Jean Renoir

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The River (1951) Review


Weak
People talk about The River in the same hushed tones they reserve for Citizen Kane and Grand Illusion, Renoir's best-known film.

It's definitely a lot of firsts: Renoir's first English film, and his first color film. The River is a movie about India -- shot on the Ganges River and telling the story of three teenage girls who fall for the same man (the mysterious stranger in town), to various degrees.

Continue reading: The River (1951) Review

The Golden Coach Review


Extraordinary
Jean Renoir's 1953 The Golden Coach begins with the simultaneous arrival, at a remote, 18th-century Spanish outpost in Peru, of a coach made of solid gold - intended for use by the viceroy (Duncan Lamont) at official functions of the state - and a traveling Italian commedia dell'arte troupe whose star is the tempestuous beauty Camilla (Anna Magnani). Like the troupe's manager Felipe (Paul Campbell) and the colony's celebrity matador Ramon (Riccardo Rioli), the viceroy soon falls in love with Camilla. This colony, however, is one in which the Catholic Church holds the reins of power, and actors are not necessarily esteemed in clerical eyes. When the viceroy makes an extravagant gift of the golden coach to Camilla, turmoil ensues.

The Golden Coach was the first of a loose trilogy of films made by Renoir following his return to Europe from America, where he had worked during the war. The theme of all three films (the others are French Cancan and Elena and Her Men) is Renoir's lifelong preoccupation with the ways in which the life of the theater mirrors that of the world beyond the proscenium arch, and in The Golden Coach this theme finds its most magnificent expression within the trilogy, and perhaps the most magnificent of any film. In this highly stylized and artificial world, the actors perform on- and off-stage, the viceroy and assorted nobility within the colonial government perform for their subjects and for one another, and the distinction between performance and life dissolves into a richly layered construction of artifice. The mechanics of the narrative click and whirl like clockwork, so that you're caught up in the dynamics of this deconstruction of reality with an ease that belies Renoir's supreme mastery. His drama builds gradually into theater - even the sets become more formalized - until, somewhere midway in the film, Camilla announces to her audience that act two has concluded; from that moment forward all the world is a stage.

Continue reading: The Golden Coach Review

The Rules Of The Game Review


Essential
Looking at it today, it's hard to comprehend how outraged audiences were in 1939 viewing Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. The film centers on a house party attended by the cream of society; during its riotous goings-on, class distinctions are blurred and the servants and guests fall together in a love roundelay that has surprising (even deadly) consequences. It was that breakdown of the class system, the suggestion that the "rules of the game" had been broken, that had audiences up in arms in '39. (The Occupation went a step further, banning the film on grounds of immorality.) Memories of outrage are not enough to sustain a film's reputation for decades (remember Forever Amber?), but The Rules of the Game has another distinction that keeps it current: it's one of the greatest films that France -- or any country -- has ever produced.

Not that its greatness is so easy to read for a lot of filmgoers today. The Rules of the Game is the very embodiment of an "invisible" directorial style and its greatness lies in part in its supremely light touch. Renoir (whose Grand Illusion is perhaps his best-known work) is justly remembered for this style, a technique in which the director never, ever intrudes and in which the audience is trusted to observe the proceedings and draw conclusions for itself. To say that this technique has vanished from Hollywood filmmaking today is to be pointlessly coy; it could be that modern audiences would be as scandalized by the absence of flashbacks, temporal shuffling, freeze-frames, and Steadicams as those in '39 were by the absence of redeeming moralizing.

Continue reading: The Rules Of The Game Review

The River Review


Weak
People talk about The River in the same hushed tones they reserve for Citizen Kane and Grand Illusion, Renoir's best-known film.

It's definitely a lot of firsts: Renoir's first English film, and his first color film. The River is a movie about India -- shot on the Ganges River and telling the story of three teenage girls who fall for the same man (the mysterious stranger in town), to various degrees.

