Jean Renoir was one of the most influential filmmakers in French cinema. As the son of the famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean grew up surrounded by art and creativity. However, he forged his own path by discovering a passion for the relatively new art form of filmmaking in the early 20th century.
Early Life and Influences
Jean Renoir was born in 1894 in Montmartre, the bohemian and artistic quarter of Paris. His father Pierre-Auguste Renoir was an acclaimed impressionist painter, while his mother Aline Charigot was a dressmaker and model who often posed for Pierre-Auguste’s paintings.
From a young age, Jean was immersed in the world of art, literature, and theater through his parents’ social circles. Family friends included other iconic artists like Cézanne, Matisse, and Rodin which undoubtedly shaped his creative spirit.
Love of Theater and Film
As a child, Jean had a passion for theater and wanted to become an actor. He got his first role at age 21 in the film La Fille de l’eau by Jacques Feyder. This experience on set developed Jean’s interest in filmmaking.
In the 1920s, cinema was still a relatively new art form, especially in France. The French film industry would soon explode in popularity. Jean Renoir found himself at the forefront of this booming movement.
Early Filmmaking Experiments
Jean Renoir directed his first film Une Vie Sans Joie in 1924 when filmmaking was still a fledgling industry. His first attempts feature some trademark characteristics:
- Filmed outdoors with natural light
- Long takes and deep focus shots
- Poetic realism style blending realism and fantasy
However, these early films did not gain much popularity. At this stage, Renoir was still learning his craft.
In the late 1920s, Renoir made several films that were more successful such as La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes and Marquitta. These films demonstrate Jean’s talent for directing children and using fantasy elements.
Renoir also made comedies inspired by his father’s paintings including Le Tournoi dans la cité, which feature his growing prowess with camera movement, background action, and outlining characters.
Finding International Success
Boudu Saved from Drowning
Jean Renoir first achieved widespread critical success with the 1932 film Boudu Saved from Drowning starring the iconic French comedian Michel Simon.
The film makes excellent use of camera angles, motion, and Simon’s physical comedy. Boudu Saved from Drowning became an international hit and made Renoir famous beyond France.
Toni Establishes His Artistic Reputation
Toni (1935) was another triumph cementing Renoir as a director of great skill and social observation.
The film recounts a tragedy of immigration and love across class divides in rural France. Displaying technical mastery, Toni uses depth of field shots and natural light to produce the poetic realist style Renoir came to be known for.
The international success of Toni established Jean Renoir’s reputation as a visionary, humanist artist alongside figures like Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse.
Technical and Storytelling Innovation
Revolutionary Use of Sound
In the 1930s, sound films were still a novelty that many creatives struggled to utilize effectively. However, Jean Renoir proved to be an early master of sound cinema across several films:
- La Chienne (1931) – early creative use of music
- Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) – ambient noise adds texture
- Toni (1935) – contrast between diegetic and non-diegetic sound
Renoir treated sound with just as much care and creativity as the visuals. This showcased his talent for technical innovation.
While many early talkies focused on visual spectacle, Renoir’s films stand out for their depth of character and emphasis on psychology over plotting.
For example, The Lower Depths (1936) spends nearly the entire film exploring a vivid group of characters almost stage-play style. The Rules of the Game (often called his masterpiece) also follows characters in intersecting stories without a clear lead role.
Renoir moved away from Hollywood conventions toward more realistic, humanist narratives driven by character motivation. This emphasis on psychology over structure was groundbreaking.
The Rules of the Game: Renoir’s Magnum Opus
A Complex Tragicomedy
On the surface, Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game is a witty upstairs-downstairs satire of the decadence of 1930s French high society. However, beneath the comedy lies tragic social commentary about the world on the brink of WWII.
Rich in characters, the film weaves together the stories of aristocrats and their servants through a weekend hunting party at a country estate. Love triangles, affairs, and secrets abound leading to disastrous results.
Initial Reception and Legacy
The complex irony and social criticism of The Rules of the Game baffled audiences when first released. However, it soon gained renown as a masterpiece of editing, acting, dialogue and layered storytelling.
Alongside Citizen Kane, the film regularly tops critics’ lists as one of the greatest ever made. With its technical mastery and profound themes, The Rules of the Game shows Renoir at the peak of his filmmaking brilliance.
Wartime Films and Exile from France
Directing under Nazi Occupation
Jean Renoir continued making films in France for as long as possible after Germany occupied the country during WWII in 1940.
He made a satire criticizing French POWs returning home (La Regle du Jeu), until tightening censorship forced him to flee to the USA in 1940.
Renoir’s experiences trying to work under Nazi rule informed his perspectives on propaganda, human dignity, and moral courage seen later in films like The Elusive Corporal.
Success in Hollywood
Already an international name, Jean Renoir successfully relocated to Hollywood. His first American film, Swamp Water (1941) starring Dana Andrews, was an indie hit.
He worked for major studios like Twentieth Century Fox, displaying his talent for adapting to new settings and actors while retaining his signature humanist style.
Returning Home: A Prolific Final Stage
Restoring His Reputation
When Renoir returned to Europe, his reputation had suffered somewhat due to misunderstandings over his American work and adaptations like The Diary of a Chambermaid starring Paulette Goddard.
Some French critics saw his American films as commercial “sellouts.” It took time to restore his standing through fresh new European projects like The River (1951), French Cancan (1954), and Elena and Her Men (1956).
