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June 9 – September 1, 2017

The Complete Jean Renoir

“I believe that one of the most important functions of the filmmaker is the destruction of cliché. We are surrounded by clichés. We believe that life is what we are told. Not at all. Life is something very different. Life is a combination of what does exist and what you have in mind.” — Jean Renoir

Jean Renoir (1894-1979) is now considered a legendary director, the genius who defines cinematic realism and humanist filmmaking. The rare opportunity to experience all of his films in a short period of time complicates this extremely oversimplified reputation. It allows for the chance to reevaluate those films said to be failures because they do not conform to our received notions, and to enjoy a renewed appreciation for the acknowledged masterpieces.

Renoir was born into wealth thanks to his father, the celebrated painter Auguste Renoir. Enlisting in the army just before the outbreak of World War I, he proved to be a brave soldier, returning to the front, as a pilot in the fledgling French air force, after being gravely wounded in the leg during trench combat.

After the war, Renoir returned to his life as a dilettante, frequenting the artistic circles of Paris and dabbling in ceramics. He was interested in cinema, but never considered trying his hand at filmmaking until 1920, when he married his father’s last model, Catherine Hessling, who aspired to movie stardom. To help her, Renoir began using the sizeable inheritance from his father to become an independent filmmaker. Beginning as a writer-producer, Renoir added directing to his portfolio after his frustrating first collaborative project (Catherine,shot in 1924).

In his early films Renoir alternates between styles: the nascent French cinematic impressionism (Whirlpool of Fate), Stroheimesque naturalism (Nana), and, curiously enough, shorter projects dominated by special visual effects, bordering on the avant-garde (Charleston Parade and The Little Match Girl). Initially he experimented with shooting on location, with deep focus and the potential of offscreen space to generate suspense or surprise, as well as a sense of spatial continuity to the world in front of the camera, chiefly by way of actors’ entrances into, and exits from, the sides of the frame. However, since none of these films brought him much attention, and because he could neither afford to continue as an independent producer nor succeed in making a star out of Hessling, he switched, for his last two silent films, to a conventional style of filmmaking as a way of avoiding financial ruin by working as a director for hire.

Renoir’s disposition toward realism did not allow his filmmaking to fully blossom until the coming of sound. He sat out the transitional period of late 1929 and 1930, since no producer wanted to take a gamble on a sound film from such an unproven commodity. Finally making his sound debut in 1931 with the scatological comedy On purge bébé, Renoir immediately continued his adventurous streak by shooting live sound on set. But it was his second 1931 film that finally brought him positive critical attention: La Chienne, a chilling return to his penchant for Stroheimesque naturalism, with its emphasis on decadence and corruption. Here Renoir combines location shooting and location sound recording, deepening his ability to immerse audiences in realistically depicted space.

For Hitchcock, preproduction was the key: the screenplay and the storyboards. For Eisenstein, it was editing—post-production. But Renoir liked production: the collaborative nature of shooting and the accidents and improvisations. He was open to changes and responsive to his performers, as well as his other collaborators.

Unlike his contemporaries, such as Lang, Hitchcock or von Stroheim himself, Renoir was no martinet on the set. Rather, he worked by charming his cast and technicians, by listening to them and making them into a team. An examination of Renoir’s biography reveals that this is also true of his life away from the camera. He was also capable of cowardice and hesitation, and these qualities are reflected not only in the extraordinary sympathy he conveys for all his characters but also in the mixture of rigor and limpidity that he brings to his visual style.

Renoir’s reputation rose and fell throughout the early 1930s when he had yet to garner much popular attention. His critical profile surged to new heights with Toni, for which he combined location shooting and sound recording (in the south of France) with an episodic narrative taken from real life and a cast that included many non-professionals. The result was a true revelation in France and adds undeniable weight to the argument that Renoir was the inventor of neorealism, particularly since Luchino Visconti was his assistant on this film and carried Renoir’s working method to Italy.

His real breakthrough for both critical and popular attention was The Crime of M. Lange in 1936. The film captures the spirit of the leftist uprising taking place in France called the Popular Front, an alliance between political parties, labor unions and cultural organizations, with support from the Communist International. From that point through the end of the 1930s, Renoir was France’s leading filmmaker. And in the mid-to-late part of the decade, with German and Soviet filmmaking in the clutches of authoritarian control, he was also probably the leading filmmaker in all of Europe, with Hitchcock his closest rival—which is to say that he was the greatest filmmaker outside of Hollywood, with only Mizoguchi a formidable competitor.

The summit of Renoir’s popularity in France corresponds with the beginnings of his international reputation, with the three films he made starring Jean Gabin in the late 1930s: The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion and The Human Beast. But it all stopped short with The Rules of the Game, in which Renoir dropped the populist, noirish naturalism of his other work in favor of a sophisticated social satire on class in a France on the verge of war. Now recognized as one of the great films, the abject failure of Rules in 1939 lead Renoir to a decision that shocked many of his associates.

Accepting an invitation from Vittorio Mussolini, Benito’s son, to make a film in fascist Italy, Renoir had just begun shooting La Tosca when the Nazis invaded France. He returned to Paris and then fled to the south of France, where he worried about what his close ties with the French left, plus the Nazi loathing for Grand Illusion,still the film he was best known for, would mean for him in occupied France, even in the Vichy south. Thanks to the efforts of Robert Flaherty, he managed to get an official invitation to come to the US and arrived in Hollywood in January 1941.

Over the next five years, he worked for Fox, Universal, RKO and independent productions on a series of six films. Renoir’s collaborative, rambling, improvisatory nature as a director while shooting meant that he never found working in Hollywood comfortable; for the studios, time was money. And yet, Renoir fell in love with southern California, and nothing he heard from occupied or postwar Paris made him eager to return.

