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Re: Renoir

"As soon as you make a theory, facts destroy it."
– Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir is not "elegant." Jean Renoir was never a "master." Though he could be gentle when he needed to, he was never genteel. Jean Renoir directed some of the nastiest, roughest, most brutal films ever made. I still feel humilated watching La chienne and The River, as I should. I can't think of any moments in cinema that make me more uncomfortable than when when Michel Simon sobs while being questioned in the former or Thomas Breen falls down in the latter. I am embarassed, as you should be embarrassed, when watching The Crime of Monsieur Lange, Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Little Theater of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, because I recognize my own shortcomings in the shortcomings of the characters. Their foolishness isn't just something to laugh at; it points to the fact that we are all fools.

In 2010, over 30 years since his death and over 40 since he made his last film, it's necessary to reclaim Jean Renoir. The worst thing that could happen to a director is that someone starts calling them a master. It's an empty word, one that runs contrary to the way cinema, which is bigger than any director, works. It's got a really bad tendency to catch on, too. Two possible things that can happen: a promising director will let the word go to his or her head; a great director will ignore it and keep living the same way they always have, though that tends to do nothing to stop the tales of their "mastery." Great directors are therefore always damned, and in a sense Renoir has been damned by reputation for unsurmountable perfection, even though part of the greatness of his films lies in their rough, human mess.

Above: Two stills a few seconds apart from the long tracking shot at the beginning of Chotard et Cie (1933).

Elegance is just make-up. It covers up a paucity of ideas. Renoir was never elegant; who knows where that part of his reputation comes from. Renoir's famous tracking shots represent a director's impulses at their rawest and least streamlined; they are, like most movements of Renoir's camera, coarse. The two-minute-long take that opens Chotard et Cie begins with a logo on a crate and then pulls back to show the man carrying the crate, then pans to briefly show a grocer sorting eggs before pulling back to the man with the crate, following him into the back of truck, whose doors he promptly shuts; the truck drives off, and the camera pans again, catching a passerby walking perpendicular to the camera before centering on a man in a bowler and following him from the street into a grocery store, moving left and right as he says hello to employees and customers; when he stops to talk, the camera proceeds to pull dangerously close to his face; he walks into the back of the store to pick up a ringing phone and the camera stops at a distance for a few seconds before resuming to dolly forward again, moving until it has passed him by; then it turns around to show the back of his head, continuing to move until a bit of wall obscures him entirely; he hangs up and bounds into the frame again, and the camera continues dollying backwards into a loading dock, as if trying to outpace him; the man in the bowler interacts with some workmen, before he crosses the dock and enters an apartment through a bead curtain; the camera proceeds to dolly to the left, alongside the wall of the apartment building, until it finds the apartment's window and pushes into the room just as the man sits down at a table and picks up a newspaper.

Like all of Renoir's great tracking shots, it's very messy. Elegance, being a tasteful balance, a reduction of certain qualities or details in order that they not overpower others, is the opposite of richness. The tracking shot in Chotard et Cie is obtrusive and disorderly; Renoir sacrifices the careful framing and clarity he would get by shooting the scene as a series of individual shots in favor of an exhilirating confusion. Heads bob in and out of the frame, major and minor characters pass by without emphasis. There's little drama in the traditional sense here; only the drama of action, of things happening within the space of a single shot.

Above: Michel Simon flings a chamberpot at the camera in On purge bébé (1931).

There is also nothing elegant about the vivid color of Elena and Her Men, nor the flat brightness of French Cancan, a world with few shadows where the pink-faced characters are often struggling for attention against the patterns of their clothes and the garish paint on the walls. In a sense, all Renoir films are made in bad taste. It's bad taste to spend so much time filming walls (which Renoir's tracking shots inevitably do in their drive to depict action in toto), bad taste to put carefully-observed drama and bawdy farce into the same film (some of Renoir's best take place at the intersection of the sociological and scatalogical), bad taste to have so little plot in The Southerner, to show so much cruelty in The Testament of Dr. Corderlier, bad taste to mock a recent and painful war in The Elusive Corporal and certainly bad taste to make On Purge Bébé and Picnic on the Grass, which has the presumptousness not only to take the name of a Manet painting, but to be a color, widescreen film that spends its first few minutes on what's essentially a shot of a television set.

