Jean Renoir

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)

I was really hoping Boudu Saved From Drowning would have a spectacular finish so I wouldn’t have to write an opening paragraph about how it’s a pretty funny misanthropic class comedy until the titular character, played by Michel Simon as a mischievous, mean-spirited pervert variation on Chaplin’s Tramp, amps up the behavior and rapes one of the two women.

But don’t worry, turns out it’s just what she needed to get her interest in sex going again.

Initially she’s just interested in getting with Simon because he’s a love god, but eventually it spills over to decidedly not sexy dirty old man Charles Granval. Granval’s a moveable dirty old man though, not like Simon. Who’s not old.

It’s kind of a lot all at once. And the ending just shrugs it all off, not doing anything with the now blended debris in Granval’s household, which includes wife Marcelle Hainia and maid Sévérine Lerczinska. Really, Boudu could be remade as a slasher movie where the women eventually just kill the dudes and it’s a happy ending. Director Renoir doesn’t want you to like the characters, because then it’s funnier when bad things happen to them. Only Renoir’s way to keep his distance is to get really naturalistic, really flat, which ends up just separately the good part of the movie and the bad part of the movie. The beginning, with Granval, Hainia, and Lerczinska making each other’s lives complicated juxtaposed against Simon’s search for a missing dog… it’s really good. When the action moves into the connected house and shop and gets into Lerczinska’s duties as maid and shop girl and how Simon’s going to make them difficult because he’s trying to get some action with her… it’s immediately exhausting. The Simon “showcase” in the second half, where he gets long scenes to goof off and be a dick, don’t add up for Renoir. He’s making a comedian’s showcase and getting so bored with the comedian he’s doing complex tracking shots to make the film feel less stagy. He succeeds in making Boudu a less stagy stage adaptation, but he does so in a way it’s very obvious it’s a stage adaptation. He’s trying to keep himself entertained.

Everyone’s playing a caricature. Granval, Hainia, Lerczinska, Simon. When Simon’s got his final look for the film, you almost think it’s a comic strip adaptation. A comic strip adaptation would make more sense as a source for Simon’s performance. Hainia and Lerczinska get the worse parts—not just because of lecherous old men and raping tramps—but also because their characters are even slighter than Granval or Simon’s. But everyone’s perfectly good at their caricature. Simon’s disgusting but so’s humanity, he’s just disgusting in a different way. At least food is good and wine is good and women are willing. Okay, maybe it’s more nihilisting while French than general misanthropy.

Excellent photography from Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; good editing from Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir, who know more about cutting screwball-ish comedy situations than director Renoir appears to know about directing it. Before the happy rape, there’s at least a nice scale to the comedy situations. The film doesn’t cheap out.

The end is a little self-indulgent, with Renoir going hard on appearing very thoughtful about the previous eighty minutes. Boudu isn’t a riff on a morality play because the characters are too thin to be capable of it. But when it doesn’t add up to anything else, Renoir goes for it in the postscript. And botches it pretty bad.

Though prettily. Very prettily, with great photography.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir and Albert Valentin, based on the play by René Fauchois; directors of photography, Georges Asselin and Marcel Lucien; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; production designers, Jean Castanier and Hugues Laurent; produced by Michel Simon; released by Les Établissements Jacques Haïk.

Starring Michel Simon (Priape Boudu), Charles Granval (Édouard Lestingois), Marcelle Hainia (Emma Lestingois), and Sévérine Lerczinska (Chloë Anne Marie).

The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)

There are two big sequences in Rules of the Game. There’s the hunting sequence, which concentrates on the rabbits and pheasants before–and as–they are killed for sport. The animals are hunted without motive or enjoyment. Until a line in the third act connects events, the hunt is mostly just a way to inform Nora Gregor of husband Marcel Dalio’s infidelity. The second sequence has Gaston Modot, as Dalio’s gamekeeper, hunting Julien Carette through Gregor and Dalio’s party.

Why is Modot hunting Carette? Well, Carette’s after Modot’s wife, of course. Gregor and Dalio’s own infidelities and extramarital romances also come to a head during the party, but with far less violence. And Modot is the only one who gets much attention from the society party guests (as he’s shooting up a country estate).

Director Renoir and co-writer Carl Koch offer these events without judgment, without encouraging judgment. They present these moral dalliances of society folk and their domestics as inexplicable, but entirely predictable. Renoir isn’t willing to condemn anyone–not Modot, who’s a bully to his wife (Paulette Dubost), nor Mila Parély (as Dalio’s mistress). It just wouldn’t be any fun if the viewer cared enough about the characters to dislike them.

