On Renoir: Select Commentary
Jacques Rivette
Translated by William H. Simon

Le Bled (1929)

Here is another commissioned work, taken in the same light spirit as Le Tournoi. Since the simplicity of the script gave him a good deal of latitude, Renoir took the opportunity to make an adventure film in the style of the American pictures he had enjoyed so much in his youth. Le Bled, following the healthy tradition of Douglas Fairbanks in his triangle days, starts out as comedy, comes to a climax of high adventure, and turns toward the sentimental at the end. Pierre (Enrique Rivero) himself, the inexperienced and awkward fellow inspired at the last minute by a threat to his loved one, is reminiscent of Fairbanks. It is carried off with verve, the more serious scenes being slipped in without breaking the rhythm: the traditional love scene (this time in the rain, among the shepherds) glistens already with a few droplets from Le Fleuve, and the punishment of the villain, blinded by the falcons, allows Renoir to let an other, more pungent liquid flow -- "this precious blood" which still obsesses him.

Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1929) (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti; screenplay adapted by Cavalcanti and Jean Renoir)

A Sunday entertainment in the tradition of Charleston; which is to say that Renoir's Sundays would be likely to terrify any hapless weekend artists who might come around to set up their easels on his property. More than a risque tale, the aesthetic is that of debauchery or an orgy done a la Mack Sennett. Renoir or Cavalcanti? The question is an idle one, or at least it answers itself. Let us say that one held the camera while the other ran in the buff after a rather scantily clad Catherine Hessling. The character is a lusty cousin of the hussar in La Petite Marchande who carries her off in a balloon by the seat of her pants.

La Tosca (1940) (dir. Carl Koch; Jean Renoir: five shots; screenplay by Luchino Visconti, Renoir and Koch)

Or the aborted masterpiece. No, there is no point in denigrating Carl Koch, whose direction, whether or not it follows Renoir's plan, is consistently elegant and sometimes has great allure. He is responsible for those broad movements in the chapel and the final execution scene, where a brief dolly shot, following Tosca to where she throws herself into the void, leaves us face to face with Rome. There is nothing in this well-crafted work which is unworthy of the opening, but neither is there anything which attains the enchantment of the five or six opening shots of nocturnal riding, where the magical baroque spectacle suddenly comes to life. Under the close scrutiny of the camera the stones seem to pulsate and merge with the movement of the drama. La Tosca is no longer a realistic opera; it is reality become opera.

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

The first of the trilogy of great masterpieces. However mutilated it is in comparison with the original, it can still be as fairly judged as, say, von Stroheim's Greed. (1) And if there was ever a director, who, irrespective of the importance he attaches to composition, perceives each part as a microcosm of the whole, it is Renoir.

The Woman on the Beach, more than any other of Renoir's works, looks like a film made by Fritz Lang (and Lang was soon to return the compliment (2)), but it is close to Lang only in appearance. The tragedy of The Woman on the Beach does not stem from the inexorable movement of some force of destiny, as in Lang's films, but on the contrary, from fixation and immobility: each of the three characters is frozen in a false image of himself and his desire. Enclosed in a setting bound on one side by the rhythmic movements of the waves, the blind painter has lost himself in his canvasses, just as Ryan and Joan Bennett have lost themselves in a purely sexual obsession. The fire shatters the spell and brings them back to reality.

The Woman on the Beach represents the culmination of what might be called Renoir's second technical apprenticeship. Technical extravagance has been completely suppressed. Camera movements, few and brief, neglect the top of the frame in favor of eye-level shots edited for horizontal continuity and classical angle-reverse angle dialogues. Henceforth Renoir puts forth facts, one after another, and the beauty stems from the inexorability with which they follow each other. There is nothing but a raw succession of actions; each shot is an event. Although they seem more richly adorned, Renoir's subsequent films use this simple structure as a framework, and in their more intense moments they put aside their elegant ornamentation and allow it to show through.

Must one prefer the great Passions to The Well-Tempered Clavier? Perhaps, but if there is such a thing as pure cinema it is to be found in The Woman on the Beach.

