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A Supreme Artist: Pascal Mérigeau on "Jean Renoir: A Biography"

“There are very few artists in the history of cinema who are undeniable. Jean Renoir is one of those few,” writes Martin Scorsese in the foreword of Jean Renoir: A Biography, a meticulously researched and vigorously written work by esteemed French journalist, critic and novelist Pascal Mérigeau.

Upon its original French publication in 2012, the book was awarded the prestigious literary honor, the prix Goncourt de la Biographie. Now the book is newly available in an English translation (by the novelist and essayist Bruce Benderson, who does extraordinary work in his own right in capturing Mérigeau’s elegant, supple prose of nearly 1,000 pages of text). 

It’s a magisterial work on the life, art and matter of Jean Renoir (1894-1979), arguably the greatest director who ever lived. Mérigeau has carried out extraordinary research with diligence, tact and historical scrupulousness in capturing the remarkable trajectory of that life.

Born during the height of the Belle Époque, Renoir was the second son of the great Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Like other giants of his era (Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Erich von Stroheim) his life was synonymous with the birth of cinema. As Francois Truffaut once wrote, the reason Renoir’s 1937 “Grand Illusion” was so rapturously received was that Renoir was “the same age as his audience.” It almost never came to be. Renoir was seriously wounded after his left leg shattered by a “good Bavarian shot,” on April 27th, 1915, during World War I, that nearly required amputation. He recovered, and the cinema was never the same.

The book is shaped in two parts: “Renoir in history,” moving from his early life, his relationship with his father and the extraordinary films he made between 1926 and 1939 to his exile, in 1940, following the fall of France and the German Occupation. The second part, called “The Legend,” explores his American period, the five films he made in Hollywood (and the extensive, uncredited work he did on the 1943 Deanna Durbin vehicle, “The Amazing Mrs. Holliday”) to his sojourns in India, a brief return to France, and his late career as a playwright and writer after he struggled to get financing for his films.

The book is a deconstruction of the myths and legends surrounding Jean Renoir. His politics, for instance, proved as promiscuous as his films. Scorsese writes, “Renoir sanded off the rough edges of his life, as Mérigeau puts it. All of us do the same, I think. And Renoir’s imperfections and vanities only bring him closer to us, and to the experience of his extraordinary and equally wondrous films.”

In a recent conversation, conducted via email, Pascal Mérigeau talked about the man and the supreme artist.

Andrew Sarris once beautifully pointed out that Jean Renoir’s career was not “merely biography but also history.” Is that something you also came to believe after writing your book?

I can say that I was aware of that before writing the book: it’s one of the main reasons that made me want to write the book. Jean Renoir was the son of a great painter. He was wounded during World War I. He was part of the sophistication of Paris life in the twenties, then he attached his fortunes to the Communist Party before being hosted by fascist Italy, leaving Europe for Hollywood, becoming an American citizen, discovering India, then the young filmmakers of the [French] New Wave named him their “patron.” This is history. Jean Renoir took part in the history of the century, he was an actor and a witness of this history.

He wrote the scenario for, directed, and acted out his persona and his life. Was he more dishonest than anyone else? No, but the occasions for fibbing and faking were more numerous for him. And he got considerable pleasure from talking (and writing) about himself and his art. That’s the reason why I chose as the epigraph [a discarded sentence] from My Life and My Films: ‘I was born with the itch to tell stories. When I’d wail in my cradle, it was in hopes of attracting an audience.’

Jean Renoir invented his own legend, he invented theories (but in practicing his profession he actually followed none). He invented Jean Renoir. The book is also the history of these inventions. And the Jean Renoir I’ve discovered is, to me, much more interesting than the one I knew before writing this book. My admiration for the director has grown, and my liking for the person has turned into empathy tinged with affection. 

He placed his genius in his films, for sure, but also in his own biography.

How long did the research and writing take?

About five years.

You have also published biographies of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Maurice Pialat. Every biography is a forensic leap into the consciousness of your subject. What was the most interesting part of negotiating this remarkable inner life?

