The late, great Jean Renoir is nobly served by this first full-length docu that leaves auds hungry for more. Due to air next fall in British pubcaster BBC1 ‘s “Omnibus” arts slot, on the centenary of Renoir’s birth, the two-parter should travel well on the fest trail and clock up cable and specialized tube sales.
First seg (“From La Belle Epoque to World War II”) follows Renoir (1894-1979) from his youthful love of movies, aerial photography work in the French air force, marriage, first pix with actress-wife Catherine Hessling, to early sound films like “Boudu Saved From Drowning,” to the string of classics, including “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game.”
Second part (“Hollywood and Beyond”) begins with his 1941 arrival in Hollywood, unhappy experiences at 20th Century Fox, and subsequent career that produced titles like “This Land is Mine,””The Diary of a Chambermaid” and the Indian-set “The River.” Sad ending notes that on his final film, “Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir” (1969), he was initially refused an advance.
Though clearly limited by availability of archive material, and the relatively few survivors from a long-gone age, director David Thompson does a thorough job of rounding up the usual suspects. Biggest coup is nabbing the director’s normally camera-shy son, Alain, who reveals his father’s attitude to the U.S. and the snub by the French intelligentsia when he stayed Stateside after World War II.
Just as the humanistic magic of Renoir’s movies is difficult to dissect, so Renoir the man proves equally elusive, beyond the chubby, Gallic bon vivant who emerges in several 1960s interviews.
Faced with a formidable number of classics to cover, Thompson has little space for Renoir’s intriguing private life (such as his relationship with the left-wing cutter Margueritte Houlle) or working methods. A rare criticism comes in a resurrected quote by actor Jean Gabin who called Renoir “as an artist, a genius; as a man, a prostitute.” Clips are plentiful and acceptable in quality.
Helmers like Chabrol, Tavernier, Bertolucci and Bogdanovich supply critical acumen, the last most penetratingly in describing Renoir’s mastery of nuance.
Interviews were shot on film, with post-production done on vid, subsequently transferred to 16mm for theatrical showings. Results on the big screen retain an electronic flavor, but are OK.
Voiceover narration by actress Harriet Walter lacks punch.