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Jean Renoir

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Jean Renoir – the most humanist of all filmmakers, something desperately needed now.

The distinguished and prescient film critic Michael Atkinson recently had this to say, in part, about the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, who is, to my mind, one of the greatest film directors – along with Ozu, Bresson, and a few others – to ever work in the moving picture medium. As Atkinson notes, “in the shadow of the recent decennial Sight & Sound best-movie-ever poll, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) supplanted the long-standing numero uno Citizen Kane (1941), let us just say without quibbling that Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is the only genuine competition for the primary slot, and indeed it has claimed #2 or #3 status on the poll for half a century.

No slight to Vertigo is intended, and such is the consequence of rendering cultural opinion by way of crunched numbers and democratic aggregation. But Renoir’s pitch-perfect masterpiece (which has held as the fourth-greatest-ever) is more vital than ever for an art form slowly evolving into computer-generated carnival rides and empty-hearted noise, and that is because it is quintessentially Renoirian, that is, a bottomless harvest of humanity, which is seen in all of its thorny idiocy and yet viewed with the fiercest ardor ever put on celluloid.

If we were a sane species, it’d be Renoir that young filmmakers would take as a model, not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. Saying that Renoir is one of maybe seven unassailable masters in the history of cinema is not unlike saying the ocean is large and blue; demonstrating a shrugging nonchalance about his best films should and will peg you to those that know about these things as a flat-out pretender.

Simply, Renoir consistently took on the most complex territory available: the matrix of human camaraderie, the crystalline beauty of social respect and unexpected mutual empathies, the painful distance between the poles of a friendship under pressure, the folly and deathlessness of crazed romance. For Renoir, the tensile strength of love in all of its realizations was an inexhaustible subject, and no one explored it as wisely and whole-heartedly as he did.”

I once taught an entire semester of Renoir from the silents to his last TV movie, and through his films, he consistently amazed the class with his ability to work in any genre, and to always bring out the best in the performers, and to be, above all, forgiving – forgiving of human frailties and vanities, brave enough to make films that directly criticized French lassitude on the eve of World War II, smart enough to come to the United States for the duration of the conflict, but then to return to his homeland, and au courant enough to effortlessly make the switch from silents, to sound, to color, to three camera television shooting, and make it all look easy – eternally modern, eternally humanist.

Yes, if we were a sane species – Renoir would be constantly revived and screened.

Jean Renoir on Val Lewton

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Renoir worked briefly with Val Lewton on Woman on The Beach (1947).

As he observed in a 1954 interview, “I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise ‘B’ pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun.

When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see ‘B’ pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that ‘B’ pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”

You can read more about Renoir’s thoughts on this by following this link.

Best Book to Date on Director Jean Renoir

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Brief Review:

Jean Renoir
Christopher Faulkner, Paul Duncan
Hardcover, Taschen Books, 192 pages, $ 29.99
ISBN 978-3-8228-3097-0
Edition: English

“A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it into pieces and makes it again.” —Jean Renoir

Whenever I’m asked who my favorite director of all time is, the one to whom I can inexhaustibly return again and again, there’s only one answer; Jean Renoir. The supreme humanist of the cinema, Renoir tackled every possible genre from comedy, to noir, to social drama, and brought all of his projects off with style and brilliance.

Christopher Faulkner’s recent book on Renoir from Taschen is perhaps the best introduction to Renoir’s long career as a filmmaker, and features literally hundreds of rare stills covering his work from the silent era up to his last film in the 1970s. As the publicity release for the book notes,

“Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was, like his father Auguste, a virtuoso in his field. From early films such as La Fille de l`Eau and La Chienne through later masterpieces like Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion (widely considered to be two of the greatest films ever made), Renoir forged a reputation as France’s most important filmmaker. Highly prolific (he directed over 40 films), Renoir worked in a multitude of genres, though social realism was his most powerful mode of expression.”

The author of the volume (working with series editor Paul Duncan), Christopher Faulkner, professor of film studies and director of the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and the author of The Social Cinema of Jean Renoir and, with Olivier Curchod, of La Règle du jeu: scénario original de Jean Renoir, outdoes himself with this superb book, which is a joy to read and to leaf through in a leisurely fashion; it would also be an ideal text for any college course offering an overview of Renoir’s work.

For all lovers of cinema, this is absolutely essential reading.

Partie de campagne

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

As I wrote in Senses of Cinema 55, “Jean Renoir is arguably the greatest artist that the cinema has ever known, simply because he was able to work effectively in virtually all genres without sacrificing his individuality or bowing to public or commercial conventions. Although he was the son of the famed Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, his visual sensibility was entirely his own, and the technical facility that marks his films is the result of long and assiduous study.”

Jean Renoir’s gorgeous, if truncated film Partie de campagne (shot in 1936, but not completed, in featurette form, until 1946), once again offers proof that Renoir remains the supreme humanist of the cinema, with a deep understanding of the follies of human nature, coupled with a great sense of sympathy for his protagonists. Renoir remains someone I come back to again and again; he restores my faith in the redemptive power of cinema, something that’s often hard to imagine these days.

You can read the full essay here.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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