Creativity to the End
Despite waning health in his final years, Jean Renoir remained startlingly prolific up until his death in 1979 at age 84.
In his last two decades, he completed a dozen additional films exploring humanist themes of war, dignity, society’s outcasts, and man’s relationship with nature and the divine.
While lesser-known than his early career triumphs, Renoir’s later films proved his creativity stayed passionate to the very last days of his long, indomitable life.
As an artist who came of age alongside the birth of cinema, Jean Renoir became instrumental in developing film as an art form in the early to mid 20th century. Masterpieces like Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Rules of the Game, and The Grand Illusion drew from his lifelong immersion in European art and theatre.
Both as a technician and storyteller, Renoir pushed filmmaking in new directions emphasizing character depth, naturalism, and humanist themes over formulaic narratives. Later artists from Satyajit Ray to Orson Welles have cited Renoir as a defining inspiration on their work.
While fashions fade, Renoir’s films stand the test of time thanks to their empathy, wit, and poetic sensibility. Over 50 years since his passing, Jean Renoir remains secure in reputation as one of the seminal legends in not just French, but global cinema history.
|La fille de l’eau (The Whirlpool of Fate)
|This silent film follows the story of a young woman, Henriette, who is torn between two suitors. She must choose between the man she loves and the man who saved her life. The film explores themes of love, fate, and societal expectations.
|The film received positive reviews for its visual storytelling and emotional depth, establishing Jean Renoir as a promising director.
|Based on Emile Zola’s novel, this silent film depicts the rise and fall of Nana, a beautiful and ambitious actress and courtesan in Paris. It delves into the complexities of desire, power, and societal decadence.
|Nana was praised for its lavish production design and compelling portrayal of the protagonist’s journey, earning critical acclaim for its bold storytelling.
|Sur un air de Charleston (Charleston Parade)
|This lost film was set against the backdrop of the Charleston dance craze. It likely featured lively musical numbers and romantic entanglements typical of the era.
|“La petite marchande d’allumettes” (“The Little Match Girl”)
|Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the film follows a poor young girl selling matches on the streets during Christmas. She experiences vivid visions as she struggles to survive in the cold winter night.
|Despite being a silent film, it was well-received for its poignant storytelling and emotional impact, showcasing Renoir’s early mastery of cinematic expression.
|This final silent film by Renoir tells the story of a French soldier stationed in North Africa who grapples with the harsh realities of colonialism and his own sense of identity.
|Although less known than some of his later works, Le Bled was appreciated for its exploration of complex themes and its visual artistry.
|On purge bébé
|Renoir’s first sound film is a comedic farce centered around the absurdities of modern life, focusing on a family’s comical efforts to cure their baby’s constipation.
|On purge bébé was well-received for its witty humor and innovative use of sound, marking a successful transition for Renoir into the era of talkies.
|La Chienne (The Bitch)
|This film follows the story of a meek cashier who becomes infatuated with a manipulative prostitute and descends into a world of crime and deception. It explores themes of obsession, betrayal, and societal hypocrisy.
|La Chienne garnered critical acclaim for its dark and gripping narrative, solidifying Renoir’s reputation as a master storyteller.
|Le crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange)
|Set in a publishing house, the film revolves around the employees’ decision to publish a popular story written by one of their colleagues, Mr. Lange. The story’s success leads to unexpected consequences.
|Widely praised for its blend of social commentary, humor, and compelling characters, the film was celebrated for its humanistic approach and incisive critique of capitalism.
|La grande illusion (Grand Illusion)
|Set during World War I, the film follows a group of French prisoners of war attempting to escape from a German camp. It explores themes of class, nationality, and the futility of war.
|La grande illusion is considered a masterpiece, receiving widespread acclaim for its nuanced portrayal of human relationships and its anti-war message. It solidified Renoir’s status as a leading figure in world cinema.
|La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game)
|Set against the backdrop of a lavish country estate, the film intertwines the lives of aristocrats and servants, revealing the intricate web of love, desire, and social hierarchy.
|Initially met with controversy and mixed reviews, La règle du jeu is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, praised for its complex characters, sharp satire, and innovative storytelling.
|Renoir’s first American film tells the story of a young man accused of murder who seeks refuge in the Okefenokee Swamp. There, he forms an unlikely bond with a local hunter while evading the law.
|The film received positive reviews for its atmospheric storytelling and strong performances, marking Renoir’s successful transition to Hollywood filmmaking.
|“Partie de campagne” (“A Day in the Country”)
|Shot in 1936 but released later, the film portrays a brief romantic encounter between a young woman and two men during a countryside outing. It captures the fleeting nature of love and desire.
|Despite its delayed release, the film was well-received for its lyrical depiction of human emotions and the beauty of the natural world.
|La Vie est à nous
|Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment)
|In this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,” a respected doctor conducts experiments that lead to a shocking transformation, blurring the lines between good and evil.
|While not as widely recognized as some of Renoir’s earlier works, the film was praised for its atmospheric tension and psychological depth, showcasing the director’s versatility.
|Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir)
|This documentary offers a glimpse into Renoir’s artistic process and his reflections on filmmaking, featuring interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and discussions about his career.
|The documentary provided valuable insights into Renoir’s creative vision and legacy, offering audiences a deeper understanding of his contributions to cinema.