Jean Renoir’s world-view, famously stated by a character the director played in The Rules of the Game (1939), is that “Everyone has his reasons.” Although Renoir recognized the corollary—that some reasons are better than others—he always understood the complex motivations that drive human actions. And that understanding, in turn, helped him to animate his characters—sympathetic or not—with a vibrancy that makes them compelling screen presences.
Renoir’s work of the thirties, including his “official” classics, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game, is often considered his finest work. And his deceptively simple work in Hollywood during the forties is often underrated. But perhaps his greatest sustained achievement came with the four color films of the fifties: The River (1951), The Golden Coach, (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956).
The River, Renoir’s first film in color and last in English, showcases the thematic richness and empathetic characterization that define the director’s best work. A film of astonishing physical beauty, The River is one of the richest explorations of man’s place in the natural world ever filmed. From the opening sequence, a series of shots of life along a river in India, the film explores man in nature, integrating human experience into a larger order encompassing all life.
But while these introductory passages of river life seem timeless and universal, they also present the textures and rhythms of a particular time and place that serves as a setting for a story of three young girls’ first loves (or crushes). Despite some awkward acting performances, Renoir sketches the characters’ essential natures in a few scenes, words, even gestures. Thus they exist both as archetypes undergoing universal experiences, and as specific individuals animated by private hopes and visions and concerns.
At the heart of the film, and near its center, is a short vignette mythically re-creating a girl’s birth, maturation, and child-bearing. The sequence, perhaps the most visually beautiful in the film, is a magically lyrical evocation of natural processes; it encapsulates the entire film. From the opening credits, superimposed over a drawing in progress, The River celebrates and chronicles the natural processes through which one form—or life—changes, or gives way to another. These are the timeless rhythms of life: growth and change, maturing and aging, experiencing and accepting life’s promises and disappointments.
Death and birth are the twin absolutes that define life’s other elements as transitory. In the film’s most extraordinary visual coup, Renoir shows a series of reclining figures sleeping in the afternoon heat; the final sleeping figure (the film’s central character and narrator) awakens; shortly later she walks toward a tree and the camera gently pans to reveal yet another reclining figure: her brother, dead from a snake’s bite. This softens the tragedy by treating it as another aspect of life, the death visually linked to its distant cousin, sleep. And in the film’s final sequence, three young women all receive long-awaited letters from the same man. As they eagerly prepare to read them, they hear a baby’s birth cry; all three rise and discard the suddenly-unimportant letters, a glorious reminder of the transience not only of the pangs of first love, but of the mundane concerns that preoccupy our daily lives.
Renoir uses sensuous images, a fluid camera, and organic compositions to define his characters, and their relationships to their surroundings and to each other. Renoir’s reverence for the natural world informs and enriches his exterior sequences, but his interiors are equally vivid and expressive. And the vivid colors The River uses to depict life along a river seem almost like a fruition of the black and white images of river life in A Day in the Country (1936) and The Southerner (1945).
Visual and thematic fluidity, openness, and expansiveness also define the groupings among his characters. His couples also tend to be open and inclusive, which is to say that infidelities are persistent, even chronic. Aside from the stable parental couple in The River, the pairings in that film, reflecting the callow characters, are tentative and inchoate.
Renoir is not troubled by infidelity, unless a fracture in a relationship disrupts a group’s cohesiveness. And the gravest crimes are those that sever the bonds of community: in La Chienne (1931), a sleazy pimp drives a car into the middle of a crowd, forcing the people to separate, and visually implicating him in a murder. In The Crime of M. Lange (1936), an equally-sleazy publisher goes on the lam, leaving his struggling publishing house to its fate, then returns and tries to reclaim autocratic control of the enterprise, now a successful collective; this triggers the ironic “crime” in the title (absolved by the director): shooting the scoundrel. And of course, the focus on the communal and collective explains why Renoir was so often drawn to stories dealing with actors and plays. The shared sense of collective endeavor, however precarious, is essential to a successful theatrical performance.
The final sequence in Renoir’s last film, The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (1970), seems a fitting summation. An aging man has been cuckolded by his young wife and his best friend. Everyone in their village is tactfully silent about the matter, except for one prig, who refers to the situation and laughs about it. Somehow, though, the laughter becomes infectious and gradually everyone joins in: the villagers, the man, his wife, her lover. The shared feeling becomes so strong that even the prig’s laughter loses its malice and joins the communal spirit. That spirit, the sense of being, whatever their differences, bound together by common circumstances—humanity, mortality and age, the possibility of happiness, the certainty of its transience—makes the sequence at once a magically universal act of affirmation and a very specific evidence of how communal feeling helps one aging man assuage his private pain and join a collective celebration.