, and January 21 in Theater 2.
We were scheduled to screen La Grande Illusion this week. Instead, we have substituted the film Jean Renoir (1894–1979) made next, La Marseillaise. Although unintended, this change may have a beneficial effect in that we are able to include a far less familiar movie, one that reveals some interesting things about the director, his aspirations, and his limitations.
The most famous line from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), which we will show at the end of March, suggests nonjudgmentally that everyone has his reasons for his behavior. In La Marseillaise, Renoir’s subject is the French Revolution and the overthrow and regicide of Louis XVI. The king is sympathetically portrayed by Renoir’s older brother, Pierre, who had previously appeared in Jean’s films as Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (La Nuit du Carrefour) and Flaubert’s Charles Bovary (Madame Bovary). (Pierre’s other great role before his untimely death in 1952 was in Marcel Carné’s lovely Children of Paradise, made during the Nazi occupation, after Jean had fled to America.) His doddering, soft, well-intentioned persona seemed perfect for a king, not overly bright or resourceful, who is completely overwhelmed by events. Similarly, the other aristocrats are not in-your-face evil; Jean allows for complexity, individuality, and character development. As the father of auteurism, André Bazin, says, “The primary goal of the film, the one which determines its entire style, is to go beyond the historical images to uncover the mundane, human reality.” Bazin goes on to say that Renoir “demythologizes history by restoring it to man.”
None of this is to suggest that Renoir was unsympathetic to the torturous reality that provoked the revolution in the first place. However, his innate need to understand his fellow creatures and his craving for authenticity led him far afield from the original intent of his financial backers, the French left-wing Popular Front. Abel Gance (whose work we will begin to consider next week) could glorify Napoleon; Sergei Eisenstein did the same for his Bolshevik masters; Leni Riefenstahl…’nuff said, I think you get the point. Renoir was not apolitical, and politics kept pursuing him through two world wars, but his vision of reality was more transcendent and complicated than these other directors’, or almost anybody’s.
With hardly any religious content in his films, he could still be viewed as the most spiritual of filmmakers. With minimal flesh showing and with no memorable double entendres outside perhaps of Boudu Saved from Drowning, Renoir was also the most sensual of filmmakers. As I get older, it becomes harder to view humanity as something other than a failed experiment, harder to accept humanity—as Renoir does—on its own terms. Peter Bogdanovich sees him as some kind of secular saint. Biographer Pierre Leprohon suggests that in La Marseillaise, Renoir carried his “good intentions” and “gentleness” too far. I am reminded of a touching scene late in Renoir’s splendid novel The Notebooks of Captain Georges. The title character, a devoted heterosexual (the whole book is about his affair with Agnes, a young prostitute), is travelling on a train with a Russian prince. He awakes from a nap to find the prince holding Georges’s hand while masturbating. The prince makes a perfunctory apology, telling Georges that he finds him attractive and thanks him for the service he has unwittingly rendered. Renoir writes, “He told me all this in that charming Russian accent which made even the most outrageous utterance acceptable. It was the only happening of its kind during the journey.”