However, with his prospects for work in Los Angeles dwindling, Renoir entered a brief period of working on international co-productions that would include his first two films in color: The River, shot in English, in India; and The Golden Coach, adapted from French sources and shot shot in Italy with an international cast speaking English. The former was enough of a success to revive Renoir’s international reputation. The latter, now celebrated as one of Renoir’s masterworks, was a huge critical and financial disappointment, and occasioned Renoir’s return to France.

Upon his arrival in 1953, Renoir was no longer the revered figure he had been at the point of his departure in 1940. On the other hand, the French critical establishment remembered his string of 1930s masterpieces, and The Rules of the Game was just beginning to enjoy rediscovery. André Bazin, probably the most influential critic in postwar France, used his editorship of Cahiers du Cinéma to remind readers of Renoir’s past achievements and to support his new films, aided by the young critics Bazin was gathering who adored Renoir and who would eventually pay homage to him in their own films: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer.

Until his last film, in 1969, Renoir never stopped experimenting with special effects, deep focus, sync sound, camera movement, offscreen space, color, multiple cameras—all in the service of destroying the visual cliché in favor of the real. Deep focus, in particular, is such an important element of Renoir’s visual style because it creates a screen space within which all the members of his ensemble can find their proper places. It also represents a connection between the filmmaker and his father’s generation of painters: figures are not simply posed in front of a landscape, they inhabit it.

More generally, the vast amount of innovation and experimentation in Renoir’s work allowed the filmmaker to expand his seemingly endless ability to find new variants on cinematic realism. As Tom Milne has written, regarding Renoir’s ability to turn on a dime between the comic and the tragic, there is the central conflict in his work between theater and reality, desire and fantasy. We can go further and point to the alternations between objective reality and subjective reality–the reality that exists and the potential reality of imagination and thought. – David Pendleton

Special thanks: Mathieu Fournet, Amélie Garin-Davet—Film, TV and New Media Department of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Emmanuelle Marchand—Consulate of France in Boston; Hannah Prouse—National Film and Television Archive, British Film Institute; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill—UCLA Film and Television Archive; Katie Trainor—Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jean Gagnon—Cinémathèque Québécoise; Daniel Rooney—National Archives.

Film descriptions by David Pendleton and Patrick Marshall.

                                                        

 


Friday June 9 at 7pm
Sunday August 27 at 4:30pm

The Rules of the Game
(La Règle du jeu)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir
France 1939, 35mm, b/w, 110 min. French, German & English with English subtitles

Jean Renoir’s last film made in Europe for a dozen years seems to predict the coming war that would displace him. The filmmaker’s belief that "honest sincerity is catastrophic in a world where everyone has his reasons" is examined at length in this satirical, multilayered anatomy of French aristocracy, set at a weekend retreat in a countryside chateau. The intricately plotted ensemble piece shows the influence of the stage comedies of Beaumarchais and Marivaux even as it remains resolutely modern in its comprehensive and gimlet-eyed glance at a world ruled by status, hypocrisy and other “rules.” Its balanced mixture of farce and brittle irony has led many to consider The Rules of the Game Renoir’s masterpiece. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday June 9 at 9:30pm

Picnic on the Grass
(Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Paul Meurisse, Catherine Rouvel, Fernand Sardou
France 1959, 35mm, color, 92 min. French with English subtitles

The strange and extraordinary Picnic on the Grass is a Janus-like creation, with one face turned to the future and one looking to the past. The film imagines a world where television is omnipresent, nuclear power is a subject for debate, the European countries have entered into a federation, and a technocratic elite promotes artificial insemination to better the human race. The rise of a politician who espouses this platform is thrown into turmoil by the event of the film’s title. Thus, here Renoir returns to the theme of A Day in the Country,that of the seductive and anarchic power of nature to reshape lives. Further, Picnic on the Grass was shot in the south of France in the places where Renoir’s father lived late in life and where Catherine was filmed. Indeed, the film’s mix of charming playfulness and sci-fi dystopia hearkens back to Charleston Parade.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence
Saturday June 10 at 7pm

Whirlpool of Fate
(La Fille de l’eau)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Catherine Hessling, Pierre Lestringuez, Andre Derain
France 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 71 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

By the time Renoir undertook sole directorship for the first time, he had fallen under the spell of von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), and so Whirlpool of Fate, shot in the summer of 1924, exhibits much of that filmmaker’s fascination with the seedy and the corrupt. Like the previous Catherine,this film stars Renoir’s wife Catherine Hessling as the title character, a young woman who innocently runs afoul of her provincial community—in this case, after she is orphaned by her father’s drowning. The film blends impressionism and naturalism; the naturalism is the effect of both von Stroheim’s influence and the 19th-century realist French literature that Renoir adored. The impressionist nature of the film stems from its setting—a barge on a river—and from the influence on Renoir of such compatriots as Gance and Delluc. Print courtesy the British Film Institute.

Preceded by

The Little Match Girl (La Petite Marchande d’allumettes)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Catherine Hessling, Jean Storm, Manuel Raaby
France 1928, 35mm, b/w, silent, 29 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

The centerpiece of Whirlpool of Fate is an inventive dream sequence that exhibits the kind of visual effects that drew Renoir to directing in the first place. This adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale is the high point of that early cinematic inclination of Renoir’s, before he shifted his experimentation to crafting a cinematic realism. Not aimed at children, The Little Match Girl does not shy away from what is grim and cruel in Andersen’s story. But the blend of naturalism, impressionism and the fantastic translates Andersen’s poignancy to the screen in an unforgettable fashion. Print courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Saturday June 10 at 9:30pm

Night at the Crossroads
(La Nuit du Carrefour)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Pierre Renoir, Winna Winfried, Georges Térof
France 1932, 35mm, b/w, 75 min. French with English subtitles

The first adaptation to the screen of one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels features Maigret—played by Renoir’s brother Pierre—trying to solve a car theft, yet being drawn into more intrigue when he finds the car with a dead man behind the wheel. Simenon and Renoir were prior friends and collaborated closely on the screenplay. The dark, enigmatic film that resulted is so ambiguous at points that it has led to theories that parts of the script were never shot or even that footage has been lost. In fact, the overwhelming impression is the return of the kind of uncanny and erotic naturalism that permeated La Chienne. Godard himself described it as “Renoir’s most mysterious film...the only great French detective movie—in fact, the greatest of all adventure movies.” Print courtesy the British Film Institute.

