In 1936, it is often forgotten, Jean Renoir made a propaganda film, La Vie est a nous, for the French Communist Party, starring Maurice Thorez, Jacques Duclos etc; in 1937, he made La Marseillaise for the Trade Union movement (cgt). Then the war and exile in Hollywood. The heady days of the Popular Front never returned. In 1950, he made The River in India (his last American film), explaining that, whereas before the war he had tried to raise ‘a protesting voice’, he now thought that both the times and he himself had changed: his new mood was one of ‘love’, of the ‘indulgent smile’. Following films seemed to confirm the trend: French-Cancan, Elena et les hommes. Betrayal? Or maturity? The critics split. One camp praised the pre-war Renoir, the Renoir ‘of the left’; the other praised post-war Renoir, the Renoir of ‘pure cinema’. One school, leaning on the authority of Andre Bazin, remembered ‘French’ Renoir; another, headed by the emerging critics of Cahiers du Cinema, heralded ‘American’ Renoir. As Renoir grew older, the Cahiers critics argued, he grew more personal, hence more of an author, a greater director. Debate turned acrimonious. Renoir, one anti-Cahiers critic wrote, ‘deified by imbeciles, has lost all sense of values’. And so on.
The truth is that Renoir’s work is a coherent whole. The mainspring of his thought has always been the question of the natural man: nature and artifice, Pan and Faust, natural harmony. His differing attitudes to society have been the result of the ‘natural’ naiveté he has cherished. The Popular Front appealed to him, he has confessed, partly because it seemed to presage an era of harmony between classes, a national idyll; after the war the forces which had made up the Front showed discord rather than concord and Renoir retreated from political life, away from camps and blocs into the countryside, his father’s estate, nostalgia and a kind of pantheism. Vet Renoir the pantheist is none other than Renoir the communist, Renoir the ‘red’ propagandist. His first allegiance has always been to the ordinary man, asking nothing more than to eat, drink, sleep, make love and live in harmony with all the other
Renoir recognizes the existence of social classes and nationalities—he is fascinated by them, as phenomena—but he insists that these differences need not divide men in their human essence. Thus masters and servants—their lives and escapades—have always humanly interacted and interlocked in Renoir’s world, though the two orders remain distinct. (Renoir has always preferred to depict master-servant relations than employer-worker: he is repelled by the anonymity of the factory.) Witness, for instance the conversation about harems between the marquis and the servant in La Regle du Jeu. The divisions which count are ‘spiritual’, not social, divisions. ‘My world is divided into miser and spendthrift, careless and cautious, master and slave, sly and sincere creator and copyist.’ (Master and slave, to Renoir, are spiritual categories—he uses ‘aristocrat’ in the same way.) Renoir is the spokesman for human values which capitalist society will destroy as far as it can—the values which Rousseau thought of as pre-social. He is confident that these values cannot be destroyed entirely, that there are spiritual recesses to which capitalism cannot reach, that human beings cannot be entirely dehumanized. Renoir believes that most people want no more than a simple, uncomplicated life; anything further is vanity, false pomp. This involves a renunciation of public life and a retreat into privacy, a flight from the central realities of an inhuman society to its human margins. It explains Renoir’s fascination with women, wandering players, gypsies, vagabonds, poachers and so on—all those who live in this human margin. Yet Renoir’s bonhomie—his open optimism—easily slips into buffoonery—a kind of hidden pessimism.
The purest expression of Renoir’s attachment to the natural man is his film, Boudu sauve des eaux, made in 1932. Ever since he made it, he has said, he has been looking in vain for another such story. A Parisian book-seller rescues a tramp, Boudu, who has thrown himself into the Seine. He takes him home and starts trying to civilize him, to educate him in the desiderata of bourgeois life: But Boudu is intractable—a natural man, impervious to restraint or nicety—he climbs on to the dinner table, sleeps curled up on the floor, ruins rare books, tears down the curtains, assaults his benefactor’s wife, etc. Eventually, a kind of settlement is reached and it is decided that Boudu is to marry the maid. (Marrying the maid is a recurrent feature of Renoir’s films.) During the wedding party, Boudu upsets a boat on the Seine, swims ashore, lies down beneath a hedge and returns happily to a life of vagrancy. Boudu’s incursion into society is destructive, anarchic: the same bourgeoisie which, in Renoir’s words, produced Proust and the railway, cannot cope with Boudu. It is clear which way of life Renoir regards as more authentic. But Boudu is an extreme case: on the whole, Renoir tempers nature with prudence. ‘For me the red traffic light
Renoir’s masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu, explores the same theme on a different level; it is more complex and more nuanced. Andre Jurieux, a popular hero (an ace pilot who is clumsy on the ground: the symbol is familiar), disturbs the aristocratic house-party to which he is invited by his passion for his host’s wife. The code of rules by which life is ordered breaks down and guests and host begin to fight ‘like Polish navvies’. Jurieux, the disturbing force, must be expelled; he is shot and a speech of great delicacy by De la Chesnaye—the host, a marquis who adores mechanical music-boxes—restores order and the conventional code. The shooting of Jurieux echoes the shooting of birds and rabbits at the butts—the senseless destruction of natural beings in order to conform with a style of life. Such a schema does not suggest the full scope of the film: the surface is continually fluctuating and it is this fluctuating interaction of the characters, rather than the intrigue (a kind of Beaumarchais plot), which sets the pace and holds the eye. Renoir gives his actors a great deal of room and time—by the use of deep focus and long takes—and encourages them to move about. The film is awash with movement and gesture, so that the first impression is of a continual to-and-fro, combined with sharp psychological accuracy. The camera, in Andre Bazin’s phrase, is ‘the invisible guest, with no privilege but invisibility’. The construction of the film reveals itself little by little to the atttentive spectator: Renoir does not belabour his points. Indeed, in La Regle du Jeu tragedy emerges imperceptibly from breakneck farce; the aristocracy are most doomed—an aristocracy who are never cartoons, as they are in Eisenstein—when they are at their best.