Give Thanks, Again, for Jean Renoir

04/09/2010 4:00 AM |

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.