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Jean Renoir, the Boss: A Portrait of Jean Renoir by BAM

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Jean Renoir, the Boss: A Portrait of Jean Renoir by BAM

[Author’s Note: BAM’s Jean Renoir series begins today. For a complete series schedule, click here.]

“If I had to keep just one film to give future generations the idea of what the art of cinema was in the twentieth century, I would choose The Little Theater [of Jean Renoir], because all of Renoir is contained in it, and because Renoir contains all of cinema.”

So wrote Éric Rohmer in 1979, two months after Renoir’s death. He was referring to the director’s last, least narrative film, a series of sketches made nine years earlier. The Little Theater will not be showing in BAM’s 22-film Renoir retrospective starting today, but Rohmer’s words are applicable to every one of the films that are. Whether his films were French or American, silent or sound, from the 1920s through 1970 Jean Renoir made cinema his little theater.

By no means is this a bad thing. I feel comfortable calling Renoir a theatrical director for the same reason I feel comfortable calling him a humanist—his focus in his movies is always on people. The way people walk, the camera following gently, is central to him, whether Erich von Stroheim’s stiff dignity-grabbing in Grand Illusion or Michel Simon’s shambling, hunched sort of walk-ballet in La Chienne, Zachary Scott’s skinny alertness in The Southerner or Renoir himself, a pudgeball bounding forward in a bear suit in The Rules of the Game.

Rules is the movie where Renoir’s Octave utters the line, “Everyone has his reasons,” a buzzcode that opens the door to every movie the director made. Rules, the legendary one, the one that bombed upon its 1939 release, helping lead Renoir to America, but now cracks nearly every list of the greatest movies ever made, isn’t a bad entrance. The movie takes place on a palatial estate, with loads of upstairs/downstairs shenanigans, people pining for each other’s wives, rabbit hunts, and masquerades, all ending in a gunshot blast that heralds the Second World War. The tragicomedy can be summed up in a moment, as Marcel Dalio’s aristocrat unveils his latest toy, a brand-spanking new calliope, and lets it play a chintzy tune for his guests. Years later, you still remember the delight on his face.

Rules isn’t showing until May 8, though, as the third-to-last film in the series, which in a sense is a blessing. The wait gives you time to discover some of the filmmaker’s other treasures. Jean was the son of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste, and like his father he creates warm, striking group images, with the sense of people consistently glide-dancing forth. 1951’s The River, with its saturated color, was the closest he ever came to capturing Dad’s vibrating reds, oranges, and greens. But the sense of people in landscape, moving fluidly through deep space, is something both Renoirs share, with fils capturing surroundings as disparate as the harsh train Jean Gabin rides in La Bête Humaine and the cool lake the lovers lie by in A Day in the Country.

Up to now, save River and Southerner, I’ve only been naming French films. These are the movies, mainly made before 1940, for which Renoir’s best-known, and the BAM series will show several—La Marseillaise and Boudu Saved From Drowning are also well worth a look. (The major omissions, for those who are wondering, are the 1935 social drama The Crime of Monsieur Lange and the 1932 policier La Nuit du Carrefour).

It’s also worth going, though, to see Renoir’s later, lesser-known French films (like 1962’s prison escape movie The Elusive Corporal and 1959’s Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, with Children of Paradise’s mime, Jean-Louis Barrault, playing Jekyll-and-Hyde) as well as the American films he made in between them, after war made him cross the water (sensitive studies of the rural lower classes like Swamp Water and This Land Is Mine). And then there are the uncategorizables, like The Golden Coach, a French-Italian coproduction (whose best version unfolds in English) in which Anna Magnani’s actress bustles through a mythical Peru. A Viceroy, a male diva, and a bullfighter all fall for her; at the end she looks out at the audience from a stage, and when someone asks if she’ll miss them she clenches her teeth and replies, “A leetle.”

I feel that way each time a Renoir film ends—a little sad, but not devastated because, as in the theater, I know that soon enough the performance will resume. “Where does the theater end and life begin?” Magnani wonders. The best thing about Renoir’s films is the continual sensation they give of life as theater, until theater feels like life.

Aaron Cutler has written about film for Slant Magazine and The Believer.