The film amuses and mortifies, usually at the same time. The opening titles carry the subtitle “a dramatic fantasy,” which is about as serious as Renoir takes it. It can’t be funny if it’s serious. It’s not a cop out on Renoir’s part–the film has limited potential as a melodrama anyway–but it also doesn’t completely connect. By going for the absurd humor in every situation (until the end, anyway), Renoir keeps everything at a distance.

Lots of great performances, including Renoir himself in the film’s most likable part. Carette is likable too, but annoying. As an actor, Renoir is never annoying. Dubost is great. Dalio is great. Toutain is pretty good. Gregory is a little too tragic (she’s playing for the melodrama while everyone else is playing for the absurdism). Parély is good too, even if she eventually just gets to show off her ability to do hysterics.

Technically, the film’s marvelous. Renoir and his four cinematographers showcase the exteriors of the country estate, maintaining its place in nature while completely otherworldly as its populated by these absurd, tragically awful people. And Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir’s editing is phenomenal.

It’s brilliantly made, brilliantly constructed, but never human. Its caricatures run–gloriously–wild.



Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Carl Koch and Renoir; directors of photography, Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare and Alain Renoir; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; production designers, Max Douy and Eugène Louriè; released by Distribution Parisienne de Films.

Starring Nora Gregor (Christine de la Cheyniest), Paulette Dubost (Lisette), Marcel Dalio (Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest), Roland Toutain (André Jurieux), Jean Renoir (Octave), Mila Parély (Geneviève de Marras), Julien Carette (Marceau) and Gaston Modot (Schumacher).

The Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)

I can’t figure out who Renoir had in mind when he made Grand Illusion. It goes without saying he placed incredible trust in his audience, but his expectations are somewhat beyond anything else I’ve seen. Grand Illusion is a film with events–momentous, important events–but they pass without comment, without any recognition or identification. The events tend to be big enough the viewer can recognize them, but Renoir’s characters either process them offscreen or silently.

There are some obvious examples, like the one officer sacrificing himself so others can escape and it never once being acknowledged. When he comes up again, the escapees immediately stop talking about him (in fear of it being a downer of a conversation). Renoir fills the film with moments of unstated significance, but he takes it to a technical, storytelling level too. In one scene, characters get on a train, there’s a long montage of shots presumably from the train windows, followed by a new place with the characters arriving. Except over a year has passed and the characters have been in multiple other prison camps in the missing months and the viewer doesn’t even find out about it for five minutes into this new section. It manages to be confusing without disorienting–I’ve seen the film twice before and it still threw me for a little loop.

Since Grand Illusion, many war films have used a fractured narrative with style-heavy tactics to comment on war’s disorder. But these films tend to do it visually. I’m not aware of any other war film with Grand Illusion‘s approach–Renoir doesn’t say anything to the viewer, doesn’t request any participation from the viewer, doesn’t encourage him or her to engage with the material. Instead, Renoir tells the story in a way indifferent to the audience. All fiction exists in some state without reader interaction, but Grand Illusion is one of the few completely disinterested in what that interaction might generate. It’s kind of crazy, I suppose, but it works and Renoir knows it does.

The cast–Jean Gabin, Julien Carette, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim–is perfect. In the first part of the film, Renoir relies a great deal on Carette for humor, while weighing Gabin done (Gabin can, of course, handle it). The second part relies greatly on the relationships between Fresnay and von Stroheim and Fresnay and Gabin. Fresnay and von Stroheim are two aristocratic officers, leftovers from the previous century, whose kinship is the only one Renoir points out. Gabin and Fresnay, who’ve been together the entire film, don’t have that connection. Their scenes in this stage, where they process the significance of class in modern warfare, are somewhat tragic and glorious.

The last part of the film, with German widow Dita Parlo taking in Gabin and company, is probably Grand Illusion at it’s most traditional. It shouldn’t feel like an organic progression, but does. Renoir doesn’t exactly talk about the things he hasn’t been able to mention in the other sections; he shows them instead. For the first time in the film since the first scene, Gabin plays the leading man. First-billed, he’s rarely the most important person in the film. His scenes with Parlo, which–again–should be Grand Illusion at its most awkward or weakest, are wonderful. Renoir handles them gently, tragically hopeful. Along with the film’s final scene, they make Grand Illusion nearly optimistic.

Orson Welles called this film the one he’d save. It makes sense.



Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Charles Spaak and Renoir; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir; music by Joseph Kosma; produced by Albert Pinkovitch and Frank Rollmer; released by Réalisation d’art cinématographique.

