“…that’s the well that doesn’t dry up, is the Renoir cinema.”~ Martin Scorsese
Jean Renoir is my favorite filmmaker. I say that knowing my preferences could change, and I also have deep currents of love for the work of several other filmmakers, but each time I watch a Renoir film I am reminded why I like his work so much. There are so many obvious qualities to his films, but with Renoir there are also qualities that seem impossible to define and yet you know they are there; something in your heart or gut tells you so. I think this is because his filmmaking is rooted first and foremost in his interest for humanity over and above filmmaking. Filmmaking is Renoir’s tool, but humanity is his subject.
Renoir on the set of The River
In 1951 Renoir shot his first color film, The River. The story is set in India and is based on an autobiographical novel (and screenplay) by Rumer Godden. The story is a coming of age tale about three young women as told by one. It is also a tale of life in India as told by the child of a British colonialist family. And it is a moral tale of priorities, of a tragedy when infatuation trumps love.
I don’t write film reviews, and I am not a critic in any formal sense. I do, however, want to draw some attention to a scene that is so perfectly Renoir in its timing, tone, and love for his characters.
One can argue that the scene is the climactic scene of the the film, although it is not the only climax. The scene consists of a series of vignettes of the family and its servants asleep in the heat of midday. In each shot the camera either dollies in or out (so the screengrabs don’t do them justice), giving each shot a kind of dreamy movement concomitant with the subject, which includes both the individuals sleeping and a picture of a particular kind of life.
Doesn’t that image, the way she is posed, the book dropped to the floor but still in her hand, the warm colors, evoke the kinds of images Renoir’s father used to paint?
Each of these vignettes has the camera moving in and through the image, composing as it goes, drawing our attention more deeply into the world of the characters. The stringing together of these shots also sets up a kind of emotional pacing that then “pays off” when a horrible tragedy is discovered, a tragedy that was set up earlier in the film and then reinforced just before this series of shots. [I would say more, but I don’t want to spoil the film, even though great films truly cannot be spoiled.]
There is something marvelous in the way Renoir sets up the tragedy. One could say that death comes because others are not paying attention, that they are thinking of themselves. And that is true. But Renoir never finds too much fault in his characters. Renoir’s humanism is one of subtlety and mercy. He finds both righteousness and sinfulness in all his characters. I wrote some about this in my post on Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning.
Renoir was a master filmmaker. His two touted masterpieces, The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1937), show him at a summit of sorts. And yet, take a look at his other films, The Golden Coach (1953) for example, or French Cancan (1954), or films such as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), and one finds additional riches from a great cinematic story teller. There is so much in the Renoir vault. Renoir is truly a well that doesn’t dry up.