I’ve been spending five years trying to understand how (and why), about the same topics, Jean Renoir could say “white” to one person and “black” to another. Many of my certainties had fallen apart and I was passing nonstop from surprise to astonishment. His films are what they are, for a part, because they put the characters on the same level. Renoir had to love them. And, to love all of them, he had to understand them. And to understand all of them, he could not bestow more value of the opinion expressed by one than on the opposite opinion expressed by another. In “The Rules of the Game,” for example, the gamekeeper can be seen as ridiculous. Yes, he is the cuckold, but at one point in the film, you feel [the urge] to cry for him. That’s Jean Renoir. And there is no one else like him.

Do you think even before you began your inquiry into his life and art, there was a dissonance between Renoir the private and public, the man and artist?

I did not. And I can say that nobody did. I was aware of some dissonances, of some gaps. How the man who made “La chienne” or “The Rules of the Game,” or some other “wild” films, could have turned himself as the Bon Papa Renoir everyone said he was? To me, the dissonance is not between Renoir the private and public, the man and the artist, but between the image he gave of himself and the man and director he was.

Having read the different drafts of his [book] My Life and My Films, I had the feeling that his intention with this book was to tell the truth, for once, especially regarding his ways of making films. In that perspective, this lines were all essential: “The first thing I do when it comes to the actors (and I do the same thing with crew members, financial backers, or even audiences) is always to give in.” This is precisely Renoir’s way. And this was how he found his freedom. We must keep in mind that he was terrified of conflict, and valued his peace of mind above all. And there is no doubt he always “gave in” with the actors, the financial backers and the audiences (that’s the reason why he carried out drastic “re-edits” of “Toni,” “Madame Bovary” and “The Rules of the Game”).

And he “gave in” also with the ones who asked him to eliminate these lines, which do not appear in the final version of My Life and My Films. These lines helped give the director an image that was in conflict with the one his supporters expected of him (and called into question the very notion of the auteur as proclaimed by film critics). Some of the people who venerated him thought it was preferable for him not to admit so, concerned as they were about protecting his image and shielding him from any potential reproaches. They were probably right, I do not know, but these lines (and some others, eliminated also in the same circumstances) would have cleared up most of the misunderstandings regarding Jean Renoir’s personality and his ways of making films.

Were you influenced by the Jacques Rivette documentary, which I have always thought as one of the great works of one major director on another?

Yes, it is one of the great works of one major director on another. Maybe the greatest. But I can’t say I’ve been influenced by it. It has been one of my major sources among many others, and it is also one of the essential movements in the building of Jean Renoir’s legend.

Being the son of a Pierre-Auguste Renoir would seem an astounding burden. What was their relationship like?

Father and son did not spend much time together (like all parents and children from the bourgeoisie at that time). But during his convalescence in Paris (summer 1915), Jean obtained authorization to spend days in the Renoir apartment, into which his father had moved some time after the death of his wife. Auguste was confined to a wheelchair, the son got around with crutches, and the apartment had been empty of most canvases and drawings since the beginning of the war. All social life was a thing of the past. Infirmity and loneliness brought father and son closer, much closer than ever before. Jean did not talk much about his father. One of Renoir’s assistants wrote in the thirties: “To me he seemed like a ‘son of’ kind of person—refined, decadent, not wanting to forget his father, but wishing he could make others forget that he was that guy’s kid.”

America changed it all in his relationship to his father. Auguste Renoir had become more famous in America than in France. Most of his paintings were in America, and Jean’s new friends regarded him as the son of the famous painter as much as being himself a great filmmaker. Then, Gabrielle, his nanny, settled in California with her husband and their son [October 1941]. Jean and her did spend days talking of the good old times, [about] his childhood and of his father. The re-appearance in his life of Gabrielle triggered his desire to recall the figure of his father and, in November 1941, his agent gave him the idea for a book on Auguste Renoir.

Jean’s allusions to his father became more and more frequent over the years.

How do think he changed, either personally or politically, after his military experiences in the World War I?

