This weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center continued its new series, titled “Great War/Grande Guerre: World War I on Film,” with a screening of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, the French classic of poetic realism. Many of Renoir’s films were unappreciated upon release, but only this one earned the scorn of the Third Reich—Joseph Goebbels declared the film “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It’s easy to see why the film’s humanist, antiwar sentiments would ruffle Nazi feathers. Renoir is one the most important directors to ever live, a wry and gifted social commentator whose innovative, intricately structured films represent perhaps the most thorough and inquisitive exploration of the human condition in cinema. He requires no further introduction, so let’s just skip on down to my five favorite Renoir films.
5. La Bête Humaine (1938) As Dave Kehr notes in his capsule, Renoir’s warm inclinations are a strange match for Emile Zola’s bleak source text, but the melding of authorial voices makes for the sort of tension unique to the director’s filmography. And the opening sequence, which critic Geoffrey O’Brien describes as “a bracing plunge into the materiality of the world,” is remarkable.
4. The Woman on the Beach (1946) As far as Renoir’s American films go, most prefer The Southerner and for good reason—it’s amazing, for starters, and it seems a far purer work compared to this, which was clearly doctored by studio hands. But like all great masters working in Hollywood around this time, Renoir’s voice is nevertheless present, artfully and subtly revealing itself in a manner some describe as “studio poetry.”
3. Boudu Saved From Drowning (1937) One of the most naturalistic films ever made, deeply funny and sad, and a great, lively document of prewar Parisian society. Michel Simon’s singular performance is the centerpiece, and I have a cockamamie theory that his character inspired Will Ferrel’s lovable derelict Terrence Maddox. The location shooting, mostly around the Latin Quarter, has a documentary feel, and no doubt informed Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard when they made their first films.
2. French Cancan (1954) Renoir’s grand tribute to art is an ode to expression that is itself highly expressive, using techniques inspired by French Impressionism and Edgar Degas to bring to life the film’s many movements and colors. It’s the most lyrical of his later films, a sort of reappraisal of his humanist themes and interests. One of Renoir’s greatest skills as a storyteller was his ability to satirize something without resorting to pettiness or maliciousness, evident here in his pointed treatment of the nightclub folk who disparage the lower class but nevertheless endear themselves to the audience.
1. The Rules of the Game (1939) What more is their to say about one of the greatest films ever made? It’s prescient, influential, technically immaculate, formally innovative, stylistically unparalleled, and so on. We almost lost it, of course, after the director left France, and it wasn’t until 1959 that the film was restored to its proper form. The fox-hunting scene remains my favorite sequence in the film, as I assume it does for many others. Formally, it’s fascinatingly incongruous compared to the rest of Rules of the Game, full of quick shots and abrupt editing, yet it’s the most revealing thematic moment, “the scene that most clearly reveals the volcano that seethes beneath the dancers,” as critic Alexander Sesonske so astutely put it.