And what's The Rules of the Game if not the grandest of all rude gestures? It's fuck-yous all around: the Beaumarchais quote in credits; naming the new servant Corneille; the decision to compose a shot of an upper-class couple leaving a room around their maid, on her hands and kness, playing with their lapdogs; letting characters recede into the background without disappearing from view; the idea to devote such a long and complicated shot to men in silly smocks waving sticks to scare a bunch of rabbits, and then to linger on the quivering tail and spastic legs of a dying animal; the frankness with which the characters talk, revealing their weaknesses and their pettiness; the act of placing the camera so far away from action that the details of a room become as important as the actors (it takes some nerve to decide that a sofa has as much of a right to space in the image as a star), or so close that the actors' faces becomes distorted and monstrous (Renoir himself looks hideous in the shot of the interior of the car before the crash, his face screwed up like Popeye's).

Above: Captain John (Thomas E. Breen) falls in The River (1951).

Renoir is, like any good humanist, often harsh. He could be very cruel, sometimes even crueller than Fassbinder. Those that feel a compulsive need to always portray people in a positive light do so out of fear. To gloss over certain aspects of humanity is to hold it in contempt, to believe that only through falseness is it possible to portray people positively. What we often passes for "humanism" or "warmth" is just sycophantism. But Renoir, like Fuller and Denis after him, loved people enough that he didn't feel the need to gloss over their weakness, or the shortcomings of humanity. Renoir was the man who maintained into old age that society was rotten to the core.

For all the joy and fun in Renoir's films (best when had by the weak at the expense of their masters), there are also moments of humiliating inadequacy, something Renoir had a real way with, better than any director. The lonely life of the blind man in The Woman on the Beach and Captain John's prosthetic leg giving way in The River are unfathomably bleak moments, humanity at its most pathetic. That's why Michel Simon was such a good lead for him, especially in La chienne, a real bitch of a movie; he could take it. He was strong enough to be made ugly, and when Renoir abandoned him for Jean Gabin, it was because Gabin revelled in anger and emotional ugliness. It is precisely because he is nasty and mean that Renoir is invigorating. It's because he is unafraid to be messy that he seems to so clearly understand life. It's because of these things that he invites you to love people and not merely admire them. It's because of the murder committed by Monsieur Lange that we come to identify with him, and not because of the love story.


The Jean Renoir series at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn will be running through May 11th.

