Illusions of Perfection

Renoir lets those without sin get cast in other people's movies

French filmmaker Jean Renoir is often called the cinema's "greatest humanist," whatever that means. In practice, Renoir's films are full of liars and fools, users and lovers, self-important idealists and sardonic conformists. All of them act criminally silly at one point or another, some to death's door and past. They believe in love, in aristocracy and equality, in peace, justice, and/or the appearance of same: They hurt each other with the ferocity--and casualness--of tigers. They are products of their context--shaped by language and culture and desire. They are also acknowledged puppets of the director's will, lucky(?) in that he grants them so much rope and forgives them for what they do with it.

Is that Renoir's definition of humanism? To admit the terrible range of human behavior and still nurture in oneself some ridiculous love for the species? To conjoin rather than split off? To say, "People suck and they're beautiful"? Critic Chris Faulkner notes that Renoir's 1939 film The Rules of the Game presents a "both/and world" rather than one that chooses a side. Faulkner is talking about Renoir's acceptance through the film of artifice and naturalism, light and darkness, order and chaos. I'd argue that Renoir's "both/and" embrace extends throughout his movies, granting them warmth at their most clear-sighted moments and sharpness at their most sentimental.

The Rules of the Game--screening April 24 as part of Oak Street's Renoir series on Sunday afternoons--represents as bleak a vision of selfish desire as last year's Closer, albeit dressed in Chanel gowns. A pioneering aviator is in love with an Eastern European émigré married to a wealthy count with a mistress on the side. When wife Christine discovers the mistress, she--ignorant of the accepted "rules" of bourgeois French society--feels betrayed and falls into the arms of a string of eager lovers, including the aviator and an old friend (played by Renoir himself). Meanwhile, the chambermaid dallies with a poacher (the feverishly silly Julien Carette)--while married to the gamekeeper--in a game that is giddy and delightful until it is not.

Unlike Mike Nichols's one-dimensional exercise, however, Renoir's characters are not shown merely as the sum of their constant cravings; again, the director is interested in context and depth of field. Used to being adored from a distance, angelic Christine (Nora Grégor) flails in closer clinches, unable to decipher her feelings from those of her enthusiastic lovers. The weak count (suave Marcel Dalio) is allowed incisive self-knowledge--and my favorite line in a movie that's alive with witticisms: "It may be wrong of them, but they value their lives." The conformists wreak as much havoc as the ardent idealists; by the end they're wearing each other's clothes. As Renoir's Octave mournfully declares: "The awful thing about life is that everyone has their reasons." Not a popular sentiment in 1939, no doubt, with Hitler threatening from the east.

But I'd guess it was quite deliberate--especially given the way Renoir's previous film, Grand Illusion (March 27), makes light of the differences between French and German armies in World War I. Released in 1938, Grand Illusion created a template for POW camp stories from Stalag 17 to Hogan's Heroes. What its successors usually don't understand is that almost as soon as Renoir establishes the comic energy of his Frothy French (Carette again)-versus-Stiff German situation, he begins dismantling it. From the first scenes at the officers' clubs in each country--both sides drinking and thinking about sex--to the last shot of escapees and patrolling soldiers on an invisible border about which "nature couldn't care less," Renoir is intent on drawing parallels rather than lines. Aristocratic officers bond in their experience of feeling obsolete. A man and a woman come together in loss and need. A nationalistic brotherhood is marred by religious prejudice--and the men ain't German.

With all its antinationalism--and quaint notions about "courteous" warfare--Renoir's film can seem naive in light of what happened in Europe. But it isn't called Grand Illusion for nothing. A combatant in WWI, Renoir must've been fully aware of that conflict's anything-but-polite trench warfare and staggering casualties; this clean vision would be recognized by audiences of the time as an illusion in itself. In a DVD commentary, the late director states that the Nazis introduced a new brutality, that they "spoiled the spirit of the world." Renoir's generous spirit may have been damaged by the reality of the Nazis' genocidal efficiency--indeed, his postwar films have not held up like their predecessors. But his expansive humanism seems to me not disproved but made more essential by events since 1938.

 

What's inspiring about Renoir is that he likes the play or rub between things we see as dualisms--as in the topsy-turvy French Can-Can (May 1), which cartwheels between poles of age, experience, emotion, and authenticity. The film follows a musical theater director (Jean Gabin) in his quest to reinvent elite Parisian nightlife for the middle classes with can-can girls and a little place called the "Moulin Rouge"; a myriad of romantic and economic cross-alliances trip up the process. Renoir's dashing clash of motivations circa 1956 leaves Baz Luhrmann's central triangle looking simplistic and static: This monied duke doesn't need to own the showgirl, only to appear to own her; the artistic idealist likes his muses plural, et cetera. Renoir's heroine has at least four options, well beyond any forced choice between good (i.e., authentic) art and bad (i.e., artificial) commerce. Happily, she decides to dance. Heck, at the end, everybody does, in a sort of joyful riot of acceptance.

Renoir's next film, Elena and Her Men (May 8), starring Ingrid Bergman, unfolds as a sort of anti-Notorious: A well-traveled woman is convinced to seduce a man toward political power; the man who set it up is too busy trying to seduce her to cringe about "morality." There is very little redemption in Renoir's stories. Regret, sure. Forgiveness, absolutely. But not so much of the judging that insists payment is due. In one of the director's funniest (and, again, copied) films, 1932's Boudu Saved from Drowning (March 20), a hobo set on suicide is saved by a book merchant. The former systematically thwarts the latter's expectations of gratitude, which the merchant finds entertaining--at first. The hobo eventually ditches the man and the movie, upending even the viewer's need for a grateful "salvation."

What I mean is, there is no one in Renoir's films who is without sin, and thus no martyrs or heroes whose self-righteous presence is a judgment in itself. The Crime of Monsieur Lange (March 13) comes the closest to creating a good/evil dichotomy, but it does so with such grave playfulness that its effect is far from simple. A publisher who's cheerfully exploiting at least two women and a cowboy serial-story writer flees his debts in disguise. His workers, led in part by the idealistic writer, organize as a co-op and reap utopian rewards of cash, camaraderie, and romance. (Here, Renoir reveals the visual influence of his father Pierre Auguste Renoir's Impressionist paintings of café life, and foreshadows the street spontaneity of the French New Wave.)

When the publisher returns, unrepentant, the writer submits to his cowboy fantasies of frontier justice; Renoir shows the consequences in a surreal sequence with a wild-eyed drunk. At the same time, the film itself is framed in a question to the audience: Would you turn the cowboy in? Or leave him to the wasted borderland of his own making? Lars von Trier's Dogville re-envisions a similar scenario with Grand Guignol sadism, trapping director and audience in cycles of payback. Renoir, a humbler god, creates an unstintingly beautiful work that wonders, with the viewer, how such flawed creatures can survive themselves. Both, he says, and...

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