The River

Sisters Valerie and Harriet

Is 1951’s The River a look in search of a story? It’s regularly described – often by people who haven’t seen it – as one of the greatest films ever made. Dig one layer deeper and the praise heaped on Jean Renoir’s “masterpiece” starts to look a touch more one-note. Martin Scorsese reckons this and The Red Shoes are “the two most beautiful colour films ever made.” Eric Rohmer, also no slouch as a director, called it “the most beautiful colour we have ever seen on the screen.” The New York Times in 1951 said “beautiful”. Time Out – “beautiful”. Sight and Sound‘s 2022 Best Films of all time poll rang the changes a … Read more

The Southerner

Nona (Betty Field) and Sam (Zachary Scott)

Fleeing France as the Nazis advanced, French director Jean Renoir went to Hollywood, where he tried to make more of the lyrical, socially engaged films that had made his name back home. 1945’s The Southerner was about as close as he got, but to make his third US feature he had to exit the studio system and do it as an independent. What do you know, it was his best received film, three-times Oscar-nominated, including one for Renoir himself as director. It was as near as he’d ever get to an Academy Award. Being a second-string production made outside the system meant not having access to big-name talent, but Zachary Scott and Betty … Read more

La Chienne

Maurice (Michel Simon) at his easel

La Chienne. It translates as The Bitch, literally. But if it ever goes by an English title it’s usually Isn’t Life a Bitch?, which kind of misses the point. It was made by Jean Renoir in 1931 in France and then remade by Fritz Lang in Hollywood in 1945 as Scarlet Street, with Edward G Robinson and Joan Bennett in the lead roles. Here it’s Michel Simon who plays the silly old duffer, Maurice, who falls for a prostitute, without realising what she is, and is then systematically cleaned out by her and her pimp. Foolish Maurice on one side, cool, calculating Lulu making the big eyes on the other, with Dédé the … Read more

Night at the Crossroads aka La Nuit du Carrefour

Maigret eyes up the suspects

There are three competing theses for what went wrong with Jean Renoir’s Night at the Crossroads (aka La Nuit du Carrefour), a 1932 whodunit of the old school but with some very strange jumps, bumps, gaps, leaps of logic and filmic equivalents of handbrake turns. Number one is that Renoir was depressed while making it and so was often drunk. He simply made a mess of it. Another is that he ran out of money and so never really finished it. The third is that somewhere in the process a reel of film got lost, the one that would have gone a long way towards tying everything together. Whatever the reason, the film … Read more

La Règle du Jeu

Octave with pilot André and Christine

The usual description of Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) as a swingeing/coruscating/blistering (or some such) indictment of the ruling class on the eve of the Second World War misses something – it’s a farce, and a funny one, done at breakneck speed. Sure, the swingeing etc etc stuff is there, but it’s more a background, a bass drone. Equally important is what’s going on up top. Here, the brilliance of Renoir’s direction is most obvious. The plot gathers a bunch of (mostly) highly entitled, frivolous, selfish characters and sequesters them in a chateau for the weekend, where clandestine affairs and class-warfare skirmishes are conducted below … Read more

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange

Valentine, Amédée and Batala

When talk turns to the greatest films of all time, Jean Renoir is usually in there. And when talk turns to Renoir, it’s La Règle du Jeu or La Grande Illusion which most often figure, with Boudu Saved from Drowning sometimes making an appearance. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange not so much. Made in 1936, the year before La Grande Illusion, it has been eclipsed by it in the decades since, though it’s a virtuoso piece of film-making with a remarkable camera, brilliant performances and a story that goes right against the grain. A man and a woman on the run turn up at a bar near the border begging for a room … Read more

La Bête Humaine

Jean Gabin and Simone Simon

In Emile Zola’s story La Bête Humaine, the “human beast” is train driver Jacques Lantier, a man whose family line is full of fuck-ups, alcoholics and brutes. He keeps his passions in check, just about, by focusing rigidly on his job, and in particular on his locomotive, which he calls by the female name Lison. There’s an intertitle card telling us all this at the start of Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1938 adaptation of the story. However, the “beast” of Renoir’s version might actually not be Lantier at all. Instead it could be Séverine, the lusty wife of a plodding stationmaster in Le Havre, where Lantier is forced to spend some time when his … Read more

La Grande Illusion

Erich Von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion

A movie for every day of the year – a good one 11 November First World War ends, 1914 On this day in 1914, hostilities officially ceased on the Western Front (which ran through Belgium, north-eastern France and Alsace-Lorraine – then German, now French), effective 11am. Though the First World War is often described as a victory of the allied powers, officially the result was a draw – the fighting between all concerned was simply called off. Though of course Germany had been beaten and in the Peace of Versailles, the Treaty arranged shortly afterwards, the looseness of this technical distinction became clear – Germany lost territory, its navy, most of its army … Read more