Jean Renoir said that war had left him traumatized. Then, how can we understand that he strongly suggested his only son, Alain, who had just turned twenty, enlist in the American Army, at war with Japan and Germany? My feeling is that he did not deserve his reputation as pacifist, which mostly originates from a partisan reading of “Grand Illusion.” Did he change personally after his military experiences? I do not think so. Did he change politically? Not any more. As Alain told me, his father could speak with the same warmth and identical enthusiasm about a comrade of the party and a militant of the Croix de feu (a French rightist league between the two wars).

The affection he felt for the leader of French Communist Party was the same as the affection he had for his very right-wing friends. In all sincerity, he enjoyed lunching with one just as much as dining with the other. In his life as in his films, he did not bestow more value of the opinion expressed by one than on the opposite opinion expressed by another.

Renoir’s achievement beginning with his first significant artistic work with “Nana,” in 1926, to “The Rules of the Game,” in 1939, is a period pretty much unrivaled in the history of cinema. This is perhaps an impossible question, but is there one dominant action that crystallizes how he made so many major works during that time?

“Nana” can be seen as first significant artistic work, for sure. But what about the films he made between “Nana” and “La chienne”? Some are [decent], some are not good, and none of them is a great film. I might say that Jean Renoir’s achievement goes from “La chienne” to “The Rules of the Game.” I don’t think there is one dominant action (it would be too easy), but circumstances, chances, accidents, and, most of all, the outstanding energy, cleverness, erudition and skill of a man who was then at his best.

He was immersed in his time. And this time was in many ways extraordinary for politics, for cinema, for everything. I’d like to add the name of Marguerite, Jean’s lover, editor, script, political adviser: her importance is almost impossible to describe and to understand, but she was with him, and working with and for him, during all these years. And after the war, Marguerite became Jacques Becker’s editor. We should praise the name of Marguerite.

Renoir’s most famous quotation, the line delivered by his character Octave in “The Rules of the Game”: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Did Renoir write that dialogue, or improvise it on the set?

Renoir did write that dialogue. As he did write every word in the film. All his screenplays were very precisely written, contrary to what many claim. Those “many” did not read the shooting scripts, that’s all, so they have been able to build a theory [about him improvising on the set], which is nothing else than a theory. And Renoir himself gave credit to this legend, as for the “Petit Navire” scene in “Grand Illusion” (see pages 268-269). That he did not have to refer to the shooting script on the set merely demonstrates that he possessed a perfect knowledge of it. If you would try listing all the improvisations in Jean Renoir’s films, you’ll get a very short list. And if you would like to find the evidence that Renoir [preferred] filming on exterior locations and disliked working in the studio, good luck to you. All these assertions are parts of the legend.

“The Rules of the Game” is perhaps the greatest film ever made. The Criterion Blu-ray has a video analysis of the two endings. How close is the reconstruction to the version that premiered in Paris in 1939?

As you know, on July 8, the film was 98 minutes long. The day after, it had been reduced to 80 minutes (and Renoir alone took the decision of this re-edit), or 18 minutes less. And the version of the film we know today lasts 110 minutes. 30 minutes more! Should we be surprised, as Renoir would pretend to be later (in fact, he was not), that audiences in 1939 hadn’t understood “The Rules of the Game”?

The five American films he made are fascinating works politically, culturally and artistically. “Swamp Water” and “Diary of a Chambermaid” have long been studied as Resistance films. Is that how Renoir intended them?

Anyway, for sure, Renoir did not intend them to be Resistance films. It must be understood that Jean Renoir’s wish was to become a good American director. And he did keep trying his best in that perspective. To me, “Diary of a Chambermaid” is the most complex (and the best) of his American films. Filming the book was his idea for years and, after he made it, he wrote to a friend, “I hope that the film will maybe open the door to some projects that are more completely personal.”

