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Jean Renoir

Review: La Bete Humaine

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Beginning in this issue, and continuing whenever occasion warrants and space permits, MOVIETONE NEWS will include a retrospective quickie or two among the normal short notices on current cinema. In the past MTN writers were able to comment on older films only in advance of seeing or reseeing them—that is, as part of our regular service on the local repertory houses, You Only Live Once. While we intend Quickies to continue emphatically along lines already established, we hope in this small way to quietly insist once more that a movie is a movie is a movie, and that the cinema is eternally in the present tense. —Ed.

Jean Renoir, son of the great painter and a great artist in his own right, is—by temperament—somewhat at odds with the naturalism of Emile Zola, though he has twice made highly regarded films from books by Zola (his second film was Nana, 1926). But his modernized La Bête humaine is proof that Zola could be an inspiration as well as a cogent and productive challenge to both the generosity and the irony in Renoir’s libertarian vision. The film’s modern setting gives the naturalist’s deterministic psychology a special twist: Renoir’s people here are heirs to Zola’s, and yet as selfconscious and self-aware moderns living in the age of psychoanalysis, their applications of deterministic views to their own lives restates the problem in a newer and even more challenging way. When Gabin and Simon embrace in the rain, the embrace is undercut by their haunted (and separate) gazes: they are already anticipating the destiny which their fatalism nourishes.

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Videophiled: Jean Renoir takes ‘A Day in the Country’

DayCountryA Day in the Country (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Jean Renoir has long been called the cinematic successor to the French Impressionists—he is, after all, the son of Auguste Renoir, and his generosity and humanism and interest in the lives of working class folks is in the spirit of the movement. But while his style helped define French poetic realism of the 1930s, his films were also rooted in politics, class, and social commentary, both satirical (Boudu Saved from Drowning) and tragic (The Lower Depths, The Rules of the Game).

With A Day in the Country (1936), however, a short film adapted from a short story by Guy du Maupassant (a contemporary of his father), Renoir pays tribute to the French Impressionists in general and his father in particular. It’s set in 1860 at a bucolic riverside country inn on the Seine where a petit-bourgeois Paris family arrives (in a borrowed milk cart) for an escape from the city and a pair of brash men set their sights on seducing the giggly wife and the svelte, comely daughter of the easily-distracted husband.

It’s a bucolic little film with a wisp of a story that builds great emotional resonance from what appears to be a slight, meaningless dalliance. Like the Impressionists, there is great deal of life suggested behind those initial sketches, at least for some of the characters. Shots of this group having a picnic on the grass, women on swings, and couples rowing skiffs up the river, among others, evoke specific paintings of Pere Renoir while Jean’s gentle direction of his two leading actors create characters that are both familiar cultural types and unique individuals who are moved beyond all expectations by their brief encounter. It’s a portrait in the spirit of the paintings. Sylvia Bataille is especially luminous as the daughter, who is expected to marry her father’s dull-witted assistant but finds more excitement with the amorous country gentleman. Renoir himself plays the innkeeper and his lover and editor Marguerite Houlle Renoir is the waitress.

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DVD/Blu-ray: ‘The Rules of the Game’

The Rules of the Game (1939), the last film Jean Renoir made in France before fleeing the Nazi invasion for the United States and Hollywood, is at once savage social satire and a compassionate comedy of manners with a sour undercurrent. Both shot and set in the dying days of the 1930s, as the Third Reich cast a long shadow over a seemingly impotent France, it was reviled and condemned upon its release, butchered beyond recognition in an attempt to make it palatable for audiences and finally banned as “demoralizing.” Available only in a severely compromised version for decades (the original negative was destroyed in World War II), it was declared a rediscovered masterpiece when is was reconstructed and restored in 1959.

The film opens on the charge of celebration as young aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) lands in Paris after setting a speed record for crossing the Atlantic. While the crowds cheer, this hero emerges morose and dejected and commits a serious social faux pas when he confesses his disappointment that a particular woman is not waiting for him. In essence, he alludes to an affair on national radio. To avert a scandal, the cultured Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), husband to the aviator’s mistress Christine (Nora Gregor) and a philanderer in his own right, invites all to a weekend hunting party in his country mansion.

The complicated maze of marriages and mistresses (both social register and servant class alike) that ensues combines the contours of a sophisticated bedroom comedy and a slapstick sex farce with a caustic view of class and the social code of manners and behavior – the “rules of the game” of the title – as played in a microcosm of French society. The frivolous high-society guests obliviously gossip, hunt, and fool around in a weekend in the country hosted by the bloodless, bored Chesnaye. While his wife Christine, the daughter of an Austrian conductor and a foreigner out of place in his social circle, dances around the moony attentions of the achingly sincere and socially naïve Andre, a similar triangle plays out in the servants quarters as a slapstick farce when a garrulous rabbit poacher (the hilarious Julien Carette, playing his part like an impulsive imp) is taken on as a domestic and proceeds to seduce the flirtatious young wife of the humorless Teutonic gamekeeper.

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SIFF 2010: SIFFtings III

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 2, 2010]

Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy light up the third week of the festival

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck, USA, 2009; 91 mins.)

Buried in this all-over-the-map meditation on Japan’s fascination with insects are lovely, nearly mystical moments. Did you know that there’s actually a country where little boys beg their daddies to buy them a handsome horned beetle, and families travel out into the country to enjoy the nocturnal beauty of fireflies? A place where festivals celebrate and aficionados enjoy the “crying” music of crickets and cicadas? The Japanese love their bugs (not just Mothra), which show up all over the place in pop culture, art and philosophy. An animal keeper and docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Jessica Oreck is no filmmaker, but she gives us an often stunning snapshot of a national psyche that’s capable of embracing the poetry of insects, whose brief lives reflect our own transience. —KAM

Ondine (Neil Jordan, Ireland/U.S.A., 2009; 111 mins.)

It would be silly, of course, to build a movie around the question of whether a beautiful woman pulled from the sea in a West Cork fisherman’s net might be a mermaid. But a selkie, now—a creature with the capability of transforming from seal to woman and back again—that’s another matter entirely, and a fine vehicle for writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, The Miracle) to once more travel the border where fantasy and scuffed-up reality trade valences.

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Jean Renoir’s River

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.

The River - ritual and culture
The River - ritual and culture

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.

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