From Jean Renior through Douglas Sirk, there may be some choices that raise an eyebrow. While each of the directors we look at today might not be on every cinephile’s list of great directors, they absolutely merit inclusion for their distinct visions and dedication to their craft, some despite their questionable personal lives and politics.
(1894 - 1979)
Three Key Films: Grand Illusion (1937), La Bete Humaine(1938), The Rules of the Game (1939)
Underrated: French Cancan (1955) As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication. While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.
Unforgettable: As the Nazis threaten, the rich go hunting. At its core, The Rules of the Game is a comedy of manners. It mocks the cavalier cluelessness of the French upper class while warning of their future complicity in the Hitler’s invasion of their country. For Renoir, the rise of the Third Reich was a particularly sore subject for the filmmaker and he would craft one of his earliest masterpieces around the pointlessness of war. But with Rules, he satirized the capricious and self-indulgent nature of the “nobles,” arguing that they would rather fiddle away (or in this case, hunt rabbits) while the rest of the nation burned. With its complicated editorial approach and splashes of significant imagery, it stands as the moment when Renoir became a master of the filmmaking form.
The Legend: Imagine being the son of one of the world’s most beloved painters. Now imagine the pressure that comes from your own desire to pursue an career in creativity. For most of his young life, Jean was haunted by his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s legacy. With the family’s place and financial security, he was allowed to indulge in his every whim, even while attending fancy boarding schools that he often ran away from. Incorrigible and yet eager to please, he would constantly look for his famous father’s favor. He would rarely get it. When World War I broke out, Jean was in the cavalry. He would take a bullet in the leg which would leave him with a lifelong limp. After his service, he set out to find his way. His father suggested ceramics. Jean decided to follow his idol, Erich von Stroheim, into the world of film.
In the early ‘20s, he began making silents. Their lack of success forced him to sell off some of his father’s painting to pay for his next production. By the 1930s, however, he became celebrated for his social comedies and political dramas. One of his most celebrated, Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) would later become the basis for the ‘80s hit Down and Out in Beverly Hills. By 1935, he had allied himself with the Popular Front movement of French left wing thinkers. As Germany came back to power, Jean felt the need to address the disease of war. Grand Illusion (1937) would become an international hit. It was the first foreign film to every receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. He followed that up with La Bete Humaine (1938), another take on the downtrodden, before launching directly into his most pointed attack on the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game 1939).
Many consider this 1939 effort as one of the greatest films of all time, and with good reason. Jean used the old school strategies of his silent days with the new fangled approaches from around the world to make the first truly “modern” movie. As a combination of style and statement, it remains a major cinematic proclamation. The Nazis chased Jean out of Europe, and upon settling in America, he discovered a lack of legitimate projects. While his output was spotty, he stilled produced moments of moviemaking brilliance. Indeed, The Southerner (1945), Diary of a Chambermaid (1945), and The River (1951) showed that he still was a formidable force behind the lens. He returned to Europe with a triptych of terrific Technicolor titles reminiscent of his buoyant birthplace—The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956). From then on, he became a kind of chronicler—of his life, the life of his famous father, French cinema of the past and the artform in its modern form. Along with his sizable reputation, Jean left behind a passion for life matched by few. It was a love that transcended the trappings of fame to find a place in the humblest human emotions. Bill Gibron