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Sunday June 11 at 4:30pm

Chotard et Cie

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Fernand Charpin, Jane Lory, Georges Pomiés
France 1933, digital video, b/w, 83 min. In French with no English subtitles

Chotard et Cie may be the slightest in the trilogy of obscure-but-worthy early Renoir comedies that includes Tire au flanc and On purge bébé, but it belongs in their company as proof that Renoir could direct not just naturalist drama and social satire but also flat-out farce. When a wealthy greengrocer gets an author for a son-in-law, he is perturbed—until the young man wins the Prix Goncourt. Plans to monetize the young man’s talent come to naught, leading the film to the moral that each must fulfill his or her own destiny. Proof that Renoir never missed a chance to try new things, the film opens with a bravura feat: a complicated tracking shot, over two minutes long, moving from close-up to deep focus and from the street into Chotard’s shop.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence
Sunday June 11 at 7pm

Nana

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Catherine Hessling, Pierre Lestringuez, Werner Krauss
France 1926, 35mm, b/w, silent, 150 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Inspired to translate naturalist literature and theater into a cinematic realism fascinated by corruption and decadence after von Stroheim, Renoir felt the need to exercise his ambition and engineered the first Franco-German coproduction at a time when the German film industry was arguably the most sophisticated in the world, attracting the likes of Eisenstein, Hitchcock and Sternberg from abroad. The occasion was Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel about a talentless actress who relies on her sex appeal to climb the Parisian social ladder. With a sphinxlike face and louche deportment, Catherine Hessling perfectly incarnates Zola’s archetypal femme fatale. Shot on soundstages in both Berlin and Paris, there is a touch of German expressionism about the film as well, between the stylized sets—which are minimalist rather than distorted—and the mannered performances of both Hessling and Werner Krauss.

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Friday June 16 at 9pm

Swamp Water

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter, Walter Huston
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 86 min

Set in the backwaters of the Deep South, Renoir’s first American film tells the story of a young man who—while trying to find his dog that has run off into the swamp—is kidnapped by an escaped fugitive. In true Renoirian fashion, the young man becomes allies with his captor after listening to a story of injustice, and the two embark on a mission to set the wrongs right. After beginning his career with self-funded or independent productions and then rising to star status in his native France, Renoir arrived in Los Angeles ill-prepared for the strictures of the studio system. He did convince Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, who had been mightily impressed by Grand Illusion,to let him do a bit of location shooting in the Okefenokee Swamp. The bigger problem was Renoir’s working method while shooting, which seemed slow and aimless to Fox’s executives. In the end, the film was a success, and Renoir and Zanuck parted ways amicably. Print courtesy 20th Century Fox.

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Saturday June 17 at 9:30pm

The Diary of a Chambermaid

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Paulette Goddard, Burgess Meredith, Francis Lederer
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 86 min

Still not having any success with the studios, Renoir’s fourth Hollywood film was an independent production that hearkened back to his love of French naturalist literature.  Renoir had long wanted to adapt Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, which details the decadence of the upper classes as observed by their cynical servants. If the material seems close to The Rules of the Game,the filmmaker took an approach diametrically opposed to the realism of the earlier film. Shooting everything—even exteriors—on soundstage sets, the result is another example of the director’s use of theatricality to give his material an uncanny edge. The use of the soundstage also allows Renoir to indulge his love of the highly mobile camera.

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Sunday June 18 at 4:30pm

French Cancan

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Maria Félix, Françoise Arnoul
France/Italy 1955, 35mm, color, 97 min. French with English subtitles

Renoir was eager to reteam with Jean Gabin, for the first time since La Bête humaine seventeen years earlier, for this musical film rooted in the legendary Montmartre of la belle époque, a neighborhood well-known to the director’s father and the other Impressionists. Set in a fictionalized Moulin Rouge—and made just two years after John Huston’s film—the story focuses on the efforts of the club’s owner to reintroduce the Cancan into Parisian nightlife. This was Renoir’s first film made in France since the 1939 debacle of The Rules of the Game, which hadn’t yet been rediscovered as a masterpiece. As the filmmaker put it, “French Cancan answered my great desire to make a film in a very French spirit and that would be…a nice bridge between me and French audiences. I felt that the public was very close to me, but I wanted to make sure.” The film’s success proved that he had been right. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Friday June 23 at 7pm
Sunday July 23 at 4:30pm

La Chienne

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Michel Simon, Janie Marése, Georges Flamant
France 1931, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. French with English subtitles

Possibly Renoir’s coldest, harshest film centers on a merchant who, while walking home one night, encounters a woman being beaten by her boyfriend. He intervenes, sets her up in a small apartment and proceeds to fall in love with her. But as their three lives become more and more intertwined, a noirish decay sets in, given an almost uncanny edge by the detached distance Renoir maintains from his protagonists. (As Bazin put it, “Difficult to define, the style seems to be the simultaneous expression of the greatest fantasy and the greatest realism.”) With his framing and remarkable depth of field, the naturalist inside Renoir has found a means to suggest that human will is inevitably prey to the whims and caprices of fate.

