View From Behind the Camera : An affectionate biography marks the centennial of Jean Renoir’s birth : JEAN RENOIR: Projections of Paradise, <i> By Ronald Bergan (Overlook: $23.95; 378 pp.)</i>
With his profound insight into human nature and equal warmth and compassion, Jean Renoir could be as powerful a presence as his film masterpieces, “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game.” For decades he and his Brazilian-born second wife, Dido, lived in a spacious, sun-filled house overlooking Beverly Hills, where they loved to entertain friends with good food and good conversation and sometimes screen one of Renoir’s films after dinner. Renoir was as bulky and pale as Dido was slight and dark, but they made a wonderful, devoted couple.
For those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed such evenings chez Renoir, Ronald Bergan’s “Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise,” scheduled to be published to coincide with the centennial of Renoir’s birth, Sept. 15, 1894, brings back fond memories--and offers much, much more. Indeed, Bergan’s book seems the ideal Renoir biography--easy, graceful and unpretentious as it goes about telling us about Renoir’s long, rich life and career. Bergan pauses for judicious and incisive critiques of each of Renoir’s films, illuminating Renoir’s key concerns with love and friendship and the cruel absurdity of war, that enrich rather than interrupt the book’s steady narrative flow.
Born in Montmartre in Paris to the great painter Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir had, according to Bergan, an idyllic childhood, much of spent it amid the rural landscapes his father loved to paint. His mother died early on but her cousin Gabrielle, only 15 years older than Renoir, became a model for Auguste and a surrogate mother for Jean and his two brothers, one of whom grew up to be actor Pierre Renoir, a major presence on Paris stages as well as on the screen. When Gabrielle died in 1959 she was living next door to the Renoirs in Beverly Hills.
There are many cozy relations detailed in this biography. In 1927 the Brazilian-born director Alberto Cavalcanti made three films with Renoir’s first wife, actress Catherine Hessling. One of them was the 10-minute “La P’tite Lili,” based on a popular song. Renoir appeared in it, along with his and Hessling’s son Alain, then a small boy. So did the 18-year-old daughter of a friend of Cavalcanti’s named Dido Freire, who would marry Renoir 14 years later. But before marrying Dido, Renoir had a 10-year-long relationship with the woman who edited “La P’tite Lili"--and who became his editor, Marguerite Houlle, who later took the name Renoir. She and Renoir never married, but he once remarked graciously, “She was kind enough to take my name.”
From Bergan we learn that Renoir, who had been a ceramist, really turned to directing to satisfy Hessling’s never-to-be-fulfilled cravings to be a star. The reason why Renoir ended up with so few of his father’s priceless paintings was that he sold them to support Hessling’s lavish life-style and to finance her dreams. Bergan suggests that by the time Renoir made the film that might have made her a star--"La Chienne” (1931)--they had at last broken up. This, he feels, paradoxically was necessary if Renoir was to become a true artist himself.
The social consciousness which Auguste Renoir had instilled in his son came to flower in the darkening 1930s, and resulted in various major films, culminating his two prophetic masterpieces, the anti-war classic, “Grand Illusion,” and “The Rules of the Game,” in which Renoir perceived that the old order was about to fall. He left France for Lisbon in the fall of 1940 and arrived in the U.S. in Feb., 1941, at the invitation of pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty.
Inevitably, the biography becomes poignant when the director, who had never been big at the box office and was considered an outright failure until he was past 40, takes up his Hollywood exile, where he valiantly struggles to accommodate his artistic vision to the demands of the studio system. He persisted, however, and did make the outstanding 1945 film “The Southerner,” about the struggles of a farmer to support himself.
While he retained a residence in Beverly Hills until the end of his life, Renoir did revive his career in France after the war (with varying results) and became the icon of the New Wave. Like Fritz Lang and Josef Von Sternberg, Renoir endured long periods of professional inactivity but never lost his interest in films and filmmakers. When Andre Malraux fired Henri Langlois as head of the Cinematheque Francaise, Renoir, at 73, led the successful struggle for his reinstatement.
“The further things go, the more we have two kinds of cinema,” stated Renoir. “We have the one that makes a lot of money, and that, shall we say, stupefies the public with the most ordinary pap. Then there are the people who try to do something that’s a little better.” There was never any question as to which kind of filmmaker Jean Renoir was.