Ask a hundred ardent film buffs if they love established masters like Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, John Ford and Federico Fellini, and you'll probably find folks who aren't too keen on at least one of these perennial film school staples. Even Hitchcock has his critics.
Good luck finding any cinema enthusiast who doesn't like Jean Renoir, though. What's not to love? Accessible, complex, good-humored, humanistic, pessimistic, optimistic, realistic and magical, Renoir's cherished oeuvre made him France's pre-eminent prewar and postwar filmmaker. (I'll always prefer Robert Bresson, but let's face it, Renoir made more films during his lunch breaks than Bresson did in 50 years.) His list of masterpieces is inarguable: The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion, The River, The Golden Coach, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Human Beast and so forth.
Most of these films have been available to the public, and, thanks to the endorsements of critics, professors and repertory houses, they have been disseminated and discussed at length ever since the French critics decided to call film an art. But what about Renoir's other films, the 'minorâ?� titles that run the risk of neglect? Criterion can't get to all of them.
That's where Lions Gate comes in, with the generous Jean Renoir Collection boxed set. Containing seven movies that range in length from 20 to 130 minutes along with a great featurette titled An Auteur to Remember, the set is spread over three discs and packaged in a mock director's clapper that's actually annoying to open.
The breadth of the titles is liberal, from his debut silent feature, Whirlpool of Fate (1925), to his penultimate film, 1962's The Elusive Corporal. Each film is something of a deviation from Renoir as we know him, making this a worthy voyage of discovery for people who have only seen Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game.
Whirlpool of Fate (paired on the first DVD with its commercial-flop follow-up Nana, based on Emile Zola's novel), for instance, plunges into the darkest sexual and emotional recesses of any Renoir picture. The film is a vehicle for his actress wife, Catherine Hessling, who portrays an orphaned girl who travels from one hurtful man to another. The movie features a Lars von Trier-like parade of cruelty toward the poor girl, though happiness awaits. For 1925, the violence and rape are shocking, and so is Renoir's technical experimentation. He uses an Eisensteinian montage of a barking dog and the relentless abuse the girl endures from her drunken uncle. There's even a nightmarish metaphysical segment where Hessling leaves her body for a surrealist adventure right out of early Cocteau or BuÃ±uel. The pasty-faced Hessling, deliberately made up to look almost vampiric at times, is a haunting specter that's hard to forget. Even in these environs, you can see the roots of Renoir's later concerns: a critical eye toward social iniquity and the development of rich and colorful characters, even in small supporting roles.
The two included shorts, 1927's Charleston Parade and 1928's The Little Match Girl, show another underrepresented facet of Renoir's interests: the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Bizarre to the say the least, Charleston posits Hessling as a goofy sex symbol, dragging a gorilla on a leash and entertaining a visitor from the future, a black man (in blackface) who dresses like Charlie Chaplin. I suppose it's no more racist than other movies of the period, but it's hardly progressive, and while there are interesting slow-motion and fast-motion film effects here and there, it's kind of stupid. The Little Match Girl is far superior. Hessling never looked lovelier, and this retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story is full of life, informed by Renoir's love of magic and the theater.
There are three talkies in the collection, and the earliest one, 1938's La Marseillaise, was shot during his most acclaimed period. It's an account of the French Revolution, and while a Renoir period piece is more modernist and entertaining than most, the film still drags on forever. If you're not well-versed in French history, you may feel lost. In the Auteur to Remember featurette, Martin Scorsese says that although much of the film's dialogue is a verbatim account of what the revolutionaries really said, the film doesn't feel like a history lesson. I'll have to respectfully disagree with him here; this may be the only dull film Renoir ever made.
The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, Renoir's 1959 take on the Jekyll and Hyde story, is an entertaining suspense film, even if it adds little to a story we all know. On the same disc, though, is another of the Collection's highlights, The Elusive Corporal, Renoir's second film about French POWs trying to escape their stalag. This is like Grand Illusion in the comic confines of Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, or as interpreted by Howard Hawks. It displays many Hawksian traits: snappy and witty dialogue, screwball setups and the poignancy of male camaraderie. The movie really shows Renoir retaining his voice in the trendy, post-New Wave climate.
As this collection demonstrates, Renoir may have faltered at times like everybody else, but he remained as brilliant toward the end as he was in his very first picture.