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Saturday June 24 at 9:30pm

Madame Bovary

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Valentine Tessier, Pierre Renoir, Alice Tissot
France 1934, 35mm, b/w, 101 min. French with English subtitles

After Nana, it was only fitting that Renoir would adapt the novel that helped turn French realist fiction towards Zola’s edgier naturalism. Renoir faithfully adapted Flaubert’s tale of the provincial bourgeois housewife whose boredom leads her into infidelity and downfall. Searching for a counterpart to Flaubert’s prose that dramatized his heroine’s illusions for his readers, Renoir put his actors in settings as lifelike as possible and then gave them an extremely stylized text, often close to the original novel, with free reign to act broadly. The result is a perfect balancing act between Renoir’s loves of both realism and theatricality, one that does justice both to Flaubert’s text and Emma Bovary’s Romantic illusions. Print courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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Sunday June 25 at 4:30pm

This Land is Mine

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 103 min

Renoir reports that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was offered various films set in Europe, but that he refused them, feeling that films made in America ought to be set in America, and so he agreed to direct Swamp Water. He changed his mind for his second Hollywood film, deciding to confront head-on the situation of occupied France. This Land is Mine remains the one of Renoir’s American films with the shakiest critical support today, but its tale of the transformation of a weak and cowardly man—who shifts from Nazi collaborator to member of the resistance—has retained its resonance. In the hopes of both attracting an American audience and showing the Hollywood studios how adaptable he could be, Renoir abandons the long take and the mobile camera for mainstream continuity editing, obediently shooting establishing shots, medium shots and close-ups. Regardless, he succeeds in portraying the ambiguous, muddy nature of life in an occupied country. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Friday June 30 at 9pm

The Woman on the Beach

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 71 min

Joan Bennett had starred in Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood remake of La Chienne. That connection led to Renoir’s directing this noirish tale of a love triangle between an older man, a traumatized ex-soldier and a femme fatale. Renoir had wanted to make a film about a purely physical erotic connection, but studio interference invariably diluted this idea, and a disastrous preview screening led to extensive reshoots. Nevertheless, Jacques Rivette regarded the film as a masterpiece: “if there is such a thing as pure cinema, it is to be found in The Woman on the Beach.” Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence
Saturday July 1 at 7pm

Catherine, or A Life Without Joy (Catherine ou Une vie sans joie)

Directed by Albert Dieudonné and Jean Renoir. With Catherine Hessling, Albert Dieudonné, Eugénie Nau
France 1924, digital video, b/w, silent, 84 min. English intertitles

The first film on which Renoir worked is a melodrama in which the title character is a servant in a provincial town who provokes a scandal by falling in love with her employer’s son. Renoir conceived the film as a vehicle for his wife, whose screen name was Catherine Hessling. He acted as scenarist and producer, hiring the more experienced Albert Dieudonné to direct. However, he found it difficult simply to observe Dieudonné, becoming more and more involved in the actual filmmaking. Ultimately, the collaboration pleased neither party: Dieudonné resented Renoir’s claims to at least partial directorship, while Renoir was dissatisfied with Dieudonné’s editing of the final version. In any case, Catherine contains some fine location shooting, which contributes greatly to an exciting chase sequence at the climax.

Preceded by

Charleston Parade
(Sur un air de Charleston)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins, Jean Renoir
France 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 25 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

The year is 2028, and an African explorer heads north to barbaric Europe, where he discovers a savage white woman living in the ruins of Paris. Renoir indulges his early love of special effects (reverse imagery, slow and fast motion) and the fantastic in this startling medium-length film that attempts to satirize the French modern-colonialist vogue for all things African by reversing the racial and sexual polarities of the binary logic that defines civilization by distinguishing it from the “primitive.” Print courtesy the British Film Institute.

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Sunday July 2 at 7pm
Saturday August 19 at 9:30pm

The River

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Patricia Walters, Radha Sri Ram, Adrienne Corri
US/France/UK/India 1951, 35mm, color, 99 min. English and Bengali with English subtitles

"I can’t imagine cinema without water. The movement of cinema has something ineluctable about it, like the current of a stream." Renoir’s use of water imagery in his French films continued during his wartime exile in Hollywood (Swamp Water, The Southerner) and culminated in this tableau of life by the Ganges River. He worked closely with author Rumer Godden to adapt her autobiographical novel about a group of British sisters growing up in colonial India, incorporating semi-documentary and poetic interludes. The River was the first film in color for both Jean Renoir and his nephew Claude, the cinematographer. At this point in his career, Renoir had left the protest and satire of a social critic far behind and turned to a kind of reverence for the world. "This film, so rich in metaphor, is ultimately only about metaphor itself, or absolute knowledge." – Jacques Rivette.

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Friday July 7 at 9pm

The Southerner

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Zachary Scott, Betty Field, Beulah Bondi
US 1945, 35mm, b/w, 92 min

Almost universally hailed as the zenith of Jean Renoir’s years in Hollywood, The Southerner is an impressionistic ode to the landscape of the American South, taking as its subject a poor family attempting, over the course of a year, to turn a scraggly crop of land into a bountiful farm. Driven less by conflict than by the changing seasons, the film’s narrative is nonetheless filled with strife, from the problems caused by the family’s territorial neighbors to those inevitably produced by the vagaries of the Texas climate. Successfully bringing poetic realism to the United States while also demonstrating his ability to use location shooting to powerful effect, Renoir frames everything from a loose, casual distance, creating democratic juxtapositions of man and nature so as to stress the dependence of the former on the latter. But even when misery endures, it is resilience that prevails—a reality etched beautifully across the faces of Zachary Scott, Betty Field and Beulah Bondi, the last of whom memorably stands her ground as dark clouds tower over her in the frame, an image of humanity refusing to be conquered by circumstance. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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Saturday July 8 at 7pm
Friday September 1 at 7pm

Grand Illusion
(La Grande Illusion)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim
France 1937, 35mm, b/w, 114 min. French, German, English and Russian with English subtitles