Starring Jean Gabin (Lt. Maréchal), Dita Parlo (Elsa), Pierre Fresnay (Capt. de Boeldieu), Erich von Stroheim (Capt. von Rauffenstein), Julien Carette (Cartier), Georges Péclet (le serrurier), Werner Florian (Sgt. Arthur), Jean Dasté (the teacher), Sylvain Itkine (Lt. Demolder), Gaston Modot (the engineer) and Marcel Dalio (Lt. Rosenthal).

Toni (1935, Jean Renoir)

In its opening, Toni is established as an immigrant’s story. Foreign workers (Spanish and Italian) go to the south of France to work the quarries. The opening “prologue”–it’s never announced as a prologue, but there’s an “end of prologue” card–shows the workers’ arrival. The end also shows workers arriving, three years later, after the title character, Toni, has had some adventures. Problematically, he only gets a name after the prologue’s over so it’s hard to recognize him once the first part of the film starts. Toni’s present action is three years, split into one section a year after Toni arrives and has found a place (well, a girlfriend–his landlady) and another, two years later. Because of the split, the film mostly concentrates on melodrama–there’s a love triangle (or quartet, it’s reveal is one of the film’s only decent final act moments)–but never on anything interesting. We never see Toni become friends with the other workers, even though these friendships are incredibly important to the first part of the film. There’s one character–who’s in the entire film–who doesn’t even get a name until the last scene. We also never see Toni and his landlady’s romance, which might have been nice, since–by the time we arrive–he’s a jerk and she’s a nag. There are some moments of the second romance, the one leading into the love triangle, but when the film skips two years… well, it’s just hard for them to have any resonance.

Watching the film, I thought it was one of Renoir’s earliest works, but it’s not, it’s ten years into his career. Some of the shots are the regular, wonderful Renoir shots and I was all set with a sentence about how no one composed for black and white like Renoir did. But there’s a raw element to Toni. The focus is soft when it shouldn’t be and, since it’s filmed on location and some of the actors aren’t actors (there’s a great cutaway from some worker looking straight at the camera, followed by a couple kids who can’t keep a straight face), Toni feels amateurish. None of the lead actors–except Max Dalban as the dimensionless villain–are good, which doesn’t help the film either.

The film has an interesting pace. The opening moves, the middle drags, and the end is somewhere in between. Unfortunately, the perception of the end might be affected by how bad the film is getting. When Renoir ties it into the pretty, “immigrant worker story” bow, Toni flattens, losing anything (not much) it might have been doing. Still, since the quality ranges throughout–getting worse and worse, unfortunately–and starts reasonably high, the film’s not an unpleasant experience. By the end, for example, I’d forgotten I had been expecting a lot more from Renoir.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on a story by Jacques Levert; director of photography, Claude Renoir; edited by Suzanne de Troeye and Marguerite Renoir; music by Paul Bozzi; released by Films Marcel Pagnol.

Starring Celia Montalván (Josefa), Jenny Helia (Marie), Édouard Delmont (Fernand), Max Dalban (Albert), Andrex (Gabi), Michel Kovachevitch (Sebastian) and Charles Blavette (Toni).

French Cancan (1955, Jean Renoir)

As French Cancan started… wait, no. Before I even started French Cancan (I avoided watching it yesterday in fact), I was dreading an experience similar to The Golden Coach. I don’t think my soul could handle two terrible Renoirs in one month. However, once it started, I was immediately reassured to some degree–Jean Gabin is the lead and the film is in French.

The first act of Cancan is good, not spectacular, but good. Renoir does not direct well in color. His composition is lazy and–the film is about the creation of the Moulin Rouge (I have no idea of its historical accuracy)–it’s distractingly noisy. Of course, it’s probably noisy to hide the lack of any content. The film runs 103 minutes and I probably took three and a half hours to watch it. Folding laundry is more interesting. With a single exception, the film’s well-acted, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing going on in French Cancan. It’s not about Gabin’s theater promoter, it’s not about his aging star, it’s not about the young girl who’s replacing that star. It’s about noise.

In the last twenty minutes, after the film’s gone through a number of five minute conflicts and resolutions, the Moulin Rouge finally opens. This sequence is mind-numbingly boring. With my attention free to wander, I tried to think of a funny opening line to this post, something about the themes and motifs of Jean Renoir’s earlier films in relation to French Cancan. Then I realized… French Cancan has no themes or motifs. It’s a bunch of boring fluff. Still, it’s not as infuriating as The Golden Coach, but it certainly testifies that late Renoir is nothing like early Renoir.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on an idea by André-Paul Antoine; director of photography, Michel Kelber; edited by Borys Lewin; music by Georges Van Parys; produced by Louis Wipf; released by Gaumont.

