Jean Renoir: A Biography


By Pascal Merigeau

Foreword by Martin Scorsese

Translated by Bruce Benderson

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Originally published in France in 2012, Pascal Mégeau’s definitive biography of legendary film director Jean Renoir is a landmark work-the winner of a Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary achievement. Now available in the English language for the first time, Jean Renoir: A Biography, is the definitive study of one of the most fascinating and creative artistic figures of the twentieth century. The French filmmaker made more than forty films from the silent era to the late ’60s and today he is revered by filmmakers and seen by many as one of the greatest of all time. Renoir made acclaimed movies in France, America, India, and Italy and became a writer during the last part of his life.

An estimated 75 percent of the book details previously unknown information about the filmmaker, including Renoir’s close affiliation with Communism in the ’30s (when he was the Party’s official director) and his work with the fascist regimes during World War II; his previously uncredited Hollywood film, The Amazing Mrs. Holiday; and new information on the making of his most famous films.

Drawing from unpublished or little known sources, this biography is a completely fresh approach to the maker of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, redefining the very function of the movie director and simultaneously recounting the history of a century.



The Chameleon on Plaid

Late on the morning of February 20, 1979, Jean Renoir was interred in the family vault in Essoyes cemetery, next to his older brother, Pierre, and their father, Auguste. His mother, Aline, and younger brother, Claude, lay nearby.

It was cold that Tuesday. The ground was frozen, the roads icy; the few faithful who'd come to pay their respects to the memory of the Master worried they'd never make it as far as Essoyes. Driven by Jean Carmet* who voiced his certainty that "the Boss" wouldn't have had it otherwise, the little group swept into a café as soon as arriving and ordered ham and eggs, which were served at the exact moment the funeral procession crossed the square. That same evening in Neuilly, Dido and Alain Renoir, the widow and only son of the director, reminisced about the deceased over a leg of lamb with beans, a specialty of Sébillon, the restaurant Renoir had frequented in the old days.

Jean Renoir had died at lunchtime on February 12, the Monday of the week before, in his house on Leona Drive in Beverly Hills' Benedict Canyon. He was eighty-four years old. On Friday the sixteenth, a mass had been celebrated at the oldest church in Beverly Hills, Church of the Good Shepherd, the same one that had hosted Rudolph Valentino's funeral in 1926 and Gary Cooper's in 1961 as well as the place where George Cukor had staged the funeral scene in the film A Star Is Born; and where, a little more than a year after Renoir's service, respects would be paid to Alfred Hitchcock, who would die on April 29, 1980. On the evening of Sunday the twenty-fifth, two thousand people visited the enormous Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for a ceremony in Renoir's honor, which had been planned some time before but had been transformed into a posthumous tribute at which Cukor, among others, spoke.

On the day after Renoir's death, deep within the part of the country where he'd spent his childhood vacations, he was honored on a scale worthy of his renown, just as would happen in California, where he'd lived the last thirty-eight years of his life. That renown was sizable, motivated as it was by admiration for his films, the aura of his personality as the son of a great painter, his reputation for openness to the world and to others, and his extraordinary lust for life and all the pleasures it afforded—among which those of the table ranked high. And so, another leg of lamb serves as a way to begin this story.

Alain Renoir had spent a long time preparing the dish, using a tiny knife to make the incisions into which he inserted slivers of garlic. Unearthing from a cupboard an electric rotisserie whose functioning only he knew, and cursing the appliance without really being annoyed, he finally plugged it in; soon after, it glowed red. He didn't take his eyes from the meat while it cooked, unless to serve himself a glass of champagne. Alain Renoir loved champagne—French brands when he was in France, Californian when he was at home. That evening, or perhaps the day before, or the day before that, he'd discovered one of the two films of his father that he hadn't known: On purge Bébé. He'd never see the second, which I'd also brought him, and that's the reason why I've forgotten its title. Ten or so days after this final leg of lamb, he fell ill, spent time in a Sacramento hospital (where the nurses still remember how much this old gentleman made them laugh), and was eventually moved to his house in Esparto. In Paris on a Saturday evening, I heard the voice of his wife, Patricia Renoir, on the telephone, telling me, "Pascal, Alain died yesterday." The date she called: December 13, 2008.