The River (1950)

Every great film is the story of an experiment. That is, it goes from the particular to the general. It does not sacrifice universality by starting with a particular conflict, for it carries this one destiny to its most crucial point where general truths far beyond the specific case become suddenly apparent.

The voyage to India has now replaced the traditional voyage to Greece. But it is not toward and exotic land that a Renoir or a Rossellini embarks, but rather towards the cradle of all the Indo-European civilizations. They ask India to give them back the fundamental note which now seems lost in the general cacophony.

With Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia and perhaps what EisensteinŐs Que Viva Mexico! might have been, The River is the only example of a film which reflects rigorously on itself, in which the narrative content, the sociological descriptions, and the metaphysical themes do not just respond to each other but are at every point interchangeable. "We are a part of the world." Three boats, three young girls simultaneously reach the central point where all contradictions cancel each other out, where death and birth, giving and refusing, possessing and taking away, have the same value and the same meaning. He who forgets himself finds himself; he who gives in, triumphs. Harriet's adventure is the story of a death which is also a birth; that is, of a metamorphosis, of an avatar. Thus the woodcutter becomes God; Krishna becomes the woodcutter. This film, so rich in metaphor, is ultimately only about metaphor itself, or absolute knowledge.

French Cancan (1954)

Among the recent Renoirs, French Cancan is the best liked by the dilettantes, the least esteemed by the purists. One wonders why. Of course, it is a hastily shot, transitional film; one upset by massive cuts, and in which the principle actors were imposed on Renoir. But Renoir has made others under similar conditions. Certainly the constraints of assembly-line production are different from those of the small shop; expensive set involve problems that tiny rooms do not; and big name actors might pose greater difficulties than would personal friends; but all these impediments are swept away by the same rich current as always, and they are inevitably made to harmonize.

The grandeur of this ode to the physical pleasures lies first in its prodigious archaism, a vigorous, aggressive archaism. It was surprising, after the pure music of The Golden Coach, to hear these more popular strains; but two years later it was clear that this film was a necessary link between The Golden Coach and Paris Does Strange Things. And then it was only one step from "the holy prostitution of the theater" of which Baudelaire speaks, to the apotheosis of the bordello, and Renoir takes it gladly. There is immodesty in every great film. Renoir is inspired by it. He absolves the dancer as readily as he did the actress; the one for baring her legs, the other for baring her soul.

Like him, his heroes refuse to choose. Renoir's work constantly recalls these lines from "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" by Mallarme:

My crime is that I, gay at conquering the treacherous
Fears, the disheveled tangled divided
Of kisses, the gods kept so well commingled
(This will also be the crime of Elena, who will be punished for it by ending up with a gypsy beau.) In short, a pantheism, one which teaches not to separate the sensual form the spiritual, nor French Cancan from The Golden Coach. All this is not without bitterness, but neither is pleasure gay, being only a half which tries to give the illusion of the whole.

No, Pan does not sleep. The feverish panic of the final cancan more than makes up for the lapses in the final film. In this phant hymn the cinema has ever dedicated to its own soul, the movement which by breaking the rules, creates them.

The art of life and of poetry, closely entwined, which was in The River and The Golden Coach, is also in French Cancan. It merely wears a different mask. For French Cancan is intimate theater, the supreme comedy which Renoir plays for himself. And now everything is ready for the entrance of Elena in Paris Does Strange Things, a melodrama in the French style, performed to celebrate the victory of desire over the intrigues of the heart... Do not worry. Elena is not far behind.

Translated by William H. Simon

  1. Greed was cut from ten hours to two. For a consideration of the cuts made in The Woman on the Beach, see Cahiers du Cinema No. 34. (Trans.)

  2. By making Human Desire (1954). (Trans.)

Originally appeared in Cahiers du cinema no. 78 (Christmas 1957), p. 65, 78, 82-3, 85. Excerpted here from Jean Renoir by Andre Bazin (Simon and Schuster, 1973): p. 223, 224, 260, 272-274, 282-284.