Wow. I unfortunately have nothing to add other than I never thought of Renoir in this way and that I very much need to see more than the little I have. Fascinating article.
Renoir’s been accused of “messiness” for years, as though spontaneity of “real life” must be opposed to structuring principles of art, the actor to the director, the content to the form; of course the Impressionists and New Wave were accused similarly before and after for letting their subjects overflow the frame. It’s a claim a lot of his critics—Sesonske, Durgnat, Paul Schrader in a Sight and Sound interview in which he goes shot by shot through Rules to locate Renoir’s blocking and systematic refusal of establishing shots or shot repetition—have moved to deliver him of, though Renoir in interviews always likes to place himself alternatively as a craftsman and layabout, against perfection, piecing together elements that interested him. But why is Renoir’s refusal to streamline a multiplicity of urban sensations (a concern running straight through Baudelaire to Poe to Benjamin) into tidy visual cues any different from Joyce’s or Picasso’s (and later Rossellini’s—the last, deflective shots of Boudu, La Marseillaise, Toni all leading to Voyage to Italy’s) recognition of a plethora of irreconcilable sensations that the artist won’t reconcile into a classical form but require their own disjointed order? Renoir’s films, despite his critics, are transparently staged and composed, the camera as much as the actors, and even if the material of the film outruns the camera’s ability to capture it (deliberately), the composition is always clear: a viewpoint designed to reveal, comment on, position and often reposition the audience in a fully conceived world. This isn’t “messiness.” It’s just a modern composition like Stravinsky or Dreyer or Bresson that prefers to suggest the action and possibilities than state it. One example Sesonske makes of how Renoir aligns so many elements together to precipitate the plot as one possibility among many (don’t have it in front of me): in Boudu, the master asks his maid to stop dusting something (the telescope?) and start dusting the piano. In the meantime, he looks out onto the city, just out his window, through his telescope and alights upon any number of people and elements, while he waits for the girl to start dusting the piano—at which point he’d likely turn to her. But she’s more interested in the telescope, so he keeps looking, and sees a marvelous specimen, Boudu. This fully conceived exposition—which also establishes three characters precisely—is presented as nothing more than a slight happenstance, an alignment of so many possible elements. The alignment is the plot. Every element, seemingly happened upon by the actors in a real place and time, plays its role. Whatever Renoir’s relationship to the dominant taste of his day, his achievement’s greater than Ed Wood transgression. Shakespeare by these standards was undoubtedly in “bad taste” but he also occasionally used meter and rhyme.
David, I don’t mean “messiness” as an accusation, and though I know that word has a negative connotation, as does “roughness” and “bad taste,” I don’t use it that way nor do I think that it should be used that way. Sometimes what seems like the wrong word is the only honest word. I don’t think Renoir is chaotic or shoddy (and I consciously avoid both words in the piece), or that his lines of thinking are not clear: there is more clarity in his most jumbled and jittering tracking shots than I think can be found in just about anything in the history of art and culture. My intention is only to acknowledge greatness personally and honestly. As I wrote to you earlier, I think Renoir, like many great artists, operates beyond his means, and it is through his clear expression of his directorial impulses, through his drive, that his greatness is found. A more “elegant” approach, a less radical structure (both in terms of the films themselves and the framings of the shots) would not only run counter to who Renoir is but would be worthless in comparison with what he accomplished. And, in fact, I don’t think Renoir’s “refusal to streamline a multiplicity of urban sensations” is any different from Joyce’s or from Benjamin’s (but is different from, say, the deliberate jumbling of Dos Passos) — and I hold both, like Renoir, in the highest regard. I don’t mean that I have mere admiration for them; I would not be the person I am without all three, and I owe them large parts of my life as it is now, and now my personality. I don’t have much interest in contextualizing Renoir to “the dominant taste of his day” (because, as far as I’m concerned, Renoir remains contemporary), and I certainly don’t feel the bawdier aspects of his films are mere transgression (nor do I really care that much for transgression).
And you are right on the sequence from Boudu — and the precision with which Renoir could work and construct moments. But this is, in the end, just 1,200 or so words, which don’t begin to scrape Renoir nor completely define my feelings about his work.
Ignatiy, “But this is, in the end, just 1,200 or so words, which don’t begin to scrape Renoir nor completely define my feelings about his work.” Well, then I’d like to read 1,200 more words that do so! A lot of this article just seems to me to claim Renoir against popular discourses and catchphrases–of “mastery” or “taste” or “elegance” (not sure I agree) or “kindness” (do agree–but who cares?)–instead of engaging what he actually does. Now that he’s been stripped of the buzzwords, and I know how you feel watching them, I’d like to see what it is he actually does, in your eyes/ears, as in that provocative last line of yours (I don’t care much about that boob Lange at all, but I’m more curious what Renoir thinks of him–and, if at all, wants me to think of him). For example, I do think Renoir is of fundamentally different cloth than Joyce in every way but their attempts–as Hitchcock put it about Sabotage–to make the background relevant. In fact, the classical generic form of shooting in the early 30s mastered by Del Ruth, LeRoy, etc. and that Renoir almost openly rejected–ping-ponging in shot-reverse shots between approximations of characters’ consciousnesses that seamlessly flow together into a fuller apprehension of the scene, perspective by perspective, “classic Hollywood” shooting–seems a lot closer to Ulysses’ liminal realm between objectivity/subjectivity (which reaches a breaking point in Markopoulos’ The Dead One) than Renoir’s insistence on keeping the characters largely in full-body framings in front of the camera and panned by, unable to anchor the camera’s consciousness as their own. Renoir’s result, modern in form, seems a good means of dealing with classic commedia dell’arte characterizations and situations: the characters remain types, at a distance, irreducible beyond their scene/place/position/status, nothing more than embodiments of the habits of a class or race. This classic formulation, which Joyce aims to break through, is exactly Renoir’s fodder, and as a “modernist,” he’s a much quieter formalist than L’Herbier or Gance or Epstein before him: no coups of camera effects inventing the world in front of him, just the simple act of assembling all these disparate pieces into a whole of simple, singular effect.
