Jean Renoir season
National Film Theatre, central London
Until 2 March
What was it that made the French director Jean Renoir such a remarkable film-maker?
David Thomson, the curator of this British Film Institute season writes (with his usual flair for pretentiousness) that the great qualities of Renoir are “life, passion, humour and affection”.
Like most other “experts” Thomson settles on calling Renoir a humanist.
Well, yes David. Renoir movies are all of those things. But Thomson misses the two really exceptional qualities that Renoir brought to the cinema.
The first is political intelligence. Intelligence is a quality that cinema today has very little use for. Contemporary movies speak to the senses and the emotions, and sometimes to the memory.
For a political artist like Renoir movies could be charming and fun, but they could at the same time also be questioning and thought provoking.
More specifically in films like La Règle du Jeu, La Bête Humaine and Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, which is tragically not showing during the season, Renoir movies reveal a subtle but deep understanding of how class moulds the very world we live in.
Technically Renoir was never a Marxist, although he was a Communist for a time, yet his great movies almost forensically examine the world with an insight that Karl Marx himself most certainly would have admired.
The second great quality in Renoir’s movies is that he is always a rebel.
In Renoir’s movie world, rules are for breaking, conventions are for disregarding and authority is for mocking.
His heroes and heroines are the marginal and discarded people — tramps, scullery maids, printers, hookers, railway men and poachers.
Before he was any kind of “humanist” Renoir was a shit-kicker with a contempt for the po-faced bourgeoisie.
Even the rules of film making were for flouting.
Renoir once told Italian film-maker Bernardo Bertolucci that a movie maker should always leave the doors of the studio open when filming, to allow in the spontaneous and unpredictable. Renoir made movies like the Brazilians play football.
Like the Brazilians at his best his films are matchless.
Renoir’s truly great movies all came in an amazing sequence during the 1930s.
It is no coincidence that these movies were the product of the inspirational days of the Popular Front, when the French working class swung to the left and began to assert its political power.
This was the moment made for an analytical shit-kicker committed to making popular movies.
Renoir’s films of this period embody everything that film can be, but today so rarely is — intelligent, daring, surprising, politically committed and fun.
They are among the more important moments of 20th century socialist art, and you should try to get to see them on the big screen.