Three Films by Jean Renoir

Review by Ed Nguyen

Boxed Set *** 1/2

Among the great masters of French cinema, few have had as lustrous a pedigree as Jean Renoir's.  Born in 1894, he was the second son of the world-renowned impressionist painter Auguste Renoir.  Jean Renoir's childhood was filled with numerous memorable visits from his father's contemporaries, many art exhibits and galleries, and hours of artistic self-exploration and expression.  Renoir as a child was even a frequent model for his famous father's portraits.

With this creatively-liberated upbringing, Renoir was predestined for a career in the art world.  His fervently visual and creative instinct would eventually find its life's calling during the First World War when, after a serious injury, Renoir occupied his long and dull hours of convalescence watching movies.  It was during this period that Jean Renoir developed a passion for the motion picture, a passion that would soon find him directing his own movies.

After the war's conclusion, Renoir returned to his father's studios.  He promptly fell in love with his father's model Andrée Heuchling, and they would marry in 1920.  Shortly thereafter, Renoir set about directing films to advance the acting career of his young wife.  Renoir's first film, La Fille de l'Eau (1925), displayed elements of his developing style - his passion for nature, his poetic eye, and a deep sense of visual realism.  The film also featured his wife in the starring role, and she would remain his leading lady until his sound pictures of the 1930's.

While sound proved to be a significant stumbling block for many directors at the time, Renoir was able to incorporate this new film technology into his spontaneous, free style of filmmaking.  La Chienne (1931) would prove to be Renoir's first great "talkie," and many of his films during this decade, the French golden age of cinema, featured explorations of human relationships and humanistic themes.  Ironically though, Renoir's finest and most personal film of this period, The Rules of the Game (1939), was a dismal and despised failure upon its initial release.  Today, it is recognized as one of the greatest films ever made.

Nevertheless, due to the film's disastrous box office performance, Renoir would not direct another French film for over a decade.  Renoir moved to America during the Second World War, though his experiences with Hollywood were not particularly happy ones.  He summarized his American period as such: "They represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes, and seven years of deceptions too."

It was on this sour note that Renoir would abandon Hollywood, finally finding renewed arenas of expression in his poetic and beautiful Indian film The River (1951).  Experiencing the thrill of complete creative freedom for the first time in years, Renoir was re-invigorated and at last decided to make his return to European cinema.

His first three films of this second European period, The Golden Coach (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and her Men (1956), were all considerably different from his 1930's French films.  Light-hearted, cheerful, and generally uplifting, these three films revealed a happier Renoir indulging in a tribute to the world of the stage play and musical.  Together, these three films are now viewed as a trilogy celebrating the spectacle of the theatrical world.

For the first time ever, all three films have been assembled together in a DVD collection.  Entitled Stage & Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir, this set brings together three films of dazzlingly gorgeous Technicolor images, jubilant song-and-dances, and a joie de vivre that is unmistakably French.  While not as profound as Renoir's earlier works, these films are nevertheless enjoyable for the craftsmanship of their productions and the luxurious beauty of their production values.

For this three-disc set, each film comes on its own disc with separate supplemental features.  The films can be seen in any order, but chronologically, the first film is The Golden Coach, starring one of Italy's superstar actresses, Anna Magnani.  Click on any of the links below in this overview to begin your journey into Renoir's world of Stage & Spectacle.

The Golden Coach

French Cancan

Elena and Her Men

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