Well, then I’d like to read 1,200 more words that do so! Part 2, perhaps. Though Part 2 would probably involve a lot of the things you’ve already written in your comments — and as I largely agree with you, we can say that Part 2 has already been written. I think that maybe there’s been a misunderstanding of tone, what I set out to define and just how complex I think Renoir is. So, in order to avoid future misunderstandings, I’ve added three words to the last sentence of the second paragraph that hopefully clarify my intentions / opinions.
For all Renoir’s directness about the folly and brutality of humanity — for all his fearlessness in exposing the darkness of society — he was never so forceful or pushy as you are with this article. Renoir was most definitely elegant, even if that doesn’t suit you.
Ian, I disagree! Though he wasn’t pushy, he could be much more forceful than I’ll ever be with words. Renoir’s observations and dramatics are not passive.
If one takes kindness to mean ignoring or excusing faults and weaknesses in others, than that is a word that certainly doesn’t fit Renoir, but if one looks at the word as meaning something more like having a profound sympathy for the human condition and not judging people based on those same faults, than Renoir is indeed kind. I prefer the latter definition since the former suggests blindness whereas the latter suggests a fuller awareness of human foibles and how they are present in each of us. Perhaps though it would be easier just to say Renoir was one of a handful of artists most fully awake to the potentialities of what it is to be human, for both good and bad and that he accepted that state with the good grace that accompanies great wisdom.
If there was one word I would use to describe Renoir, it would be intimacy. Just as our most intimate friends are privileged enough to know our deepest flaws as well as our strengths and yet still maintain a bond, Renoir provides a view of his characters at their most telling moments, whether in weakness or strength but still manages to convince us that these people deserve a bond of attention and concern. He doesn’t place himself above his characters and ask us to judge them, but merely to witness their actions and try to understand how those actions arose. Such a thing seems easy to do in theory, but very few filmmakers ever manage to enact it in practice. Ozu, Kiarostami and a few others perhaps, but Renoir is one of the greatest practitioners of the art. He is distant enough to see our jumbled interactions clearly, but intimate enough to care for us anyway.
Renoir said of Rules of the Game, “no one in that film was worth saving.” And his general pessimism is even outlined in his memoirs ‘’My Life and My Films’‘, the last chapter where he says, "It was a fine thing, the nation, but it is dying and the dead don’t come back to life." I am sick of humanism in any expressed form since the point of ‘’The Rules of the Game’’ isn’t that the most terrible thing is the fact that all characters have reasons just that it is right to betray friendships, love, relationships and be a hypocrite than any hero. What makes Renoir special is how he is able to be the most despairing pessimist but still fill his films with a light touch that avoids making viewing the film depressing.
I think the article is great. I like the thought of Renoir practicing brutal cinema. Zivojin Pavlovic would be proud (though he didn’t include him among his list of brutal poets of the cinema). I like even more the attempt to shake us up out of our frozen, canonical ways of thinking about Renoir and his work. Maybe this had a stronger affect on me because I’ve only seen two of his films, so I’m not yet frozen myself into those dogmatic ways of considering Renoir. It’s not blasphemy for me to consider Renoir the opposite of elegant, or that he was never a master. I’d like to hear more. You shortchanged yourself with the length of this article. Go ahead and write that part 2!
I’ve been doing some work on Daney’s review of Mocky’s “Death to the Referee” (A mort l’arbitre!), and a section in it made me think of this piece. I will now attempt to translate the passage: “Without these precious cinematic “events,” the film would be nothing but rancid satire. With them, it has that quality that has become so rare in today’s cinema (drunk on smooth academicism): irregularity. The irregularity that gave breath to the films of Renoir or Bunuel." This isn’t entirely the same as what you’re saying here, I guess, but I think this idea of Renoir’s “irregularity” has a lot in common with what you’ve written, and is something that is always sacrificed, cast out by the discourse of greatness, genius, mastery. Renoir’s irregularity (which is something quite different from mere “uniqueness” or “unconventionality,” words rendered meaningless by overuse) evoked by Daney is I think consistent with the ‘messiness’ and ‘inelegance’ you describe, and is indeed a quality chez Renoir that needs to be reclaimed.
Conall, Irregularity — there is an even apter term, but part of Daney’s genius was how apt he could be with just a few words or (later) an accusatory paragraph. Have you seen the Mocky film, by the way? I’ve only seen his first, Les Dragueurs from 1959, which I liked, but have embarrassingly seen nothing after it (and he still makes features to this day!). Bobby, Part 2 will wait. In the meantime, watch more Renoir. Watch all Renoir if you can! Arthus S., I don’t think it’s necessarily a light touch, but more that he is unsentimental and yet still affectionate. It’s possible to love people as a whole without loving what they do as a society (and maybe that’s because sentimentality, which concerns itself with things that happened in the past, is the antithesis of love, which must occur in the present tense).
