Jean is the son of the famous French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—like his son, one of the most highly regarded artists of his medium. Born in Paris in 1894, Renoir first became entranced by and started experimenting with the moving pictures after getting shot in the leg during World War I. [He was particularly interested in the works of Erich von Stroheim.] None of his nine silent titles made much, but he was able to maintain some autonomy by self-funding. [His father’s paintings fetched a pretty penny.]
Renoir’s filmography is a sea of masterpieces littered with a few minor misses. As I outlined in my opening piece on this week’s essential, The River, Renoir’s films span the globe—from the front of WWI and the tranquil French countryside to the American west and English estates on the Indian subcontinent. Like these films, Renoir himself moved across countries and continents over the course of his life, which makes his particular filmography interesting to study. Each place peppers his films with a unique style and emotional sensibility.
Today, I’m going to take a look at five of his perhaps lesser known films and why they’re noteworthy for what’s happening in both the world and Renoir’s life.
La chienne 
Renoir received funding for this, his second talkie, by betting on himself. His previous film and first talkie, Un perge bebe, was mostly without critical merit, but it was an enormous commercial success and proved to those with the checkbook that Renoir could make a hit on time and under budget.
That all went out the window with La chienne [translation: “The Bitch”]. It tells the story of a prostitute [Janie Marese] and her boyfriend [Georges Flamant] who take advantage of an older man [Michel Simon] who appears to be richer than he truly is. An incredibly messy and vindictive sort of love triangle emerges, and it’s mirrored in the real life drama of the film’s main trio of actors. In one of the weirdest instances of life imitating art, Simon fell for Marese, who in turn feel for Flamant [he reciprocated]. But tragically, Marese died in a car accident shortly after filming completed. [Flamant was driving.] At the funeral, a distraught Simon confronted Renoir with a gun, blaming him for the young woman’s death. “Kill me if you like, but I have made the film,” the director infamously said.
Indeed, he did. It’s filled with the type of passion you might expect after hearing such a story, and yet Renoir imbues these mostly despicable characters with authentic humanity. And despite the threat, Simon wouldn’t kill Renoir. They’d make another masterpiece the next year in Boudu Saved from Drowning.
A Day in the Country 
This film only runs about 40 minutes, but it leaves a major impact. The reason for its brevity is, of all things, the weather. Renoir delayed certain scenes until Mother Nature was feeling more cooperative, but for other commitments, he’d never come back to this beautiful but admittedly creepy story of, well, two men looking to hook up with a married woman and her engaged daughter one afternoon on the banks of the Seine. There’s a massive gap between the bulk of the film and its conclusion, and it shouldn’t work under this circumstance, but Renoir pulls it off. For the level of difficulty, this might be his greatest artistic accomplishment.
La Bête Humaine 
As Europe inched closer to war, Renoir made his most important and admired film yet—Grand Illusion. It isn’t so much an anti-war film as it is a pro-let’s-talk-to-each-other one, but Germany nonetheless banned it upon its release in 1937, and Italy followed suit shortly after.
So Renoir turned away from politics for his next—an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel about a train conductor who is prone to murdering women he’s attracted to when alone with them. It was Renoir’s third collaboration with beloved leading man Jean Gabin [though his character is hardly a hero this time]. It’s an extremely hard-nosed film—a precursor to the noir-dominated 1940s and 1950s—and it reveals a darkness within Renoir we hadn’t seen during politically lighter times.
The Southerner 
Oh, look! The war is over! The Cliff’s Notes version of what happened to Renoir from 1938 [La Bête Humaine] to this underseen and underrated 1945 gem:
- In 1939, he made what many consider his greatest film—The Rules of the Game. It bombed in his native France and was banned after the country fell to the Nazis in 1940.
- He enlisted as as a lieutenant in the French Army Film Service and went to Italy on a cultural exchange meant to ease tensions between the two nations. [Italy hadn’t yet formally declared war.] However, once France fell, Renoir fled to America.
- He’d struggle in the Hollywood system for a few years, making a financially successful but relatively uninteresting drama called Swamp People in 1941 and an anti-Nazi propaganda film called This Land Is Mine in 1943.
The Southerner is generally regarded as Renoir’s best Hollywood film, and while that’s not exactly the highest of praise—no one would say his 1940s output was remotely on par with what he did in the 1930s—it at least fits the tradition of his earlier work and earned Renoir a Best Director Oscar nomination.
It tells the story of a family of sharecroppers trying to make a life for themselves, and like La Bête Humaine, it’s painted with the pessimism of someone deeply affected by what’s transpired in the world over the last few years. He cares about these people, and it’s incredibly easy to root for their success, but the wheels keep turning and this unforgiving place and scenario hardly improves. Powerful stuff.
The Golden Coach 
The River was the first film Renoir made after leaving Hollywood. His stop in India was a one-time success, as his next three films were a thematic trilogy of musical comedies made back in Europe.
The Golden Coach was the first and best of these films—critic Andrew Sarris went so far as to name it one of the greatest movies ever made—and while French Cancan officially marked his return to France and his reunion with Gabin, The Golden Coach is a film that screams, “I’m home—and happy.”
It tells the story of a traveling troupe of performers in 18th century Peru. Renoir was inspired by the music of Vivaldi, which permeates the picture. Across all three films of this period, too, he was pretty clearly inspired by his father. The images are unmistakable.
He’d continue working for the better part of the 1960s, though film was no longer his exclusive medium. Renoir received a lifetime Academy Award in 1975 and passed away in 1979 in California at the age of 84.