Alain had joined the United States Army and fought in the Pacific during World War II, and had then become a professor of medieval literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He'd laughingly claim that he now never read any text written after the Battle of Hastings, which took place on October 14, 1066. One morning in his arbor (this must have been during my first stay in Esparto), he said to me, "I've talked about my father with dozens of people, but you ask questions nobody ever asked."

The reason for this is simple. Of all the major directors, Jean Renoir was the one who shared the most about himself and his films—both in speech and in writing. He's also one of those to whom the greatest number of works has been devoted worldwide. Works in which all the events related, all the conversations reported, all the characteristics of behavior described, and all the ways of making things known are generally held to be absolutely authentic. And yet, reading between the lines and questioning truths that seem established reveal glaring contradictions, blatant impossibilities, patent expropriations. To understand who Jean Renoir was, we need to restart from zero, drawing from sources that until now were difficult to access, some of which are still unpublished today. We need to take constant care to keep our perspective on his films as they can be read on the screen, and not on this or that rereading of them through a prism of admiration. I quickly understood that reassembling different elements from their sources and observing them with the necessary distance would yield a figure who does not conform to the one commonly described; and as I did this, the various pages of the Renoir legend—one after another—became blurred because they looked too well calibrated to be honest, too carefully drawn. Soon another Renoir began to appear, a more complicated, more original, and considerably more interesting Renoir. Therefore, the story of the fabrication of his legend has become one of the axes of this book that allows us to understand more clearly who this personality really was and how he was transformed at the end of his life into the wise old man he was not. This transformation was accomplished by an overzealous following who were determined he reveal no trait likely to free him from the framework in which they'd judged it convenient to imprison him.

As a matter of fact, how could our perceived image of Renoir, woven from a single cloth, jibe with his films, when this is the same director and same man who envisioned and directed La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) and La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), films so dissimilar that all they have in common is that both have become classics? The aim of this book, then, was born from the enigma announced by Jacques Lourcelles when he said, "If it's astonishing to have made Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game, it's so much more so to have directed both these films, thereby touching every stratum of an audience, as if there were a writer capable of creating not only Les Misérables but also The Charterhouse of Parma."1

Before I even had time to share my insight with Alain regarding this fissure between the man as his father is commonly described and his films, Alain in some way corroborated it with his anecdotes and memories as well as his own way of being and considering the world. Alain was as direct as his father had been roundabout, and he called people idiots as easily as Jean had claimed to understand all of them. He hated stupidity as much as Renoir—when he chose to—didn't notice it, or pretended not to. And yet, when the son spoke, it was also Jean you heard—his passions, contradictions, educated guesses, and deficiencies—all of that human complexity. It was something I remarked upon without ever having met Jean Renoir, whose films I discovered like a lot of people of my generation did, on television; and they stayed with me from the start, either because they seemed easily accessible to the child I was—Grand Illusion, of course, and Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), obviously—or because I couldn't understand that certain people more intelligent and more cultivated than I thought they were masterpieces. It obviously takes time to realize that claimed imperfections can be more appealing than flaunted virtues, and to understand that a real film is made from the gulf that inevitably opens between the work as imagined by its creator and what he or she manages to accomplish.

I also remember the strange effect near the end of the seventies that La Chienne had on me, its uniqueness and beauty, and how I thought the sound seemed to have been recorded in an aquarium holding Michel Simon and the street singers, the pretty girl who is sacrificed, and the sound of automobiles on pavement. Very quickly, I wanted to know who Jean Renoir was, to try to read his identity in his films, to see him appear in his books and in those books about him. Years later, the project of this book came about as a way of fulfilling my wish to draw a portrait with more of a resemblance than those that already existed, whether they were appealing or boring, poorly done or inspiring. All of them offered convincing snapshots when considered in isolation, but mediocrity when combined. And with both admiration and a long-standing affection for this figure, combined with the necessary distance needed for such a subject, I set about trying to relink the fragments, to finally assemble various sequences into a part of the thread of a story that I suspected had never before been told. After five years of this, I had to admit that many of my certainties had fallen apart and that I was actually passing nonstop from surprise to astonishment. Today, my admiration for the director has grown, and my liking for the person has turned into empathy tinged with affection.