In 1937, with Europe balanced dangerously on the edge of calamity, Jean Renoir looked back to World War I as the setting for one of his greatest works, the story of a group of French POWs determined to escape from a German prison camp. The group’s tireless effort inspires a solidarity that overrules even the deepest-seated class differences and, most remarkably, the fact that one of the French soldiers is Jewish. The poignant yet troubled bond of class that joins an imprisoned aristocrat—played with supercilious elegance by a dashing Pierre Fresnay—and his titled German jailer, serves both as Renoir’s elegy for European transnationalism and as his tribute to Erich von Stroheim, who reaches deep into his Teutonic imagination to invent perhaps his greatest role as an actor. Balancing poetic realism with a sober farewell to the ancien régime, Renoir brings a luminous pathos to the film’s politics and its fearful acknowledgement of the dark storms brewing once again in Europe. Print courtesy Rialto Pictures.

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Sunday July 9 at 4:30pm

The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir (Le Petit Théâtre de Jean Renoir)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jeanne Moreau, Fernand Sardou, Marguerite Cassan
France/Italy/West Germany 1970, 35mm, color, 100 min. French with English subtitles

After Renoir spent most of the 1960s trying, fruitlessly, to get a number of projects off the ground, he said goodbye to filmmaking with this compilation of four episodes that are unrelated but that, taken together, form a catalog of the director’s inspirations, past and present. The opening is a vignette with a fairytale atmosphere that hearkens back to The Little Match Girl, while the second is an operatic satire of the technological age. The third episode, a mere three minutes long, stands as a condensed valentine to the cinema. “When Love Dies,” a song sung by Marlene Dietrich in Sternberg’s Morocco, is here performed by Jeanne Moreau, whose casting was inspired by Welles’ The Immortal Story. And indeed, that film may have also inspired the fourth, final and most substantial episode—the tale of an older man, a young wife and a young man—that allows Renoir one last go at some of his favorite themes: the follies of the heart in both love and friendship, and the ways that life can swerve from comedy to tragedy and back again.

Special note: We will be screening an extremely rare print which is faded and showing a moderate degree of wear and tear. These defects should not significantly disrupt your viewing pleasure.

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Friday July 14 at 7pm
Sunday July 16 at 4:30pm

La Marseillaise

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Pierre Renoir, Lise Delamare, William Aguet
France 1938, 35mm, b/w, 131 min. French with English subtitles

After the politics of La vie est à nous and the successes of The Lower Depths and Grand Illusion, expectations were high when Renoir announced that he was making an epic about the French Revolution. The ambitious plans for the film had to be downscaled due to budgetary constraints as production got underway. What was meant as a saga lasting several hours shrank significantly to cover the events of July 1792, when the title song came into being and when the events that would ultimately end the monarchy took place. In a perfect illustration of Renoir’s precept that “everyone has their reasons,” there are no villains. In fact, the depiction of Louis XVI as benevolent and charming astonished some of Renoir’s Popular Front friends. This Louis is no despot but another of those aristocrats—examples of whom also appear in Renoir’s successes mentioned earlier in this note—who greet the news that the end of their class has come with grace.

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Saturday July 15 at 9pm

The Elusive Corporal
(Le Caporal épinglé)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Brasseur, Claude Rich
France 1962, 35mm, b/w, 105 min. French & German with English subtitles

Renoir’s last feature film, The Elusive Corporal bears a superficial resemblance to Grand Illusion: it is about French soldiers attempting to escape from a German prison camp, but this time the setting is World War II. If Grand Illusion is about the death of the aristocracy, The Elusive Corporal is about a world without chivalry. Although Renoir decided that this was his saddest film, the episodic narrative mixes humor and drama, culminating in an ending not only leavened with moments of sacrifice and grace, but also some of the filmmaker’s joy in the Dionysian chaos at the heart of human existence. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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The originally scheduled film The Tournament has been cancelled.
Sunday July 16 at 4:30pm

La Marseillaise

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Pierre Renoir, Lise Delamare, William Aguet
France 1938, 35mm, b/w, 131 min. French with English subtitles

After the politics of La vie est à nous and the successes of The Lower Depths and Grand Illusion, expectations were high when Renoir announced that he was making an epic about the French Revolution. The ambitious plans for the film had to be downscaled due to budgetary constraints as production got underway. What was meant as a saga lasting several hours shrank significantly to cover the events of July 1792, when the title song came into being and when the events that would ultimately end the monarchy took place. In a perfect illustration of Renoir’s precept that “everyone has their reasons,” there are no villains. In fact, the depiction of Louis XVI as benevolent and charming astonished some of Renoir’s Popular Front friends. This Louis is no despot but another of those aristocrats—examples of whom also appear in Renoir’s successes mentioned earlier in this note—who greet the news that the end of their class has come with grace.

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Friday July 21 at 9pm

The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (Le Testament du docteur Cordelier)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean-Louis Barrault, Michel Vitold, Teddy Bilis
France 1961, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. French with English subtitles

This loose adaptation and updating of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was Renoir’s first made-for-TV film. Jean-Louis Barrault (Children of Paradise) delivers a chilly and enigmatic performance as Dr. Cordelier/Opale in a film that was shot quickly, often using only single takes captured on multiple cameras. Renoir himself termed it “an experimental film arising out of my work in theatre.” A few years previously, Renoir had directed his first play and became enamored with the process. He resolved to free the actor from the tyranny of “the exasperating director’s cry of ‘cut!’” by filming with several cameras at a time and leaving it up to the performer as to when to stop the scene. The result was hailed by the Cahiers crew (Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol), but few others. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence
Saturday July 22 at 7pm

The Sad Sack (Tire au flanc)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With George Pomiés, Michel Simon, Jeanne Helbling
France 1928, digital video, b/w, silent, 82 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Renoir’s one true silent comedy was made at a transitional moment when he was frustrated by the limited fortunes of his independent productions and looking to broaden his horizons. Thus he adapted a popular stage farce about life in the military for a couple of misfits. Little-seen to this day, it remains one of Renoir’s most underrated films. François Truffaut considered it “one of the funniest films ever made in France and one of the greatest silent comedies,” as well as an important inspiration for Zéro de Conduite, with Jean Vigo substituting a boarding school for Renoir’s barracks comedy. Tire au flanc also marks one step towards a key component of Renoir’s mature style by featuring an ensemble cast rather than a solo protagonist.

