Long before any director with the right agent could get his name in a special box on the billboard, Jean Renoir was considered to be one of a handful of filmmakers whose artistic stamp could be found everywhere in their work. Renoir himself called such directors auteurs , directors who wrote their own scripts. But the term was later expanded to identify those directors whose personal vision could overcome the fragmentations of a collaborative art.
Whatever the status of the auteur theory as a way of determining cinematic value, the passionate commitment to the work of individual directors argued in the 1950s by Andre Bazin and such critics-into-filmmakers as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard helped create an argument for the importance of film as a major art form based on the existence of major artists.
In that argument Renoir's films were central. A new postwar film audience was awakening to the work of Truffaut, Goddard, Antonioni, Rossellini, Fellini and Bergman, and it was Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" (1937) and "La Regle de Jeu" ("The Rules of the Game," 1939) that first stirred a good part of that audience to believe that there was a particularly cinematic complexity of ideas, performances and imagery worth comparing to the established arts.
Time was that anyone living in a big city or college town could get an education in film history by just going to the local film society or repertory theater. Now, only in retrospectives like one that begins at UCLA today do we get a chance to ask those old questions about the shape of a director's career and the value of individual works: What lasts? What do we still watch with pleasure, interest and even illumination?
Renoir was born in 1894, the second son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His older brother Pierre became an actor and appears in Jean's "La Nuit du Carrefour" (1932) as Simenon's Inspector Maigret, in "Madame Bovary" (1934) as Charles Bovary and in "La Marseillaise" (1938) as Louis XVI. Pierre's son Claude worked as a cinematographer on several of Jean's films from the mid-1930s onward.
UCLA's \o7 centenaire\f7 focuses on Renoir's career to 1939, when the filmmaker immigrated to the United States, settling in Beverly Hills and making five more films during World War II. A film enthusiast whose childhood interest had been reawakened by an enforced period of recuperation from a war wound, Renoir in the early 1920s produced and wrote the script for "Catherine" (1924), starring his wife, Catherine Hessling, who had been one of his father's models. It was directed by Albert Dieudonne, later the star of Abel Gance's epic "Napoleon" (1927).
But Renoir was disappointed with what Dieudonne had done. He gave up a career as a ceramicist and sold several of his father's paintings to finance his first feature, "La Fille de l'Eau" (1924), the story of a young girl (again played by Hessling) who lives on a barge with her brutal uncle. (The only painting he kept was a large one depicting himself dressed as a hunter. It now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)
Between "La Fille de l'Eau" and "Rules of the Game," Renoir made 18 features and several shorter films, including the "long shorts" "La Petite Marchande aux Allumettes" ("The Little Match Girl," 1928), "On Purge Bebe" (1931) and "Partie de Campagne" ("A Day in the Country," 1936, completed in 1946). With the exception of "Rules of the Game" and "Grande Illusion," the films of this period are rarely shown, and the UCLA programmers have included virtually everything Renoir made, with the exception of the lost feature "Marguita" and the lost short "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" ("Little Red Riding Hood").
"On Purge Bebe" and "Chotard et Cie" (1933) are being shown for the first time in the United States, and many of the other films are being shown in Renoir's own copies, willed to UCLA. These include "Le Tournoi" (1929), a story of romance and politics set in the 16th-Century France of Catherine de Medicis, which was previously thought to exist only in a 10-minute fragment.
The tremendous variety of Renoir's work in the 1920s and 1930s seems amazing today when a director is considered remarkably talented if he or she can work in two genres, and a genius if in three. Throughout his career Renoir was constantly experimenting with genres and styles, often within the same film. Equally fascinated by stylized sets and location shooting, he freely mingled artifice and realism in both his plots and his images.
The general impression of the benevolence of Renoir's films may be due to associating them with the dappled, rosy nudes of his father's paintings. But there is little here of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's frequent blandness and prettification. These films of the 1920s and 1930s, in both subject matter and pictorial style, more resemble the harsh urban interiors of Toulouse-Lautrec or the shimmering uncertainties of Monet's gardens.