Yes, I managed to track down the film after reading the review, it’s terrific; what Daney says about the film’s “irregularity” in the presentation of cinematic “events” saving it from what could in other hands be “rancid satire” is exactly right. But yeah I haven’t seen any others, he certainly does have heaps of films! I guess he’s never really caught on in the US/UK, so they’re hard to get a hold of. Daney seems to have been quite an admirer though.
Mocky started as an actor (he’s very good in Franju’s first movie, Head Against the Wall), but he largely abandoned it when he switched to directing at age 30. He certainly seems interesting, but his films are hard to find (and there are so many of them — over 50, plus some TV shows). But I’ve read so many kind words about his work (which is why I sought out Les Dragueurs in the first place — well, that and the fact that it stars Charles Aznavour and Anouk Aimee, and was shot by the very precise and underrated Edmond Sechan, who shot The Silent World for Malle / Cousteau and Lamorisse’s best known movies), so maybe it’s time to resume the hunt for more Mocky movies. I’ll look for A mort l’arbitre! next.
He actually acts in A Mort l’arbitre! , he plays the police detective. I shall have to search out Les Dragueurs next.
It’s an interesting point about “irregularity”. Could you go further with the citation? I’m curious to know if Daney was talking about form or content (or both). Maybe then we can relate it back more specifically to Renoir’s work (and Bunuel for that matter).
Yeah I know, I kind of left the quote hanging because I didn’t really feel up to trying to translate the long, complex sentence that follows it… I don’t have the text in front of me just now but I’ll provide a fuller quotation when I get a chance. He doesn’t mention Renoir or Bunuel again in the article though; as so often with Daney, you get this amazing, brief insight or allusion and then nothing more, you’re left to explore the ramifications of it yourself. He does however go on to talk about what he means by “irregularity” in Mocky’s film, which is the bit I’ll get back to you with later. I wouldn’t say it’s an either/or of form and content, I think that the ‘irregularity’ comes from the ‘presentation’, the “cinematic events” he refers to – how the form both produces and expresses content. The particular example he uses has something to do with editing, so in that sense you could say that he means “formal” irregularity, but I think fundamentally the irregularity is in the relationship between form and content, rather than residing in one or the other.
Conall, Watched A Mort l’arbitre. Certainly “irregular,” I’d say in my best doctor voice. The Switched On…-style score, the way everything seems to have been caught in just one take, the prevalence of bright yellow (the rarest color in movies, it sometime seems). There’s a sense, like with early silents and early talkies, that movies are not yet respectable, and that they are the domain of smart young men uninterested in respectability (though of course by the time the movie was made this was no longer true, and Mocky was way past 50). It’s silly in a very smart way (I dig the way the credit for Mocky reads something like “a film by Jean-Pierre Mocky, who plays the role of Inspector Granowski”). Also, the finale is oddly reminiscent of the end of Die Hard with a Vengeance, in a low-stakes, low-rent sorta way. Looking forward to an appearance of the full translation of that review.
Interesting thoughts about the film, certainly the yellow is incredibly striking. The last line of the section from Daney translated below also speaks to the ideas you bring up about “smart young men uninterested in respectability”. I am also yet to see the Godard film Mocky appears in, Grandeur et Décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma, which I’m even more curious about now after seeing this film (actually made around the same time). Here’s the paragraph in question from Daney’s review. I will probably wind up doing a translation of the whole review (only a couple of pages) at some point, because I’m planning to write a bit about this piece in my thesis, but for now here’s just the relevant section: “The beauty of /Death to the Referee!/ is that, at each second, something happens. Let’s do an experiment: take the beginning of the film, take it shot-by-shot, count them mentally and you’ll see that there is one idea per shot and very quickly a kind of euphoria, like the promise of an acceleration. Without these precious cinematic “events,” the film would be nothing but rancid satire. With them, it has that quality that has become so rare in today’s cinema (drunk on smooth academicism): irregularity. The irregularity that gave breath to the films of Renoir or Bunuel. So that if Mocky loves quick editing (verging on the clip), it’s not for the sake of playing up his strength in moving at frantic speed by limp and monotonous cutting (the style of /Rue Barbare/), it’s so as to take hold of a whole inventory of “parasitic” ideas, “useless” details, “passing” notes, which are the movement of life, since life hasn’t yet been sorted out and refuses to make meaning too quickly. Irregularity, indeed. I think one should give the name of “generosity” to the Mockyian attitude, this taste for setting up challenges that only he can throw down. /Death to the Referee!/ is the work of an old hand mixed with a turbulent amateur who’ll never cease discovering that the cinema is a tremendous toy." On the topic of Daney on Renoir, this is a passage you probably know, from the “Tracking shot in Kapo” essay (the Paul Thomas Grant translation), which also speaks to some of the concerns of your article: “How could one forget the slow, trembling tracking shot that the young Renoir hurls towards Nana lying on her bed, dying of smallpox? How is it that some people see in Renoir a crooner of the good life when he was one of the few filmmakers, right from the beginning, who was capable of finishing someone off with a tracking shot?”

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