Jean Renoir (1894-1979), son of celebrated impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was one of the greatest and most influential of all filmmakers. He was noted for his use of deep-focus photography, unerring sense of composition, fluid visual style and profoundly humanistic sensibility. He made about 40 movies, beginning in the silent era and continuing up to 1969. Ordered by theatrical release date, here's my list of the top 10 Jean Renoir films available on DVD:
1. 'Boudu Saved From Drowning' (1932)
"I've never seen such a perfect tramp!" proclaims the affluent bookseller when he first catches sight of the unkempt, shabbily dressed, homeless Boudu (Michel Simon in one of the great performances of all time). When Boudu jumps into the Seine, the bookseller rescues him. Then the ill-mannered tramp moves in with the bookseller's bourgeois family and soon turns their lives upside down. This is a movie that makes you chuckle while you're watching it and smile every time you think about it later.
2. 'The Lower Depths' (1936)
Freely adapted from Gorky's play, Renoir's The Lower Depths
is a strange film set in a place that is part 1902 Russia, part 1936 France. The key location is a flophouse where one of the residents is the thief Pépel (Jean Gabin). Pépel burglarizes the mansion of a baron who has just lost all his money, and the two become friends. Also, a romance develops between Pépel and his landlady's sister. Although life is sordid in the flophouse, Renoir keeps open the possibility that things can change.
3. 'Grand Illusion' (1937)
If you have never seen any Renoir film, begin with the accessible, yet profound, Grand Illusion
. On the surface it's about French officers taken prisoner by the Germans in World War I, but this merely provides a dramatic framework on which Renoir hung his ruminations on nationality, social class, language and ethnicity. The actors, including Erich von Stroheim, Marcel Dalio and Jean Gabin, create characters that will stay in your mind forever. This is one of the best movies ever made.
4. 'La Marseillaise' (1938)
In this historical drama, Renoir celebrates the common man bringing an end to the feudal system and moving toward the idea of a nation based on liberty and equality. We follow a group of wage-earners from Marseilles as their army unit participates in the French Revolution, along the way spreading the anthem "La Marseillaise." Also, Renoir gives us intriguing versions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The film's climax is the battle where the revolutionaries take Tuileries Palace in 1792.
5. 'La Bête humaine' (1938)
Inspired by Zola's novel, Renoir's La Bête humaine
(The Human Beast
) is a suspenseful crime drama and love story that involves sex, jealousy, murder, mental instability and suicide. Set in 1938, the film centers around railroad workers at the bustling port city of Le Havre. Jean Gabin portrays the engineer of a coal-burning train who falls in love with the femme fatale wife of the stationmaster. The footage of Gabin and Julien Carette working together to operate the locomotive is unforgettable.
6. 'The Rules of the Game' (1939)
One of the greatest movies of all time, The Rules of the Game
explores manners, morals and society. The plot is intricate, and Renoir employs eight major characters and three romantic triangles as he seamlessly blends farce, satire and tragedy. The story is set in the 1930s and centers around a hunting party at a country estate owned by a wealthy aristocrat (Marcel Dalio in a marvelous performance). The film's most famous line: "The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons."
7. 'The Southerner' (1945)In the 1940s Renoir made Hollywood films, and the best of these, The Southerner, earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination. Starring Zachary Scott, the movie avoids most Hollywood clichés as it chronicles a year in the life of a tenant farmer and his family battling poverty, disease, bad weather and a hostile neighbor. But Renoir sprinkles the film with lighter moments, and the ending leaves us with reason to hope that the family may eventually be able to make things better for themselves.
8. 'The River' (1951)
A beautiful color film set in India, The River
was shot in and around Calcutta. The story is adapted from Rumer Godden's semiautobiographical novel. In the movie, an unseen Englishwoman looks back at events that occurred during her adolescence. She was a nerdy, awkward girl who got a crush on a handsome young man, but he was attracted to a prettier, more graceful neighbor. But Renoir adds a dazzling visual dimension by interleaving the narrative with documentary-style footage of Indian life.
9. 'French Cancan' (1955)Bursting with color and music, French Cancan is Renoir's fictionalized account of the founding of the Moulin Rouge in 1880s Paris. The main character is an impresario (played by Jean Gabin) who woos financiers and wrangles talent. He meets a laundress (Françoise Arnoul) and turns her into a dancer who is pursued by three men. Exploitation abounds, and there are prices to be paid for getting the club going, but it all seems worth it when they dance the cancan in opening night's exuberant finale.
10. 'The Elusive Corporal' (1962)For his last feature film, Renoir made a second POW movie that is upbeat like Grand Illusion, but is otherwise quite different. The Elusive Corporal is about a French enlisted man (Jean-Pierre Cassel) captured by the Germans in World War II. After his early attempts at escape fail, he learns he can live a reasonably comfortable life as a POW if he acquiesces to being the slave of his captors. But events transpire leading the corporal to decide that despite the risks, he must try for freedom.