Continue reading: The River Review

Elena And Her Men Review


Good
1956's Elena and Her Men, the third in an informal trilogy of films Jean Renoir made upon returning from the U.S. and following his work here during the war, shares a common theme with its trilogy mates. This theme - the ways in which theater and life interact, and in which the territory of the first encroaches on the latter - in fact preoccupied Renoir throughout his career. In Elena and Her Men (unlike the other two films, The Golden Coach and French Cancan), the film's principals are not stage actors. Their performances are given in the political and social arenas; Renoir concludes the trilogy, fittingly, with the assertion that all the world is indeed a stage.

Elena and Her Men tells the story of the title woman, a Polish princess living a life of high style in Paris despite the secret fact of her poverty. She's widowed, and although men throw themselves at her, she's unfocused romantically and takes these suitors on as projects rather than potential mates; she sees her work as assisting them in achieving their potential, and when they do, she moves on. Her ability is linked to the daisies she distributes to her men as charms, and these magical daisies infallibly do the job.

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French Cancan Review


Excellent
The 19th-century Paris of Jean Renoir's remarkable 1955 film French Cancan is a distillation of the Paris that exists within the genre of the screen musical. It's a fantasy world in which laundry girls are propelled to stardom, absinthe is taken at sidewalk cafés, gentlemen live in hotels, and foreign princes slum alongside chorines in the still-unfashionable nightclubs of Montmartre. The film's look is central to the romantic vision of Paris that we conjure when we think of musicals; it's candy-colored, as sophisticated as a hat and tails, as light and sweet as meringue. Although An American in Paris had been released a few years before (Gigi followed by a few), French Cancan represents the most stylized vision of a certain dream incarnation of the City of Lights that had yet reached the screen.

Everything about French Cancan is, in fact, exquisitely French. (In this the film echoes its director's wish to reconnect with his public, having left France for America following the public vilification of 1939's Rules of the Game and having returned to his homeland with this film.) The movie tells the fictionalized story of the opening of Paris's notorious Moulin Rouge, an event marked by the rehabilitation of the scandalous cancan, a dance of a previous era that revealed rather much more of the dancers' lower halves than was deemed proper. In this fantasy Paris, an impresario named Danglard (Jean Gabin), magically gifted with the ability to spot talent among common working men and women and steer them toward their deserved fame, happens upon a young woman named Nini (Françoise Arnoul) who exhibits no aspirations, few inhibitions, and a real gift for dance. His attention to - and subsequent affair with - Nini arouses the mercurial jealousy of the statuesque belly dancer Lola (María Félix), whom he previously nurtured and with whom he is currently sharing a bed; add Danglard's money man, also in love with Lola, Nini's working class boyfriend, a prince who loves Nini, and assorted dancers, mothers, rival artists, and best friends, and you have a love roundelay of operatic breadth.

Continue reading: French Cancan Review

The Lower Depths (1936) Review


Very Good
Jean Renoir's The Lower Depths was released in 1936, a brief historical moment before his Grand Illusion of 1938 and The Rules of the Game of 1940. The latter pair of films long ago joined the pantheon of enduring cinema, glittering agelessly in textbooks and on the programs of festivals in the rarified company of titles such as The Battleship Potemkin and The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Lower Depths both gains and loses by its proximity to Renoir's later masterpieces: It's not one of them them, but the same guy made it. It's tempting to think of the film as merely a lot of fun. But then again, something else is working here, too.

Adapted from Maxim Gorky's original play, The Lower Depths follows the tawdry goings-on of a group of flophouse denizens whose lives are complicated by love, crime, a pair of unsavory landlords, and above all poverty. The primaries in this cast of miscreants are the thief Pépel (Jean Gabin), a baron whose taste for games of chance has stripped him of his wealth (Louis Jouvet), the miserly landlord and sometime fence for Pépel's goods (Vladimir Sokoloff), his shrill wife (Suzy Prim), and her beautiful and available sister (Junie Astor). An alcoholic actor, a prostitute with a longing for true romance, and a pilgrim of questionable sagacity function as secondaries. Driving the action is a complicated love affair being conducted by Pépel and the landlady; she's in love, he isn't. Or rather, he is, but not with her. The object of his true affections is her lovely sister Natasha.

Continue reading: The Lower Depths (1936) Review

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