Jean Renoir Collection, Optimum Releasing £44.99, Jean Renoir at the Barbican, 2 to 30 September 2007
Jean Renoir is arguably one of the greatest French film makers of the 20th century. The son of impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, his work is often associated with the rise and fall of the Popular Front government in France between 1936 and 1938, with which he strongly identified.
The Renoir season at the Barbican focuses on films made in the 1930s, from the anarchic comedy of Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning) to the melodramatic La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). My personal favourite is La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), a biting satire of French bourgeois society in decline on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a country house during a weekend of hunting, tragedy strikes when one member of the party refuses to play by the rules. Evident throughout is the sharp social divide between the aristocratic hosts and the servants downstairs, a theme present in many of Renoir's films.
Perhaps the greatest expression of his belief that social class takes precedence over national unity is contained in the anti-war film La Grande Illusion (The Great Illusion). The title refers to the illusion of patriotism displayed during times of war. Set during the First World War, the film centres on the attempts by three French prisoners of war to escape the Germans.
The main characters are an aristocratic officer (de Boeldieu), a working class soldier (Maréchal) and a Jewish soldier (Rosenthal). The initial camaraderie between them weakens as de Boeldieu's friendship with a German officer (Van Rauffenstein) grows. These two speculate on how the war means the end of the existing social order and their accompanying privileges.
The most touching part of the film is when Maréchal finds love with a lonely German widow, Elza, whose husband and brothers have all died in battle. A shot of her child eating at an overlarge family table epitomises the sense of loss. Renoir is a master of conveying complex emotions through a single camera shot or simple phrase. The cruelty of war is eloquently summed up by an old woman watching young German conscripts training in two words: "Poor boys". Renoir rightly won an Oscar for La Grande Illusion despite the film being banned in Mussolini's Italy, Nazi Germany and Vichy France.
Also screened is La Marseillaise, an adventurous attempt by Renoir to use the historical setting of the French Revolution to comment on the contemporary experience of the Popular Front. From the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the victory of the French revolutionary forces over the Prussian army at Valmy in 1792, we see the process of polarisation which takes place as ordinary people rally to defend the revolution from attack by royalist forces. Much of the action revolves around several members of the volunteer army which marched from Marseille to Paris in 1792, singing the famous song en route.
Although never a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), Renoir was an active participant in the Popular Front movement, speaking at meetings and producing a documentary commissioned by the PCF called La Vie est à Nous. His strength as a director was to make politically committed yet engaging films rather than dull propaganda. La Marseillaise divided critics across the political spectrum and was banned in France during the Second World War.
Filmed during the collapse of the Popular Front government, La Bête Humaine is, in contrast, a dark melodrama based on a novel by Zola. It explores the anguish experienced by a train driver called Lantier (played by Jean Gabin, a stalwart of Renoir's films) who unsuccessfully tries to distance himself from the past crimes of his forefathers, described as "generations of drunkards". His affair with the fragile yet manipulative wife of the deputy stationmaster, Severinne, leads him to commit the same acts of violence. This film is a classic study of human relations.
Disappointingly, neither the Barbican screenings nor the DVD boxset contain the wonderful Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, a film that epitomises the spirit of the Popular Front set in a workers' co-operative where Mr Lange, the main character, kills Batala, the womanising and corrupt former boss of the factory.
Nevertheless, both the Barbican screenings and DVD boxset (which contains seven films, five available for the first time) are a real treat for fans of Renoir and an enjoyable introduction for those not familiar with his work.