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Sunday July 23 at 4:30pm

La Chienne

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Michel Simon, Janie Marése, Georges Flamant
France 1931, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. French with English subtitles

Possibly Renoir’s coldest, harshest film centers on a merchant who, while walking home one night, encounters a woman being beaten by her boyfriend. He intervenes, sets her up in a small apartment and proceeds to fall in love with her. But as their three lives become more and more intertwined, a noirish decay sets in, given an almost uncanny edge by the detached distance Renoir maintains from his protagonists. (As Bazin put it, “Difficult to define, the style seems to be the simultaneous expression of the greatest fantasy and the greatest realism.”) With his framing and remarkable depth of field, the naturalist inside Renoir has found a means to suggest that human will is inevitably prey to the whims and caprices of fate.

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Friday July 28 at 7pm

Boudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Michel Simon, Charles Granval, Marcelle Hainia
France 1932, 35mm, b/w, 85 min. French with English subtitles

Renoir’s fourth, last and most fruitful collaboration with the great Swiss actor Michel Simon (in the only film he ever produced) provided both with a considerable canvas on which to exercise their greatest strengths: Renoir executes his most pointed satire of the middle classes, and Simon delivers a charming, slapstick comic performance as Boudu, a hapless tramp who, depressed after losing his dog, decides to take his own life by jumping into the Seine. Liberal-minded bourgeois bookseller Lestingois (wonderfully played by Charles Granval) jumps into the river to save the drowning Boudu and proceeds to adopt and attempt to domesticate the old hobo. The comic scenes that follow provide ample opportunities for Simon to shine in a role that Renoir thought “might have been made for that brilliant actor.” Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Saturday July 29 at 7pm

The Lower Depths
(Les Bas-Fonds)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet, Suzy Prim
France 1936, 35mm, b/w, 89 min. French with English subtitles

In the heady days of the Popular Front, Renoir agreed to direct an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play about squalor among a group of slum dwellers in Czarist Russia. This ensemble piece, which constantly changes tones in what Bazin calls an “improbable game of hide-and-seek between vaudeville and tragedy, realism and parody,” marked the first collaboration between Renoir and Jean Gabin, the great star who plays the film’s romantic lead. But it is remarkable actor Louis Jouvet who steals the show as a suddenly impoverished aristocrat. The lyricism that the film finds in poverty seems directly inspired by Chaplin and was a major contribution to the poetic realism of French cinema between the wars. From the collection of the Cinémathèque québécoise.

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Sunday July 30 at 7pm

Elena and Her Men
(Elena et les hommes)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer
France/Italy 1956, 35mm, color, 98 min. In English

Forming the final work in Renoir’s loose late-period trilogy (with French Cancan and The Golden Coach) of technicolor and artifice, Elena and Her Men stars Ingrid Bergman, finally working with Renoir after a decade of trying, playing the title character, a Polish princess from a family of dwindling fortune, caught between three suitors: the older, wealthy man she has promised to marry (Pierre Bertin), the Count de Chevincourt (Mel Ferrer) and General Rollan (Jean Marais). The love quadrangle is further complicated by the General’s political advisors trying to get him to seize power in a coup d’etat.  Despite the messy, complicated nature of the intersecting lives and loves, Renoir brings it all together for a very satisfying ending that led Godard to comment “that Renoir is the most intelligent of filmmakers...and Elena is the most intelligent film in the world.” Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Saturday August 5 at 7pm

Toni

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Charles Blavette, Celia Montalvan, Jenny Hélia
France 1935, 35mm, b/w, 82 min. French, Italian & Spanish with English subtitles

After a string of literary adaptations, Renoir executed a radical change of pace by turning to a true crime story set in the southern French countryside, which he shot on location using mostly nonprofessional actors. Toni follows the life of the titular Italian migrant worker whose love for a fellow migrant leads him to try and convince her to escape and start life anew somewhere else. The film was startling enough to raise Renoir’s profile with the French critics, with a truth that speaks to our own times: Toni pulls no punches in its depiction of the difficulties and contradictions inherent within immigrant life. Andre Bazin felt that Toni was “laying the foundation for what was to become neorealism ten years later.” The proof: a young Luchino Visconti, working on his very first film set, was Renoir’s assistant on the picture just eight years before he made Ossessione, considered the first Italian neorealist film.

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Sunday August 6 at 7pm

Life is Ours (La vie est à nous)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Dasté, Pierre Unik, Jacques Brunius
France 1936, DCP, b/w, 66 min. French with English subtitles

La vie est à nous is unique in Renoir’s oeuvre in that it is not a narrative film but a mixture of film essay, fiction and documentary meant to bring to the screen the political concerns and hopes of the working class as the French Communist Party conceived of them during the heyday of the Popular Front. The Party commissioned Renoir to make the film, and he enthusiastically accepted. The film is ingeniously constructed in episodes that alternate between documentary and narrative while also including humorous interludes and sections of direct address. The whole is meant to lay out a series of social contradictions and then to suggest solutions to them—a sort of vast montage. Print courtesy Tamasa Films.

