Asked to describe The Rules of the Game to an indecisive cowboy in the Coen brothers' hilarious short World Cinema (look for it on YouTube), a movie-theater cashier — a prototypical movie nerd in both manner and appearance — can't help but gush. "That may be Jean Renoir's greatest film. It's a group of people interacting in a big house in the country in France. It's ... it's Renoir's masterpiece. Sort of a human comedy of sorts on a grand tapestry." The cowboy grunts, unimpressed: "You're pretty high on that one, aren'tcha?" He winds up buying a ticket to the other picture on the bill, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's more recent and less hyped Climates.
It's easy to wind up intimidated to the point of apathy by Renoir's lofty reputation. Not only are several of his films perennials on lists of the greatest ever made, but the very name Renoir signifies imposing High Art to most people, thanks to Jean's even more celebrated dad, painter Pierre-Auguste. Last week, son joined father in retrospective glory at LACMA, where The Films of Jean Renoir (no catchy title necessary, I guess) continues weekends through April 10. That the series unspools at a museum may inspire further assumptions of dull mustiness, but pop your head in even briefly and you'll discover that Renoir's pictures have endured not merely by canonical fiat but because they're all so gloriously, messily alive.
In fact, let me knock the guy right off the cinema's premier humanist pedestal. People love to quote Octave's line in Rules of the Game about how "everyone has their reasons," citing it as evidence of Renoir's generosity of spirit. But Octave (played by Renoir himself) claims this rampant subjectivity to be "the awful thing about life," and several of the films in this series belie any notion of a worldview in which all creatures merit equal respect. Women, for example, are unapologetically depicted as inadvertent destroyers in 1931's La Chienne (screening March 27), which rarely has its title translated into English because The Bitch just sounds too damn blunt. The tale of a mild-mannered bank clerk and amateur painter (Michel Simon), who gets the hots for a hooker and winds up embezzling and murdering his way into madness and destitution, it's so rancid a portrait of female treachery and male weakness that 14 years later, in the hands of Fritz Lang, it became one of film noir's seminal works, Scarlet Street.
So, too, did 1938's La bête humaine (March 19), which Lang turned into Human Desire. Based on an Emile Zola novel, Renoir's streamlined adaptation is steeped in dread and shadow, even though most of the sex and violence occur offscreen. Jean Gabin exudes a ruddy physicality as the train engineer who witnesses a murder and begins conducting an offbeat form of emotional blackmail, and the film often seems less interested in Zola's portrait of working-class resentment and envy than in the stark, visual contrast between cold metal gears and warm human flesh. The light — in those occasional spots where it manages to penetrate the gloom — is harsh, the mood forbidding. Renoir admittedly doesn't share Zola's grim determinism (for which we should be grateful), but La bête humaine is still a bracingly bleak study of man and machine, and a good place to start for those concerned that Renoir retro = worthiness dog pile.
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Sadly, the series isn't complete. Tangled rights issues prevented LACMA from securing a print of the excellent The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), and one of Renoir's key films from the years he spent working in Hollywood, This Land Is Mine (1943), is also missing. On the other hand, we do get 1945's endearingly cornball paean to American indomitability, The Southerner (March 20), which subverts a generic save-the-farm melodrama with weird jolts of country-fried energy, including a deadly land feud that is instantaneously transformed into brotherly love when the murderous parties join forces to nab the region's legendary giant catfish, named Lead Pencil. I'm also strangely drawn to 1956's Elena et les hommes (April 2), albeit more for its exquisite pastel cinematography (by Jean's brother Claude Renoir) than for Ingrid Bergman's somewhat exhausting romantic shenanigans with Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer.
And what of the giants, the film-school mainstays, the list hogs? Not all of them will necessarily live up to advance word. I'm not a big fan of Renoir's sledgehammer satirical touch in the much-vaunted Boudu Saved From Drowning (April 9), a sort of inverted class-war version of The Blind Side, in which a bourgeois family takes in a homeless man and all hell breaks loose. ("You're ruining that geezer's life." "No. He's ruining mine.") Nor have I ever understood people's reverence for The River (March 20), which features gorgeous Technicolor shots of India, as well as some of the most stilted performances and purple dialogue on record. But if you've never seen the twin towers of Renoir's legacy, Grand Illusion (March 26) and Rules of the Game (April 10) — or if you had them assigned as homework ages ago and only dimly recollect them — you're liable to be surprised by how vital and engaging these certified masterpieces remain. Both films are friskier and funnier than you probably imagine or remember, tackling their weighty themes with the lightest touch imaginable. Refuse to be cowed.
Still, for my money, the greatest film in this series is also the shortest and simplest. Adapted from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, A Day in the Country, which precedes Rules of the Game on April 10, turns a casual picnic along the banks of the Seine into an indelibly moving portrait of love and loss. Husband and wife, daughter and fiancé stop at a rustic inn for lunch; the men go fishing, oblivious to the attempted seduction of their respective ladies by a couple of preening locals and their irresistible rowboats. Renoir vividly captures both the gaiety of a carefree Sunday — exemplified by the two women on tree swings, as their would-be seducers hope for the daughter to sit down and give them a better view — and the despair of a lifetime spent dreaming of a lost idyll, bridging the rapture and the heartbreak via a sudden shift in the weather so powerfully expressionistic it threatens to capsize you right there in your seat. Just 40 minutes long, A Day in the Country comes as close to sheer perfection as any film I've ever seen. I'm pretty high on it. It's ... it's Renoir's masterpiece.
THE FILMS OF JEAN RENOIR | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through April 10 | lacma.org