Was it the man or the director the articles were honoring the day after his death? The answer is two-sided: homage was paid to the pre-1940 director, but it was the man of his last thirty years who was being saluted. It was as if the young Jean Renoir had only existed through and for his films, as if the only person ever known afterward was an aged, portly gentleman with an incomparable gift for gab, an expert in carefully modulated thoughts. To put it plainly and with very little exaggeration, the Jean Renoir films of the twenties and thirties were the work of a man who wouldn't begin to exist until his career was considered to be over. To the same extent, a gap had been opened between the maker of The Rules of the Game, that painter of a society in decline, and Renoir the "Good Papa," sweeping the world with his paternal gaze and on demand uttering the ready-made theories and formulas he was expected to. Meanwhile, a handful of young people had massed under the banner of Cahiers du cinéma to spread the news that Renoir had achieved his most authentic masterpieces during and at the end of his Hollywood experience, thereby opening breaches into which he, himself, was delightedly diving, more than happy that someone was still interested in him at a time when his cinema was being labeled outdated in other respects.

On the other hand, as the year 1979 began, some people were actually asking this director for forgiveness.2 For what? For not having provided him the financial aid that would have allowed him to direct one last film. Those at the source of the decision weren't beating their breasts—no—but ordinary media commentators were taking over the debate; and it was in the name of France that they were asking forgiveness. Forgiveness for having let Renoir leave for California, forgiveness for having "condemned" him to remain an American despite his assurances that he was bearing it admirably. Jean Renoir had left France in 1940 and had never wanted to return and live there. He had a host of reasons for it, and he was quite happy where he was. In February 1979, most of those deploring the fact that Renoir hadn't been able to shoot in France ten years previously weren't exactly fans of the films he'd made after he left that country. That is one of the great paradoxes of a life that has probably produced more of them than anyone else's: Jean Renoir was never more famous than when his films, one by one, were becoming less appealing—all the more so when compared to those films he'd directed in the past, which were being reshown and rereleased. In this way, he found himself confronted by a reality usually experienced by young filmmakers, whose movies are sometimes compared to those of the better of their elders. Peculiarly disorienting as it was, Renoir simultaneously became a present-day director and that director's respected ancestor.

Renoir's films were admired at first because life seemed to proceed naturally in them, without any needless display of cinema. Then, in the second part of his career, they were admired because cinema was being flaunted in every shot. In other words, there was admiration for two diametrically opposed reasons. If he did last and, after Chaplin, became the auteur who incited the most studies, the most reflections, the most analyses, it is probably because his films seemed positioned to work out the answer to a question formulated by someone who wrote the most and best about Renoir, André Bazin—who asked, "What is cinema?" It seems to me that Renoir's unusual personality, his life's trajectory, the swerves in his career, and the analyses inspired by his films all needed to be integrated by reflection. And as the crushing bulk of writing that already existed made me ask what there was about Jean Renoir still to discover, I very quickly came to the conclusion that nearly everything needed to be brought to light.

What kind of man was Jean Renoir in reality? A spoiled brat catapulted into the sophistication of Paris life in the twenties? A well-off bourgeois won over by the Popular Front in the following decade? The director who, like all his colleagues, was fascinated by Hollywood and struggled to bring attention to his films but also had a lifestyle well suited to California? The sage of the mid-fifties, spreading the Good Word to the world, paying his father the most vibrant homage, celebrating the virtues of contemporary cinema and television, delighting all with thoughts about his art, life, humanity, without ever stopping to claim he was a man of the previous century? He was all these people, one after another and sometimes simultaneously. Then what causes that gleam of affection in everyone's eyes—film enthusiast or not—at the mere mention of his name?

"Saint Renoir doesn't exist, and never did," wrote Claude Gauteur, one of the guests at the ham-and-eggs ceremony, the church, and the cemetery on February 20, 1979. And when Gauteur used that sentence to begin his book,3 he irritated François Truffaut, faithful among the faithful, grand priest of the cult, and most scrupulous guardian of the temple. You could claim that the son of Auguste Renoir was a saint. Of course you could; but he was a secular saint, as members of his Communist family would be quick to point out while remembering their fellow Party traveler in the second half of the thirties. Fine, the sticklers would specify, but take note: he was a secular saint who attended mass every single Sunday it pleased God to offer one in California. So saintly, so secular, in fact, that he even decided to entrust his son's education both to a priest and to a Communist grade-school teacher, which points to someone who is fond of eclipsing antagonisms. Wasn't he at least "the most director-like of all the French as well as the most French of the directors?"4 Absolutely, as long as we neglect to mention that he hadn't turned fifty before he stopped thinking of himself as French and ceaselessly proclaimed that everything in Hollywood—including the producers, actors, and technicians—was preferable to what he'd known in France.