After the fiasco of “The Woman on the Beach,” the Hollywood machine had given up on making Jean Renoir one of theirs. But his dream was still alive. When he made “The Golden Coach” (1953), in Italy, he and his producers organized two screenings of what was still a pre-edited state of the film for about a hundred American tourists who happened to be visiting Rome at that time. And when he made “Elena and Her Men” (1956), he was only concerned with the American fate of the film. Most of his friends of that time were American or lived in the United States, and he considered having nothing more to prove in France. For sure, Renoir did not intend his American films to be “Resistance films.”

This has long been a point of contention with Renoir and William Faulkner specialists. How much of the script of “The Southerner” did Faulkner actually write?

In 1977, in response to a request for a documentary being made on Faulkner, Renoir wrote that he “would have been very proud to collaborate with William Faulkner, but in fact his contribution was limited to the addition of a few Southern expressions.” There was nothing at stake for him then [so] we can assume he was telling the truth. Nothing at stake but his “auteur” image, and he was always trying to detract from the achievements of the screenwriters, so who knows for sure? Zachary Scott [the actor who played the lead, Sam Tucker], who probably requested the writer work on the film, claimed that Faulkner wrote the entire screenplay, but he had good reasons for telling so. I would think that, as he said himself, Faulkner worked on the scene in which Sam Tucker lights the stove and had also rewritten the scene in which Sam catches the fish.

David Butler, Nunnally Johnson, Faulkner, Renoir and, perhaps, John Huston did work on the screenplay (and probably Dudley Nichols, never far from Renoir at that time). Jean Renoir’s 1944 appointment book reveals that the director and Faulkner met at least four times between July 25 and August 7, for cocktails or dinner.

Do you think his politics evolved after he came to America? I love “The River,” for instance, but I know several critics who downgrade it because they find it pro-colonial.

What were Jean Renoir’s politics? They depend on whom he was talking or writing to, I’m afraid. He was some kind of a chameleon. We must never forget that two Jean Renoirs, at least, did live in the same skin. My feeling about “The River” is that the film is less pro-colonial than the book. Rumer Godden’s first reaction after discovering the film was extremely bad. What she regretted the most was the impression that the emphasis on India, to some extent, “swamped the story” and produced a picture that was “overloaded with color,” so much so that what she had seen was “not a story set in India, but India hung on a not very strong story.”

I do not downgrade the film, but to me, “The River” is not a progressive picture. There is a share of indifference to the fate reserved for the Indians, expressed all the more freely because they are presented as accepting the principle of it "naturally." As André Bazin, who loved the film, wrote such a vision is “not false, but a bit superficial, spontaneously optimistic, and implicitly imperial.” What I like most of all is Renoir said that his stay in India had changed him completely, and had helped him discover the truth: “Everyone has his reasons.” And he insisted, without laughing: India had revealed that sentence to him.

Jean Renoir was a great filmmaker, yes, I’m not sure he was also a great philosopher, as some feel free to claim, but, yes, he possessed a great sense of humor.

What do think is his great contribution to film culture, his movies or influence? He is a connective thread with Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, Bergman, and the American cinema of John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. That is remarkable.

[French filmmaker] Arnaud Desplechin told me that my book made him “kill the father,” and he was thankful for that. More seriously, I think that Renoir’s shadow is immense. And this shadow is blurring sometimes our view of French cinema: yes, yes, yes, five, six, seven, maybe more, of Renoir’s films are the best ever produced in France, but knowing that does not mean that we have to forget Jean Vigo, Jean Grémillon, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné  and some others.

To like the work of a filmmaker does not make the work of others negligible. Was Lubitsch the greatest auteur of comedies? To me, yes. So, does [that mean] I have the right to like also Billy Wilder, [Joseph] Mankiewicz and many others? I think so. And I do think that to attack the work of a filmmaker cannot make another filmmaker greater. 

Talking of influences: François Truffaut is probably the most famous of the French filmmakers, but the one with the greatest influence on French cinema, for the last twenty years, is Maurice Pialat, by far. [He] was perhaps the only Jean Renoir descendant. But not in ways of making films: as you know, Maurice Pialat never “gave in.” I do agree with you: Jean Renoir is a connective thread with the entire modern cinema, and that is remarkable.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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