Jean Renoir’s works are among the major achievements of world cinema and the essential Renoir is to be found in the films from La Chienne (1931) to Rules of the Game (1939). It follows that BAM’s current series, which covers precisely that territory (10 of the 15 films he directed during the ’30s), is the greatest display of riches in town.
La Chienne and Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), the first two films in the program, both star Michel Simon, but in startlingly disparate performances. In Chienne, where the first flowering of Renoir’s naturalism becomes apparent, this remarkable actor is at once ludicrous and moving in his contained portrayal of a middle-aged cashier grasping at an unexpected late chance at sexual abandon in the arms of a young whore. With its depiction of the sordid altercations of Parisian life, the film is a clear expression of the Stroheim side of Renoir—he notes in his memoirs that he saw Foolish Wives “at least 10 times.” (He later repaid in full whatever debt he owed to his mentor by giving him the greatest acting role of his career in Grand Illusion.) And at a time when few directors in France were willing to venture outside the studios, Renoir utilizes sound with considerable creativity. This was the first French talkie to be shot in real locations—notably the noisy streets of Montmartre.
In Boudu, a hilariously subversive comedy of manners, Simon lets out all the stops with an outrageous performance as a shaggy vagabond who’s fished out of the Seine by a bourgeois bookseller and turns into the houseguest from hell. In this anarchic romp, the simple physical joy of Paris in the summer is heightened by the director’s astute use of depth-of-focus camera setups. Renoir identified the subject of the film as “loitering,” an activity he called “the highest achievement of civilization.”
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), an offbeat and spontaneous comedy thriller about the employees of a publishing house who run the company as a cooperative when their unscrupulous boss is presumed dead, was a turning point in his career. An anticlerical assault on class prejudice, it was the first of his films to reflect the utopian euphoria of the Popular Front. Renoir clearly emerged as the central figure of the left in French cinema. Lange led directly to his next job, supervising and codirecting La Vie Est à Nous (1936), an agitprop vehicle commissioned by the Communist Party in preparation for the forthcoming elections. This collaborative project, shot by half a dozen other directors besides Renoir (including Jacques Becker and Henri Cartier-Bresson), combines doc footage with fictional scenes, obscuring the distinction between them.
If the beloved Grand Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game, Renoir’s most ambitious and complex work, are both masterpieces, his most lyrical and idyllic film is the often overlooked A Day in the Country (1936). Based on a Maupassant story, set in the 1860s, and shot in Ile de France landscapes where the director’s father, Auguste Renoir, painted, this short feature concerns a young girl from a middle-class family who leaves her doltish fiancé during a picnic and succumbs to a brief romance with a young man beneath her station that will mark her for life. It was released only after the war, supposedly never completed. If so, it’s the most flawless unfinished film ever made.