In releasing their Jean Renoir retrospective, TIFF gave it the title Rules of the Game, after one of his movies. It’s an interesting way to sum up the work of that director. Rules fascinated Renoir, but cinema lovers wouldn’t revere him had he stuck by them. He followed some of them them but bent others, as one obviously does. Audiences who will discover or rediscover his work will see his rule tweaking. And that’s mostly through the way he eschews some of the familiar iconography in the places he depicts. India doesn’t have the exotic animals nor the heightened political tension that we expect. France, his home country, has different cadences from total silence to boisterous reverie. And he depicts the border between France and Germany and finds sympathetic citizens from both countries.
The River is Renoir’s adaptation of Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel. So it only makes sense for it to be his first film in color. He captures a mostly earthy palette, making Godden’s memories present and vibrant. Godden based the book and the script on her real life. It also has the familiar yet reliable archetypes that we can find in Black Narcissus. The broken men are secondary to the story, but at least one of them propels the emotional maturity of three girls. Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the Godden substitute. But the most interesting of the three girls is Melanie (Radha), a half American and half Bengali girl. Being biracial colors her mind while she and Harriet pursue romantic prospects. Usually a shy girl, she comes alive in a fantasy and dance sequence which makes this film worth watching.
Renoir’s filmography has its share of dance sequences. We can find the most remarkable of those scenes in French Cancan. What else can we expect from a movie about the tumultuous founding of the Moulin Rouge? We can also see the infighting between Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin) and a wealthy Spanish ‘Abbess’ (Maria Felix). The latter, as these films go, feels jealous that the former found a new mistress in Nini (Francoise Arnoul). Nini starts out as a baker’s wife. But because she loves Danglard that much, she works to become a talented dancer. Renoir gets us to experience that transformation, and multiple rehearsals are worth the admission price. He shows us that dance is not easy. He also shows his interest in the human body and the different factors, individual and social, that limit it.
La Regle du jeu which is a film that I’m not 100% on. But it at least shows the similarities of shooting parties in both France and England. I was experiencing bourgeois wife swapping fatigue when I watched this. And that element, common in the shooting party sub genre, still affects my opinion of this film. But Renoir, who also stars in the film, does two things well here. The first is how the captures the cadences of his characters. They all come from different parts and social structures of his country and he treats them all with respect. There’s also a scene memorable to me, one where some of the servants scour the fields before the party begins. It marks Renoir as a deliberate observer of rituals.
I saw The River after a minor international scandal. And one of those is probably going to pop up when audiences end up watching Grand Illusion. My favorite of the few films I’ve seen of Renoir’s so far, it manages to be politically relevant today. That’s true even as it shows the leftovers of the code of conduct. One that gentlemen still practiced during the early 20th century. He tweaked the way cinema depicted warfare. He portrays both the shame and the humor that its reluctant soldiers felt while fighting it. In showing this mixture of experiences, he influenced the way other directors depicted future wars. One of his longer films, his focus on his protagonist, Lieutenat Marechal (Gabin), doesn’t waver. He portrays the relationships that Marechal forges and breaks and through those, encapsulates how fragile the world is.
Rules of the Game: The Best of Jean Renoir already started and will continue at TIFF until July 7. Watch this space for individual reviews of some of the film in the retrospective. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://www.tiff.net/calendar.html?series=renoir&list.
- Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
- Directed by: Jean Renoir
- Starring: Francoise Arnoul, Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir, Radha
- Produced by: Albert Pinkovitch, Jean Renoir, Kenneth McEldowney, Louis Wipf
- Written by: Carl Koch, Jean Renoir, Rumer Godden
- Studio: Franco London Films, La Nouvelle Edition Francaise, Oriental International Films, Réalisation d'Art Cinématographique
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