"As soon as you make a theory, facts destroy it."”
– Jean Renoir
Jean Renoir is not "elegant." Jean Renoir was never a "master." Though he could be gentle when he needed to, he was never genteel. Jean Renoir directed some of the nastiest, roughest, most brutal films ever made. I still feel humilated watching La chienne and The River, as I should. I can't think of any moments in cinema that make me more uncomfortable than when when Michel Simon sobs while being questioned in the former or Thomas Breen falls down in the latter. I am embarassed, as you should be embarrassed, when watching The Crime of Monsieur Lange, Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Little Theater of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, because I recognize my own shortcomings in the shortcomings of the characters. Their foolishness isn't just something to laugh at; it points to the fact that we are all fools.
In 2010, over 30 years since his death and over 40 since he made his last film, it's necessary to reclaim Jean Renoir. The worst thing that could happen to a director is that someone starts calling them a master. It's an empty word, one that runs contrary to the way cinema, which is bigger than any director, works. It's got a really bad tendency to catch on, too. Two possible things that can happen: a promising director will let the word go to his or her head; a great director will ignore it and keep living the same way they always have, though that tends to do nothing to stop the tales of their "mastery." Great directors are therefore always damned, and in a sense Renoir has been damned by reputation for unsurmountable perfection, even though part of the greatness of his films lies in their rough, human mess.
Elegance is just make-up. It covers up a paucity of ideas. Renoir was never elegant; who knows where that part of his reputation comes from. Renoir's famous tracking shots represent a director's impulses at their rawest and least streamlined; they are, like most movements of Renoir's camera, coarse. The two-minute-long take that opens Chotard et Cie begins with a logo on a crate and then pulls back to show the man carrying the crate, then pans to briefly show a grocer sorting eggs before pulling back to the man with the crate, following him into the back of truck, whose doors he promptly shuts; the truck drives off, and the camera pans again, catching a passerby walking perpendicular to the camera before centering on a man in a bowler and following him from the street into a grocery store, moving left and right as he says hello to employees and customers; when he stops to talk, the camera proceeds to pull dangerously close to his face; he walks into the back of the store to pick up a ringing phone and the camera stops at a distance for a few seconds before resuming to dolly forward again, moving until it has passed him by; then it turns around to show the back of his head, continuing to move until a bit of wall obscures him entirely; he hangs up and bounds into the frame again, and the camera continues dollying backwards into a loading dock, as if trying to outpace him; the man in the bowler interacts with some workmen, before he crosses the dock and enters an apartment through a bead curtain; the camera proceeds to dolly to the left, alongside the wall of the apartment building, until it finds the apartment's window and pushes into the room just as the man sits down at a table and picks up a newspaper.
Like all of Renoir's great tracking shots, it's very messy. Elegance, being a tasteful balance, a reduction of certain qualities or details in order that they not overpower others, is the opposite of richness. The tracking shot in Chotard et Cie is obtrusive and disorderly; Renoir sacrifices the careful framing and clarity he would get by shooting the scene as a series of individual shots in favor of an exhilirating confusion. Heads bob in and out of the frame, major and minor characters pass by without emphasis. There's little drama in the traditional sense here; only the drama of action, of things happening within the space of a single shot.
There is also nothing elegant about the vivid color of Elena and Her Men, nor the flat brightness of French Cancan, a world with few shadows where the pink-faced characters are often struggling for attention against the patterns of their clothes and the garish paint on the walls. In a sense, all Renoir films are made in bad taste. It's bad taste to spend so much time filming walls (which Renoir's tracking shots inevitably do in their drive to depict action in toto), bad taste to put carefully-observed drama and bawdy farce into the same film (some of Renoir's best take place at the intersection of the sociological and scatalogical), bad taste to have so little plot in The Southerner, to show so much cruelty in The Testament of Dr. Corderlier, bad taste to mock a recent and painful war in The Elusive Corporal and certainly bad taste to make On Purge Bébé and Picnic on the Grass, which has the presumptousness not only to take the name of a Manet painting, but to be a color, widescreen film that spends its first few minutes on what's essentially a shot of a television set.
And what's The Rules of the Game if not the grandest of all rude gestures? It's fuck-yous all around: the Beaumarchais quote in credits; naming the new servant Corneille; the decision to compose a shot of an upper-class couple leaving a room around their maid, on her hands and kness, playing with their lapdogs; letting characters recede into the background without disappearing from view; the idea to devote such a long and complicated shot to men in silly smocks waving sticks to scare a bunch of rabbits, and then to linger on the quivering tail and spastic legs of a dying animal; the frankness with which the characters talk, revealing their weaknesses and their pettiness; the act of placing the camera so far away from action that the details of a room become as important as the actors (it takes some nerve to decide that a sofa has as much of a right to space in the image as a star), or so close that the actors' faces becomes distorted and monstrous (Renoir himself looks hideous in the shot of the interior of the car before the crash, his face screwed up like Popeye's).
Renoir is, like any good humanist, often harsh. He could be very cruel, sometimes even crueller than Fassbinder. Those that feel a compulsive need to always portray people in a positive light do so out of fear. To gloss over certain aspects of humanity is to hold it in contempt, to believe that only through falseness is it possible to portray people positively. What we often passes for "humanism" or "warmth" is just sycophantism. But Renoir, like Fuller and Denis after him, loved people enough that he didn't feel the need to gloss over their weakness, or the shortcomings of humanity. Renoir was the man who maintained into old age that society was rotten to the core.
For all the joy and fun in Renoir's films (best when had by the weak at the expense of their masters), there are also moments of humiliating inadequacy, something Renoir had a real way with, better than any director. The lonely life of the blind man in The Woman on the Beach and Captain John's prosthetic leg giving way in The River are unfathomably bleak moments, humanity at its most pathetic. That's why Michel Simon was such a good lead for him, especially in La chienne, a real bitch of a movie; he could take it. He was strong enough to be made ugly, and when Renoir abandoned him for Jean Gabin, it was because Gabin revelled in anger and emotional ugliness. It is precisely because he is nasty and mean that Renoir is invigorating. It's because he is unafraid to be messy that he seems to so clearly understand life. It's because of these things that he invites you to love people and not merely admire them. It's because of the murder committed by Monsieur Lange that we come to identify with him, and not because of the love story.
The Jean Renoir series at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn will be running through May 11th.