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May 03, 2007

DVD Journal: Renoir on the Cheap

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Some good news for movie nuts: a 3-disc collection of some of Jean Renoir's rarer movies has just been published, and the price is very right -- $19.95. Extras are slim, but reviewers report that the prints are first-class.

The less-good news: These are movies best reserved for the already-convinced. I've seen most of the movies in this set, and I do love "The Little Match Girl," a beautiful semi-experimental treatment of the Anderson story. But the other films aren't so successful. As a major Renoir nut, I wouldn't have missed them for the world. (My fellow Renoir nuts will know what I mean.) But they're hard to recommend to anyone who isn't already pretty far gone.

Those who haven't caught the Renoir bug yet would probably do best to start with "Rules of the Game" and "Grand Illusion," his most celebrated movies, before exploring the more uneven stretches of his work.

But it's all to be savored, IMHO: A deep immersion in the work of Jean Renoir can be one of the most rewarding of all art experiences. It certainly has been for me.

He's also a crucial figure in film history. You wouldn't know it from the movies that are yakked about and produced these days, but Renoir has been one of the most influential of filmmakers. The French New Wave guyz saw themselves as Renoir's spiritual children; Orson Welles called him "the greatest of all directors"; Altman, Coppola, Satyajit Ray, and Bertolucci revered and learned from his work. The most democratic and least domineering of major film artists, Renoir represents an approach to moviemaking as something tentative, humane, free, and open. You don't get to call yourself a bigtime filmbuff, let alone a cineaste, without spending a lot of time on Jean Renoir. Sorry, you just don't.

Early Renoir

If anyone has sampled Renoir and has come away puzzled by his reputation, I'd be happy to take a swing at explaining what many people find so special, even lovable, about him. First hint: Newbies are often dismayed by what seems like a lot of awkwardness in Renoir's movies. How about considering the possibility, just for a minute, that these awkwardnesses might really be something more along the lines of "direct encounters with our essential humanity"? Those moments you're wincing at and looking away from? What if they aren't embarrassments? What if instead they're some of the high points of 20th century art?

Also enthusiastically recommended: "Boudu Saved From Drowning," "The River," and "The Golden Coach." Why aren't "Toni" and "The Crime of M. Lange" available on DVD yet? Those are topflight Renoirs too. Here's a 1960 interview (audio included!) with Renoir. His appreciativeness, gusto, and enthusiasm -- as well as his childlike, soulful, big-bearish playfulness -- are all on full display.



posted by Michael at May 3, 2007


Even more important, when is A Day in the Country coming out on DVD? (BTW You blogged about Maupassant, author of the original short story, here: with Rules of the Game, ADITC is my favourite Renoir. Grand Illusion never found me, though I'll have to go back and take another look at it sometime.

Posted by: Thursday on May 4, 2007 6:19 AM

Michael - Could you be a little more specific about what you mean by awkward? Do you mean sentimental, by present day standards? Or is the acting wooden, again by modern standards? I haven't seen Renoir's films but I've heard many people wax ecstatic about them, especially The River.

Posted by: ricpic on May 4, 2007 8:30 AM

The first commentor beat me to it: A Day in the Country is one of my five or so favorite Renoirs, and I really wish it would come to DVD along with Lange, La Chienne and Toni.

I have yet to see Nana (just got the DVD set the other day), but I watched The Whirlpood of Fate a year or so ago and enjoyed it. It's no great shakes, but you can sense that Renoir is feeling his oats and trying things out--and I remember it as being full of things that would turn up later in his work. That said, I doubt anyone not already steeped in Renoir would find it all that special.

It's also interesting to see Renoir trying his hand at a Griffith-type melodrama, though even at this early point you may feel like part of him is trying to break free of that--that he's tempermentally unsuited to it. Griffith's sensibility tended towards amplification, and his films could feel like successions of high points. Renoir's tends to spread things out, to unify, and to invite the viewer into a particular way of seeing.

One of the best things about this DVD release is that it's coming from Lions Gate. Hopefully, labels other than Kino, Milestone and Criterion will begin to release foreign/silent stuff at a more reasonable clip if this sells well.

Posted by: Ron on May 4, 2007 8:56 AM

Thursday -- "A Day in the Country" is a great one too, that's right. I wonder what's become of it? Lordy, I haven't seen it since I was in college ...

Ricpic -- And you seem like such a Renoir kind of guy! Yeah, wooden and sentimental by contempo standards is about right. There's a tendency a lot of people slip into (me included) to judge artworks by how proficient-seeming they are, which can verge on slickness. And Renoir was certainly a tip top moviemaker. But his artistic emphasis was on the felt and experienced thing, not so much on technique. And he was so open and generous that he was always encouraging actors, locations, situations, etc to be what they were, and give up their natures to the camera, and to do it on their own. (This was the magic of movies to him.) Often it worked, sometimes it didn't, sometimes there was a kind of mix. But he seldom tried to cover it up -- he'd rather let things mix and be imperfect than try to patch 'em up. All of which bespeaks an attitude and an openness towards life and art that I find very courageous and moving. But it did often result in movies that cynics can rip apart if they feel like it. "The River" for instance has a lot of really great stuff, but it also has some not-great stuff. If you're a cynic, you mark the film down for it. If you're a real Renoir-ite, the fact that he lets it all blend together and inhabit the same world is inexpressibly wonderful.

Ron -- That's some gorgeous writing about Renoir!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2007 3:54 PM

Rumer Godden was the author of the novel, The River, on which the film was based. In her memoir, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, she gives an account of making the film in India with Renoir. It was the first time a Western film had been made on location there, I think she says. Satyajit Ray watched the proceedings, but never liked the film much because he disliked the book, written as it was by a daughter of the English raj.

Godden's picture of Renoir and his personal oddities is fun, especially since none of them turns out to be unpleasant. There is an especially good story of how he managed to stop a mini-riot from breaking out among religiously sensitive Hindu students who were offended by rumours they had heard about what the script contained.

Posted by: alias clio on May 7, 2007 3:40 PM

Thank you! I've been waiting for you to work your way around to some of my favorite classic directors. Any chance for an appreciation of Satyajit Ray? I find him miraculous as well, as you point out he clearly learned much from Renoir. There's a beauty in lessons from a European director transferring so naturally and easily to such an alien and different culture as India.

Posted by: mq on May 11, 2007 2:44 AM

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