French film director Jean Renoir is remembered as one of the premier film directors of both the silent and sound eras, with his career spanning from the early 1920’s to the late 1960’s. With an oeuvre of over forty films, he is remembered for his dedication to realism and narrative structure, as well as long takes and a fluid and moving camera.
Born in the Montmartre section of Paris, Renoir was the second son of the famous French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. By the time he was born, Renoir’s father was already celebrated and wealthy – as a child, he spent time between Paris, and the family estate in the south of France. At the age of five, Renoir became entranced with books, and especially with puppet theatre – his first taste of the dramatic arts.
But his childhood did not necessarily indicate a budding filmmaker. As a youth, Renoir was educated at exclusive boarding schools, which he loathed, and subsequently ran away from. He majored in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Aix-en-Provence, and after that joined the cavalry. During World War I, as a member of the infantry, he was wounded – a bullet in fact left him with a permanent limp.
It was in 1919, when his father passed away, that Renoir’s filmmaking aspirations became apparent. With his inheritance, Renoir set up a production company, and financed his first silent film in 1924, Catherine Ou Une Vie Sans Jolie, starring his wife, the famous actress Catherine Hessling. They made about nine silent films together before ending their personal and professional partnership.
Renoir didn’t achieve financial success until he started making films with sound in the 1930’s – On purge bébé (1931), La Chienne (1931), and especially Boudu Saved From Drowning (1931) were instant hits. Le Grande Illusion (1937) is still one of his most internationally acclaimed films – based on a true story from World War I, it explores the relationship between soldiers from opposite sides whose natural camaraderie is strained by the weight of the war. After it won acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, Renoir was finally able to finance his films without having to sell his father’s canvases.
World War II shook up Renoir’s life and career dramatically – he spent much of his time abroad, in places like India (where he made The River in 1949), eventually ending up on Hollywood. Although he directed his last film in 1969, he won an Academy Award in 1975 for his lifetime of work. He passed away in 1979, two years after being given the rank of Commander in the Legion of Honor by the French government.