Jean Renoir April 9-May 11 at BAM
Filmmakers, critics, and everyone poisoned by movie-love have a tendency to become a bit maudlin upon hearing the name Jean Renoir. The director gave the medium so many gifts, from his feature films, shorts, technical innovations (like indoor lighting for panchromatic film and the use of mirrors with miniatures) and advances in film theory, to his towering protégés, and a wealth from his surplus of humble, Renaissance man dignity. If your commitment to the movies is real, a certain saccharine, soft-kneed reverence is only understandable. Specific films—particularly from his American period—have been picked apart and savaged, but if there exists a takedown of the full corpus, I don't know it (obviously, it would be insufferable). BAM is showing 22 of the master's films, and if there's nothing sexy about another trip through the ineradicably canonized selections, it's more than enough that they're bundled with many lesser-known and unavailable-at-home works. Most crucially, Renoir is always worth watching and re-watching because he refreshes your ability to perceive humanity on the screen. Filled with all manner of corruption, messiness, sadness, and sin, these are not bedtime stories, but there's a purity of effect here that detoxes the eyes, leaving you a renewed, superior moviegoer.
Renoir retrospectives have impacted lives. Peter Bogdanovich attended every showing of one in L.A., and after seeing Boudu Saved From Drowning, was able to drive to his friend Renoir's house to discuss it. A 1962 festival in London provided David Thomson with "the clearest revelation of the nature of cinema that I have ever had." Introducing a 1967 festival in Vidauban, François Truffaut said "the whole body of his films makes up his work...it's really crucial to gather them together like this." Not that one need enter BAM with grim piety, or an expectation of divine deliverance, or see them all. But lacking only a few key features (most regrettably Night at the Crossroads and The Crime of Monsieur Lange), this retro has the potential to affirm or reaffirm more than just one's opinion about the director's own work.
The double feature of Boudu and A Day in the Country, a short adapted from a Maupassant story, confirms in a single sitting Renoir's mastery of translating nature to film, though he would never claim to have "mastered Nature." The drama is set in motion when Boudu leaps into the Seine, and is rescued and taken in by Charles Granval's Lestingois, whose well-intentioned bourgeois sentimentality is thwarted at every turn by Michel Simon's feral proto-hippie. Boudu leaps because his dog is missing, and the early shots of him in a park by a quiet stream, caressing his curly black friend, are some of the most memorable. Renoir's camera already seems to belong in the calm, sunny surroundings, as natural a presence as the park bench. Rivers and other water bodies were a career-long motif and source of vitality in the director's movies, culminating in 1951's The River, from India. The camera in A Day in the Country memorably tracks along the surface of the water as it's pelted with rain. Renoir himself plays a country uncle, and his palpable benevolence seems to touch everything in this simple story of a girl (the adorable Sylvia Bataille) engaged to a flake, and her introduction to actual passion (doomed, of course). As with Welles, there's excitement in seeing the director onscreen, and his big-hearted, bear-chested presence in The Rules of the Game and La Bete Humaine are a large part of their appeal.
In 1935's Toni, rarely screened, Renoir locates melodrama in the mundane quite by accident, as his intention was to make a strictly realistic, detached work. With assistant directing by Luchino Visconti, Toni predicts Italian neorealism nearly a decade in advance. Set in a xenophobic Provencal backwater ("Another trainload of Spaniards—it's disgusting"), it's a Sunrise-like tale of a good man's undoing. Toni (Charles Blavette) is betrothed to Marie (Jenny Helia) but loves Josefa (Celia Montalvan). Blessedly alone with Toni one day, Josefa's bitten by a bee. He digs out the stinger and suckles her neck as she giggles, then says memorably, "Do it again in case there's still some poison left." Like most of Renoir's films, Toni is imperfect (dramatically hurried, sometimes carelessly framed), but as always these "flaws" are inseparable from the director's singular lightness of touch and personal stamp. Loathing the consensus notion of perfection, he sought and found something better. Renoir makes the most out of Toni's cramped interiors. His camera pans with a subliminal grace around a room stuffed with two families; not only efficient, the style quietly emphasizes the characters' common plight, as Renoir would do so often in his work.
La Bete Humaine is about the visual poetry of Jean Gabin and Julien Carette's begoggled, soot-blackened faces perilously sticking out of their speeding train. Touchingly proud of its source—it opens with a quote from Zola's novel, the author's signature, and his portrait—Renoir's version immediately demonstrates its separate worth with that train footage, shot from every angle. Lightweight only in comparison to the director's masterpieces that precede and follow it, this psychological thriller is the director's tautest. Gabin plays Lantier, an engineer in love with his locomotive. Thanks to the blood inherited from his alcoholic ancestors, he's also a psychopath. "I could tell you a few things," he tells man's worst nightmare, Severine (Simone Simon). He shows her instead.
Renoir's idea that the most basic colors look the most vivid and unreal onscreen is exemplified by all three movies in his unofficial trilogy tribute to the labor of "puttin' on a show," that includes one masterpiece (The Golden Coach) and two gaudy and likeable spectacles (French Cancan, Elena and her Men) that I'm sure gain power when projected large. A direct contrast to these sticky delicacies is Renoir's take on Jekyll and Hyde, The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, shot for French television in 1959 and released theatrically seven years later. The lighting is flat to accommodate the multiple-camera setup, which Renoir employed to free his actors from the always-interrupting "coupe!" The architecture is modern and hard, the score dementedly carnivalesque. Jean-Louis Barrault, elegant and corpse-like as Dr. Cordelier, is a curly-haired, unibrowed anti-Boudu as the evil Opale. The crux of his aim—to escape the limits of polite society—is one that Renoir's worldview would not typically condemn, but going about it by cane-flogging strangers, knocking out crutches, and assaulting little girls reveals that philosophy's logical endpoints.
Renoir was filming La Tosca in Rome in 1940 when Italy entered the war. His friend Carl Koch would finish it, while Renoir eventually made his way to the US, where he would make five films, all shown in this retrospective. The Southerner, a beautiful, sun-dappled work about ambitious cotton-picker Zachary Scott (his best role) is the greatest of these, but it's the tempestuous seaside melodrama The Woman on the Beach, acted with commitment and boiling with bitterness, that's least shakable. Opening with a nightmare, it never drops a queasy, dreamlike tone. Renoir's imprint is less noticeable on Swamp Water, his first American feature, largely due to Daryl Zanuck, who scotched the original ending, briefly replaced Renoir, and handled the editing himself. The auteurist traces that remain keep it interesting, along with the snakebite authenticity of the Okefenokee Swamp location and a welcome top billing for Walter Brennan (although virile Dana Andrews is the lead). Another two great performances—Charles Laughton as a mincing crybaby turned hero speechmaker and George Sanders as a sympathetic scoundrel—keep the pro-French Resistance This Land is Mine from being mere laugh-reel, "those were different times" propaganda.
Though The River is never presented as anything other than an infatuated outsider's perspective, Renoir, an avowed anti-tourist in life in that he avoided obvious sites, had to gently resist attempts by florist-turned-producer Kenneth McEldowney, to include an elephant hunt and the Taj Mahal. He produced one of the all time great color films, a relaxed story about childhood and nature with textures and breezes you can almost feel. The winsome cast is half amateurs, and the director had assistance from Satyajit Ray, one in a long line of great Renoir collaborators that included Visconti, Jacques Becker, and his relatives Pierre, Claude, and Marguerite.
The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are evergreen and matchless, but 1938's casual and earthy French Revolution drama La Marseillaise deserves a rank just underneath them. If you haven't seen it, it's just one of this retrospective's revelations, contained even in the films you know by heart.