- Jean Renoir: Letters edited by Lorraine LoBianco and David Thompson, translated by Craig Carlson, Natasha Arnoldi and Michael Wells
Faber, 605 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17298 9
Jean Renoir was admired by his followers and contemporaries for the relaxed feel of his films. He himself loved the improvisatory quality of the Commedia dell’Arte, which he saw as a struggle between ‘the tendency toward exterior realism and that toward interior realism’, and wrote that what he considered to be ‘the ultimate in cinema as in theatre’ was ‘a style and dialogue that sometimes borders on the burlesque’. Much is left to chance, or a belief in happy coincidence: he wrote the script for La Règle du jeu as it was being filmed, bad weather turned Une Partie de campagne from a feature-length into a 40-minute film, and when a whole reel from La Nuit du carrefour was lost he screened it anyway. Yet none of these is ‘unfinished’.
The working title for Renoir’s autobiography, Ma vie et mes films, was ‘Souvenirs incomplets’, an idea which we might transfer to this collection of his letters. Although the letters are arranged chronologically, if we open the book at the year 1937 or 1939 we do not discover how La Grande Illusion was put together or what he felt about La Règle du jeu, so near the outbreak of war. This last film, though, is the subject of a 1951 letter in which be reminds his wife Dido ‘how Nora Grégor’s blunders nearly killed that film’. In 1959 he explains to a theatre director how the story of his play, Orvet, was inspired by his survival in a car crash which killed his best friend; and in 1963 he tells a New York Times journalist that the idea for La Grande Illusion came to him when, while shooting Toni, he crossed paths with a pilot who had saved his life many years earlier. Both in the letters and in Ma vie et mes films we are reading his memories rather than his memoirs, a term which Renoir found too ‘complete’.
The bulk of these letters were written during Renoir’s years in Hollywood – that is, from 1941 to his death in 1979. Consequently, most of them were originally written in English, although he also wrote many letters in French during that time, and they form the main part of quite a different selection, Lettres d’ Amérique, published in France in 1984. Broadly speaking, they fall into the following categories:
Gripping social correspondence of the ‘Thank you for your letter,’ ‘the weather is gorgeous,’ ‘Ivan must be a big boy now,’ ‘love to the doggies’ kind.
Personal or legal arrangements, such as getting Le Chasseur, a painting by his father, from Paris (where it had been hidden during the war) to Los Angeles; and the strange question of an unrecognised divorce and only too recognised second marriage.
Very preliminary discussions of ideas for projects, many of which became films much later (made by other people), and some of which it is hoped never will (Renoir is moved at one point by ‘the love of this man for squirrels, and his passion for apple trees’).
The odd letter to someone with whom there is no sustained correspondence, but which gives a good indication of his social or professional circle: James Mason, Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso.