This year marks the centenary of the birth of Jean Renoir, the director of two of this century's most notable films: The Grand Illusion, the poignant story of inmates in a German World War I prisoner-of-war camp, and The Rules of the Game, a satire of decadent French aristocracy on the eve of World War II. Renoir also directed lesser-known but influential movies such as The Diary of a Chambermaid and The Human Beast, among others. The 1994 Cannes film festival was dedicated to him, and a street in Paris will carry his name -- only two of many honors. The French auteur is also the subject of Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise (Overlook Press, 378 pp), a new biography by film scholar Ronald Bergan, coauthor of The Faber Companion to Foreign Films.
Renoir lived a rich and diverse life. His father, the painter Auguste Renoir (already 53 and world-famous when Jean was born), provided the family with comfortable homes in Paris and the provinces, and young Jean grew up among luminaries such as Patti Cezanne and Edgar Degas, close family friends and great admirers of Jean's mother's cuisine -- her table was legendary, according to Bergan, and instilled in Jean a lifelong love of good food.
Renoir worked at making pottery for a while (something he would fall back on when his early movies proved unsuccessful), but it was the new medium of film, especially the works of Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, that held him in thrall. He wanted to create a French cinema equal to that of America, or in his own words, a "craftsman's cinema in which the author can express himself as directly as the painter in his paintings or the writer in his books." Renoir later qualified that statement. "Only when the actors began to talk did I gradually realize the possibility of getting to the truth of the character," he wrote. "It was when I began to make talking pictures that I had the revelation that what I was most deeply concerned about was the character."
By the late 1930s, Renoir had a worldwide reputation. Feelings about him rarely were lukewarm. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels declared him "Cinematographic Enemy No. 1" on the basis of The Grand Illusion, an antiwar film; when the Germans occupied Vienna in 1938, authorities stopped a viewing of the movie in midreel. After the war, scholars feared that no copy of the film had survived. But a print was found by American troops in Munich, the city that had played so significant a role in Adolf Hitler's rise to power.
The Rules of the Game fared worse. …