These notes accompany the screenings of Jean Renoir’s The River on April 11, 12, and 13 in Theater 3.
The River is the eighth Jean Renoir film I have shown in this series—more than any other director. Why is this? Surely Renoir does not produce the striking visual effects that result in powerful sequences like the Odessa Steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or the shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho, scenes so sensational they cannot be ignored in any text on filmmaking. True, Renoir’s use of deep-focus photography in the 1930s did heavily influence Citizen Kane and the great Hollywood film noir works of the 1940s, not to mention Italian neorealism. True, The River does offer significant new advances in the use of color in the director’s stated effort to emulate Henri Matisse. To argue, however, that Renoir’s greatness stems from his innovations is to greatly short-change him.
As Andrew Sarris points out, there is a thematic consistency in Renoir’s films: “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.” Although by no means limited to the films we’ve shown, this “river” metaphor is certainly front-and-center in such diverse works in the series as Boudu Saved from Drowning, his 1931 satire about a contemporary Parisian bum who finds bourgeois life too demanding to compete with leisurely floating down the Seine; A Day in the Country, his 1936 romantic evocation of Guy de Maupassant, in which his 19th-century lovers find all-too- temporary erotic bliss in a tree-shaded alcove on the river; The Southerner, his 1945 incursion into the dark and dangerous waters of the American south; and, of course, The River, his contemporary 1950 exploration of an English family living in India. Yet this metaphor, however enlightening, does not fully explain Renoir’s attraction.
As for The River itself, few films are less assuming. In fact, it may be considered an acquired taste. Nothing much happens, and there is some awkwardness stemming from Renoir’s use of several nonprofessional actors. As Andre Bazin, the great French critic and godfather of the French New Wave points out, there are no pan or dolly shots. In this, Renoir recalls the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose films seem closer to real life because they make few efforts to be “cinematic.” The result for Bazin is that The River is “one of the purest, richest, most touching works in the history of the cinema.”
Perhaps the true measure of Renoir’s greatness can be gleaned from his peers. To Elia Kazan he was a “god,” and to Peter Bogdanovich he was a “saint.” He was like a father to Francois Truffaut. Orson Welles told Bogdanovich that he “loved” Renoir most of all other directors, and this is reflected in the Renoir obituary Welles wrote in The Los Angeles Times titled “The Greatest of All Directors.” John Ford wanted to remake Grand Illusion; Fritz Lang remade La Chienne (as Scarlet Street) in 1945 and La Bete Humaine (as Human Desire) in 1954; and Luis Bunuel remade Diary of a Chambermaid in 1964. Erich von Stroheim paid Renoir back for his early adoration with his iconic performance in Grand Illusion, and echoes of Renoir appear in much of the postwar work of his prewar assistant, Luchino Visconti.
Out of respect for the greatness of their art, a heathen like me can pay obeisance to the religious films of Carl Th. Dreyer or Robert Bresson without accepting the mystical tenets or dogma to which they subscribe. I confess to being more moved by, to feeling closer to, what Bazin describes as Jean Renoir’s “universal spirituality.” This quality, possessed by a handful of artists, writers, composers, and directors, offers a hint as to why I hold Jean Renoir in such high esteem.