Now back in print, the definitive biography of a seminal figure in film history, whom Orson Welles called “the greatest of all directors.”
Jean Renoir’s career almost spans the history years of cinemafrom the early silent movies, to the naturalism of the talkies, committed cinema, film noir, Hollywood studio productions, the Technicolor-period comedies and fast television techniques. His film The Grand Illusion remains one of the greatest movies about the effects of war.
Decades after its release, Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is the only film to have been included on every top ten list in the Sight & Sound's respected decennial poll since 1952, cementing Renoir’s influence. André Bazin and François Truffaut praised Renoir as the patron saint of the French New Wave.
Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise gives detailed accounts of Renoir’s working methods and captivating appraisals of his films, and his long and fascinating life from his blissful childhood as the son of the great Impressionist painter August Renoir. This is a must-read for students of film and all fans of entertaining, timeless movies.
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About the Author
Ronald Bergan, film historian, critic, and lecturer, is a regular contributor to the Guardian. The author of numerous film biographies, including Sergei Eisenstein, and Katharine Hepburn, published by Arcade, he held the chair in film at Florida International University in Miami and lectured at the Sorbonne, the British Institute in Paris, and the University of Lille. He now lives in Prague, where he teaches at the famed FAMU film school.
Read an Excerpt
A Château in Montmartre
'As a result of my many talks with Gabrielle about the Château des Brouillards, where I lived until the age of three, I hardly know which are my recollections and which are hers.'
Shortly after midnight on 15 September 1894, a midwife held a baby up for the mother to see. 'Heavens, how ugly! Take it away!' she exclaimed; the father, with a certain amount of prescience, said: 'What a mouth; it's a regular oven! He'll be a glutton.' The cartoonist Abel Faivre, who was staying the night at the Château des Brouillards, thought the infant would provide him with a perfect model for his caricatures.
Doctor Bouffe de Saint Blaise said the mother had come through the ordeal splendidly, and he predicted that the child would have an iron constitution. He swallowed a glass of brandy from Essoyes, the home town of the mother, and left. Other witnesses to the birth were Eugène, the first cousin of the newly-born, a sergeant in the Colonial Army, and 15-year-old Gabrielle Renard, the mother's cousin, who had arrived from Essoyes a month earlier to help with the preparations for the birth. She had her own opinions of the baby. 'Well, I think he's beautiful,' she averred. Everyone laughed, including the father.
The mother sat up in bed and asked Madame Mathieu, the family's cook and laundress, to prepare some baked tomatoes according to a recipe she had been given by their friend Paul Cézanne. 'Just be a little less stingy with the olive oil,' she suggested. Faivre had never tasted the dish before and ate almost all of it, so that Madame Mathieu had to prepare another serving. The father was not hungry. He had been very worried about his wife, who had suffered a miscarriage between her first child and this hippo-mouthed yelling creature. He sat around the table, pale and gaunt. 'To think of putting Aline in that condition just for a few minutes', he said self-accusingly. 'Don't you worry, maître, you'll do it again,' the cartoonist said, accurately as it happens, while he put away more tomatoes à la Cézanne. Eugène, who was actually born in Russia and might have been a model for one of those idle young men in Chekhov, finished his food, rinsed his mouth out with some wine mixed with water, stretched his legs, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes.
A few days later, the father wrote to fellow-painter Berthe Morisot. 'I have a quite absurd piece of news for you ... namely, the arrival of a second son. He is called Jean. Mother and baby are both in splendid health.'
The Château des Brouillards, where the birth took place, was not a Gothic castle swathed in fog on the Normandy coast as its name might suggest, but was perched on the slope of the Butte in Montmartre, number six in a row of dwellings at 13 rue Girardon. Jean Renoir later described the houses thus: 'A hedge surrounded the property, which was composed of several buildings and a fine garden. Once you entered the wrought-iron gate you found yourself in a lane too narrow for a carriage to pass ... the inhabitants, enclosed within the high hedge and enjoying a certain privacy behind the fences of their own small gardens, dwelt in a world apart, concealing endless fantasy under a provincial exterior ... For most Parisians this little paradise of lilacs and roses seemed like the end of the world. Cab drivers refused to drive up the hill, stopping their cabs either at the place de la Fontaine du But [now called place Constantin Pecqueur], where you had to climb the slope to reach the house, or else at the rue des Abbesses, on the other side of the Butte where it crosses the rue Lepic ... The difficulty of getting to the place was largely compensated for by the low rents, the fresh air, the cows, the lilacs and the roses.'