Starring Jean Gabin (Danglard), Françoise Arnoul (Nini), María Félix (La Belle Abbesse), Jean-Roger Caussimon (Baron Walter), Franco Pastorino (Paulo), Giani Esposito (The Prince), Philippe Clay (Casimir), Valentine Tessier (Mme. Olympe), Lydia Johnson (Mme. Guibole), Jean Parédès (Coudrier) and Albert Remy (Barjelin).

The Golden Coach (1952, Jean Renoir)

I hate the wad-shooting reviews, because they usually mean someone great is falling or has fallen into mediocrity or worse. Here’s another one.

I’ve never seen late period (1950s-) Renoir film before, or even one of his Hollywood films, but I’ve heard bad things. The Golden Coach is certainly a bad thing. It’s got a bad setting–colonial Central America, under Spanish rule–and an international cast. It’s cruel to expect the audience to take someone misspeaking in heavily accented English and Renoir does it. His leading lady, played by Anna Magnani, chokes through her English dialogue. It’s so bad I had to turn on the subtitles. Occasionally she speaks Italian, but Criterion didn’t think to give it a subtitle track–I didn’t bother to see if the subs for the Italian were included in the English subtitles. I doubt they were.

The character is almost a Renoir character, but the film fails her. The screenplay wanders and meanders, mostly because there isn’t a story and it’s impossible to milk it. I suppose Fellini could have milked it, but Renoir isn’t Fellini. Renoir isn’t even Renoir here. The Golden Coach lacks the dual beauty of Renoir’s earlier films, the beautiful direction and the beautiful human condition.

Sitting through it, I started appreciating Kubrick, Clint and Woody more, just because they never tripped, never fell. There are some missteps (I’m not sure there’s a more glaring misstep in any filmography than The Shining), but they never fell.

If you’ve got insomnia, I really recommend this film.



Directed by Jean Renoir; written by Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo and Giulio Macchi; director of photography, Claude Renoir; edited by David Hawkins; production designer, Mario Chiari; produced by Francesco Alliata; released by Les Films Corona.

Starring Anna Magnani (Camilla), Odoardo Spadaro (Don Antonio), Nada Fiorelli (Isabella), Dante (Arlequin), Duncan Lamont (Ferdinand, Le Viceroy), George Higgins (Martinez), Ralph Truman (Duc de Castro), Gisella Mathews (Marquise Irene Altamirano), Raf De La Torre (Le Procureur), Elena Altieri (Duchesse de Castro), Paul Campbell (Felipe), Riccardo Rioli (Ramon, le Toreador), William Tubbs (Aubergiste) and Jean Debucourt (Eveque de Carmol).

The Lower Depths (1936, Jean Renoir)

So it was a play….

I know Renoir for Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game and I’m aware he had a Hollywood period, then went back to France. The Lower Depths is earlier.

Jean Gabin is fantastic, so is Louis Jouvet. Renoir juxtaposes royalty on its way down and a thief on his way out. The relationship between the two men is fantastic and when the film veers from it–into the long scenes with the flophouse’s other residents, I started checking the clock. Adapting a play well takes more work than just adapting a novel–a play has so much that isn’t going to work on screen.

Not changing the setting from Russia to France works against the film too… though maybe not. I suppose there are plenty of American films of the period set in other languages told in English. However, I always think of Russia as having a distinctiveness that The Lower Depths does not (I’m mostly thinking Ballad of a Soldier). The Lower Depths isn’t rich with the atmosphere, in fact it seems kind of anorexic with it. The film never succeeds in making the audience believe there are more than the people we see throughout–when there’s a huge crowd at one point, it’s totally out of place.

Still, it’s an interesting “in-progress” work from Renoir. From the first shot, you can see he’s doing something special.



Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak, based on a play by Maxim Gorky; director of photography, Fédote Bourgasoff and Jean Bachelet; edited by Marguerite Renoir; music by Jean Wiener; produced by Alexandre Kamenka; produced by Films Albatros.

Starring Jean Gabin (Wasska Pepel), Junie Astor (Natacha), Suzy Prim (Vassilissa Kostyleva), Louis Jouvet (The Baron), Vladimir Sokoloff (Kostylev), Jany Holt (Nastia), Robert Le Vigan (The Alcoholic Actor), René Génin (Louka), Paul Temps (Satine), Robert Ozanne (Jabot) and Henri Saint-Isle (Kletsch).

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