The genius of Jean Renoir was the way the most implacable adversaries collaborated to justify him without changing their own views. In every circumstance. Perhaps without knowing it, then, they were fine-tuning their behavior to his. Without having to intervene, Renoir comforted them, gave them assurance and confidence, and, in return, received testimonies of their admiration, their tacit accord, and their affection. Such unanimity hadn't always existed. It had taken shape when his films began to count for less, when the man began to speak to all and everyone about nothing and everything, forging the image of himself he intended to project and that he knew was expected, through random interviews and conversations and with a succession of writings. Contrarily, during his period of cinematographic fame in the second half of the thirties, he was a controversial personality, considered difficult and not very trustworthy, as well as opportunistic and generous, but not too generous. Success leads to resentment, it is said; but that not-very-flattering image was already his before his films became a success with the triumph of Grand Illusion in 1937.

The year 1940 was his time of exile, a prelude to the wisdom of the fifties that came after a stay in India, which he unhesitatingly proclaimed had changed him completely and had even, well, helped him discover the truth: "Everyone has his reasons." Yes, he insisted without laughing, India had revealed that sentence to him—the same sentence he'd put on paper twenty years earlier and pronounced in The Rules of the Game. On that day in 1959, sitting opposite the TV camera filming him, he must have really had great fun coming up with those words, an actor playing himself, pretending to discover a formula he'd invented years ago.

"Everyone has his reasons," rightly says Octave in The Rules of the Game, having good reason to deplore that truth peculiar to the human species; and later, he would have been justified in adding that Jean Renoir's reasons were always good ones in the eyes of everyone. This is completely natural for a director whose movies fully take the side of every character, one after another; it is a distinctive feature of his films that contributes to their greatness and probably renders them timelessly unique.

To put all your characters on the same moral level, you have to love them. To love all of them, you have to understand them. To understand all of them, you can't bestow more value on the opinion expressed by one than on the opposite opinion held by another. You cannot choose. Cannot take sides or, at the very least, must pretend not to. Cannot choose between the timorous bank teller in La Chienne, the Sunday painter treated sadistically by a cantankerous wife, and the lost woman who is manipulating him and taking advantage of his naïveté and frustrations while all the strings are pulled by her pimp, that bastard who ends up on the gallows, although he's completely innocent of the crime of which he's accused. Cannot choose between Boudu, the tramp, and Lestinguois, the bourgeois. Cannot choose between Inspector Maigret and the beautiful Dane, who is a drug-addicted murderer. Cannot choose—or must, at least, do everything that seems not to—between the cynical huckster masquerading as a man of the cloth and the decent, love-struck boy who kills him in Le Crime de monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange). Between the king of France and those who will cut off his head. Between the railroad engineer whom women drive crazy and the flirt who uses him to flee justice and save a husband she mistrusts. Between the gamekeeper and the poacher, the marquis and the upstart, the grande dame and the soubrette, the husband and the lover.

To understand all of them that well, you definitely need to see all sides of each, without taking a side yourself; or else, take sides one after the other, which is the same thing. This is the ultimate guarantee of peace of mind, a mind offering to become entirely devoted to the most important cause—his own—whose contours were shaped by chance occurrences of birth and existence. Throughout his entire life, Jean Renoir strove to believe in himself. Convinced that self-confidence can only be acquired in the eyes of others, he made every effort to ensure that others believed in him, the son of a famous artist, born in the shadow of an elder brother who had been hailed as a noble actor and upon whom all qualities of uprightness, rigor, and honesty had been bestowed. Very early, and for a long time, it was up to Renoir alone to find an occupation and create an identity as Jean Renoir. This is how the actor he'd dreamed of becoming interpreted the role he knew best—himself. It was made to his measure, constantly retouched; and it created the most unusual of life paths, which better matched the nature of cinema.

