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The Relationship is Everything – on Jean Renoir


(1) La grande illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Anyway, Renoir was a privileged man: second son, tolerant parents, rich, carefree and inspiringly enthusiastic. The money is put to use – as a way of life. Protected by the beautiful nanny Gabrielle, he lives the unburdened life of a second son, staying among the women’s skirts while the imposing moral power of men is not lost on him. In his many fabulous scenes of rich households, he would always position the camera so as to see things from a child’s point of view. He sees everything happen as an incomprehensible and therefore magical spectacle of confusion, ambiguity, forbidden rooms and forbidden touches. What he is not allowed to see, he sees anyway; what he does not understand, settles into caricatural patterns. Like the photographing child Lartigue, Renoir never handed over the key to the gynaeceum. The price for that, however, is a curse: a lifetime of childlikeness. But that is no price for a man if it means the feminine would never be a secret – just as it never was for his father Auguste.

The consequence of being condemned to lifelong childlikeness is his inability (inability?) to see life as a drama. He always films with the tonality of light comedy. Even La Chienne turns out not to be a melodrama, and there are many comic touches in La Bête Humaine. Renoir does not see psychological characters, but types. He does not build his stories around the unique point of one figure of identification, whose inner structure and trials drive the events. He provides his characters with a profile through mutual differentiation: a concatenation of polar opposites, reflections, inversions and rhyme structures.

As in light comedy, identification occurs by way of typology: the world is not a loose collection of monads, but a legible ranking of places, far more defining than the personal, so-called unique character. The world that is described here is a world of positions and not of classes, of places and not of displacement, of being suitable and not of free disposition. Revendication and jealousy are unknown here. His world is an ancien régime, conceived not from aristocracy but from the self-consciousness of artisans. This is how Renoir-the-father viewed his function as a painter; Renoir-the-son would defend that role in an industry. The dignity of a position against the unworthiness of anonymous production.

Yet there is something peculiar about the idea of Renoir and light comedy, because he is certainly no Lubitsch, no Capra, no Cukor. Renoir breaks the mechanical character of light comedy, of the “buffa” genre. He fills the comic formula with “realistic” material: through the actor’s style, the locations and especially the duration and découpage of his shots. His material is heavy, earthly and unwieldy, whereas with Lubitsch all film material is light – which is the essence of his “touch”. With Renoir, the soubrette is wearing clogs, and instead of Maurice Chevalier we get Michel Simon. All of Lubitsch’s sharp mathematics is thwarted by Renoir with a strategy that masquerades as clumsiness. The scabrous jokes of both are very different ways of telling a story. Lubitsch is so sharp that he could even get away with these jokes in puritanical Hollywood, while Renoir’s jokes are coarse side-splitters; not refined, but boorish, direct and yet very humanely told insinuations.

(2) La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)

The theatrical character of light comedy, too, its scenic time and space (especially present in Cukor), is confirmed and broken at the same time here, in a remarkable way. With Renoir, the theatrical is the metaphor par excellence for life, love and creativity. Countless of his films are framed by a prologue and an epilogue, and are full of spectacular situations. Still, his films never have the patina of filmed theatre. This is because he does not film theatre, he shows it. He does not make theatre cinematic; if anything, he makes it even more theatrical. He emphatically shows its artificiality – from the viewpoint of the cinematic language. The film camera picks up the childlike primal form of illusion, not to modernise it, but on the contrary to show it from the greatest possible distance. A distance that both does justice to theatre and ends up questioning film. Because theatre that is used so caricaturally, exerts a fatal attraction on these films. Behold, these films seem to say, theatre is not the outmoded archetype of the spectacle, but its ever-young, ever-challenging, never to be equalled perfection. Instead of filmed theatre, in the course of this oeuvre we increasingly get the opposite: theatricalised film.

For Renoir, both father and son, the appearance (of a landscape, of a human figure, of light) is the ultimate source of happiness, astonishment and reflection. Both are sensualists who distrust abstraction. For the painter, it is essential for a model to be natural and for things to have a skin that captures the light. For the son who films, the body must be able to be moved: it is not so much the physical movement that counts, but the imaginary being moved. And what could be more wondrous a movement than play, which adds to action and to being the “as if”, the illusion?

In the fabulous conversation between Renoir and Michel Simon that Rivette recorded in 1966, we see some of the mutual enchantment that director and actor exert on each other. Renoir was the one who managed to elicit the highest form of actor’s magic from Simon. His camera was there to capture it in sober if not poor recordings, which are at the same time the moral and aesthetic high point of what a film camera is capable of in the world of images, bodies and stories.

Renoir: documentarian of illusion, realist of light comedy. He distrusted creativity’s desire to rule but instead practised creativity that creates possibilities. Whoever wants to rule, must focus the field on one dominant point and neutralise all other solidarities and affinities. Similarly, whoever wants to rule the audience for the duration of a film: focus and concentrate all energy on one point! (Fear is the best strategy to do so.)

Renoir has always considered the connection between things as sacred. Hence his indifference to any form of avant-gardism, hence his distrust of politics and his exclusive devotion to exchange. The relationship is everything. A film is a way of building a bridge, as all art and all life should be.

For over half a century, Belgian critic Dirk Lauwaert (1944-2013) published essays on film for magazines including Film & Televisie, Kunst & Cultuur, Versus, Andere Sinema and De Witte Raaf. In addition, Lauwaert wrote about fashion, photography, the city and visual art. For Lauwaert, such criticism was never a purely professional affair; it was, first and foremost, a way of documenting how a film or a piece of art personally impacted him as an amateur. Lauwaert’s film criticism is not, as yet, internationally recognised. To provide a first corrective to this, Sabzian will be publishing a series of English translations of Lauwaert’s most notable writings on film, in collaboration with LUCA School of Arts. This will provide our international audience with an occasion to become acquainted with his work and its singular writings. Lauwaert was an author for whom “watching film and loving film [was] a way to be with the world”. Remaining suspicious of “the power over the concrete, which is indispensable for life,” Lauwaert was someone for whom the act of watching films made up his “whole life.” In this sense, film for Lauwaert turned into the experience of that “essential, sublime distance.” A more extensive English introduction to Lauwaert can be found here.


This article was originally published as ‘De verhouding is alles – over Jean Renoir‘ in Kunst & Cultuur, september 1994.

Image (1) from La grande illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Image (2) from La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)


This translation was published by courtesy of Reinhilde Weyns and Bart Meuleman.

With the support of LUCA School of Arts, LUCA.breakoutproject.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.