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.
There are letters related to and surrounding the making of particular films: The River, Le Carrosse d’ or, Elena et les hommes. These really do provide detailed information on how the screenplays are put together, how the actors are chosen, how long editing takes, what the hitches are, production arrangements, and how, for example, Claude Renoir Jr, nephew and cameraman, was sent to train at Technicolour London for Renoir’s first colour film.
All these letters give a good impression of what it was like for Renoir to live and work in Hollywood, and how he felt unsuited to the big studio set-up. Another thing that comes out of them (and their footnotes) is an understanding that despite the clear authorship of many Hollywood films, ideas or stories did not belong to the individual. Fritz Lang re-made La Bête humaine as Human Desire, and La Chienne as Scarlett Street, Buñuel re-made Diary of a Chambermaid in 1964, and Dudley Nichols’s idea of making Thieves like Us was taken up by Nicholas Ray in 1948 and by Robert Altman in 1974. All these stories, of course, were originally novels written by someone else, but we do get a sense that in Hollywood this process is less like recycling and more like playing a jazz standard, done with a certain amount of respect, or a wink towards its predecessors.
There are two other kinds of letter in this book, and they are both documentations of particular relationships. One is composed of extensive correspondences (both sides are published) with Robert Flaherty, Dudley Nichols, Clifford Odets, Ingrid Bergman and François Truffaut. Many letters are exchanged, but since Renoir also actually saw these people, their friendship must have evolved in some space other than their writings, and a lot of the letters are filled with little pleasantries. So much so, in fact, that when a ‘real letter’ appears it comes as quite a blow. We thought they were close, if only because of the accumulation of correspondence, but it only becomes evident when Odets tells the Renoirs his ex-wife has died. The death he has seen too much of, he writes, ‘blurs my eyes’. And Ingrid Bergman, in turmoil over her affair with Rossellini, answers Renoir’s charming message that he likes having her husband next door: ‘Maybe you, Jean, whose life I am sure has been difficult, confusing and maybe tossed like a shipwreck, maybe you can explain to Petter that sometimes people leave and they don’t go back.’
It is not clear which particular difficulties or confusions Bergman has in mind, but Renoir’s life had certainly undergone many significant changes. Born in 1894, Jean Renoir was the second son of the Impressionist painter. He had a happy childhood (much influenced by his nanny, Gabrielle) in Paris and on his father’s estate in the South of France, ‘Les Collettes’. However, like many Europeans of his generation, he fled France in 1940 amid much turbulence and secrecy. He had been asked to make films under the Occupation (an offer he might not have been able to refuse) but left before giving an answer. He arrived in America on New Year’s Eve 1941, and began a different kind of battle with the Hollywood system. Given Ingrid Bergman’s own circumstances, she may have been thinking of his marital adventures. Soon after his father’s death in 1919, he married Catherine Hessling, one of Pierre-Auguste’s models. He began to make films as a showcase for her talents (or at least, ambitions) and their marriage broke down when he continued to make films without her. Reputed to resemble her ferociously vain and fortune-seeking screen character, Nana, Hessling took Renoir to court many years later, making it impossible for him to return to France. In the Thirties Renoir lived with his film editor Marguerite (who adopted his name even though they never married), and he later married Dido Freire, with whom he remained until his death in 1979.
The other kind of letters are the ones Renoir writes to Dido in the brief periods when they are apart. It is here that one gets a sense of his voice or his presence. He appears totally honest with Dido, and his politeness seems to allow him to tell only her when he finds things rather boring. He writes that Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is ‘very beautiful, but with the same impression of boredom as a lot of the new products of French cinema’. On the very next page he is sending his compliments to Truffaut. His letters to Dido are like a diary, or a novel with a first-person narrator. On his return to Paris after many years in America he writes: ‘At avenue Frochot some anonymous youngsters had covered the sidewalks and walls with chalked inscriptions: “Vive Jean Renoir”, “From La Petite Marchande d’ allumettes to The River, thank you,” etc. It seems they have not forgotten me in Paris.’ Then: ‘the people here like me very much: I go to a theatre to see some actors, and on the stage the people were speechless and sputtered with emotion to see me there. And not only old friends but young people whom I had never seen before.’ The modesty, surprise and sense of a home ‘made strange’ are almost those of a young boy, or an old man whose legend is his parallel life.