The Château des Brouillards had two upper floors, plus an attic which had been transformed into an artist's studio. From the attic window on the west side one could see Mont Valérien, the hills of Meudon, Argenteuil and Saint-Cloud, and the plain of Gennevilliers. The plain of Saint-Denis was visible from the north window, as were the woods at Montmorency. On clear days you could even make out the basilica of Saint-Denis in the distance. 'You felt you were right up in the sky,' wrote Jean. The walls of the rooms had been painted white and the doors Trianon grey, as they had been wherever the artist had lived. Madame Renoir slept upstairs over the dining-room; her husband on the second floor next to the guest room; their elder son Pierre, when he came home from school on weekends, over the drawing room; and Gabrielle above the kitchen.
It is ironic that the artist, who suffered terribly from rheumatism, should have chosen a cold house called the Château des Brouillards. What he needed and desired was the warming sun of the Midi. At the beginning of 1895, during a freezing winter, the baby Jean was taken ill with pneumonia. For an entire week his mother and Gabrielle were on constant vigil, carrying the child about in their arms, because if he were laid flat on the bed he began to suffocate. In desperation, they finally telegraphed Auguste, who was painting down at La Couronne, near Marseilles. Dropping his brushes, he immediately hurried to the station, without even a suitcase, and caught the first train to Paris. 'Thanks to the love of those three devoted people, I was pulled through a crisis which might otherwise have been fatal. Yet once the danger was past, no one made further mention of it. If it had not been for Gabrielle, I should never have known anything about it.' Always in search of warmth, Auguste was off again to the Midi as soon as the baby had recovered.
Auguste had moved into 13 rue Girardon in October 1889 with Aline, whom he was yet to marry, and their five-year-old son Pierre, nearly five years before Jean was born. But the artist had been living on and off in Montmartre since 1873, when he frequented the Nouvelle–Athènes café in the rue Pigalle together with Edouard Manet; Marcellin Desboutin, the painter and writer of verse tragedies; Charles Cros, poet, musician, inventor and wit; the poets Villiers de l'Isle Adam and Jean Richepin; Paul Cézanne, and Auguste's lifelong comrade Georges Rivière, author of Renoir and His Friends, and future father-in-law to Cézanne's son. The district possessed everything Renoir père adored, and which his second son was to love, from dance halls to circuses, from music halls to the café concert, and its bustling streets were filled with the kind of people he liked and respected, the workers of Paris. There were also parades of pretty girls, midinettes, dancers, acrobats and equestrians.
In the 1870s Montmartre was still a village, an atmosphere it has managed to retain over the years. Auguste settled at 74 rue St Georges, where he rented a studio midway between the Grands Boulevards and the place Pigalle. Then as now it was packed with cafés and places of entertainment, nightclubs and exclusive restaurants frequented by nobs who drove up the hill for a night out and were ready to pay enormous prices for the privilege. 'I will provide low life for millionaires,' says Moulin Rouge impresario Jean Gabin in French Cancan, the motion picture Jean chose to celebrate his return to film-making in his native country after 15 years' absence in California; an exuberant, colourful homage to the theatre of La Belle Époque. One is constantly made aware in Jean's films of his need to get back to the adult world of his father, and his own romantic memories of childhood, filtered through the not always rose-coloured lens placed there by Gabrielle, his all-enveloping and loving nurse.
Montmartre was where Jean chose to live whenever he returned from America, an area that could not but help form a distinctive part of his character, a certain cynical Montmartroise humour and an attraction towards la vie de Bohéme. Although the true name of Montmartre is the Mont de Mercure, a very old tradition dating from the eighth century makes it the 'Mont des Martyrs' because, in the year 272, Saint Denis, first Bishop of Paris, and his two prelates were said to have been martyred there. When Saint Denis was beheaded, the legend has it, he picked up his head and walked on towards the hilltop, washing his bloodstained face in the fountain on the way. The hill of Montmartre is also linked with the uprisings of the first Paris Commune in 1871 which resulted from a feeling of betrayal when France capitulated before the Prussian armies.
