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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Jean Renoir

One of the first auteurs in the history of cinema, French filmmaker Jean Renoir is still recognised as a luminary who revolutionised the cinematic medium. Responsible for the creation of multiple masterpieces such as The Grand Illusion, Renoir’s works not only have artistic merit but remain crucial for a proper understanding of the sociopolitical climate of that particular period.

Born in Paris to the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, he was raised by his mother’s cousin who contributed to his growth as an artist as well as his knowledge of the human condition. She introduced Renoir to theatrical productions and puppet shows which left a deep influence on his own works. Later in his life, Renoir wrote: “She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché.”

After sustaining an injury in the First World War, Renoir discovered the wonderful world of cinema and was mesmerised by the seminal works of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin among other pioneers of the silent era. Although his father wanted him to make ceramics, Renoir decided to create films and the rest is history. He ended up making some of the definitive masterpieces of the 20th century.

Renoir’s films were banned in France as well as other countries during the Second World War due to fascist censorship but they were rediscovered by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard which led to the rise of the French New Wave. New Hollywood auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have also regularly cited Jean Renoir as their primary influence, claiming that Renoir’s works are an indispensable part of cinematic history.

In order to celebrate the unforgettable artistic talent of Jean Renoir, we take a look at some of the essential additions to his illustrious filmography.

Jean Renoir’s six definitive films:

A Day in the Country (1936)

Influenced by a Guy de Maupassant story, A Day in the Country revolves around the daughter of a Parisian entrepreneur who falls in love with a stranger on a summer trip to the countryside. Renoir manages to construct a collection of images that are completely arresting, drawing the viewer in with bucolic charm.

Although this particular project was shot in 1936, Renoir was not able to put the material together and left the production process incomplete due to hostile weather. Thankfully, the film was converted into a finished product ten years later by producer Pierre Braunberger and is now enjoyed by younger generations of Renoir’s admirers.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Probably the most famous entry on this list, The Grand Illusion is one of the finest films ever made about the terrifying subject of war. It is a commentary on the futile mythology of war, following a group of war prisoners who dream of escaping.

Labelled as the “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, The Grand Illusion immensely contributed to the censorship of Renoir’s films under Nazi rule. Like all great works of art, The Grand Illusion has endured the test of time and is now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

La bête humaine (1938)

Based on the novel by Émile Zola, this 1938 film stars Jean Gabin as a railway engineer who tries to escape from his psychological problems by focusing on his work. Things become incredibly complicated when he indulges in an affair with a woman whose husband is unstable.

Regarded by man film scholars as a precursor to the film noir genre, La bête humaine is an atmospheric masterpiece which contains all the elements that are considered to be fascinating by modern audiences as well – complex psychological systems, a sinister murder mystery as well as pioneering visual techniques.

The Rules of the Game (1939)

Renoir’s 1939 comedy is a memorable satirical masterpiece that presents scathing indictments of the hypocrisies of French society in wildly incisive ways. Set during the initial days of World War II, The Rules of the Game follows the moral corruption of wealthy French citizens who are too ignorant to understand the gravity of the situation.

The Rules of the Game has clearly been an influential opus because it is the only film to consistently feature in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll in every edition of the pool since its genesis. Due to its powerful political critique, it was banned by the French government because they feared that the French youth would be inspired and moved by Renoir’s brilliance.

The River (1951)

Structured as a girl’s coming-of-age story which was based on the novel by Rumer Godden, The River is a deeply spiritual film that left lasting impressions on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who called it one of the most beautiful colour films of all time.

Set in India and filmed there as well, The River is a powerful visual experience which captures the rich tapestry of the landscape. It was Renoir’s first project that was filmed in Technicolor and he was assisted by none other than the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

French Cancan (1955)

After going into exile in 1940, Renoir had been away from France but French Cancan was his return to the cinema of his homeland. Starring Francoise Arnoul and Jean Gabin, this musical is a visual homage to the paintings of his father as well other pioneers like Edgar Degas.

Set in Paris during the 1890s, Gabin features as a night club owner who oscillates between multiple women and ultimately ends up opening the world-famous Moulin Rouge. French Cancan is one of Renoir’s finest because it explores the true visual potential of the cinematic medium.