Intro to Auteur Theory with Jean Renoir
Auteur criticism is a very particular brand of film critique and study in which one focuses on a particular director. Now this may seem like highly involved stuff, however, it need not be so complicated. If you like complications, and are a perfectionist, you can read biographies and the like, but let us start simply. These days with innumerable outlets for purchase and rental of films it’s easy enough to amass the films needed.
Through this specified study one will quickly learn quite a bit, all you really have to do is choose a film you liked and if you don’t already know who directed it find out and watch a series of their films in close succession.
Patterns in their choices visually, in editing, theme and story will quickly make themselves evident. Sometimes due to their similarity, sometimes because they are quite varied.
It is also extremely helpful, if one wants to become ensconced in the works of one particular director, to start with some of their lesser-known works. There are a few reasons for this. First, they are by nature less popular so the burden of expectation is lowered – you are not victim to any preconceived notions of what the film should be or is supposed to be. For example, in my experience with auteurs I had in the past seen some landmarks by famous filmmakers right off the bat and either they didn’t live up to expectations or the film was so good that I thought nothing that director could do otherwise could compare.
Don’t be deterred if you like the director but don’t connect with a particular title. Everyone is different. As long as you enjoy their work you should pursue it. Most importantly do not be afraid to form your own opinions on something. The first type of film I mention, “not living up to expectations,” refers to my experience with The Seventh Seal. When I saw it I was too young to get it and I had preconceived notions about what that film was and it ruined the movie. My being less-than-impressed with it kept me away from Bergman for a long time. He is now one of my favorite filmmakers, while I appreciate The Seventh Seal more now I still like at least a dozen of his films better than that one.
This is why I recommend going for the not so famous films of a director first. The second example I would cite would be Jean Renoir. I first saw The Grand Illusion in film school and thought it was fantastic and that he was fantastic for making it, however, I always shied away from his other works thinking it would pale in comparison.
Finally, I purchased a seven film box set of his works and have a much better understanding of him as an artist now. Here are some observations I had of the titles in the set:
The films in the Jean Renoir box set rank as follows.
T1. Charleston Parade (1927) & The Little Match Girl (1928)
Both films are similar and should be watch back-to-back ideally these shorts are his most visually compelling and creative in the set. Both include very extensive and slightly surrealistic dream sequences. While the first is somewhat avant-garde the second is more traditional. They are both essentially fairy tales but very different in nature, one dealing with aliens and a dance craze and the latter with poverty and class struggle.
3. Whirlpool of Fate (1925)
This is a film that really lives up to the title and sets you up as circumstances for a young girl from the country drastically change at fate’s whim. This tale has an upward arc in terms of the character’s fortune as she goes from virtual slavery at the hands of an abusive uncle to marrying into money. It is one of the two films in the set which deal with a woman’s upward mobility through the class system. It subtly comments there and it is very interesting to see the contrast between the two.
4. The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959)
This is a subtle, well-done modern (in 1959) update of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde of course due to that fact it lacks unpredictability due to the general familiarity people have with that tale but it is quite an apt retelling that focuses on the characters rather than the alchemy of effects.
5. La Marseillaise (1938)
This is an interesting tapestry film about the French Revolution that does settle on what we presume to be a fictitious band of rebels as its protagonists but there are many characters. While it does get preachy at times, filled with metaphor of the verbal variety, albeit very intelligently written. It features entertaining acting if not classically good film acting- one actor was noted as being a guest from La Comédie-Française and I think most were theatre actors mainly, and they remained as such on occasion the vulgarity of a stage performance on screen makes itself quite evident but overall Renoir keeps his distance enough to give his players the room they necessitate to be as a effective as possible.
Nana is a rare film in which the protagonist isn’t likeable and it’s extremely melodramatic Zola, a tale of his that I and many Americans are likely unfamiliar with it’s similar to Whirlpool of Fate except the lead creates her own fate and it’s downhill in terms of her fortunes, not up despite her rise in social standing. It features some really great tinting after a brief B&W section to mark the midway point and beautiful purple section for the decline. Technically speaking a masterful film but also a perfect silent vehicle with too ludicrous a plot for people to tolerate if they were required to hear some of this dialogue instead of reading it. It also illustrates Catherine Hessling to be a great silent film actress because here for the first time she is portrayed as an unsympathetic figure and she pulls it off with great aplomb and is not likable at all.
7. The Elusive Corporal (1962)
A WWII tale, which while funny and smart does get repetitive. Can be seen as a funny version of The Grand Illusion but it doesn’t quite compare.
Renoir is the kind of filmmaker with a very laid back simplistic approach, at least in these titles, in terms of both his visuals (most of the time) and his storyline which will likely be hard to get a grasp of right away as the plots develop more organically and less in your face than with many films. This in essence makes him deceptively simple. The films in the set are compulsively watchable and it is truly in comparison and seeing how he’d take themes from one film and reverse them later on for similarly effective results in which he truly demonstrates his skills.
So, in this instance by getting a boxed set which featured lesser known titles and not going directly for Boudu Saved from Drowning or The Rules of the Game I got a sense of his style, sensibilities and the trajectory of his career. Renoir was quite a dazzling showman who seemed to revel in the silent film genre who toyed with the visual only medium so easily he scarcely required titling.
Sound changed the equation for him as it did for many others. While he did eventually move the camera about again he was not as wont to experiment a lot his films seeming to follow the John Ford edict of the frame being a window on the action. Yet while not trying to do too much he shows quite a great deal.
The great important films of historical significance are wonderful. They should be seen but it is the cinematic equivalent of island hopping. When one does that they are not getting the whole picture sometimes one should stop and enjoy the scenery for at times it will not be the ballyhooed and popular choice that will win you over but a film that is nearly forgotten in the canon of a great that will truly demonstrate the enormity of their skill.