The different incarnations of Jean Renoir's life, like so many others, can be correlated to the women he loved. Three women shaped his three great periods. Catherine Hessling* was both Auguste Renoir's last model and Jean's first wife. She inspired him with her dreams about film and fame. He made an actress out of her at the same time that she made a director out of him. The second woman was Marguerite, a film editor who led him into the world of politics; and the films that they made together carried him to the top. After their separation, the secret of fashioning those films was permanently lost to him; she devoted her expertise, sensibility, and talent to Jacques Becker, Renoir's longtime assistant. Renoir hadn't married Marguerite, but she took his name. Dido, the third woman, was the daughter of a diplomat, and she became secretary to the Great Renoir as well as his spouse and housekeeper, keeping a jealous eye on him, his health, his approach to doing things, and his image. Thus, the gamut of Renoir's women ran from an artist with a wild streak of hedonism, to an unparalleled technician and fervent militant Communist, to, finally, a deeply religious woman who believed in Jean Renoir and God and who devoted her existence to those two idols. Catherine Hessling left Renoir's life just before film discovered sound, and she disappeared from this world seven months after he did. Marguerite Houllé was his traveling companion during the thirties. Dido Freire became the wife of Renoir the American citizen, world-renowned director, and dispenser of homilies.§

In response to the aspirations of the first woman, to the dreams she expressed to him night and day, Renoir became a producer—he had the money for that—and later, a director, because he possessed no shortage of ambition. For the second woman, in 1936, he married the cause to which artists were becoming engaged—something he was well advised to do, because the Communist Party was so powerful at the time it could help him capture an audience. But then, sharing the life of a militant Communist without putting at least one foot into the same boat as she would have to have been a source of conflicts, arguments, questions. The director without recognition he was at that time had to avoid such a predicament, not to mention the man, who wanted such people off his back. He got around more than was usual, played the man of the people and enjoyed it, made guarantees to comrades without ever stopping to associate with their opponents, and never even had to give up claiming he agreed with them. Sometimes he made it seem—first and foremost to himself, probably—that he'd chosen sides. It could be inferred from the words he spoke at meetings and with which he peppered his articles, or supplied to certain journalists; but in his films, no, never, really. His last partner, Dido, was a practicing Catholic, but what need was there to keep questioning the existence of God with her, something he himself wasn't against believing in, or to argue about the importance of religion? It was infinitely more practical to play it smart every Sunday and accompany that woman, whom he addressed using the French formal form of you, to mass and confession and to mumble his prayers like a child who had no intention of getting rapped on the knuckles.

All this was how Jean Renoir found freedom. However, those who discovered his films long after hadn't the same luxury to any great extent; and because they loved his films, they decided their choices were his. They believed that he was like them and preferred Boudu to Lestinguois, the revolutionaries to the king. He let them go on, was in complete agreement, when he wasn't impishly scheming to say the same thing before they did. He vindicated them as he did all his characters. Whenever he noticed any resistance to such a routine in anyone to whom he was speaking, he changed his opinion and put as much energy, talent, and genius into it as he had supporting the previous position. He did it with just as much conviction—yes; because everyone seemed to deserve no less than the deepest part of him, he turned his attention to it. With so much sincerity, so much genius. That was how he became the ideal receptacle for all theories, those the most closely related to him as well as those furthest away. Everyone could find something satisfying in his filmmaking and in his personality that reinforced his or her convictions and generated something new about him. It was as if it were enough to invent a method for an admired director who really had none and become his equal—or even, more modestly, his disciple—by conforming to it. In this way, as well, Jean Renoir was a genius at what would eventually be called public relations. The directors of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave) invented a method for him, and he enthusiastically accepted their principles.

Sometimes his attitude toward the world made him talk too much and even write rashly, in circumstances where he had better cause to keep his mouth shut and hold back his pen. But just as actors were flattered by the compliments he lavished on them, those who loved his films approved of him and preferred to throw the veil over his lapses, perhaps dreading that the wrong word might condemn them to the misery of falling out of rank and sect. Meanwhile, adversaries exaggerated, too, and expressed their own abhorrence recklessly by digging up and trotting out things that pinned far too many faults on him than could be believed.

I should point out that Renoir's sincerity is not being cast in doubt. He believed the stories he told and believed even more in the style he'd invented to recount them. Recounting was all he thought of—in words, in films, in books—what did it matter? Recounting: in other words, making you believe. For the span of a conversation, a movie, a book. And the rest? In his eyes, that was less important; there again you might say he had a point.


On Sale
Jan 3, 2017
Page Count
1104 pages
Running Press

Pascal Merigeau

About the Author

Pascal Merigeau is a highly regarded journalist and film critic. He has published numerous books in his native France, among them definitive biographies of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Maurice Pialat. Merigeau lives in France.

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