Artists and writers began to settle in Montmartre in the early nineteenth century because life there was cheap and the hill picturesque. In the cemetery, which Jean visited as a child, are the tombs of Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Vigny, Stendhal, the Goncourt brothers, Greuze and Berlioz, as well as Madame Récamier and Alphonsine Plessis (the model for La Dame aux camélias). More importantly, the young Jean was exposed to a stream of living artists visiting his father's household. Among the regular visitors to the Château des Brouillards were Paul Cézanne, whose son was to become a great friend of Jean's, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and her daughter Julie Manet, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who was among the first to champion the Impressionists, and Ambroise Vollard. A creole from the isle of Réunion, Vollard was a thin-bearded bright-eyed man who had opened a small gallery in the rue Lafitte at the beginning of 1884, and was introduced to the Renoir circle by Pissarro, who was also born in the Antilles. He wrote two of the best-known books on the painter, La Vie et l'oeuvre de Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1919) and Renoir (1920). Vollard's name became so confused in Jean's mind that he believed that the American silver dollar had been named after him. For years he called it a vollard, expecting to find the art dealer's face on the coins. Later in life, he was still apt to say from time to time, 'The development of space missiles costs billions of vollards.'
When Gabrielle took Jean shopping with her in the neighbourhood, Toulouse Lautrec was often to be seen sitting in the window of a café on the corner of the rue Tholozé and the rue Lepic. The dwarfish artist would call to them to sit down with him and his girfriends of the moment, sometimes belly dancers at the Moulin Rouge, Montmartre women with exotic names dressed in Algerian costume.
In order to get to the Château des Brouillards today, one can take the métro to place Pigalle and walk up the rather scruffy rue Houdon, in number 18 of which Pierre Renoir was born. Walking further up rue Ravignon, away from the crowds that gather in the cafés down below, a few pleasant houses start to appear on the side of the Butte.
Separated from the cafés and restaurants in a more residential district, there is a street recognisable from one of Max Douy's set designs for French Cancan. This is where Nini (Françoise Arnoul), the young laundress with dreams of becoming a dancer at a caf' conc', meets the infatuated Prince Alexandre (Gianni Esposito). On the corner of the rue Girardon is the Bar L'Assommoir, close to where Zola set his novel of the same name, part of the Rougon-Macquart series, two of which, Nana and La Bête humaine, Jean filmed. There are associations everywhere.
The large numberless house on the corner is the Château des Brouillards. There is no plaque. There are few flowers growing on the hedges, and the garden is unkempt. 'All along our fence there were rose bushes which had reverted to their wild state,' was Jean's description of it. The house with its off-white peeling walls and shutters occupies the whole block. It has seen better days. In the near distance the white dome of Sacre Coeur is visible.
Up here on the Butte, over a century ago, a small boy played in a garden while his father painted. The house is still there ... and the memories.
Jean was baptised in 1896 at the Church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre, the third oldest church in Paris after St Germain-des-Prés and St Martin-des-Champs. His godfather was George Durand-Ruel, one of the sons of Paul Durand-Ruel, and his godmother was Jeanne Baudot. She was the 16-year-old daughter of the chief doctor of the Western Railway Company. Two years before, Jeanne had seen Renoir canvases in the house of her parents' friends, the Gallimards, and begged to be introduced to the painter so that he could instruct her. 'What do you want me to teach you?' Auguste asked. 'I'm learning every day.' But the young girl and the middle-aged artist got on very well, and she became a good Impressionist painter. Her colourful pictures adorn the walls of the mansion of her nephew, Jean Griot, former editor of Le Figaro, at Louveciennes, the town outside Paris where Jean's paternal grandparents lived out their last days.
The sun shone on the day of the baptism. The bright dresses and lace parasols of the women contrasted sharply with the black of the men's jackets and top hats. Faivre was there, so was cousin Eugène, in his Colonial Infantry uniform decorated with medals. He was the son of Auguste's elder brother Victor, a tailor, whom a Russian grand duke had admired so much that he took him back to St Petersburg.
In the garden, Jean's godparents distributed the traditional sugared almonds to the children of the family and the neighbourhood, while the adults drank from a cask of Frontignon wine Auguste had had sent up from the south, and ate vol-au-vents and brioches chosen at local shops by the host himself.
The baby's elder brother, 11-year-old Pierre, who was of a taciturn nature, unwound after drinking a little of the Essoyes wine and recited some verses from the battle scene in Le Cid to the young girls from next door. When Faivre started to tell an off-colour story, Auguste gave him a kick under the table to remind him that young women were present. Although his own language could be spicy (as Jean's later was) and he was free from prudery, Auguste disliked smutty jokes being told in front of the daughters of his friends. After luncheon everyone strolled under the trees at the Château des Brouillards. The final word on the day came from Joséphine, the fishmonger, who declared it the finest christening she had ever seen in Montmartre.CHAPTER 2
La Belle Époque
'I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me.'
