September 15, 2014
For Goebbels to call you Cinematographic Enemy Nummer Eins, you must have really hit on something; JEAN RENOIR (1894–1979) is appropriately a mainstay in the Greatest Director Ever discourse. Renoir’s films speak a maturity conjured before their time, as if he had visited future entertainment and political landscapes and returned to preclude them, with a century’s understanding of mediated tone, nested rhythms, and the intricacies of improvisation and performance. He took full advantage of narrative cinema’s capacity to simmer reversals of expectation between abstract social forces and the reified emotions of individuals. Who noticed? Orson Welles, John Ford, the French New Wave, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, and Michael Haneke, for starters. After selling his father Pierre-Auguste’s paintings to finance early films, The Grand Illusion would have been enough to remove any impressionist monkeys from the considerable shoulders of Jean, but he went on to direct Rules of the Game, a societal avalanche essentially incited by a celebrity’s errant tweet. Octave (played by Renoir himself) lays it out — “The government, radio, newspapers, advertising, everyone lies, so why shouldn’t simple people tell lies as well?” That’s in 1939. Renoir assumes a state of undoing, a subterranean turbulence that secretly drives and confounds the dance of working-class heroes and aristocrats alike, then he stands back to watch the complex, familiar little pieces bump into each other. Ever compassionate, he wrote, “We are all ‘mystified’ – that is to say, fooled, duped, treated as of no account. I had the good fortune to have been taught to see through the trickery in my youth.” He knew the truth wasn’t going to make anyone very comfortable.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Modernist (1884–93) and Hardboiled (1894-1903) Generations.