Boats on the Marne: Jean Renoir's Critique of Modernity

Boats on the Marne: Jean Renoir's Critique of Modernity

Boats on the Marne: Jean Renoir's Critique of Modernity

Boats on the Marne: Jean Renoir's Critique of Modernity


Boats on the Marne offers an original interpretation of Jean Renoir's celebrated films of the 1930s, treating them as a coherent narrative of philosophical response to the social and political crises of the times. Grounded in a reinterpretation of the foundational film-philosopher Andre Bazin, and drawing on work from a range of disciplines (film studies, art history, comparative literature, political and cultural history), the book's coordinated consideration of Renoir's films, writings, and interviews demonstrates his obsession with the concept of romanticism. Renoir saw romanticism to be a defining feature of modernity, a hydra-headed malady which intimately shapes our personal lives, culture, and politics, blinding us and locking us into agonistic relationships and conflict. While mapping the popular manifestations of romanticism that Renoir engaged with at the time, this study restores the philosophic weight of his critique by tracing the phenomenon back to its roots in the work and influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who first articulated conceptions of human desire, identity, community, and history that remain pervasive today. Prakash Younger argues that Renoir's films of the 1930s articulate a multi-stranded narrative through which the director thinks about various aspects of romanticism and explores the liberating possibilities of an alternative paradigm illuminated by the thought of Plato, Montaigne, and the early Enlightenment. When placed in the context of the long and complex dialogue Renoir had with his audience over the course of the decade, masterpieces such as La Grande Illusion and La Regle du Jeu reveal his profound engagement with issues of political philosophy that are still very much with us today.


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it
really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of
danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which
unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.
The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The
same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.
In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a
conformism that is about to overpower it.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940

When I made La Règle du jeu I knew where I was going. I knew the malady that
gnawed at the contemporary world. That doesn’t mean that I knew how to give
a clear idea of that malady in my film. But my instinct guided me. My awareness
of danger furnished the situations and the lines, and my comrades felt like I
did. How anxious we were! I think the film is good. But it’s not so difficult to do
good work when the compass of anxiety indicates the true direction.

Jean Renoir, “Interview,” 1952

Though I first saw La règle du jeu a long time ago, during my first year in college, I have never forgotten the astonishment of the experience. I was not far into the film when I caught a glimpse of something vital, the key to a mystery of human relations I had been wondering about in real life, and the expectation that this magical something was about to be revealed riveted my attention to every detail of events onscreen, carried me all the . . .

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