Over a century earlier, another significant baptism had taken place. On 8 January 1773, a foundling was baptised François, but had no surname as his parents were unknown. The newly-born male child had been found the same day abandoned in Limoges, and taken to the General Hospital. It was 23 years later that the surname Renoir first seems to have appeared in the records. On 24 November 1796, François Renoir, shoemaker, of rue du Colombier, Limoges, married Anne, daughter of the local carpenter Joseph Régnier. Curiously, nobody named Renoir lived in Limoges during that time. There was, however, a Renouard, also a shoemaker, in the town. It has been assumed that this man adopted the foundling–a common occurrence when a craftsman wanted an apprentice who would cost only the food he ate.
By a strange coincidence, although there was no Renoir in the town, there was more than one Lenoir, two of whom were well known to the bridegroom and the registrar. One of these was the abbé Lenoir, the priest who baptised François in 1773; the other the magistrate who married him in 1769. It has also been assumed that when François was asked his name at the marriage ceremony he said, 'Renouard', and that the registrar wrote down the phonetic Renoir–a mistake which François, being illiterate, could not correct. Or could it have been that the 'L' of Lenoir was written in such a way as to suggest an 'R', not impossible with extremely florid handwriting? A clerical error thus gave Jean Renoir's great-grandfather a name that would become famous.
François gladly accepted the name, but he did not accept the mystery of his birth. Like many a foundling he visualised his parents in the most romantic light, and dreamed that he was of noble blood, perhaps the result of a below-stairs liaison between an aristocrat and a maidservant of the household, a frequent occurrence during the days of the ancien régime. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, François Renoir, believing himself entitled to estates and fortunes and encouraged by his wife and eldest son, travelled to Paris to persuade the commission which dealt with the claims of the dispossessed aristocrats that his father had been guillotined during the Terror. The fact that he was born in 1773, and the Terror was 20 years later, must have conveniently escaped him. François returned to Limoges unheard, but he continued to believe he was of noble birth for the rest of his life. However, none of his descendants, especially his famous artist grandson, cared to be thought of as a blueblood. Auguste Renoir preferred to be considered an artisan and a man of the people, as did Jean, despite some of the latter's aristocratic tastes and a certain (atavistic?) empathy with the philosophy of nobility. One sees this positive attitude to the character of Louis XVI in La Marseillaise, deepened by his sympathetic approach to the role as played by his brother Pierre; to the Baron (Louis Jouvet) in Les Bas-Fonds (The Lower Depths); the aristocrats Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) in La Grande Illusion, and the Polish Princess Eléna Sorokovska (Ingrid Bergman) in Eléna et les hommes. Some members of the Renoir family used to refer to Auguste as 'Monsieur le marquis' as a joke, a title given affectionately to Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) in La Règle du jeu.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jean Renoir"
Copyright © 2016 Ronald Bergan.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the 2016 Edition,
PART I. FIRST IMPRESSIONS (1894–1916),
1 A Château in Montmartre,
2 La Belle Époque,
3 The Little Theatre of Little Jean Renoir,
4 A Champagne Childhood,
5 Painting Paradise,
6 The Rules of War,
PART II COMPANIONS IN SILENCE (1917–1929),
7 A Fearsome Beam of Light,
8 The Golden Muse,
9 Opening Sequence,
10 Forest Murmurs,
11 Femme Fatale,
12 Black and White Follies,
13 Dédée In Toyland,
14 Slapstick, Swords and Sand,
PART III SOUND BEGINNINGS (1930–1933),
15 The Bitch,
16 Through a Lens Darkly,
17 Nostalgie de la Bone,
18 Filming Flaubert,
PART IV CITIZEN RENOIR (1934–1940),
19 Provençal Passions,
20 'Vive le Front Populaire!',
21 Two Months in the Country,
22 Moscow on the Seine,
23 Brothers In Uniform,
24 'C'est la Révolution!',
25 On and Off the Rails,
26 Everyone Has His Reasons,
27 A Shabby Little Shocker,
PART V DRIVEN INTO PARADISE (1941–1949),
28 Fifteenth Century-Fox,
29 Occupation Therapy,
31 What the Chambermaid Saw,
32 The End of the Dream,
PART VI HOME FROM HOME (1950–1969),
33 Way Out East,
34 Commedia Delle Magnani,
35 The Ballad of the Butte,
36 Ingrid and Men,
37 The Eternal Debutant,
38 Natural Insemination,
39 The Good Soldier,
40 Curtain Call,
PART VII THE ONENESS OF THE WORLD (1970–1979),
Jean Renoir: written works,