Salute to France

Directed by Jean Renoir and Garson Kanin. With Claude Dauphin, Garson Kanin,
Burgess Meredith
US 1944, 35mm, b/w, 34 min

During World War II (and with his son fighting as an American soldier in the Pacific), Renoir petitioned the US government, without success, to be considered as a director of the kind of propaganda films that Capra, Ford and many others were directing. He finally got his chance at the suggestion of Burgess Meredith, who was helping to produce a short to acquaint US troops with the culture of France, a country they would soon be called upon to liberate. Renoir shot the fictional parts of the film, about three soldiers, one American, one British and one French, but did not take part in the editing, which injects plenty of historical footage. Print courtesy the National Archives.

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Monday August 7 at 7pm

The Golden Coach

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Anna Magnani, Duncan Lamont, Riccardo Rioli
France/Italy 1952, 35mm, color, 103 min. In English

Renoir took Prosper Mérimée’s play about a commedia dell’arte troupe in 18th-century Peru and used it as an entry point for his greatest investigation of theater and performance. Shot at Cinecitta in Technicolor by Claude Renoir, starring the great Anna Magnani and featuring a beautiful score culled from the works of Vivaldi, The Golden Coach opens on a shot of a curtain rising to reveal a stage. As the camera moves slowly in, we are spectators in a theater hovering in front of the proscenium, but then a door opens on the stage and the camera follows a character through it and we enter the play, or, more accurately, the movie. Renoir considered Vivaldi one of his principal collaborators on the film, one whose music contributes to the film’s spirit of light-hearted irony, as the director put it. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday August 11 at 9:15pm

The Human Beast
(La Bête humaine)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux
France 1938, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. French with English subtitles

1938 was a year of foreboding for France. The Popular Front coalition was falling apart as the Spanish Civil War gave galling proof of Hitler’s desire to expand the reach of Nazism. Two major French films released that year testify to the clouds of impending doom: Quai des Brumes,the debut of the writer/director team Prévert and Carné, and Renoir’s La Bête humaine. For this film, the director turned again to Zola, updating to the present and (in the opinion of many) greatly improving upon the 1890 novel. Set in a locomotive yard, the film tells of an engineer seduced by a femme fatale so he will help cover up a murder committed by her husband. The result is part film noir, part poetic realism, part literary adaptation and, upon release, was an enormous success in France. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Saturday August 12 at 9pm

Baby’s Laxative (On purge bébé)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Marguerite Pierry, Jacques Louvigny, Michel Simon
France 1931, digital video, b/w, 47 min. French with English subtitles

Renoir took a two-year break from filmmaking as talking pictures came to France while the 1920s became the 1930s. His first sound film is this little-seen comedy, about a domestic tempest in a bedpan: as the household of a chamber pot salesman expects a visit from an important vendor, the infant of the family becomes constipated and refuses to take his laxative. Critics who considered this material unworthy of the great Renoir did not count on the director’s taste for toilet humor. In any case, the film exhibits a bit of the difficulty Renoir had in navigating the shift to sound. Gone is the location shooting, and the camerawork is (temporarily) less mobile and fluid; occasionally the actors deliver their lines directly into the camera. On the other hand, temporary confinement to shooting on a sound stage seems to have nudged Renoir toward his embrace of deep focus.

A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Sylvia Bataille, Jane Marken, Jacques Brunius
France 1936/1946, 35mm, b/w, 40 min. French with English subtitles

A film long considered unfinished turns out to be one of Renoir’s most profound and moving. In the midst of his commitment to the Popular Front, Renoir changed direction to undertake an adaptation of de Maupassant’s story “The Day in the Country,” about a picnic outing by some Parisian shopkeepers that results in idle flirtation for some and the fleeting discovery of true passion for others.  An epilogue reveals, both serenely and tragically, the passing of time. When filming was interrupted by the weather, Renoir abandoned the project to begin work on The Lower Depths, not returning to it until several years later. The missing section of the screenplay goes unmissed, because what remains is some of Renoir’s most engaging and powerful filmmaking. Print courtesy Institut Français.

A Day in the Country: Screen Tests (Partie de campagne: essais d’acteurs)

France 1936/1994, 35mm, b/w, 14 min

This film is a compilation of outtakes from screen tests for A Day in the Country. Print courtesy Les films du Jeudi.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand Laurence
Sunday August 13 at 4pm

Le bled

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Alexandre Arquilliére, Enrique Rivero, Jackie Monnier
France 1929, DCP, b/w, silent, 102 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Renoir’s last silent film was his second for the Société des Films Historiques (after The Tournament), meant this time to commemorate the centennial of the colonization of Algeria. The scenario is complacently colonialist: an innocent young Frenchman arrives in Algeria and must prove himself to his prosperous pied-noir uncle and to the woman he falls in love with. “Since the simplicity of the scenario gave him a good deal of latitude, Renoir took the opportunity to make an adventure film in the style of the American pictures he had enjoyed so much in his youth. Le bled, following the healthy tradition of Douglas Fairbanks…starts out as comedy, comes to a climax of high adventure, and turns toward the sentimental at the end.”—Jacques Rivette. DCP courtesy Gaumont Pathe Film Archives.