These glimpses of Renoir’s presence in the letters leave us trying to pinpoint a similar presence in his films, but it seems so fluid and random. Is it in the moments of randomness, as at the end of La Grande Illusion, when the two French soldiers, dressed in black, are trudging up a snow-covered mountain, their awkward movements apparently choreographed in a kind of counterpoint? Or is it in the spaces he leaves for us to fill in, what Truffaut calls ‘un travail semi-improvisé, volontairement in-achevé, “ouvert”, en sorte que chaque spectateur puisse le compléter, le commenter à sa guise’. This feeling is confirmed on the many occasions when Truffaut sees La Règle du jeu: instead of seeing a finished product, he writes, ‘on éprouve I’impression d’assister à un film en cours de tournage.’
If that is where we are to look for Renoir, we find him in a film made last year. Un Tournage à la campagne (Renoir/Fleischer 1936/1994) is an 80-minute film made up entirely of out-takes from Une Partie de campagne, a short film (the one that was interrupted by the weather) based on a story by Maupassant. Renoir’s film is beautifully photographed to re-create scenes painted by the Impressionists, but the characters are his favoured comic figures. It is as much a homage to the work of his father as it is to that of Laurel and Hardy. Un Tournage, put together by Alain Fleischer from unused footage given to the Cinémathèque Française over thirty years ago, is not a documentary. It is a collection of out-takes set up in the sequence of the finished film. There is no commentary, it is not ‘the making of’, although that is exactly what it reveals. Contrary to the smooth, pastoral flow of Une Partie de campagne, this film acquires a force of its own through its unfinished quality and through the repetition of the same scenes.
Towards the end (of both films), the young heroes kiss in such close-up that the forms of their faces make abstract patterns on the screen. In Une Partie they kiss only once, but in Un Tournage they do it several times. They kiss, she turns her head till it is out of focus. They kiss, he turns. They kiss, only one eye is in focus. Kiss. Nose, lips, and so on, through all possible framings. We watch the camera at work, through endlessly refined repetitions, we concentrate (or so it seems) on technical detail, but meanwhile the emotion in the scene swells up beneath the surface, catching us unawares.
Where we cannot fail to feel Renoir’s presence during this film which really is a film in the process of being made, is in the sound of his voice. There is always a moment of concentration for the actors before starting, ‘Attention ... allez!’ and always a word of encouragement afterwards – ‘Excellent!’ ‘Très bien!’ ‘Merci.’ How is it that this previously unheard voice (different from his raucous acting voice) feels so familiar and reassuring?
At the end of Une Partie the couple meet up again. Henriette has married the Stan Laurel lookalike Anatole, and Henri speaks to her of the day they kissed. They look deep into each other’s eyes, and she replies softly: ‘Moi, j’y pense tous les soirs.’ When they look into each other’s eyes they are actually looking at the camera, and one assumes this was acted several times and filmed from both angles. But in Un Tournage we find out that in both cases the person the actor is addressing so longingly is not their partner or the cameraman, but Renoir himself. We see Henriette’s (Sylvia Bataille’s) eyes welling up and Renoir’s gentle voice behind the camera (as if behind us): ‘Alors, attention Sylvia ... regarde-moi dans les yeux ... Allez!’ Then: ‘Moi, j’y pense tous les soirs.’
Renoir wrote in his autobiography that what he liked about ‘l’exhibitionnisme de l’auteur’ was that it was not manifested physically, and the author was able to hide behind his heroes. Because, he says simply, ‘Dieu n’a pas fait de moi un héros.’ But his true role is something much less one-way, more dynamic and more along the lines of what he wrote to Carlos Serrano in 1961. In that letter he speaks of a ‘constant struggle between the need for self-expression and the desire for self-effacement’. Renoir is everywhere in his films, even in the places we least expect him to be. He is not only the film-maker but also the object of his makings; it is as if there were mirrors placed at funny angles – something is always bouncing back. He can be seen in Un Tournage à la campagne, not as the all-powerful, all-emitting auteur, but as someone much more bundled up in the film, more vulnerable, perhaps: the silent and unseen lover.