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Saturday August 19 at 9:30pm

The River

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Patricia Walters, Radha Sri Ram, Adrienne Corri
US/France/UK/India 1951, 35mm, color, 99 min. English and Bengali with English subtitles

"I can’t imagine cinema without water. The movement of cinema has something ineluctable about it, like the current of a stream." Renoir’s use of water imagery in his French films continued during his wartime exile in Hollywood (Swamp Water, The Southerner) and culminated in this tableau of life by the Ganges River. He worked closely with author Rumer Godden to adapt her autobiographical novel about a group of British sisters growing up in colonial India, incorporating semi-documentary and poetic interludes. The River was the first film in color for both Jean Renoir and his nephew Claude, the cinematographer. At this point in his career, Renoir had left the protest and satire of a social critic far behind and turned to a kind of reverence for the world. "This film, so rich in metaphor, is ultimately only about metaphor itself, or absolute knowledge." – Jacques Rivette. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Friday August 25 at 7pm

The Crime of M. Lange
(Le Crime de Monsieur Lange)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With René Lefévre, Jules Berry, Florelle
France 1936, 35mm, b/w, 84 min. French with English subtitles

If 1935’s Toni restored Renoir’s critical reputation, which had previously crested with 1931’s La Chienne, The Crime of M. Lange brought the director forever to the front ranks of French filmmakers. Its tale of the employees of a small publisher banding together against the corruption of their boss captures the climate of 1936 France, as the Popular Front, a leftist coalition of political parties, labor unions and cultural organizations, was preparing to (briefly) take power. This film began Renoir’s socially and politically engaged work of the late 1930s, but this reductive take on the film does little to communicate the charm and liveliness that embraces not only the villainous boss and the title character, one of the press’s authors, but the community that surrounds them. Unusually, Renoir seems to have changed very little the screenplay by the great Jacques Prévert, the only time the two worked together, just before Prévert’s renowned collaborations with Marcel Carné. Print courtesy Institut Français.

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Friday August 25 at 9pm

Jean Renoir, the Boss, Part 1: The Search for Relativity (Jean Renoir le patron: La recherche du relatif)

Directed by Jacques Rivette
France 1967, digital video, b/w & color, 94 min. French with English subtitles

Cineastes of Our Time was a series of documentary portraits of filmmakers that aired on French television for most of the 1960s, and periodically thereafter. (The HFA screened the Busby Berkeley episode as part of his retrospective earlier this year.) The assignment to document Renoir was given to no less than Jacques Rivette, then still best known as a film critic. As usual, director Rivette worked on a large canvas, and his portrait was divided into three films. The first part, “The Search for Relativity,” traces Renoir’s career from the beginning to La Bête humaine, with some flash-forwards to Picnic on the Grass.

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Sunday August 27 at 4:30pm

The Rules of the Game
(La Règle du jeu)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Marcel Dalio, Nora Gregor, Roland Toutain, Jean Renoir
France 1939, 35mm, b/w, 110 min. French, German & English with English subtitles

Jean Renoir’s last film made in Europe for a dozen years seems to predict the coming war that would displace him. The filmmaker’s belief that "honest sincerity is catastrophic in a world where everyone has his reasons" is examined at length in this satirical, multilayered anatomy of French aristocracy, set at a weekend retreat in a countryside chateau. The intricately plotted ensemble piece shows the influence of the stage comedies of Beaumarchais and Marivaux even as it remains resolutely modern in its comprehensive and gimlet-eyed glance at a world ruled by status, hypocrisy and other “rules.” Its balanced mixture of farce and brittle irony has led many to consider The Rules of the Game Renoir’s masterpiece. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday August 27 at 7pm

Jean Renoir, the Boss, Part 3: The Rule and the Exception (Jean Renoir le patron: La règle et l’exception)

Directed by Jacques Rivette
France 1967, digital video, b/w & color, 75 min. French with English subtitles

The final part of Rivette’s epic TV documentary on Renoir analyzes his working methods and his visual style in depth, focusing on The Rules of the Game. In addition to conversations between the filmmakers and their subject, “The Rule and the Exception” utilizes clips and a reunion between Renoir and actor Marcel Dalio, who plays the central figure in Renoir’s celebrated film.

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Monday August 28 at 7pm

Jean Renoir, the Boss, Part 2: Directing the Actor (Jean Renoir le patron: La direction d’acteur)

Directed by Jacques Rivette
France 1967, digital video, b/w & color, 97 min. French with English subtitles

The middle episode of Jacques Rivette’s documentary portrait of Jean Renoir features a look back at the director’s pre-war career by way of his collaborations with actor Michel Simon. Clips from their films together are interspersed with footage of a long dinner conversation between the two. This episode did not air on French television with the other two in 1967, apparently because some ribald language used by either Simon or Renoir was feared to be possibly libelous.

The Direction of the Actor by Jean Renoir (La Direction d’acteur par Jean Renoir)

Directed by Gisèle Braunberger
France 1968, DCP, color, 22 min. In French with no English subtitles

The final part of Rivette’s epic TV documentary on Renoir analyzes his working methods and his visual style in depth, focusing on The Rules of the Game. In addition to conversations between the filmmakers and their subject, “The Rule and the Exception” utilizes clips and a reunion between Renoir and actor Marcel Dalio, who plays the central figure in Renoir’s celebrated film. DCP courtesy Les films du jeudi.

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Introduction by Nicholas Macdonald
Friday September 1 at 7pm

Grand Illusion
(La Grande Illusion)

Directed by Jean Renoir. With Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim
France 1937, 35mm, b/w, 114 min. French, German, English and Russian with English subtitles

In 1937, with Europe balanced dangerously on the edge of calamity, Jean Renoir looked back to World War I as the setting for one of his greatest works, the story of a group of French POWs determined to escape from a German prison camp. The group’s tireless effort inspires a solidarity that overrules even the deepest-seated class differences and, most remarkably, the fact that one of the French soldiers is Jewish. The poignant yet troubled bond of class that joins an imprisoned aristocrat—played with supercilious elegance by a dashing Pierre Fresnay—and his titled German jailer, serves both as Renoir’s elegy for European transnationalism and as his tribute to Erich von Stroheim, who reaches deep into his Teutonic imagination to invent perhaps his greatest role as an actor. Balancing poetic realism with a sober farewell to the ancien régime, Renoir brings a luminous pathos to the film’s politics and its fearful acknowledgement of the dark storms brewing once again in Europe. Print courtesy Rialto Pictures.

Nicholas Macdonald is a filmmaker and author of In Search of La Grande Illusion. Copies of the book will be on sale at the theater for $25 (cash only).

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